On I went, out of the wood, passing the man leading without knowing I was going to do so. Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, curnchslap-crunchslap, across the middle of a broad field again, rhythmically running in my greyhound effortless fashion, knowing I had won the race though it wasn't half over, won it if I wanted it, could go on for ten or fifteen or twenty miles if I had to and drop dead at the finish of it, which would be the same, in the end, as living an honest life like the governor wanted me to. -Alan Sillitoe, "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"

Friday, February 4, 2011

Egyptian Marathon Luxor Run: Race Review

What to say about this crazy, zany race? Obviously, much of my experience with this race was overshadowed by the political situation that was unfolding even as I was running. And is still unfolding. But as I was running I had no idea how bad it was going to get. So let’s talk about the race, okay?

As you’ll remember, I signed on to do the full marathon and then had a change of heart. A wise change of heart – in addition to not being ready for the full, I had also come down with a cold. I couldn’t have pulled off the full. The full was a four-loop course. The “half,” which was actually 22.2km, was only two loops, and by the end of those two loops, the sun was bearing down on us with no shade on the course. There were water stations set up every 2.5-5k, and they were staffed by very nice volunteers with bottled water and bananas. In addition to the half and full, there was a one-loop race, a much shorter kids’ race, and a rollerblade marathon. The roads were open, which meant dodging the occasional tour bus, but mostly the course was clear.

First off: there weren’t many participants. We were bused to the start at an ungodly hour (we were told to be ready for the bus by 5:15am; this being Egypt, the bus left closer to 6am). We waited at the start line in the cold for almost an hour before the gun went off with no fanfare (desert, remember? Lows near 40 and highs nearer to 80). No fanfare at all.

The start at the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut was scenic, that’s for sure, and the rest of the course held promise. We ran past sugar cane fields, past the colossi of Memnon, past small villages, past a cemetery. BUT, we also ran past screaming children. Throngs of screaming, harassing children demanding baksheesh (a tip, essentially). Screaming children running with me, surrounding me, grabbing at me. At one point, a group of these children clamored around me and when I said I had no money to give them, threw a handful of sand at my face. I was kind of impressed that I managed to swear at the kids in both English and Arabic without even giving any thought to my response. Then I felt guilty that I had just sworn at a group of kids.

I have to be honest here. I’ve spent probably about 20 weekends of my life in Luxor, and I hate that place. I find it to be a total hellhole. The monuments are beautiful, but they’re marred by the incessant harassment. I actually like haggling for prices, and I don’t mind the used-car salesman tricks that proprietors use to get you into their shops. I just mind the constant, never ending stream of attention: “Let me help you spend your money!” “Hey, moneybags, come into my shop!” “No hassle, no hassle, just step inside!” (This last one is usually accompanied by the guy either physically blocking your way or reaching out to touch you.) In addition to the usual harassment, Luxor has recently begun to gain a reputation as somewhat of a sex tourism destination – where European women go to pick up men. I had several men boldly ask me whether I was alone or with a group, and when I said I was alone they would brazenly fire off the questions: Where are you staying? How many nights? You are all alone in your hotel room, no? This gets old, fast. (And none of the guys were even hot.) So the kids, most of whom are poor in a way that we as Americans can’t fathom, are taught from day one that tourists are walking dollar/Euro/sterling signs.

With pretty much any race where I’m not racing at 100%, I have a simple strategy: pick out the weakest, saddest looking runner who is going about my pace and start up a conversation with them. Then, when s/he needs to walk, I can take a break, too, and blame him. So, about 3k into my first 10k loop, I hooked up with a 12 year old boy. He was wearing canvas shoes and denim shorts – just my style. He also spoke no English, but he was very patient (I speak Arabic at the level of about a 3 year old who knows some verbs but can’t conjugate them. The 3 year old also knows a healthy number of swear words.).

Mahmoud and I settled in to a nice running groove for the next few kilometers. I managed to convince him to run slower and take fewer walk breaks, which worked well until the second to last turn – at which point he sped up ahead of me. Damn him, I thought. He said something to me about seeing me at the finish, and I was struck with déjà-vu: I pace someone for much of the race only to watch him sprint off at the end. Once I turned the corner, though, I realized I’d been wrong. The stretch of road I was now facing was a landmine of grabby children with lots of hiding places and no marathon personnel to fend them off. Mahmoud had gone ahead to shoo the kids away!

When we got to the finish, he chose not to run to the finish line but instead to come along with me on my second lap. What good fortune! Except that our bibs were color-coded to our individual races, and the race staff pulled him off the course. Well, more like lifted him off the course. A man in a galabiyya seriously ran up to him, picked up all 60 or so pounds of him, and carried him away screaming. And just like that, I was facing the second and last lap by myself.

This outfit totally says "touch me," doesn't it?
It was fine. The weather had turned warmer, but I was going along steadily. Until… until… the last stretch, the one with the cemetery where Mahmoud had gone ahead and scared off the kids. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was surrounded by kids. Menacing kids. With hands reaching out, grabbing me, stopping me. As I was yelling, “I have no money on me,” an older boy in his teens reached out and groped me. He seriously reached under my running skirt to grab my butt. Not a simple grab, mind you, but what can only be described as a full-on massage. I’m sure the whole thing took mere seconds, but it felt like it was several minutes of disgustingness. I stopped, started screaming my head off while he laughed, and then ran into the street to flag down a police officer. I told the officer what had happened and he started off toward the kids – who, of course, had already run away to hide in the fields.

At that point, my race was over with about 5k to go. I was surprised by my reaction: after the initial adrenaline rush and the report to the police, I immediately started crying. I couldn’t breathe: the desperate sobs kept me from taking a deep breath, which kept me from being able to run. I got it together quickly (again, this was probably only a few minutes but it felt like an hour) and finished up the race, slowly.

I later found out that I wasn’t the only one who’d been frustrated with that particular stretch, and I’m going to encourage the event organizers to consider putting a water stop or something along there. One woman told me that she wouldn’t have gone for her fourth and final lap if her husband hadn’t agreed to go along. Another woman who ran it last year had a story almost exactly similar. This is above and beyond kids pestering you; it’s sexual harassment.
Medal and finisher's certificate.

The front of the shirt.

Here’s something funny: I know that I set a new PR, because I’d never raced the 22.2km distance. But I still to this day am unsure what my time was. It wasn’t good, even if you subtract a couple of minutes for when I stopped the police. But they didn’t have any clocks anywhere on the course and I wasn’t wearing a watch. Times are supposed to be posted online, but the internet was shut off for nearly a week, so I’ll just have to keep waiting.

The race itself is colored for me by the jackass kid who touched me, and the aftermath of the race is colored by the events in Cairo. Without internet or phone service, it was hard to see how bad things were until I got back to my hotel room and turned on the news. That night, after the race, there was a “gala dinner.” It was the usual, decadent, touristy affair, completely with European belly dancers (few of the ones who perform are Egyptian; did you know that?) and something that looked suspiciously like a pig but was probably a goat roasted on a spit.

I sat there for a few minutes, completely in awe. Here I was, eating all this food while Cairo literally burned. After about 15 minutes, I gathered up my medal and my papyrus certificate and went back to my hotel room to watch CNN.

Would I do it again? Yes, but I'd bring pepper spray.

As for my return to Cairo? Well, that was dramatic. Not as dramatic (for me) as you’ve seen on the news, but still outside my comfort zone. Never before have I seen the army out on the streets in full force. Never have I been in a position where the streets were swarming with men 24/7 – all armed. Never before have I seen an Egyptian funeral-cum-political protest, heard actual machine gun fire, or seen men walking around openly carrying pistols (and I live in Harlem). Never before have I been evacuated from a country due to political crisis.

But that’s a story for another, non-running blog.


  1. Cool swag! Congratulations on surviving the whole marathon of the last 11 days or so, not just this race.

    Pepper spray would be a nice touch on the little prick.

  2. Oh god. That sounds...traumatizing. I'm glad you were able to finish under the circumstances.

  3. I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether to write the more family-friendly term "yikes" instead of my initial reaction to this post, which was: "holy f*cking shit." Crazy. I can't believe that about the kids mobbing you during the race and the sexual harassment. Good gracious.

    Very cool that you made a race friend in Mahmoud; kind of reads like a bright light among the other garbage that happened.

    Cannot imagine being in Cairo right now. Take care of yourself.

  4. used to see people openly carry guns in the college library, maybe those days are over.

    My partner has runs everyday when he is in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Turkey - the kids running alongside are cute when you are a man and deaf. Dogs too. - Ellen

  5. Deaf would have helped I think, A LOT.

    I guess I have seen my students carrying guns, but they don't usually wave them around - just keep them in their holster attached to their person.

    I've had a few friends say that they are jealous that I was there during the revolts. I'm just VERY glad to be back home. It's was exhilarating, even while it was scary, but it wasn't my fight to fight.

  6. my gosh, Tracy. That was some race report - I'm sorry for the awful experience during the race and the overall scariness that is still going on there.

    Can we hang out soon after you're all settled? :)

  7. ARGH, the groping! I would have kicked that kid!

  8. How nice of Mahmoud to shoe the kids away. Seriously, I cannot imagine running like that! And the groping is awful. Just awful. Good for you for still finishing! I would have been crying too!

  9. Oh, wow. I can't imagine how scary that must be have been. We live in a completely different world.

    While I certainly don't envy you for being there, I understand the intrigue. History being made and all that. Glad you got out safely.