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How marathons can heal communities: 5 incredible stories

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May El-Khalil, the founder of the Beirut Marathon, speaks at TED2013 of the power of the road race. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

May El-Khalil, the founder of the Beirut Marathon, speaks at TED2013 about the power of the road race. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Yes, a marathon is about running 26.2 miles. But as May El-Khalil describes in today’s talk, a marathon can also be about so much more — a chance for people to come together and celebrate the human spirit.

May El-Khalil: Making peace is a marathon May El-Khalil: Making peace is a marathon El-Khalil is the founder of the Beirut Marathon and, in this talk, she describes how a personal tragedy led her to organize the first run as a way to channel her pain into something tangible. But she quickly realized that this marathon could also have healing power for her city, which for decades has teetered on the edge of war. In 2003, more than 6,000 runners gathered for the first Beirut marathon — all in white shirts, sans political messages, an incredible show of unity.

Ever since, through ebbs and flows in political turmoil, the Beirut Marathon has been a beacon. “Everybody wants to be a part of the marathon to show the world the true color of Lebanon and the Lebanese and their desire to live in peace and harmony,” says El-Khalil. “Peacemaking is not a sprint. It is more of a marathon.”

In late May, the Beirut Marathon held its first all-female event, despite news that, the morning of the race, two rockets had hit the southern part of the city. The TED Blog interviewed El-Khalil following the race, and El-Khalil shared, “The marathon is one of those events that embodies the spirit of perseverance and stamina, in that it takes place in a city that has itself been able to keep running and survive in spite of all types of calamities.” This week, with the news of more violence in the city, we’re reminded of the importance of events that bring people together there.

Marathons simply have a way of connecting people. Below, just a few more incredible stories of the power of marathons.

When two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, three people were killed and 264 were injured. The news of the bombing shook the United States and the world. Meanwhile, many runners who’d been a part of the race never got the chance to finish it. This is why a coalition of local running clubs organized OneRun, a reclaiming of the final stretch of the marathon. On May 26, about 3,000 runners arrived to jog the final mile of the Boston Marathon course together, with a large crowd cheering them on. Many at OneRun had witnessed the bombings; others had been injured in the blasts. The Boston Globe spoke to Jarrod Clowery, who felt lucky to still have his legs and walked from the place where he was injured to the finish line. He said OneRun was highly emotional for him. “I wish I could have given every single one of those runners a medal,” he said. “I was just awestruck … It was probably one of the better moments of my life.”

The International Peace Marathon in Kigali, Rwanda, also seeks to reclaim a space that was once the sight of terror. This annual event, held in one of the largest cities in Rwanda, has a course littered with the history of the brutal genocide that happened there in 1994. As Elizabeth Yuan of CNN noted when she ran in the event, maps of the marathon contain landmark lists that read “church, school, mass grave, stadium.” In some cases, two of the above are intertwined — like a Catholic Church in Kibuye, where thousands were massacred as they sought refuge. The marathon stadium itself has also been rebuilt, as a massacre took place there as well. The International Peace Marathon was started in 2005, just 11 years after the genocide. More than 1,600 runners — some from Rwanda, some from other countries in Africa as well as some from Europe, North America and Australia — ran in the first event, which was broadcast on national television and attended by the president. The race was not an easy one. The country is called the “Land of 1000 Hills,” after all, and only half the runners finished the course. Still, the celebration was big — and its grown from there. This year, the marathon drew 5,000. “Basically, it is a run for peace,” said Jean Damascene Nkezabo of the Rwanda Athletics Federation.

The Dalai Lama hosts the InterFaith Marathon for a United World, held in Luxembourg for the past five years as part of the larger Luxembourg Marathon. This unusual event is a run for ordained ministers and representatives of world religions. In this year’s event, held on June 8, 2013, about 60 Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Bahai leaders all ran together in a public show of interfaith unity. The idea: to actually celebrate religious diversity. “The weather was favorable, nobody was injured and many new friendships were being created,” reads the event’s Facebook page. “The room where we held our inter-religious prayers before the night run was full of people who share the same vision.”

And finally, a more personal story. Tim Hurst is a marathon enthusiast who writes the blog “Running on my Last Leg,” all about his experience as a one-legged runner. Hurst is on a mission — to run 50 marathons in 50 states and, in May, he reached state #23: Connecticut. Hurst lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1981 and says that for years, he would only run in his basement because he was nervous of what other people would think of his stride. So for him, participating in marathons and writing about it is a way to show others what people with disabilities can accomplish. He recalled in a recent interview, “I was at a race in Oregon and a lady was there with her son, 4 or 5 years old. He said ‘Mommy, look! That man only has one leg!’. She put her hand over his mouth and said ‘Don’t say that. You’ll embarrass him.’ I said, ‘No, it’s OK. Do you want to touch it?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I only have one leg, and I’m running a marathon. Imagine what you can do with 2 legs.’”