Lebanon: Full Speed Ahead

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Katia Rashed challenges herself and any stereotype people may hold about what women can and cannot do in the Arab world. IMAGE COURTESY KATIA RASHED

Determined to break barriers, the father of an epileptic child, and an Arab woman, find solace in running

By Mostapha Raad

A young girl rushes from among the cheering crowds to hug an older man approaching the finish line. Her face is lit with joy, his with pride and some exhaustion. This is no ordinary race. The man has been running for two days nonstop for charity and the girl greeting him at the finish line is his daughter, Saria.

It is said that when there is a will, there shall always be a way. That is exactly what two runners from Lebanon, Ali Kedami, 54, and Katia Rashed, 39, have proven by accepting the challenge of running long distances exceeding 250 kilometers for humanitarian causes.

Nothing is impossible for Kedami and Rashed. Both share the same passion for humanitarianism causes, and inspire and spread positivity, through the charities they support.

“Running is for free and is accessible to all. No one should use the excuse of having no time. All you need is a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. It helps people think of peaceful solutions,” Kedami tells Newsweek Middle East.

Kedami completed in March a sports challenge like no other. He ran for 48 hours, nonstop, to gather funds for SANAD, a charity which provides comfort care to patients with chronic diseases and terminal illnesses, especially cancer, in the privacy of their own homes.

The race took place on March 18. Runners lined up in Tyre City, a coastal town in south Lebanon to race across the country, all the way to Tripoli in the north, before doubling back towards the capital, Beirut by March 20. The race’s total distance was 265 km. Kedami was able to raise $12,000 for SANAD in those 265 kilometers; the charity needed $50,000 to expand its medical and social efforts across Lebanon.

“I have not seen someone who fights pain and triumphs as Ali has done during the race,” Lubna Ezzedine, head of SANAD, tells Newsweek Middle East.

“We have followed him along with the Red Cross, and a number of physicians and paramedics and runners,” she says, adding that Kedami insisted on finishing the race despite tremendous pain and exhaustion.

Ezzedine explains that Kedami had accidentally fallen in Byblos, and experienced a great deal of pain in his left knee, but refused to pull out. Despite being told to stop, he continued, limping forward, asking about the amount he’d managed to raise thus far.

The long distance did not change Kedami’s commitment and his morale remained high. He greeted people along the way with a kind smile, says Ezzedine. “He even stopped for people to take photos with him.”

One of SANAD’s bus drivers, who was tasked with providing Kedami medical and nutrition aid, says Kedami kept signaling him with his hands along the road, which the driver didn’t understand at first.

“I later found out that he was cautioning me of holes along the road so that I won’t hit them,” says the driver.

Family Ties
Kedami decided to start running to raise awareness about Saria’s chronic disease, and to teach his daughter that nothing is impossible. Saria, 15, suffers from epilepsy, a neurological disorder often accompanied by seizures, which can last for brief moments or continue for long periods.

“I run for Saria. I bring her and my wife to all the races I take part in. I think of her facial expressions when I meet her at the finish line where she rushes to hug me,” he says.

“I always thank God for the strength and willpower which He has bestowed upon me to run for her and for every person who suffers from a neurological disorder. I am encouraged to show people that life is worth fighting for,” Kedami adds.

Saria sees her father as her idol. From the age of three, Saria was taking part in one-kilometer races—for humanitarian causes. As she grew, so did the length of her races. Despite her medical condition, she recently took part in Beirut’s Marathon last November, running in the five-kilometer fun run.

Crossing The World
Kedami has participated in races across the globe. Last year, he took part in the world’s longest race in Australia, where he had to cross 522 km in nine days. He has also taken part in another 24-hour run ultramarathon that extended for 400 km in New Zealand.

So far, he has taken part in 10 long-distance competitions worldwide since 2010, when he ran in a 111 km race between Beirut and the Syrian capital Damascus. A few months down the line, he took on the Sahara Desert race in Egypt, organized by Racing The Planet; the challenge was to cross 250 km over six days.

To prepare for his long-distance runs, Kedami trains four times a week, at an average of 15 km per day for three days, then 70 km for the fourth day.

The 4 Deserts Challenge
Following the Egyptian competition, Kedami decided to take part in the 4 Deserts Challenge in 2010. This race was described by Time magazine in 2010 as “one of the world’s Top 10 Endurance Competitions.”

It was no easy journey to say the least. In 2011, Kedami ran 250 km in six days across the Chilean desert, known as the Atacama Crossing Challenge. The race in Chile features unfavorable weather conditions in a desert located 3,500 meters above sea level. That same year, he ran the Gobi March in China, again traversing 250 km, and made it through the finish line.

In 2012 Kedami took on a new challenge to run through the South Pole’s frozen desert, a 250 km run in Antarctica.

Kedami also ran in various races across the world, from Paris’s one-day 80 km run to Turkey’s 130km race in 2014. He took part in Madagascar’s 130 km race, and ran across Jordan’s Wadi Rum, or the Valley of the Moon.

The Running Lady
Rashed’s mother couldn’t believe her ears when she was told that her daughter, a high school chemistry teacher, came in third in the Gobi March 2015, the second of four of the 4 Deserts Challenge Series.

With that achievement, Rashed became the first Arab woman and one of 45 female runners worldwide to have taken part in a desert race in extreme weather conditions over a span of six days.

“My mother did not believe me when I told her that I will take part in the race. She used to tell everyone that her daughter has gone mad,” laughs Rashed as she speaks with Newsweek Middle East.

“When I finished the race I called her to tell her that I have won, but my friends in Lebanon, who were following up on my news, had [already] told my mother. Her voice was filled with tears as she told me she was proud of me,” she adds.

For Rashed, it was not a humanitarian issue that first motivated her to run, but a personal challenge that brought her joy and peace and helped reduce her stress levels.
“I have found inner peace and self-fulfillment, something which I’ve been looking for throughout my life. My chemistry major was causing me frustration, but running helped me introduce drastic measures to my life. This includes reentering university and majoring in physical fitness education,” the energetic woman says.

An Arab Woman Competing
“An Arab woman is no less than a foreigner. Both enjoy energy and Arab women should know that they are strong beings. Those who have a dream and ambition must work to achieve that. Nothing is impossible,” she says.

In 2011, the four years of training enabled Rashed to cross two kilometers and become the only Arab female to take part in the Gobi Desert race and secure third place. Prior to that, Rashed had taken part in Berlin’s Marathon where she recorded her personal best. Once she did that, she trained to take part in ultramarathons, which are races that exceed the 42.195 km. She now plans to take part in Namibia’s Desert race this May, in support of Heart Beat Foundation, where she will be gathering funds for children born with cardiac issues.

To that end, Rashed is running in the heat for 15 km daily across the golden sands of Ramlet Al Baida Beach in Lebanon, along with running 44 km in one day while carrying a backpack filled with medical and nutritional items, weighing up to eight kilograms. Rashed also plans to run across the South Pole’s Antarctica frozen desert on November 18,2016.

For Kedami and Rashed, running isn’t just about giving to others; it is also challenging one’s nature and capabilities. No matter what the weather conditions one will see these two training at any given day for a new race.

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