The Beirut Marathon

I’d been so busy the week before Beirut that I’d quite forgotten to book anywhere to stay.  A couple of days before I was due to leave, I fired off a quick email to the marathon organising team to see if it was still possible to get a place in the official marathon hotel.   Quick as a flash, the reply comes to say they’d be able to sort something out, and they’d send someone to meet me at the airport.

I wasn’t entirely convinced, and was pretty much expecting to have to sort somewhere out when I arrived.

Customs and immigration were a  breeze. They’re more interested in searching your passport for an Israeli stamp than anything else. I get the impression one could walk through customs with a haul of AK47s just as long as your passport is clean

To my surprise there’s a friendly guy from the Marathon Association holding a card with my name on it.

He’s also waiting for a Zimbabwean guy coming off the same London flight who’s doing the handcycle marathon.  His kit looks pretty advanced. He says his personal best is something like 1h06. I’m no expert in the handcycle race, but that seems pretty fast (only later do I see him on the podium taking second place)

The flight arrived the wrong side of midnight. Yet it was still warm, but pouring with rain. Outside, with the chaotic traffic and honking of horns, the place had an almost tropical feel. The route into town takes us over flooded dual carriageways.  And there were more hills than I was expecting.  In the dark and driving rain, it feels a little like arriving into Hong Kong late at night.

Beirut by night initially strikes me as a mix of provincial Turkish city, with a bit of Bangkok, and a little Hong Kong thrown in for good measure. Despite the late hour, the city is still buzzing.

When I check in to the hotel, the desk clerk excitedly tells me he’s running too.  He looks like he’ll be fast.

The Le Commodore hotel has a faded old world charm about it. The staff are quite incompetent but the sympathetically restored bar and dated, but solid feeling rooms make this a change from flash-in-the-pan “design” hotels that are springing up everywhere.

The Commodore was the place where Western journalists hunkered down and made their home during the civil war. Now it hosts press conferences for the Beirut Marathon Association.  That seems a fitting tribute to how far Lebanon has come since the war.

Now that the Commodore is the official marathon hotel, it’s full with an eclectic mix of international athletes, and me.   A lot of wheelchair and handcycle racers are staying at the hotel. Their kit fills the lobby and corridors.  Then there are runners from Ethiopia, Kenya and Iraq, all wearing national colours.

If the Le Commodore is one of Beirut’s iconic hotels, the other is perhaps the Holiday Inn.  Finished shortly before the war, its prominent location and elevation quickly made it a perfect hideout for snipers. Consequently the hotel building attracted huge return firepower, blasting and pot marking the concrete. It remains derelict in its bullet-ridden state.  Even so it’s still significantly nicer than some Holiday Inns I’ve stayed in before.   Maybe those snipers had nothing to do with the civil war, I thought, perhaps they were just tourists driven to take up arms by the Holiday Inn’s lurid colour scheme and poor room service.

The remains of the Holiday Inn stand right next to the recently renovated InterContinetial Phoenicia, which was itself blown to bits in 2005 by the bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Harri.  Hotels in Beirut have had a tough time.  Most of the larger properties are now surrounded some of the most pointless security I’ve ever seen  (and folks, I’ve dealt with the jobsworth security guys at Manchester Airport).  Concrete blocks keep cars at bay until they’ve been “screened” for explosives.

As best I can tell, this involves a hapless security guard walking around the car with a metal aerial attached to a bit of plastic. If you’ve paid attention during airport screening you’ll know that a mass spectrometer, or trained sniffer dogs, are the only way of detecting explosives.  Yet these guards are using the equivalent of divining sticks and homeothopathy for protection.  It’s worse than useless.  It makes me pleased I’m staying somewhere a bit lower key.

The other big hotel news in Beirut is the opening of the new Four Seasons Hotel on the Corniche – it opens in January 2010. Without the concrete blocks it looks like a particularly vulnerable target.  If the troubles break out again, it’s certainly somewhere to avoid staying.

I spend the few days before the race exploring some of the more interesting parts of the city.  The ruins of downtown have been revived in a Dubai-esque shopping mall.  Around the Place d’Etoile the gorgeous stone buildings have been tastefully restored and look resplendent in the evening sun, but the shops are all bland luxury chain stores. Wherever I go I find the prevalence of H&M and Zara deeply depressing.  I’m drawn to the backstreets of Gemmayzeh, Ashrafieh and Hamra, poking around down small alleyways and side streets.  Two full days hoofing it around town are probably not the best way to prepare for a race, but my desire to explore trumps my desire for a decent time.

On Saturday evening there’s another torrential downpour that reminds me of the best the tropics can deliver. Thunder and lightening pound the hills surrounding the city.

I wake about 4:45 on Sunday and can hear the first call to prayer echoing from a nearby mosque.   Cosy in my bed, my prayer is that it’s not raining.

Runners start gathering in the hotel lobby about 5:15. A few rickety minibuses have been rounded up to take us to the start, a little way out of town.  I end up on a bus with the some of the elite Ethiopian athletes.  There’s no better way to make yourself feel slothful and frumpy than to share a small bus with top-flight marathon runners.

It’s a relatively small field – 545 registered for the full 42km.  There are more “men with guns” than I’ve seen at any other marathon start. I later find out that a good portion of the runners are UNIFIL – United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon – troops.

The marathon starts late.  We run through a real mix of areas. The route first takes us south though the outskirts of Dahieh, one of the pro-Hezbollah shia suburbs.

This is pretty noticeable because all the lampposts have rather dodgy looking photos of “martyred” soldiers on them. Like the rest of the city, soldiers stand on each street corner, but out here they look more humourless. In fact they just look wet and cold. The housing stock is pretty grim too.  It’s a real contrast to Ashrafieh. It doesn’t look like a fun place to live.

It’s cold, wet and everything gets covered in mud from all the building work.  Maybe it looks better in the sun but it’s not an area I’d particularly like to walk through alone.  Keep running, I think to myself, keep running.

Perhaps it’s just the contrast with the runners, but the solders who stand idly around didn’t look particularly athletic, and the tanks look considerably less able than the Hummers parked around the flash hotels in downtown. I briefly wonder about mounting my own coup. I could take these soldiers, me and a few runners….

The support crowds are thin, more morose soldiers than anyone else. There are a few kids about, hanging off balconies and whooping, and they give a good response when you wave back. And rather more Red Cross personnel than would seem strictly necessary for such a small field.

In a couple of places the scouts were out in force – or maybe they were just rookie soldiers – and a noticeable number of very welcome German supporters, complete with flags and balloons.

After about 15 minutes, the heavens open and it starts to rain, and rain, and rain.   The uneven road quickly fills with muddy puddles and my shoes become waterlogged.

After leaving some of the Shia areas, the route gets less interesting, particularly from about halfway when the course heads north out of the city. The route follows along the side of a busy six-lane road, though an oil refinery and several building sites.  And still it rains.  Some of the organisers ride quad bikes and keep buzzing past the runners. The quad bikes belch out a noxious choking mix of exhaust fumes.  By this stage the runners are moderately spread out, but I find two French guys going about my pace, and manage to use them as a bit of shelter from the wind and rain.

On the return into town around 36km, we cross into the central reservation of a busy road, much to the annoyance of a long line of traffic that’s built up.  I pass a couple of wheelchair racers who seem to be having difficulty with the uneven surface.   To say it’s unpleasant running with lanes of cars on either side of you would be an understatement.  These cars are not sleek catalytic-converter-fitted machines, they’re old, smog-belching wrecks.  I could taste the smoke at the back of my throat.  This is quite different from my last race through the pure Alpine air, I remember thinking.

My ability to do any maths in my head always start fade as I get tired towards the end of a long run. At one point though I start to think I’m on for a personal best, until I realise that my watch is actually on dual time and showing the time in Brussels rather than Beirut.  It requires counting on my fingers to work out my timing. I’m not going to get personal best, or a degree in mental arithmetic.

I didn’t exactly hit the wall but did fade a bit over the last few kilometres. About 500 metres from the finish I was passed by a woman putting on a particularly strong finish, whom I later discover is the British Ambassador the Lebanon. And I though Her Majesty’s Ambassadors were all elderly, overweight men.  How the Foreign Office is changing!

I receive my medal, have my chip removed, and take shelter under one of those foil blankets.

It takes me a few minutes to realise that I’ve no idea of my finishing time.  With the help of my fingers again, I work out that it’s something like 3 hours 37 minutes – a good 11 minutes slower than my best time.

I tracked down my kit bag, which much to my surprise hadn’t gone missing, and once I’d changed into some warm clothes, I  felt much better.

I walk back slowly through town to the Commodore, watching the 10km race as I go.  The 10km is more of a carnival than a run but it does have impressive participation.  The full marathon, and the associated 10km and 5km fun runs, takeover and involve the whole town.  With somewhere over 30,000 participants for all the races, it’s an event that brings together the city.

With participants from all of Beirut’s mixed backgrounds, and runners from countries in a far worse state then Lebanon, this is one run that really unites a once divided city.

The Khartoum Flight

When does travelling feel more like commuting?   Travelling should be fun, but commuting evokes thoughts of tedium.  Perhaps I’m becoming a little jaded but recently all my flights have felt like commuting rather than travelling.  Or maybe it’s just flying in and out of Brussels where the flights are always full of boring men in suits.

The silence in the cabin is marked only by the gentle tap on blackberry keys or the quiet rustle of pages of The Economist.  No one talks to each other. Everyone keeps themselves to themselves. Everyone’s done this a hundred time before. Even flights back and forward across the Atlantic are now much the same predictable affair.  And because there’s never any decent wine in the galley, no one drinks to liven things up.

Things felt a little different then at Heathrow the other week as I waited to board BD997 to Khartoum via Beirut. The  Khartoum flight was packed, loud and buzzing, and a real contrast to the Lufthansa flight that was boarding at the next gate.

The rickety Airbus A321 was showing its age.  The flight felt like more of an adventure than a chore; like flying in the 1990s, before everything got ruined by the low-cost revolution; when the wine flowed freely and the crew were attractive. Or maybe I’m wearing my rose-tinted glasses again.

There wasn’t a boring businessman in sight. Quite who was going to Khartoum I wondered. And why?  And were there any marathon runners on the flight, en route to Beirut?

Despite the interesting mix of people on the flight, it’s becoming clear that I’m destined to spend my life on flights  sitting next to boring or ugly people – or people who drool in their sleep. I’m convinced there’s a module in the online check-in system that always puts me next to the least interesting person on the flight.

As the flight climbed out over the North Sea, the cabin’s single isle became a hive of activity as people moved about the aircraft.  Maybe it was the thought of weeks without alcohol in the Sudan that got everyone drinking and talking and sharing stories and visiting friends a few rows forward.

Some five hours later the plane swept low along the cost of Beirut, the lights of downtown twinkling just outside the window. Apart from the approach into Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport, it’s rare that you get such a good view of the city, as you do on the approach into Beirut.

The wheels hit the ground and the surge of reverse thrust kicked in. I couldn’t help but think that this very same runway had two huge holes blown in it by Israeli fighter jets just two years ago. That’s not something you get on the Brussels commute.

Those of us getting out at Beirut started to gather our stuff together. The crew were getting off too. For safely reasons, bmi don’t let their crew stay over in Khartoum, but fly them in and out of Beirut in one rotation, before they return to London on the next days flight.

I noticed that the more interesting-looking people were staying on the plane and hunkering down for the night flight to Sudan. I was suddenly in two minds. I wanted to explore Beirut but I felt sad not to be going to whole way to Khartoum for a bit of adventure. Would they take a stowaway, I wondered?

As we taxied off the runway, music started to fill the cabin from the public address system. The retro beat of “Sweet Harmony” by The Beloved, somehow energised the cabin, and gave my swift dash for the jetway a very 1990s feel.  Khartoum would have to wait.