Sunday, March 09, 2014

On Running ... Cairo Half Marathon and What it Means to be a Runner

If you are not a runner you may not appreciate this much, so proceed with caution into our strange world full of peculiarly intense joys and pains both for the body and the soul.

Runners are generally nicer than the population at large, we are calmer, we use the effort of running to gain peace with ourselves, we are less angry at the world .. I do know that cycling and swimming have similar effects but there is purity and simplicity to running unmatched in any other sport, we runners require nothing but our bodies, no equipment, no pools, no bicycles, no helmets, in some places we can even run bare foot, so not even shoes. It's not that we have lesser or fewer problems in our lives, in our jobs and with our relationships than anyone else, it's just that running allows us to process problems differently and with the intense effort, our sweat helps us set anger and emotions aside, somehow, it helps us see the issues clearer, get to the core of our problems as it cleanses and removes the distortions. 

This is mostly true for runners, be it in Boston or in Bombay, in Chicago or in Cairo. We sit on the ground waiting for road races with no fuss, we are modest, practical. Setting aside the elite runners, we mostly are only competitive with ourselves; I don't know a single runner in a race who doesn't want other runners to achieve their goals. We support each other and it's much more the case towards the middle and the back of the pack, the further away from elite runners we get, the more genuine solidarity there is..... Questions such as "How did you place?" or "Did you win?" are alien and borderline offensive to my ears and I suspect to most runners. We are highly competitive, watching minute differences in our form and pace, but only competive with ourselves, we log our runs proudly and note our new personal records, knowing that no one else can ever appreciate their meaning, or what it took to achieve them.

I had one of my best races ever at the Cairo 2014 Half Marathon, it was my first race in many years, my last race was the first running of the BAA Boston Half Marathon, my hometown including circling the field of my beloved Fenway Park. it was funny that I would be there also at the first running of my native Cairo Half Marathon. It took me nearly four years since I broke my foot, a corrective surgery and two stints in casts be able to get back to running over 10 miles, so in a way this race felt like my very first Boston Marathon. I was nervous and anxious, uncertain if I will be able to finish without leg or foot problems. I started very slow, cautiously, my first mile was my slowest, my second, the second slowest and only after I started the first long climb and started overtaking so many runners less than half my age, did I get the confidence to start to go harder. The uphill peaks with a magnificent view towards the desert of Wadi Degla Protectorate, and then the long down hill at about mile ten, I deliberately slowed down to avoid cramping. 

Cairo runners were just like other runners, pleasent, supportive, talkative, contemplative, funny as ever; but this was no ordinary event! We were actually running and the traffic was stopping for us on the roads of one of the least pedestrian friendly cities in the world. So Cairo runners were actually in euphoric mood. After months of street protests, curfews, street blockades, we were laying a claim to the streets, like never before, thousands of us, this was unprecedented! The grace of these young runners as they passed me or I passed them was endearing, they seemed genuinely happy that someone much older, knee braces and all, was out there with them, so words and signs of encouragements and smiles through the strain. For races in the US, 54 years old isn't a senior citizen, but in sedentary chain smoking Egypt, I was an unusual sight. 

Shouts of a'ash or عاش the standard cheer for athletes in Egypt, meaning live or long live were common, from the few spectators who were out on the streets, the volunteers were amazing in their cheers too. At the very last uphill after the long brutal downhill, I gave it my all, I went as fast as I could, pounding my legs, pumping my arms to will me faster, I heard a cheer "wahsh .. wahsh ...wahsh" " وحش ..وحش... وحش"؟  a word best translated as beast, can be used as an insult but also as a word implying brute strength ... I felt it, I could never imagine myself actually liking to be called a beast, but I did, it boosted me, it made me run harder!

Runners often track their progress by keeping pace with other runners and those runners we run with typically change in a long race. So shortly after the start, I was keeping pace with the guy in a large blue hoodie then not sure when it was, that it changed to the two women in red T shirts with " me vs. me" written on the back and so forth. We never actually make an active mental decision to change pace buddies, it just happens. The last four miles or so, the fellow runner or pace buddy who motivated me was a beautiful veiled young woman, who saluted me with a beautiful smile as she overtook me on the steep downhill, at the end of the race we had our pictures taken together as we crossed the finish line, I will always remember her beauty, grace, modesty and wonderful smile. 

Three days before the Cairo Half, I was at a business function, I was chatting with a very elegant and charming beautiful elderly Italian French lady. She asked me out of nowhere about prayers and communication with God. I told her that often times the deepest spiritual times I have are during running, as I run outdoors, the green hills of Dorset, England or as I run around the canyons of a Wadi Degla near Cairo. I look at the beautiful nature around me and feel the strength in my body as it operates in rhythm with my surroundings and I pray to God, thank him for his glory and for the glory he bestowed on me, in me. I recite short verses of the Quran and feel a sense of unity with my world. She looked at me very attentively and said, I do the same as I walk briskly around Verona, I celebrate God's creation including my very own body.

AA March 9, 2014