Running for Lebanon, with May El Khalil

“Peacemaking is not a sprint, it is more of a marathon” is a statement that made many headlines, news-feeds, and has been been heard over 3 million times, when the TED Global YouTube talk by May El Khalil was published.

TeaCalls had the distinct pleasure of getting to know the woman of power, who is behind the formation of the Beirut Marathon Association. I sat down with the president, and discussed the personal strength and determination that has been the drive of the Association.

Share with us the details of the TED Global talk, those small moments that no one can capture except you – behind the stage, the excitement, the reaction on people’s faces and applause. How May Khalildid that feel? Was it different than other public appearances that you’ve made and how?

If I had known [laughs], before getting there, the intensity, the outreach…  probably I would have hesitated. But I was invited and said anything that serves the purpose of taking the marathon onto a whole different level, I would do it. I prepared for it. I worked for it. But I never imagined that I would be able to memorize 10 minutes and deliver the speech without hesitation.

At the beginning, to get the story of the journey of the 10 years into minutes was a big challenge: choosing the exact words without sounding like I was selling the marathon or without being a hypocrite, addressing the crowd; a group of kind and supportive but highly intellectual people meant that every word needed to be calculated – all these things were challenging. What made  it easier was that I wasn’t pretending, or borrowing words, and I had the incredible support of my daughter Zeina. I remember, a few days before I traveled to Scotland, I told Zeina,  “I need a prompter” and Zeina just said, “whatever you want”. The minute she told me that, I went back to myself and said, “May come on, you have to deliver”. So we got to Edinburgh and went straight to rehearsals. I started seeing different people, different backgrounds, different stories. It was really a beautiful thing; the spirit, the support that you have from all the people around you, even the coordinators and organizers were just so sweet.

 I’ll admit, when we got there, it was a bit overwhelming to see some people get on stage and go blank. It makes you panic, but when you have that inner strength and when you know you are talking about something you have personally lived all these years, it pushes you through. The minute I got on that stage, I felt that I was in control. I felt that the crowd was not there to evaluate me, but was there to listen.

Did you think twice about sharing such a personal story with so many people?

[Without hesitation] No. Never. From day 1, I felt like I had nothing to hide.

You talk about inner strength, is there a ritual or a mantra that you fall back to whenever things get difficult? 

I believe inner strength is something you are born with, but it also something you have to train as much as you can. Even when I was young I had ambitions, I was a dreamer, and wanted to do more, and strive more –  but always with my legs on the ground. I don’t have a special ritual but I am a very spiritual person. I believe in reincarnation, so I don’t know if this has something to do with it. Sometimes people come into this life with good vibes from previous lives. I am lucky to be carrying with me positive vibes from my previous life.

You talk about this incredible reaction from millions of people, but has there been anything negative?

Yes, at the beginning. I hate to just talk about myself but because the message I took with me to TED Global was out of personal experience so when I checked some of the negative youtube comments,  I was shocked. My mouth felt dry. With time, however, you develop thick skin and you realize that if things are too “rose-y”, then they become unreal. Especially because only maybe 5% of the comments were negative, and that is just normal.

At first, I was scared, because I was no longer in control, and people are free to write whatever they want. Now, I evaluate, more than 80-85% of the comments are positive and I hear that someone from China cried and was touched by my speech and  wanted to translate it and that makes me feel blessed. In general, these are the beautiful positive things that I have been hearing and reading.

Have you noticed some generations react more to you than others?

Yes definitely the younger generation. When Zeina came back from her first experience in TED, she was telling us about the impact of the event, and we were trying to understand but we didn’t really absorb it. She was even trying to tell us the explanation of the name TED. My generation, I don’t think they know a lot about it, exceptions of course exist. However,  I think after my TED talk my generation are becoming  more familiar with what ted is.

May Khalil Ted Talk

I want to stop at your TED Global speech. You talk about when you visited remote villages and you connected to people. How difficult was it to build trust with them?

It wasn’t  difficult at all because, as I said before, it was honesty and transparency that brought us together. I was sharing with them my personal story which made them relax and in turn share their own stories. I remember that I was still recovering then, and some days I was still using crutches. Here in Lebanon, people are not used to sharing their personal stories, it is part of the taboo in our culture. For me, it felt that like therapy. So this terrible “thing” happened to me, where do I take it from here?

I could have probably launched the marathon through a media campaign but I felt like I was talking about running a distance of 26.2 miles, at a time when people did not even believe I could find more than 50 people to join. The Lebanese athletic federation said, “You want people to pay and you want them to run? You must be dreaming” and I told them that if London or New York could have a marathon, then why can’t we?

We had our share of disappointment when the first year even though we had 6k runners, we did not fulfill our budget. Many of the 6k that came, came because of the honesty in terms of communication, because  they felt it was something good, because it was all under the  spirit of unity and bringing people together.

After TED what has changed?

Beirut marathon became the elephant in the middle of the room, in a good way. It was a an amazing door opener, locally and globally. We have had incredible support by TED fellows internationally, who are planning to run on the day of the marathon regardless of where they are. There are international runners that are coming to join the run, as well. After the TED talk, many started looking at the Beirut Marathon in a different way. created a blog the same week they used my talk, it was about running for peace and it was interesting to see my talk in action. Especially since there are lots of marathons that run for charity, but I don’t think anyone thought of running for peace.

Speaking of that,  you said, peacemaking is a marathon, not a sprint – Are we any closer to winning that marathon you think?

It takes time but when we see the sheer number of people who challenge the security, the political situation, the weather just to run, then I think yes, we are definitely closer. We are also going to Egypt to help them promote a similar platform like the one we have here.

Personally for you what is running? It has brought you both pain and success, at the end what is running for you?

Running is Hope

Running is Determination.

If I had not been into long distance running I do not think I would have been able to cope with all these challenges. Running teaches you how to become a determined person and how to keep running until you reach that finish line. You keep running until you reach those goals. It teaches you to be a positive person and the training helps you improve your inner strength. Many don’t know that it also gives you the ability to train your mind, and I strongly believe in the power of the mind.  To be able to cover the distance of 26.2 miles you have to keep your mind busy and be in control of it.

Where do your dreams take you next? You talk about Egypt now?

Next on our agenda is to keep strengthening the culture of running in Lebanon. We have lots of people who run for the fun of it and that is why you see a huge number of people in the 10k race. I would like to see more people running the full distance; I would like to see the younger generation on the podium with medals and trophies; I would like to see the younger generation growing to be the future heroes and putting Lebanon on the map. A country that holds international events is a country that, I would say, is measured by how civilized they are because sports reflect on the culture of the country. What I wish to see is Lebanon holding more international sports events like we do with cultural and music events. We are drifting and committing suicide every morning by listening to the news and listening to the politics. If we continue taking this path we will be missing out on all the beauty that surrounds us in life.

What is your advice for beginning runners who are fighting their own battles and want to run for Lebanon this year?

I would tell them, first of all, listen to your body, and make sure you are getting enough nutrition. You can’t run a marathon overnight, you need to be physically and mentally ready. Lastly follow the nutritionist’s advice [with a wink].

Since this is a health blog, what do you do to stay healthy and fit?

Even during my accident and the difficult days in the hospital, when I wasn’t sure if I will live or walk again, I was very careful of what to eat. I never believed in empty calories. I am off gluten, for the time being, and I am very happy about that.  I also do not eat sugar and my diet is mostly salads, fish, grains, almonds and walnuts,. I am very conscious about what to eat in general.

BMA image

Dear readers, you saw it here first! Follow the nutritionist’s advice and REALLY looking forward to seeing you at the finish line on November 10th


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2 thoughts on “Running for Lebanon, with May El Khalil”

  1. Hi Tala! I saw this post and video a few weeks ago and I must say I was touched by her words, her experience and how she built up the marathon to what it is and what it means today. (I just hadn´t come back, sorry!) That’s so wonderful that you go to interview her. xx

    1. It really was very inspiring sitting with her, and listening to her story. Glad the message comes through in the post 🙂
      Thank you SO much for reading and commenting! appreciate it xx

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