“I can tell you he was planning for the run for the past three to four weeks. He was very excited about the marathon.” This is how Dalia, the mother of 14-year-old A.S. who managed to complete the Cairo Runners 21km half-marathon on Friday 17 April described her son’s efforts. The teenager himself wasn’t too keen to talk to the media and was, in a way, lost for details; so we decided to learn of the event from the mother.
Given that Egyptians are in general a people notorious for lack of sportsmanship—unless of course that happened related to football—it was remarkable that a person so young would decide to take on a 21km-run and complete it successfully.
Dalia says: “At first I tried to convince him that it was sufficient to subscribe to the 7km-run; the options were the 21km half-marathon, a 7km race, and a 1km family run. The 7km run sounded more reasonable in my son’s case since he had previously made a 4km and another 8km run. He seemed convinced, then changed his mind and decided to go for the 21km half marathon, encouraged by his friends.”
Run on Friday
The annual half-marathon was organised by the Cairo Runners, the third in three successive years. The group also holds weekly 5km runs in several spots in Cairo; any such event is likely to draw some 2000 runners. The events are advertised on the group’s Facebook page and are usually held early morning on Friday. The early hours on the weekend lend themselves well to the exercise; most Egyptians are either fast asleep at home or lingering over morning coffee or family breakfast, and the normally overcrowded bustling Cairo streets are near-empty.
The group began organising runs nearly two years after Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011 and the consequent rise of Islamists to power, events that saw abundant turmoil and unrest. The first running events made people stare, but the organisers say they never encountered any problems with the authorities; hundreds of people running in shoes and shorts surely pose no threat. The runners made a diverse group of men and women, Muslims and Christians of all ages and walks of life, and were definitely apolitical individuals.
The first half-marathon saw only 70 participants; this year the race which was held in the Cairo eastern upper middle class district of Heliopolis drew more than 6,000 runners. They registered online then made their subscription payments and were promptly handed a T-shirt and given a number each.
According to Salma Shahin, the social media representative of the marathon, the proceeds of the tickets will benefit the Abbasiya Fever Hospital, in partnership with the ministry of youth and the governorate of Cairo. The other half of the proceeds will go towards supporting a charity of the runners’ choice, to be selected through a crowd funding website.
Last Friday, excitement mounted as the runners gradually converged on the Heliopolis square where the run was to start at 7:00am. On hand to boost enthusiasm the young Abul-Houl scouts drummers who literally drummed excitement up.
The warm-ups were a sight as men and women of all ages were led through the exercise by organisers with bullhorns. Then the run started, the thousands took off along a web of main roads, guided by volunteers and signposts designating the distance covered from the start point. As in previous years, the runners were provided with food and beverages through booths set up along the way. This time, however, there were street bands and performances here and there for entertainment.
The jubilant runners who made it to the finish line received a certificate indicating their achievement. Prizes were also handed out by Ibrahim Safwat, founder of Cairo Runners, to the foremost regular participants in the weekly Friday runs. Special appreciation was also given to those above the age of 40, and of course to the first to arrive at the finish line.
After prizes were awarded, the event closed with a performance of local soft rock band, Wust al-Balad.
Sense of achievement
Among those who made it to the finish line was our teenage friend. “The funny thing is that all, and I mean all, the friends who had originally planned to run together and were as excited as he was about the race had to withdraw on the eve of the run,” Dalia recalls. “They were with the Abul-Houl Scouts, and were summoned to do the drumming. I felt my son was disappointed, but he wouldn’t really admit it. Later, after the run, he told me that he was indeed disappointed but decided to pull himself together and go for it and have fun, even if alone. He set up a music playlist on his iPod to keep him company the following day and went to sleep early to store energy.
“On the day of the run, before we parted with our son, my husband and I reminded him that he must stop running at once in case he gets tiered. I was sure, sure, sure he wouldn’t be able to complete the 21 kilometres, and that if he did he wouldn’t be running the whole distance. He told me he would alternate between running and jogging if he couldn’t manage.”
The proud mother says that the teenager completed the 21km race, running through the entire track. “He made it to the finish line in 2 hours 10 minutes. He arrived filled with a sense of achievement. He said that when there were only 3km to go he felt exhausted and thought of slowing down into a jog, but then gave himself a final push and carried on.”
“Are you for real?”
Galal Zekri-Chatila, a young Egyptian cyclist who last November took a trip he called ‘Egypt on Two Wheels’ to cover 7,000km around the country in four months, made a surprise appearance to the Cairo Runners. He was greeted by a cheering crowd.
The real surprise, however, was when the runners found President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in their midst. Twenty-three year old Mayada al-Shabrawy, a volunteer for Cairo Runners, said that while directing the runners she unexpectedly found herself surrounded by five vehicles and a number of bodyguards. “I suddenly saw [President] Sisi step out,” Shabrawy says. “I couldn’t believe it, to the point that I asked ‘are you for real?’” She says he laughed and praised the event; “Sisi kept clapping for each runner he saw passing by,” she says.
The 59-year-old President is known for his love of sports. That Friday he had been on a visit to the Military Academy when, on his way back, he spotted the running event and stopped. The onlookers who saw him couldn’t contain their excitement.
A teenage girl asked if she might take a photo with him, upon which he graciously asked her if she would kindly accept for him to pose with her. When others got wind of his presence they swiftly came to take photos with him which he very patiently accepted.
Dalia, too, appreciated his stopping over for the runners. “He met them on the running track; he didn’t go to the official start/finish line to make an appearance…which makes him all the more special for his spontaneity,” she says. But how did her runner son feel about it? “When he learned about Sisi,” she laughed, “he jokingly said, ‘had I been slower I would have met him too, but I was too keen to reach the finish line’.”