Running The World: Lebanon

Today’s Running The World interview comes from the tiny country of Lebanon. It’s just 4,036 sq miles (slightly smaller than Connecticut and slightly larger than Cyprus) but the more I read about Lebanon, the more fascinating it became – its Wikipedia page is a good place to start! I’m speaking today to two remarkable ladies – Nadine and Sonia. I found them when I googled ‘Running Clubs Lebanon’ and found my way to the web page of the Inter Lebanon Road Running & Athletics Club. I contacted their founder and coach, Roger Bejjani, who was hugely helpful and he put me onto both ladies. I found the club website really intriguing as well, so do go and check it out.

This is what I learned about the growing running community in Lebanon!

Tell us a little about yourselves as an introduction.

Nadine –  I’ll be 43 in 2014. I am Lebanese, divorced and have 2 beautiful boys: 20 and 15. Beirut is my home city but I travel often, especially lately for running at interesting races abroad. Running has become my prime motivation for travelling. I am currently unemployed but I’m thinking of starting-up a running store or a restaurant! My main hobbies, apart from running and fitness, are movies and discovering the world.

Sonia – My name is Sonia and I live in Beirut.  I’m married with 2 daughters, who are 17 and 15. Apart from running,my hobbies are : running, skiing, watching  movies, operas, reading literature and comics; listening to music , sharing good food, and traveling!

Sonia (L), Nadine (2nd left) and some of their running club friends

Sonia (L), Nadine (2nd left) and some of their running friends

How did you get into running?

Nadine –  I am considered by all means a new runner who got hooked quite dramatically. Previously to running, 3 years ago, I was spending time in gyms and doing all sorts of classes. It happened that I used the treadmill for warm-up or cool down before or after the classes, until I decided to run the Beirut Marathon. Encouraged by friends, I committed to the preparation of my first marathon in 2012 and finished it on a rainy day in a modest 4 hrs 08. But I was exhilarated with happiness and contentment. I joined the Inter Lebanon club in January 2012 and fell in love for good with running and I did not look back since.

I am a long haul runner and my preference goes to the Marathon distance. With 2 marathons lined up per year, I train 8 times a week (4 quality runs and 4 easy ones) during the 3 months preparation. I do integrate a few shorter races into the training (5k, 10k, HM) as part of the build-up.  A month ago, on March 2nd, I ran the Paris half-marathon in 1 hr 36 and then on 16 March, I ran the Barcelona Marathon in 3 hr 27 and I am proud of that. My plan for this summer is to try 21 days of altitude training in the Pyrenees in France, as part of preparation for Berlin Marathon this coming September.

Sonia – I started running with a 10k in September 2009, it gave me a feeling of freedom and fitness. I was then lucky to meet a group of runners who encouraged me to start doing long runs with them on Sundays. This was all happening whilst I was trying to quit smoking so it really helped. 3 months later, I ran my 1st marathon and what a joy it was, I got hooked!

I was luckier a few month later to be approached by a coach/running mentor who was managing a running club (Roger Bejjani of Inter Lebanon Road Runners) who introduced me to proper training, track work, threshold, long runs etc. I run 1 or 2 marathons a year. I ran Beirut twice, then Rotterdam in 2011, NYC in 2011, Boston in 2013, then Paris in 2014. I would still love to run Berlin, London and Chicago to feel complete:)

How popular is running in Lebanon?

Nadine – Running in Lebanon started picking up 11 years ago with the first edition of the Beirut Marathon. This race was initiated by a woman, May el Khalil (you can check out her  TED talk) who used to be a good runner but was run over, while running, by a car, and has miraculously survived the accident. In terms of numbers, it is still modest but is consistently picking up. (Cat’s note: you really should watch the TED talk, it’s really inspiring!)

Sonia – Running is getting bigger every year, there are a lot of 10k runners and a thousand marathon runners and these numbers are growing.

Sonia at this year's Paris Marathon
Sonia at this year’s Paris Marathon

What kind of people run in Lebanon?

Nadine – Runners in Lebanon belong to all regions, communities, gender and social classes. It is probably the most positive dynamic in the country in terms of bringing people together. For instance at Inter Lebanon, we count very wealth runners with huge yachts docked in the marina as well as handymen or housekeepers or other runners with a rather low income. They train and compete together and most of the time the low income individuals are the bosses on the road or track.

Runners from rural areas are usually raw runners with more talent and our best male runners come from those economically deprived areas. However, the best women runners come exclusively from Beirut. This phenomenon is due to the conservative character of the rural areas where women face problems training regularly.

Sonia – Rural areas are…extremely rural!!! What I mean is that you need a certain lifestyle to include running to your routine, so I believe the trend has only reached our main city Beirut, though many races are organised outside the city and can be seen as an exposure to running by the rural populations.

Nadine mentioned female runners. How popular is running amongst Lebanese women?

Nadine –  The women to men ratio is still low. However, Inter Lebanon and the Beirut Marathon Association (BMA) do organise yearly respectively a 5 K and a 10K exclusive women races. The 5K took place on April 6 while the 10K is scheduled for May 4. We except over 2,000 women to run or walk the 10K; 200 of whom are considered as good runners.

Sonia – There are definitely more men than women, but the number of women is growing at a fast rate. All social classes are represented, including women in hijabs! I believe the growth of women’s running is due to the growing trend of health

On that note, what do female runners wear in Lebanon?

Nadine – You can wear practically whatever comes to your taste and mind, and run in most of Beirut and a large part of the country. There are some parts however that are considered conservative and women runners usually do not show a lot of flesh if running in those parts. A very small minority of women Lebanese runners run with a scarf covering their head. Our club mixes all religious and social background. Within our club, running is considered in the club as totally secular and each one’s beliefs do not interfere at all in our running activity.

Sonia – Usually shorts and t-shirts, tanks etc….if they are veiled, leggings and long sleeve t-shirts.

Nadine RACING!
Nadine RACING!

Do you feel safe when running?

Nadine – Yes we do. There is no stories of runners being harassed while running. However, the reckless drivers represent a serious challenge.

Sonia – It depends where and when. At night in dark places, I wouldn’t encourage women unfortunately and during the day, be careful on the streets because drivers believe the road belongs to them and only them!

How big is racing in Lebanon?

Nadine – I would say we have about 14 races a year in Lebanon. BMA (Beirut Marathon Organisation) organizes a few of them, Inter Lebanon is a race organizer, as is the Elite Running Club. The Army and the Police have their own races which are open to civilian participation. There is one Half Marathon, one Marathon and the rest are 5K or 10K races. The HM like everywhere else in the world is quite popular. But the major one remains the Beirut Marathon and this distance is my favourite.

Sonia – We have quite a lot of races.They are organized by the army, some companies, the Beirut marathon association, and local clubs. The price of short races range from 5 to 10 dollars, the Beirut marathon is around 50$. The 10k is a really popular distance. Short races have bib controllers (people checking every few km) but longer races have electronic chips.

Nadine after the Barcelona Marathon this year
Nadine after the Barcelona Marathon this year

What other trends are taking off in Lebanon?

Nadine –  Triathlon is becoming quite trendy in Lebanon. Many cyclists and runners are shifting gear and moving to this discipline. The weather helps. We have quite Californian weather.

Sonia – Cross training, such as triathlons!

Trail racing is increasingly popular in the US. Is that the case in Lebanon?

Nadine –  Inter organises a trail race in a national park in the mountains (Arsoun).  Elite Club organises another trail race in South Lebanon, while the Army organises a 34 K race every year, linking 2 summits of Mount Lebanon at about 7000 feet.

Sonia – Not yet, even though I’d love it. There’s one race the army organises once in the winter and once in the summer, it’s the “Barrack to barrack” race, this is a trail race.

What kind of gear (clothing/shoes/equipment) is available in Lebanon for runners?

Nadine – I am becoming a shop-alcoholic when it comes to running gear. I need treatment!  I usually buy what I need during my travel especially at expos when racing abroad or at specialised shops that we lack in Lebanon. That is why I am thinking of starting a runners’ shop. We do have sport shops in Lebanon where you can find running shoes and gear. The only specialised shop is for ultra-marathoners and it opened recently with one brand of shoes: Hoka. (Cat’s note: yep, you need to open a shop, Nadine. That would be so cool).

Who are Lebanon’s running heroes?

Nadine – ‘Heroes’ is a big word – running is firstly about being humble. In long distance, we do not have yet any Lebanese runner shining on the world stage. However, our club includes the best Arab-speaking sprinter: Gretta Taslakian.

But my personal heroes are within my running club – Marie el Amm who turns 49 this year and is still going strong and Sonia who introduced me to Inter Lebanon.

Sonia – All marathoners are running heroes:)))) it takes so much!

Sonia (R) being interviewed before the Women's 10k earlier this month
Sonia (R) being interviewed before the Women’s 10k earlier this month Sonia came second…rock star! Photo Credit: Inter Lebanon FB page

What do Lebanese runners use to fuel and hydrate when running?

Nadine –  Simply, water and gel. A few use sport drinks prior to a race or as a recovery drink. I also fuel up with carb drinks during 2 days preceding a marathon.

Sonia – Gels or gatorade, some fuel with dates.

Are there any great Lebanese running blogs or Twitter users we should follow?

Nadine –  One of our club’s team mates Nisrine started a great blog when she got pregnant for the second time. She even ran Berlin Marathon when 4 months pregnant and many other races. This April, she ran the Beirut Half Marathon just 2 months after delivering her daughter (her second child). 

Sonia – If there are, I wouldn’t know…shame on me, I’m not on Twitter, I am terrible with social media other than Facebook.

If I landed in Lebanon, where would you send me to find out about the best running routes and the running community?

Nadine – If you ever land in Lebanon, just contact Inter Lebanon.  (Contact details on the web-page) They’ll show you where to run safely and you can join their morning training group, free of charge.

Sonia – I would take care of you…or make sure Roger does!

(Cat’s note: and that’s why runners are awesome).

And if I wanted to run a race in Lebanon, which would you recommend?

Nadine -Al Bayroutya the 5K women’s race or the 10K women’s race.

Sonia –  The Beirut Marathon!

How would I say ‘I love running’ in Arabic? 

Nadine – It would be pronounced ‘Bheb erkod’.

What are the best and worst things about running in Lebanon?

Nadine –  The weather undeniably is the best thing Lebanon can offer to runners and the worst thing is the limited running routes and reckless drivers.

Sonia – The best thing is the weather…the worst is the city’s pollution and the dangerous drivers.

Nadine, Sonia – thank you so very much for all your help pulling this together, and thank you Roger for putting me in contact with them. I’m adding Lebanon and its remarkable running community on my list of places to go. You can follow Nadine on Instagram HERE

You can read other Running The World interviews HERE

10 Comments Add yours

  1. NicJ says:

    Superb! Not somewhere that would ever really feature on my list of places to visit, so thank you for picking somewhere off the beaten track! I guess Lebanon (and other Middle East countries) have a somewhat unfriendly reputation because the conflict in the region, so it’s heart-warming to get a more positive view on activities there, and particularly the female perspective. I’m impressed by the travelling abroad to take part in racing (a plan I’m hoping to try out myself 🙂 I hope), although is that an illustration of the lack of races in the region, that Nadine and Sonia have to travel so far? However, it’s an impressive list of trophy medals that they’re collecting – go girls!

    1. Cathryn says:

      They’re amazing, these ladies, aren’t they! I love actually that they’re slightly older and yet still incredible runners, getting faster and amazing gorgeous at the same time!I LOVED doing this post!

    2. Jen says:

      I basically was going to leave the same exact comments, so thanks NicJ for saying it all so well. 🙂 Great post, Cathryn!

      1. Cathryn says:

        So glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Madeleine says:

    So pleased to read about Lebanon here! I do a lot of work in Lebanon and have visited many times and I LOVE the country. I have never been brave enough to run outside when I’ve been there – for the main reasons cited above! Pavements are a bit dodgy but the drivers are the worst hazard as they mention. Plus the weather – for an un-aclimatised pasty Brit it always seems too hot. I would love to run the Beirut marathon one day, but both times I’ve been in November it’s been baking hot!

    Most people think it will be a very conservative country but really in Beirut (with the exception of a few areas as they say) anything goes. There is the beautiful corniche that runs along the sea front for miles with a wide pavement which is great for running. You see all sorts here!

    I’m really enjoying this series Cat, keep up the good work!

    1. Cathryn says:

      Hey, so lovely to hear from you. I’m so glad you enjoyed this blog post, as I said to Nicola in her comment, I really loved doing this post and discovering so much about Lebanon. You should definitely get in contact with Inter Lebanon next time you go with work (lucky thing). They’ve been so very helpful and welcoming to me, I’m sure they’d love you to join one of their runs! I’m super jealous, I’d love to go and run there now. Hope everything is okay in sunny Bath…heading home in a few weeks, I can’t wait!

  3. Sharyn says:

    We have the problems of dangerous drivers here too (in NZ), just this week a woman runner was killed by an overtaking car. Awful!
    Another really inspiring post. It’s so interesting to read about women from different cultures and countries. Thanks. 🙂

    1. Cathryn says:

      So glad you’re enjoying the series…it makes me so happy to hear that!

      Yeah, dangerous drivers are everywhere, it’s so very sad. That poor runner and her family, so awful.

  4. I didn’t know Lebanon has a cool weather. I thought it was hotter and so I assumed it would be difficult to run there.

    1. Cathryn says:

      I know…so many images I had of Lebanon, totally squashed!!

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