Start of the 2007 Blom Beirut Marathon (Rima Nehme) © Copyright
General News Beirut, Lebanon

Ethiopians the favourites as Beirut's unifying Marathon celebrates its eighth edition

Perhaps the most startling fact about the Beirut Marathon is that there is a Marathon in Beirut. Long considered the focus and flashpoint for violence in the Middle East, Beirut’s uneasy peace, during which the city has been extensively rebuilt over the past decade, is still regularly shattered by bomb blasts and assassinations. Indeed the course of the Marathon, now in its eighth year, had to be re-routed two years ago, in order to avoid bomb damage.

But, according to May El Khalil, the businesswoman whose initiative after a near-fatal accident gave birth to the race, the diverse and occasionally violent opposing factions in Lebanon all wish the BLOM Bank Beirut Marathon well.

“I’ve never taken any political side in Lebanon,” she said this morning, “and since we started the race, I’ve always communicated with all political groups, Hizbullah, the Christian groups, everyone. This approach from me shows them there is no threat to anyone. In sports there is unity, and ours is the only platform which shows unity in Lebanon. We have 35 ambassadors running on Sunday (in the shorter events), and representatives from UNIFIL (the UN force in Lebanon)."

“We have a 3k race for MP’s from both groupings. In parliament, they are at each others’ throats, but on Sunday, you’ll see them running together.”

The event is also seeking the imprimatur of the world governing body of the sport, with an IAAF Bronze Label for next year, thus granting it a first foothold on the ladder of excellence, whose top rungs are occupied by the marathons in London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago and New York, the last which, coincidentally takes place on Sunday too.

But with a start time of 0700 in Beirut (GMT+2), in contrast to an 0940 flag-off in New York (GMT-5), there should be ample time for news and TV highlights of Beirut to be winging their way round the world before the Kenyan and Ethiopian speed merchants have even lined up on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in the Big Apple.

East Africans should be to the fore in Beirut too. Race Director Mark Dickinson and Elite Coordinator Antonio Nannoni run a development training camp in Ethiopia, and the majority of their field comes from there. One of their first discoveries Alemayehu Shumwe set a course record of 2.12.47 two years ago, no mean feat considering the heat and humidity here.

But Nannoni has massaged the course, taken out a few corners, and reduced the amount of time spent in, as he put it, “the boring port area. And we are hoping for three course records: the men, the women, and the Lebanese men.”

Although it is his debut Marathon, hopes are pinned on Abere Chane, from Addis Ababa, who ran a 1:01:47 half-marathon in Milano earlier this year. “I cannot say for sure, because it is my first marathon,” he said today, “but I would like to run 2:10, maybe 2:11.”

His colleague, women’s favourite, Etaferahu Tarekegn, also from Addis, was far less circumspect, even dismissing the prospect of bright sunshine and well over 25C heat at the finish. “The heat is no problem for me. I want to do 2:30, 2:32.” Which would take up to half a dozen minutes off the time of 2:36:46, set by Anastasia Ndereba (Catherine’s sister) of Kenya, in 2004.

And if another Kenyan is going to stop an Ethiopian, then step forward, 20-year-old Carolyne Chemutai, who only began running three years ago to lose weight. “And to improve my fitness,” she said this morning. “I’ve lost 18 kilos (40lbs) in three years. I’ve gone from 71kg to 53kg."

“When I began, my mother said you’ll never be able to run. I went to the Nairobi Marathon last year, I just wanted to finish, but I ran 2:40 (2:40:29 for seventh place), and my mother admitted she was wrong."

Pat Butcher for the IAAF