This hero founded the Beirut Marathon in an effort to bring peace and unity to the Middle East.
May El Khalil is all too familiar with the unrest those in the Middle East have endured during the tumultuous Arab Spring. Her own country, Lebanon, suffered 16 years of civil war that devastated its economy, ruined its infrastructure, and killed more than 100,000 of its people.
Long after that war ended in 1991, conflict still shrouded the country. Disputes between religious groups, government officials, and militant groups threatened Lebanon’s stability, as did frequent cross-border fighting with neighboring Syria and Israel. Amid such turmoil, El Khalil, 55, saw an opportunity to create peace and unity—through running. In 2001, she began working to introduce running as an activity everyone could participate in, no matter where they fell on the political and religious spectrum. “I believe in the power of sport as a catalyst for change in society,” says El Khalil. She named that catalyst the Beirut Marathon.
Ironically, her vision for the race came when she could no longer run. El Khalil was training in Beirut when a car struck her and pinned her to a wall. She endured more than 37 surgeries. After doctors told her she couldn’t run, “I called my husband and asked him to start taking notes,” she says.
The inaugural event in 2003 attracted 6,000 runners from 49 countries; in 2011, more than 30,000 racers from 71 countries finished. El Khalil and her team now assist small local races and help community groups start running clubs. In February, the Laureus World Sports Academy awarded El Khalil with its Sport for Good Award. The group cited her efforts as a “triumph of the spirit and an example of sport rising above a hostile political environment.”
Indeed, as the Middle East fractures under the weight of disparity, the Beirut Marathon continues to unite.