I learned a long time ago that one efficient way of being satisfied is to reduce your expectations. This works in relationships, business dealings, and athletics. Of course, this notion kinda goes contrary to my “set big goals and achieve them” mantra because it necessarily tamps down the spectrum of the goals when applied there. So, I am not advocating that anyone reduce their expectations when it comes to macro goals, but when it comes to things outside of your own control, lowering your expectations is a good way to maintain optimism in many situations. Well, my expectations for the Marathon Cairo were pretty high coming in and that could have easily contributed to me finding fault in any number of areas that didn’t meet my dream scenario. However, I have been testing all of my previous lifetime races against this race and I believe a new bar has been set… Marathon Cairo was the best race I’ve ever done.
Before I recount the nearly innumerable factors that contributed to MC’s ascent to the top of my racing heap, I need to give perspective on what all had to happen in the mere 6 ½ hours I spent in Egypt that was not on the marathon clock. I also need to do this quickly, because as you’ll soon understand, I need to utilize my time for recovery more than writing after this mad whirlwind excursion on Day #3. We arrived in Cairo at about 4am. By the time we all got off the plane, through Customs and Immigration, and found our van driver, it was pushing close to 5. The race was scheduled to start at 5:45am so we loaded in the van and headed toward the Ramses Hilton in downtown Cairo. Steve Hibbs typed “we need to get to the hotel quickly” into a translator app and played the Arabic translation to our driver who acknowledged and hammered down. At 4:30am in Cairo, unlike any other time as I would soon learn, there is very little traffic, so we were able to go 120 km/hr weaving through the few cars on the roads and got to the hotel overlooking Tahir Square quickly. Check-in was much slower for the 8 of us and by the time I had my key, I had 11 minutes to get up to my 19th floor room and get back downstairs ready to race. As I got into my room, I realized that I could make it without breakfast or water, but not without going “number 2”. I mean, you may not think about things like this when reading about this adventure, but some bodily functions can’t just be postponed indefinitely and it was time! That meant I sat on the toilet, unpacking my bags, lubing my feet, etc. while also handling business. No time for foot treatments, charging devices, making sure everything is just right for the 3rd marathon on 3 continents in 3 days… no, just throw on what you can and go, go, go. 15 minutes later I was downstairs and as ready as I was gonna be to head for an island in the Nile River where the Start/Finish line was setup.
When we got to the starting area I could feel “the buzz” immediately. THIS is what I had been looking for and missed in days 1 and 2. Though there were a few nice people around in Perth and Singapore, it was pretty small and informal- the jittery excitement of a big, much anticipated race just wasn’t there. But in Cairo… it was on! There were hundreds of people there and they were pumped to host the 3rd annual Marathon Cairo. I learned from a couple other racers during the marathon that Cairo’s fitness culture is only about 5 years old, but it far exceeds any that I’ve ever lived in. In addition, the arrival of our van was like that of the band tour bus at a big rock-n-roll show. We disembarked to a throng of people grabbing and hugging us, introducing themselves, taking pictures upon pictures upon pictures, and generally making us feel like celebrities. I have a lot of this on GoPro, which I’ve decided to just keep compiling and release after I get done and can properly edit it from home when I have time. We met the Race Director, Seif, and he couldn’t have been more inviting. The group pictures, 2 person selfies, introductions and warm greetings continued so long that it essentially delayed the start! Then, there was a group warmup that none of the 777 folks participated in (all of us being too sore and resigned to being as ready as we were going to be). And, we were off. As usual, I need to throttle back the vivid details in this tale because precious minutes of sleep are permanently disappearing. To explain everything I saw, heard, smelled and experienced today would take me hours I just don’t have, but I’ll hit some highlights. Again, the GoPro footage will really be something when I can get it edited and uploaded. We ran a couple miles in the dark, through some back streets. This race was run entirely on the streets of Cairo, with no police or signs or general public traffic notice that you would find in even small marathons in the States. It was just a few hundred people literally running with the cars like we were in Pamplona running with the bulls. Except, unlike bulls that just stampede in one direction, the streets of Cairo are somewhere between chaos and anarchy. I saw 2 severe car wrecks, people reversing down major 3 lane highways, horse drawn carts with everything from trash to cauliflower, and more horn honking than Manhattan on Monday morning. No one keeps lanes, they just force themselves into whichever spot they find in the moving traffic at high speeds. Traffic lights are confusing and ignored. Pedestrians just run across the street and hold out their hands to stop lanes of traffic as if they possess The Force. Steve even witnessed a pedestrian get hit by a car then pick himself up off the road, yell at the driver who yelled back at him… and then both went on their way! This place is wild, fo rilly doe. In the pre-dawn, we ran by a big load of people in a caged-in armored truck personnel carrier. At the time, Jagjit and I both thought it was full of prisoners heckling us since it was escorted by a lot of machine-gun toting military police types. Later, I found out that they were actually the change of shift for those military police types. As the sun came up, we ran the whole race in this chaotic traffic, frequently switching sides of the road and narrowly avoiding being hit by throngs of compact cars and white vans that are evidently the public transportation system. The first time one of these vans swerved toward me, then slid open the door to reveal a full cargo of men looking at me, I’ll admit I was momentarily convinced I was about to be abducted. However, as the day went on and I saw scores of people getting in and out of these same white, unmarked vans, I deduced that these served as the busses you would typically see in any other city I’ve ever visited and no one in them held any malice toward me.
I feel the need to reiterate, before I go on, that the entire race was run in the streets with the cars and this traffic had no predictable patterns aside from constant honking and erratic operation that had consummate disregard for any of the norms I’ve always taken for granted, such as lanes and traffic lights… it was madness! If you wanted to pass someone while running, you just had to hope that the speeding cars coming from behind you left enough room to not hit you or the other cars sprawled across the street. So, as I tell you about some of the people and places, just remember this fear for your life, especially running 2 wide and talking, is the constant backdrop.
My pace was pretty good until about mile 21, I’ll explain why later. The excited atmosphere, running a race that the participants were genuinely pumped to do, buoyed my spirits and put pep in my step. On the main, the pace of everyone was pretty quick- they had pacers for 4, 4:15, 4:30, 4:45, 5, and 5:15. I decided to go out on my own pace which was 10-11 mins for most of the race. Considering what you’ve already read in the first 2 blogs, I was pretty amazed with how effortless this pacing seemed. I had small, bite-sized chats with others as they passed me but would accept the offer printed on the back of my shirt, “My name is Dave- Say Hi! I’m running 7 marathons on 7 Continents in 7 Days”. After sun up, maybe about mile 7 or 8, a couple came upon me and said, “We’ll take our turn now, Dave”. Fantastic! Turns out that the fellow was a South African expat who’d lived in Egypt for 15 years and the lady was ½ English and ½ Egyptian and was raised in Egypt. The man was older, maybe early-mid 60’s, and the woman was probably late 40’s. They are part of one of the running clubs in Cairo and were very informative about all things Cairo. Most of the little factoids I present here came from them. We ran for a few miles and talked about any number of things and then I admitted that I needed to pee but had no idea where to go. The woman told me that since I was an experienced marathoner I could just find a somewhat discreet fence or bush and let loose. I told her that Egyptian jail, pleasant as it surely would be, wouldn’t fit my travel schedule. She indicated that such activity would go unnoticed, similar to traffic laws, but that they could take me to a toilet. So, killing their 4:30ish pace, they escorted me to the Ritz Hotel, through metal detectors and security, to the bathroom, and back out on the course. In the meantime, both Steve and Lisa had passed us. When we caught up with Steve shortly after returning to the course, I told the woman (I really hate that I don’t remember their names- sorry if you’re reading this!) that he was another 777Quester and she should go up and just say “Hi Steve” like she’s known him for years. She loved the idea and sprinted ahead. After the jig was up, the couple went ahead and Steve and I continued together for some miles, eventually playing cat and mouse with Lisa who had also picked up some new local friends. Now we were at about mile 18, had crossed the Nile River many times, and were closing in on the Finish. That’s when I met Michel.
Michel was running with another guy who I had met in the pre-race selfie session. All 4 of us (me, Steve, and those 2) ran together for a bit on a little connector road that was a glorified alley. There were a couple of street vendors and groups of men there scrutinizing us as we went by. Michel’s friend pulled me out of the path of a car as I was looking at him to answer a question he’d presented. After he pulled me out of the way of this mad cab, he took my place on the outside and kept chatting. He was evidently fading and his running mate Michel was not… yet. So, I went ahead and ran with Michel while Steve fell back with my traffic angel. Michel told me he was almost 19 and a student. This was his first marathon ad he hadn’t really trained for it. He had hurt his knee biking but just loves to run. His friends had told him not to run the full marathon because he hadn’t trained enough and his mother didn’t want him to because he was injured. A man after my own heart, he ignored the naysayers and ran the full anyway, but unlike me, it was because he just loves to run. He said he was having absolutely no issues and wanted to speed up. As with any other first timer, especially in the bonk zone between 18-23 miles, I told him I’d run with him to the finish at whatever pace he wanted. He dropped down to about a 9- minute pace and held it for a couple kilometers, telling me how he thought this would be much harder than it was. Then we alternated run/walked a bit. I heaped encouragement on him while noticing that he was turning down water and other aid. I gently encouraged him to take hydration and nutrition as well as trying to give him some other hints about this-and-that having to do with marathoning. We came to the Nile again and had a big bridge to cross. He said “Let’s walk this bridge then run it into the finish.” That was at about mile 20.5 and I captured it on GoPro. I told him I was with him and we could do that if he wanted. We ran about ½ mile more and came to a big roundabout that was extremely dangerous. There, a couple local kids on foot and bikes were the unofficial escorts, using The Force and some screamed words of encouragement (run, run, faster! Faster! You must hurry…) to get us around the roundabout and onto the correct street. I dropped down to a 6:45 pace to keep up with the kid on the bike but when I’d arrived to the relative safety of the normal street traffic on the correct artery, Michel had fallen way behind. When he caught up, he was limping from his hurt left knee. From there, pacing was much slower.
We mostly walked, me keeping the conversation going with lots of questions about his life to keep his mind off of the knee and the remaining 5 miles. Turns out, he is at “institute” and won’t graduate until he is 21. He has foreign friends who go to University at 18 or 19 but that’s evidently not how it works in Egypt. When he is eligible to go to University he wants to go to the USA and study Physics then get a job at NASA. He said he is very good at Physics and the Maths but doesn’t believe he’ll be allowed into the USA because he is Egyptian. He is painfully aware of the impression that Americans have about young men from Muslim majority countries in the Middle East. I told him that political climates come and go but that institutions of higher education go out of their way to cultivate diversity and that if his grades are great, he doesn’t get in trouble, and he refuses to give up on the dream that someone will surely accept him. I truly hope I wasn’t blowing smoke. I want to believe that we, as a people, are capable of seeing Michel for the goal-oriented, smart, dedicated, striver that he is; as opposed to the radical Muslim terrorist that a small minority of people from that part of the world are. Having spent only 12 hours in Egypt, I’m no expert on the political situation there, but having spent a couple of hours with Michel, I assure you that this young man is much more like any high school kid in America than whatever nameless boogie man he’s getting lumped in with at the expense of his dream to be one of us.
I gave Michel an Advil, which he had never heard of and was quite unsure about. He walked, limping, with it in his hand for 5 minutes before finally trusting that I wouldn’t give him something that would hurt him and took it. 20 minutes later, I started introducing some very short (let’s jog up to that next car) running intervals to get the strained knee working again. Shortly thereafter, he was capable of more and more running and we were only a mile out. I told him he would be a marathoner, which can only be said for about 1% of the world’s population and that he would get a medal to prove it in just a few minutes. He really started to get really excited, especially about the medal which was evidently a surprise to him, and the pace picked up- the limp was gone. Then he could smell the finish. The spectators were all clapping and saying something that sounded like the British would say the word “ash” (aosh). Michel told me this meant something like “Go get it” or “good job” but the appropriate response is to repeat it back. Soon I could see the Start/Finish inflatable arch in the distance about 400 yards. I told him to go get his medal. Just like Sudheer and Ajay in Alabama, he trotted then ran, then sprinted as I yelled “Ash! Ash! AAAASHH!” louder and louder at this young man who had just achieved his next level. The crowd fed into my noise and his all-out sprint. There was a great deal of cheering and he crossed the finish a triumphant warrior. I came in shortly behind him with tears in my eyes obscured by my sunglasses. He got his medal and was showing it off to everyone then came over with big hugs and we did the obligatory selfie. I gave him the Eternal Endurance cooling towel from my waistband as my gift to him for his big achievement and he was very pleased- this will be a day he’ll never forget and, hopefully, will be the foundation upon which he’ll keep setting ever larger goals and pushing through the pain to make them reality. Godspeed Michel- I hope you make it to NASA my man.
After that proud moment, many more people wanted finisher photos with me and I obliged every one. The rest of the 777 crew who hadn’t finished yet, including Chau who ran a very fast 5:30ish, crossed the line, and after a bunch more pics we loaded in the van back to the hotel. When I arrived, I had less than an hour to shower, mend my wounds, repack all the stuff I’d gaffled in the rush to get out the door a few hours before, and get back downstairs. I didn’t make it. Steve H. said they were leaving me. I was downstairs almost ½ hour late and they were getting in the van to go, with or without me. Steve was obviously not pleased… I had no excuse aside from the obvious- I went as fast as I could and it wasn’t fast enough. We sped to the airport and it turned out we had ample time (ok- maybe not ample, but we made it) to get to our gate and board the plane for Amsterdam. There was a weird security check before we could even get boarding passes, and they collected our passports while checking bags then escorted the group to the airline counter and hung out while the airline did their thing. This wacky system added even more minutes but all worked out ok. We flew 4 hours from Cairo to Vienna, Austria then had a quick connection onto a little better than 1 hour flight to Amsterdam, Netherlands. We checked into the Airport Sheraton and while everyone else went to sleep, I assembled the pics and posted the Singapore blog before writing about half of this one. Now, I’ve burned a few more hours of plane sleep time on the way to New York writing the rest- sorry if I rambled but it’s been a long day! I guess I just ruined the surprise, but yes, I did finish the Sri Chimnoy Marathon in Amsterdam earlier today and I guess I need to write that blog too before I can sleep… it surely won’t be as long!