In mid-November, before Beirut even had time to recover from Lebanon’s presidential election a month before, the city was again awash with banners and slogans, this time for the 14th annual Beirut Marathon. Alongside leftover campaign ads featuring the country’s new president, Michel Aoun, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri were little running figurines overlaid with the blue logo of the Lebanese Blom Bank, the run’s sponsor.
May el-Khalil, the charismatic founder of the Beirut Marathon Association, introduced long-distance running to the city in 2003. She had just recovered from a near fatal accident, having been hit by a bus while training for a marathon in 2000 and told by her doctors that she would never run again. “As soon as I came out of my coma I realized I was no longer the same runner I used to be,” she said at a TED conference in 2013. “So I decided if I couldn’t run myself, I wanted to make sure that others could. Out of my hospital bed, I asked my husband to start taking notes, and a few months later the marathon was born.” Her husband, Faysal el-Khalil, is a soft-drink executive with businesses across Africa.
“May is a force,” Chirine Njeim, a former Olympic skier turned runner who represented Lebanon in the 2016 Olympic marathon, told me at the ballroom of Beirut’s exclusive Lancaster Hotel before a press conference the day before the 2016 race. “She is the key to all of this. You have to have a great leader in order to put a great race together.” It was easy to spot Khalil amid the swarm of journalists, athletes, and event organizers: poised, calm, impeccably made-up, and dressed in a fitted but modest black suit and four-inch heels.
Unlike in the West, where marathons can go on year-round, in the Middle East, they can take place only in winter, early spring, and late fall. There is Run Jordan’s Amman Marathon, the Beirut Marathon Association’s signature event