For the past 16 years May El Khalil has been building and developing her dream, the Beirut marathon. The dream that got its first contours during a two-year recovery from a heavy traffic accident, including up to 37 operations needed for her to start walking again. The running culture pioneer in Lebanon and the founder-president of the Beirut Marathon Association now inspires her fellow citizens with words and deeds to join the project, not just for the sport, but also for humanitarian, social and economic reasons. All of this huge enthusiasm and effort has been recognized internationally. Beirut Marathon is visited by tens of thousands of athletes and recreational runners from all over the world every year, while El Khalil receives numerous awards and now acts as a global ambassador of sport and peace.
May El Khalil will hold a lecture at this year’s Du Motion – Runners’ Days Dubrovnik on 28 April in Lazareti and talk about her experiences with the Beirut Marathon organization, motives for its launch and plans for the future.
Beirut Marathon is a really unique event, a symbol of gathering. What changes did it bring to Beirut and Lebanon, and furthermore, do you think this concept can be copied to other, politically unstable parts of the world? Do you still believe running can change the world?
The Beirut Marathon started as a running event that includes many races one of which is our certified marathon. Long distance running and running as a sport were not common in Lebanon 16 years ago. The same time Beirut Marathon was being established Lebanon started going through turmoil, assassinations and chaos. The Lebanese needed something to unite them and bring them together around mutual goals and common objectives, they found the Beirut marathon to be a healthy, non-political and non-religious platform where they can share the same start, same course and same finish goals. That was a turning point and what made our event so unique, The people of Lebanon chose to make the marathon a vehicle for peace and unity, keeping it a sports event at its core.
Using sport or running events as a concept to apply in politically unstable part of the world is not something new or revolutionary. It dates back to the early Olympics where countries would apply “ Olympic truce” or ékécheiria to pause or stop wars for the sake of the games, which managed to instill passion, love and unity therefore overcoming challenges and bringing communities together. Nelson Mandela said, in one of his most recognized speeches, that sport has the power to change
President of IOC Jacque Rogues mentioned in one of his interviews that “Sport alone cannot enforce or maintain peace. But it has a vital role to play in building a better and more peaceful world.” So yes, in my humble opinion, I do believe that running is a tool that can drive positive change in a community.
Empowering women has become one of the key issues in today’s society. Your organisation is achieving it through running, tell us more about that.
The Beirut Marathon mission is to move and unite people through running. For this to happen we need to grow the running culture in Lebanon through targeted races and tailored programs. Looking at our registration data in 2013, the numbers revealed a low female participation in running events. Based on the findings, we decided to
dedicate a race to the women of Lebanon to empower them and allow them to experience the sport and prove to themselves that they could run.
We also went the extra mile and organized a free training program with the help of volunteer coaches to help women and girls train for their 10KM race.
Running for a cause is another highlight in the women’s race as a runner can choose women empowerment causes and dedicate their run to an NGO, by doing so the Beirut Marathon contributes 25% of the registration fee to the chosen NGO ( the same cause-running system is applied to all our races).
We recently celebrated the 5th edition of the women’s race. It made us really proud to see more women taking the streets and running the distance. Not only that, our data shows that female participation in our races has increased gradually to reach 53% in some distances and 55% in marathon training programs. This tremendous rise is a clear indicator that girls and women are eager to run, to train, to take on distances and to make running part of their lifestyle.
What are you doing at the moment and what are the future plans for Beirut Marathon?
We are currently preparing for the 16th edition of BLOM BANK Beirut Marathon, taking place this November 11, 2018 in Beirut. Our future plans are focused on shifting walkers to runners and growing long distance participation further. With more than 190 NGO partners, we are working on having an even bigger number of participants running for causes.
What inspires you the most in your work and life in general?
I must say stories, listening to Runners Stories never fail to inspire me. As a former runner, this sport is the thing I miss and long for the most. Running has been quite a challenging activity since the accident, therefore I rely on the running community to feel inspired and motivated.
You hear the most amazing, heartwarming stories on how running changed people’s lives. How it made them healthier, happier and at peace with themselves. Some people run races to combat depression, pay tribute to someone they lost, raise funds to a cause they believe in, lose weight, support a friend.. The reasons are endless and they pump me with adrenaline and utter excitement as they remind me of my reason to keep going forward.
What would be your advice to other running event organisations?
Organizing running events is not only about running. With thousands of running events around the globe it’s important to stay authentic, genuine and true to this individual and simple sport. Keeping participants engaged before the event is crucial to get them emotionally involved. Everyone has a reason to run but a bigger reason as to why choose a specific event or a distance. Talk to your runners, use social media as communication platform, listen to what they have to say and answer to their queries and questions. By doing more of that, you will reach more people and gain a loyal following who will promote your events out of sheer passion and love.