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Countdown to 2004 Beirut marathon begins - Over 6,000 will participate this year

With the clock ticking down to the start of the second annual Beirut International Marathon (BIM) on October 10, May Khalil has her hands full these days.

As president of the Beirut Marathon Association (BMA), she has to organize a series of open events for the 6,000 plus people expected to run, walk and ride over this year's 42 kilometer course.

"We always need the first year to learn from and pick up the bits and pieces," Khalil said recently in an interview with The Daily Star. In fact, true to form, she insisted on covering some of less positive aspects of the 2003 race.

Last year's course, she explained, was done in two overlapping loops, each 21 kilometers long. "This created some psychological problems for runners," she said, explaining that when runners finished the first loop, they felt that they had to do the same thing all over again. "This takes some of the energy away."

Additionally, some runners complained there hadn't been enough water stations at the end of the marathon and said they had become dehydrated by the time the finish line was reached. "This year, we will be making more than 100 water stations available, 10 bottles for every runner, and there will be more energy drinks available," she said.

Another difference: Unlike last year's race, the start and the finish lines now will be in different locations.

As for the positive aspects of the 2003 marathon, Khalil's list is noticeably more extensive.

"Last year's BIM was not merely a sports event ... It was a sports event that created an awareness of health issues and an awareness towards sports in general," said Khalil. "The result of this can be seen in the increasing number of runners along the Corniche, not to mention the fact that more woman have been running in general since last year."

The social impact of last year's race was also a key highlight for Khalil. "It brought Lebanese from all walks of life together," she said, pointing to the participation of several families who took part in the 10 kilometer (10K) fun run (or walk, depending on your preference), which was a part of the larger event.

Above all though, Khalil is proudest to say that the marathon was and is a national event, open to everyone under the slogan, "Take A Day and Run It Your Way."

"You come across people who say that they cannot walk 400 meters, but this marathon shows them that they can," she said. Some participants who walk the 10K are so enthusiastic about joining thousands of other people that "they don't feel the long distance," she added.

BIM 2004 will see four races on marathon day: At 7:00 am, wheelchair participants will start, followed 10 minutes later by the main marathoners and the 10K participants. Fifteen minutes after that, the 5 kilometer (5K) race will kick off.

"This year, we started preparing much earlier," said Khalil, noting that the course was measured nearly three months ago. "We also launched the road show early, where we covered almost all of Lebanon."

Indeed, a vital part of making the BIM happen is holding meetings with the municipalities touched by the course. "We meet with municipalities to see what they will do for the event," she said. "In this way, we are forcing the municipalities to work harder, since everyone will try to give out the best it has ... This reflects the image of Lebanon as the Lebanese now feel they have a responsibility towards this marathon.

Charities, too, are an integ-ral part of the marathon: According to the official website, www.beirutmarathon.org, "BIM has a humanitarian dimension that aims at making a difference in other people's lives through sports."

"Charities recruit runners, and runners, in turn, raise funds for the charity and give it straight to them," Khalil explained. She made it clear, however, that BMA does not receive or deal with any of the funds raised.

"For instance, in 2003, there was a runner who was able to raise nearly $30,000 by asking people to sponsor him in the marathon," she said.

With charities relying on the event, thousands of runners and volunteers and several sponsors, the stakes are clearly high for Khalil and her team.

"We are making sure that everything is in place," she said, "and we have divided BMA employees into groups to take charge of specific tasks."

Pulling off the event won't be easy: It is estimated that the crowd may swell to more than 10,000 people. What's more, as Khalil explained, "We are aiming this year to get nearly 4,000 volunteers;" last year, there were some 3,000 volunteers.

"Doctors will also be spread along all of the 42 kilometers, so we need a larger team this year," she added. Boy Scouts will even be called on to form a human barrier along the course, with some playing musical instruments to add more "life to the marathon."

Security, of course, also presents another challenge for Khalil and her team. But with road closures and the support of the security services, she doesn't seem particularly worried. "Another reason why runners last year are coming again this year is that security was well-planned ... Security forces were on alert."

The year's BIM also has a strong international aspect. Over 45 elite runners from across the world are expected to compete, in addition to scores of runners of Lebanese origin.

Khalil said that the Foreign Ministry "had been a great help" in getting the word out about the marathon. As a result, more than 120 runners of Lebanese origin from Brazil have registered.

"I can say that BIM has acquired a place on the international map," Khalil said proudly.

Along with being an internationally recognized event comes the need to adhere to international standards. Last year, BIM conducted a doping test for the top three winners of each different age category and found that two of the winners had tested positive. "They were disqualified and banned from taking part in this year's marathon as well as other international marathons," Khalil said. "These runners were really surprised since they did not think that BIM was of such importance."

Despite her disappointment over the disqualifications, it is only when discussing budgetary matters that Khalil's evident enthusiasm shows any sign of fading.

"It has been a real struggle," she said. "We have a couple of sponsors but not enough for the size of the event. If someone owns an orchard and can provide us with items like bananas, it would do save us a lot," she implored. "We need to share the load to make the event possible."

Beirut 16-08-2004
Hania Taan
The Daily Star



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