I’VE BEEN A RUNNER for 10 years, but lately only recreationally. Life in the Middle East hasn’t exactly been the greatest exercise partner. When I came to Lebanon in the fall of 2012, I vowed to rediscover the power of dedicated running and the camaraderie of a team, even if I was the only woman participating. What I found in the running culture of Beirut, however, was a pleasant surprise.
Each morning in the city by the sea, there is a large female presence running beside the Mediterranean. They wear the same neon outfits as elite runners in the West, they exchange the same back-and-forth banter, and they have the same amazing calves. Beirut doesn’t lend much of itself to runners, but the areas that are accessible — the corniche by Mediterranean, the small pine forest, and the elite track — are occupied equally by women and men. Lebanon still has social customs that restrict some women, at least on a comfort level. Women choose their training locations not only for aesthetics and accessibility, but also for lack of stares and whistles.
I spent a month training with and photographing some of the women on the Inter-Lebanon team before they ran the Beirut Marathon. The race was created under the principle of community in Lebanon’s highly divided society. I ran competitively throughout high school and college, and wanted to see how the experiences I remembered might play out in a different country, in different cultural circumstances.
Some women in Lebanon face harassment and some don’t. This team was open, collegiate, and driven. While training, I actually forgot my original purpose of the story — the challenges of women running — because the bond between the team members was so strong. The strong women of Inter-Lebanon reminded me what running with a team really offers: a family.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop in-depth narratives for Matador.]
Early morning run
Nearly every morning at 7am, the Inter-Lebanon team takes to the streets, trails, and seaside of Beirut. Men and women from all walks of life get up early and start their day running into the sunrise. In Lebanon, it's much easier for a woman to run freely than in the rest of the Middle East. The result: a growing movement of passionate and strong running women in Beirut. In this photo, Diala Kassem of the Inter-Lebanon team dashes past fellow runners on a tempo run in Horche, a large public park in Beirut.
The Olympic-size stadium in Beirut is a prime place to spot the rising stars of women runners in Lebanon. Noora, in the white shirt and black pants, is a relatively new but passionate runner. “I just love running…and the running is just one part of it. Being with a team is amazing.”
Mid-distance runner Assil warms up on the track surrounded by male teammates. “I run mostly 800 and 1500. The last official meet was a while ago…I’m not sure when the next one close by will be, but I’m still training.” The number of road races in the Middle East is low, and track events are even less common. Yet the increase of teams and road races is bringing more opportunities. Assil hails from Tyre, a small city in southern Lebanon, and balances her time between university and running.
Marie stands on the track ready for a workout. A standout member of the Inter-Lebanon team, Marie’s best marathon time is 3:09 and she continues to improve. Though she stands no more than 5’ 3”, Marie is a strong and driven woman; she says she’s never had any problems running in Lebanon, and that the men of Inter-Lebanon have always been supportive.
Diala jokes around on the track before a morning workout in Beirut. As photographers, we are sometimes removed from our own stories. While shooting this one, I experienced the exact opposite; running once again with strong women, albeit in a different part of the world, gave me a new outlook into the hearts of Lebanese women.
Randa (background, far left), Noora, and Assil sprint across the infield in the early morning light. All three are part of the Inter-Lebanon team, but prefer and compete in different distances. “I love running long distance,” said Randa. “The feeling is amazing, running is better to me than any drug. When I’m sad or life is just too much, I can forget when I run. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Another popular location is the Corniche, a long stretch of empty sidewalks next to the Mediterranean. While training for the marathon, the women and men of Inter-Lebanon did many morning interval workouts here. Noora, center, stands waiting for her team to start their warmup.
Part runner, part mother
Diala laughs with the team while gathering energy gels before a long run on the Corniche. Like many of the women on the team, Diala has a family with children, so her running career is a balancing act of family and self-revitalization.
Marie holds a variety of gels she will use for the marathon. “These help with leg cramps…you never know how you will feel during the marathon, so these can help.”
A team effort
The legs of two women and a man on the Inter-Lebanon team. Nearly all the women emphasized their love for running in that it not only makes you physically stronger, but mentally tough—in the race and in life. During each hard workout, when the men and women pass each other on the track or Corniche, each group yells words of encouragement to each other, to push through any pain and doubt they may have.
Pushing past pain
Noora runs along the Corniche in the early morning. Though plagued by a leg injury, she continued to train, hoping she could still run in the 10k the day of the marathon.
Diala (center) and other runners from Lebanon at a pre-marathon party in Beirut. Though all of the women have trained well, some still had doubts about the race the next day. Diala had been battling injuries as well.
The founder of the relatively new Beirut Marathon is, in fact, a woman. May El-Khalil founded the Beirut Marathon after facing amazing odds in life: She was hit by a car while running in 2001 and barely made it out alive. After 20 operations, she decided to create a race in the spirit of community, and now regards the marathon as a way to bring a small peace to Lebanon.
Hoping for victory
Diala raises her hand in a sign for victory beside fellow runner Micky Chebli at a team meeting the day before the marathon. The team was interviewed by the press, ran a few laps inside the mall, and hoped that the rain would stop for the race the next day.
Some of the women joke together while being photographed by the local press. After donning what some deemed to be skimpy race uniforms the next day, they reassured each other they would all do well. I ended up racing with the women on the team, so they did their fair share of reassuring me as well!
Not just physical
Marie and Diala talk together after a short warmup run. Both have been battling nagging injures from the past, but both are very mentally strong. “Running is not only physical strength—it’s mental. You have to tell yourself you can do it, then you can. You can’t think about the little pains. Tell yourself you are strong,” said Marie.
Alma rushes to hug a teammate, while the men enjoy having their picture taken. “I started running late in life, when I felt like my body wasn’t as strong as it was before…I’m a water skier also, but running does wonders—not just for my body, but the community we have here is very empowering.”
The physical strength running gives is obvious, but the emotional and mental strength of running with a team is undeniable. The day of the marathon, the women steeled themselves against terrible weather: Wind and pouring rain gave way to a few minutes of sunshine before returning. While most of the women did not reach their personal record times, the time spent training together brought them closer—and ready to take on the next big race.