How May El Khalil Brought The Beirut Marathon And Hope To Post-War Lebanon
20May2019 HARPER’S BAZAAR ARABIA
“I invited those who were once fighting and killing each other to come and run next to each other and they loved it because they could show the world their true colours of peace and unity, which the war took away,” says May El Khalil, president of the Beirut Marathon Association.
It was in October 2013 when May decided to bring her love of marathons to her home country of Lebanon as a way to unify the nation after 15 years of civil war. Having lived in Nigeria for 23 years, where her husband’s business is located, the mother of 4 developed her love of sports in Africa, and a strong sense of living a life of service arose within her.
But it was in November 2001 when a mini bus hit her in Beirut, just as she was training for a marathon that would take place in Dubai, that left her hospitalised, in a coma, and unable to walk. For two years May struggled to walk again but it was persistence and dedication to sports that was her motivation. “The moment I woke up from my coma I didn’t want to pity myself. While this accident happened to me, it happened for a reason. And the outcome for me was to do a marathon, even if I’d never walk again,” she said.
She pushed through therapy, healed and brought an international marathon to Lebanon. “My vision, even at the darkest moments, while going through pain, was very clear. I wanted to do a marathon and that was a beautiful objective.”
Born and raised with a mindset that we are all to live our lives in service to others, May has taken this with her throughout life. “My parents taught me we have a role to play in this life. Each one of us will improve humanity if we give a little bit of service to others.”
She’s a patriot for her country and she positive-minded. It was this positivity that got her through the pain of healing from her accident. “I was not angry at the bus driver,” May stressed. “I was not angry at life. Seeing the birth of a marathon in my country was very rewarding.”
But then came a challenge- convincing the Lebanese people of the importance of setting up a marathon. Having just come out of a civil war a decade before, the Lebanese people were not familiar with marathons.
As a sort of grass roots campaign, May went around the country to schools, clubs and mayors talking to people about the marathon and the values of sports and running, and how they could use the platform of the Beirut Marathon to come together. May’s goal for the marathon was for the Lebanese society to build bridges with each other.
Forging ahead with baby steps, the Beirut international marathon has grown from 6,000 runners in its first year to 48,000 runners from 109 nations in 2018. “People looked at me like I was crazy when they found out the marathon was 42.1 kilometers- they could barely walk 500 meters,” laughed May. “But Beiruties took to the idea of our fun run, which introduced the people to the idea of a marathon.”
Having never organized an international marathon before, May propelled forward, getting the marathon connected to the International Athletic Foundation. When the gun was fired to signal the start of the race, it wasn’t about a war but rather unifying a nation.
The international marathon is 17 years old this year and has been growing year after year. It’s not only about running but about running for causes for NGOs and charities. “25% of the entry fee goes towards charitable causes,” said May. “232 NGOs have signed Memos of Understanding, and 73% of the running community run for a cause.”
The Beirut Marathon Association has created training courses for special needs and non-special needs people to help them learn how to run. There are programmes for the youth and every spring there is a marathon for women, which has increased the number of long-distance women runners in Lebanon. The Associations recent campaign #AnaMaaki, which means I am with you in Arabic, helped mobilize the whole society- both men and women- supported each other through running. All of this has created a culture of running in Beirut.
With her heart of service, giving back to others, and empowering people, May is a woman who has and continues to transform her small Middle Eastern country that has gone through a lot in the past decades. She dreamed big and continues to dream big, knowing that sports unifies, rather than divides.