It was nearly 9:30 a.m. when Abdallah collapsed across the finish line, completely out of breath.
“You did it!” exclaimed Rana, his wife, as she greeted him, their three children close by. Having arrived to Beirut the day before from Tripoli, the family shared Abdallah’s joy at having completed the Beirut marathon for the first time in just less than three hours, as a performance he achieved with a margin of 58 seconds.
“I thought for a long time that I would fall short, but I gave it my all in the last few kilometers. I wanted my wife and children to be proud of me at the finish line,” said the insurance company employee.
A few meters further, it was Moussa’s turn to finish. Waving a scarf in the colors of the Lebanese flag, this actor and English teacher of Syrian origin just completed a no less ambitious challenge: running a half-marathon only five months after taking up physical activity.
“I had a realization; I was tired of getting out of breath as soon as I started running,” said the 21-year-old. “So, I joined The Crew, a community of athletes that welcomes runners of all ages and levels, and here I am today. Running 21 kilometers was unimaginable for me.”
‘It does us a lot of good to be here’
Having pushed themselves to their limits, Abdallah, Moussa, and the nearly 12,000 participants lining up at the starting lines of the various races in this year's edition of the Beirut Marathon have, however, arrived far behind those who competed for the podium. The race among the frontrunners has led to performances unmatched in the 20 previous editions.
This year’s marathon featured Gadissa Tafa Dekeba from Ethiopia, who won the men’s marathon, coming in at 2 hours 10 minutes and 34 seconds, ahead of his compatriot Gojjam Belaynieh Aya and the Rotich Mitei John from Kenya. Another event record was achieved by Mulugojam Birhan Ambi, also Ethiopian, in the women’s race. She finished in 2 hours 27 minutes 48 seconds, ahead of her compatriots Gete Dukale Robe and Asmare Beyene Assefa.
Like every year, the Beirut Marathon is an opportunity to bring together people from across Lebanon, regardless of religious belief and social status. It also provides a break from the stress of daily life that has been especially high g since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, which ignited tensions in the south.
“I was very afraid that they might have to cancel this edition again,” said Céline, who has just finished the 10 kilometers race. “We had already been deprived of the marathon because of the thawra and then COVID-19 [in 2019 and 2020, respectively]. I was relieved when I heard that the event would be held.”
“It was the most challenging year in terms of organization,” said Soraya Barbir, director of the Beirut Marathon Association. “Since the events in Gaza began, we’ve had at least one meeting per week with the entire team to assess the situation. The continuation of the event was questioned until the last days, but we are proud to have made this decision because it was clear that people needed this breath of fresh air even more than in previous years,” she said.
This choice also delighted many UNIFIL members who participated in the various races. “It does us a lot of good to be here,” said Mario, an Italian soldier from the UN force. “We had long thought that the race might not take place, but since the tensions have remained localized in the South for now, it’s good that the rest of the country can continue to function normally,” he added.
A semblance of normalcy
But the unnamed war that has gripped southern Lebanon since early October still affected the marathon. “With the exception of a few runners from the region, especially from Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt, all foreign runners canceled,” Barbir said. “Fortunately, the elite runners still came, but it was up until the last minute.”
A cascade of withdrawals inevitably impacted the final number of participants: “We were expecting 18,500 people,” said Barbir. “In the end, we counted around 12,000, similar to last year.” This figure should be added to the 2,500 volunteers and contractors mobilized throughout the event.
Marc Bouffioux was among the many runners who had to give up their Beirut escapade after his flight was canceled. This setback, combined with the forced return of his daughter, who had to go back to Belgium at the request of her employer, had already compromised his plans. However, this did not stop Bouffioux from completing his own marathon along the Meuse River, a challenge he was determined to undertake no matter what.
“Everything was perfectly organized; I just had to create my own route on Google Maps and enter the distance code I wanted to cover in the app to start the race,” said Bouffioux. “I’m a little sad not to have been able to run the marathon on-site, but still happy to have done it and, in my humble way, supported Lebanon in these difficult times.”
Within this prevailing lightness, the looming risk of war over Lebanon was almost forgotten. Only the occasional keffiyehs and Palestinian flags waved by some runners serve as a reminder. May Khalil, the founder and president of the Beirut Marathon Association, commemorated the victims in Gaza in her speech at the podium.
“We had to modify all the festive activities we had initially planned,” said Barbir. “It was important for us to show that we were thinking of the victims in Gaza and southern Lebanon. We wanted to convey a message of peace in line with the values we uphold while trying to remain neutral.”
This semblance of normalcy was certainly felt along the course winding through the streets of the capital from the Cornish. Especially for Rabih, running blindfolded alongside Mary, who guided and encouraged him on the other end of the rope tied at their respective waists. Like the other five members of the Blind with Vision team lined up at the start line with their guides, Rabih crossed the entire 42.195 km without interruption despite being blind.
“When I met Rabih, he told me that his dream was to run a marathon,” said Mary, his trainer. “Since then, he runs whenever he gets the chance. Then, I decided to create a real structure to help other visually impaired people and make running a passion that gives them a push every day.”
To complete the summary of the Marathon’s 21st edition, here are the results of the various races. In the Lebanese runners’ ranking, Saleh Zeaiter, like last year, secured first place in 2 hours, 30 minutes, and 43 seconds, ahead of Omar Abo Hamad and Tony Hanna. In the women’s race, Kathia Rached emerged victorious in 3 hours, 12 minutes, and 19 seconds, ahead of Nada Jisr and Aline Merheb.
“We are all the more proud to have managed to keep this event in such circumstances. I think we all took a breath of fresh air that we really needed,” said Barbir.
-Men’s Half Marathon
Salem Atallah (Egypt)
Mohammad Kdouh (Lebanese Army)
Bilal Awada (Lebanese Army)
-Women’s Half Marathon
Nesrine Njeim (Lebanon)
Hanoia Adak Hanoia (Sudan)
Marie-Thérèse Murray (Lebanon)
-Men’s 10 km marathon
Mohammad Abdullah Ma (Iraq)
Ali Reda Kenaan (Lebanon)
Hussein Issam Mohammad (Iraq)
Women’s 10 km marathon
Bryony Steyn (Great Britain)
Joan Makary (Lebanon)
Nada el-Kurdi (Lebanon)
-Men’s Half Marathon (Visually Impaired)
Hussein Mhanna (Lebanon)
Hassan Hamieh (Lebanon)
Nasser Ballout (Lebanon)
-Women’s Half Marathon (Visually Impaired)
Zahraa Kaadoun (Lebanon)
-Paralympic Male Athletes
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.