Thursday,16 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Thursday,16 August, 2018
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Street sport hits Cairo

Whatever your age, stretch yourself, put on your sneakers, hit the road and join Cairo Runners on their weekly morning run through the streets of Cairo. Niveen Wahish and Nevine El-Aref were left breathless as they tried to keep up

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is six in the morning on Friday. The weekend, and no real need to get up. So why are hundreds of Cairenes setting their alarm clocks to wake them when it is barely light?

They are the committed Cairo Runners and they are about to join up for their weekly run. By 7am sharp, people from all over the capital — teenagers and youngsters in their 20s to 50-pluses — have gathered, flashmob-style, at a previously scheduled meeting point. They start warming up, following the coach’s signs and movements, slowly gearing up to a running movement. Once under starter’s orders over a thousand individuals set off along the planned route, intent on trying to reach the finishing line.

Clearly, these are not trained marathon runners. At the beginning most of them give it their all, but along the route the enthusiasm and strength of each runner differ and the average pace begins to slow. Except, that is, for the experienced professional and amateur runners and athletes who stay the distance. At the other end of the scale are the joggers who carry on as long as they can and then walk, jog a bit, and walk the rest. Some runners try to catch their breath on the roadside, while early rising onlookers cheer them on. 

“Running and jogging in Cairo was my dream and now it has come true,” architect Rehab Mansour told Al-Ahram Weekly. As a 10-year-old and living in Paris, she used to run along the Champs-Elysées to the Place de l’Opera every morning, enjoying the fresh air and the wonderful fragrance of roses and other plants along the way, and she wished for a similar morning trip in her own country. “Now it is happening,” she says.

“When I first heard my friend telling me about the CRG [Cairo Runners Group] it sounded like a mad idea for crazy people,” says Aisha Al-Edeissi, a third-year arts student at Cairo University. However, after her friends made several attempts to persuade her to join a CRG run, Al-Edeissi found herself running with them. “I was afraid of being sexually harassed by thugs on the street, but on the contrary I enjoyed a great run in the sunshine along with my friends while people stood on the roadside and encouraged us.”

Other runners are equally enthusiastic. “Every Friday when the alarm goes off I think to myself, what on earth am I doing? I would rather snuggle up back in bed, but then again I don’t. I force myself to get up, get dressed and head out to run,” says Walid Yehia, a 12th-grade student. What goes on in Yehia’s mind is probably what goes on in most runners’ heads, but as 10-year-old Salma Salam — running with her teenage sisters and their cousin — put it: “Because I am excited I wake up in a second.”

Amr Toeima, 16, agrees. A student at the French Jesuit School, he had trouble forcing himself out of bed to be part of the CRG. “I am not that much of a morning person on a Friday, which is the one day I can enjoy getting up late after a week of waking up early for school,” Toeima told the Weekly. He went on his first run just to fulfil a promise to friends, but while he is a fan of the group he still finds it hard to get up early on Fridays.

Cairo Runners include everyone from primary school students to teenagers, university students to parents and even grandparents. They come as friends, families, couples or alone.

“We all come to have fun,” says Nada Al-Akkad, whose husband encouraged her to join the run. “I used to moan that I wanted to go back to sleep, but now even if he can’t make it I come on my own.” Al-Akkad has several friends who run, but each runs at their own pace. She does not worry about harassment or onlookers, in fact she says it is fun to hear the comments. “Passers-by often ask if there is going to be a demonstration today. People have become obsessed with demonstrations. My answer is, ‘Yes, a sports demonstration’,” Al-Akkad says.

Ibrahim Safwat, a mechanical engineer and one of the first founders of the group, told the Weekly that he never thought the group would become so popular, with 23,000 likes on Facebook.

One person who learnt about the group on Facebook was Shadi Hamdi, a first-year secondary student at the French Jesuit School. He describes the Friday’s run as an enjoyable experience and not at all repetitive, since every run takes a new route through a different neighbourhood. Instead of track running in a gated club which everyone is bored with, Hamdi says, the CRG takes in streets that are an unusual experience, exploring Cairo and getting people out of routine. “I was a bit afraid of thugs stopping me on the run and pinching my money or mobile, since the streets would be very empty that early on a Friday morning, but on the contrary it is much safer and the group organisers are always coming round on bicycles, car or on foot to ensure the member’s safety.”

Safwat says the idea of the group came to him after he saw similar groups running together in Paris. He thought, why not replicate the idea in Cairo? “We had groups for motorbike riders and cyclists, but nothing for runners,” he says. Together with 15 friends he set about making the idea a reality. His plan was to organise 15 weekly runs free of charge with an end target of a 22km half marathon for a fee, the returns from which would go to charity. Each week one kilometre is added to the distance. Safwat spread the word on Facebook and Twitter, and the group started 11 weeks ago with a run of four kilometres. Last week they ran 12, and the distance will keep getting longer until it reaches the half marathon length. To accommodate those who come just for the fun of running or walking but without necessarily wanting to do the long distance, the group has now devised a short route of about five kilometres as well as the long route.

Some motorists, however, are finding the gathering frustrating. The large number of runners often blocks the area chosen for their start and finish line, and although the organisers do their best to marshal traffic to prevent roads from becoming blocked, the sheer numbers congregating for the run often cause these attempts to fail. Safwat says, not surprisingly, that the greater the number of runners, the more difficult it is to manage the runs. He points out that while the organisers used to depend on themselves to pull their weekly event together, they now need volunteers. He says extra hands are always needed to show runners directions and cycle around to keep an eye on them and make nobody needs anything, and in case of emergency provide first aid or call for help.

However, not everyone is able to commit. Student Noha Amr took part only once. She fell asleep for the rest of the day when she should have been studying. Others, though, use the run as a way of getting an early start on the day. “We finish at around 9am which is even earlier than I used to wake up,” a ten grade student Nour Rostom says.

While most of the people did not know each other to start with, after 11 weeks of running together the faces are becoming familiar. In fact, the group has become not only about exercise but also about fun and friends. Some people join the run just for the company of their friends and end up walking and chatting rather than running. The group’s photographers take plenty of shots each week, and the runners eagerly check themselves out as soon as the photographs are posted. “As soon as I see one of the photographers I start running so that I look athletic in the photo,” jokes Aya Amr. Others pose with big smiles with groups of friends before and after each run.

It is also a family event. Some parents come with their children, and the other way round. Some parents encourage their children to join simply to get them to exercise. One mother who, being worried at first about her two daughters but unable to keep up with them, drives behind them all the way. Others put on their sneakers and join in. “The exercise lifts my spirits,” says Rehab Yosri, who decided to join her daughter. “It feels good to be among young people.”

“It is full of positive energy,” added Ola and Nahed, two other mothers who recently joined the group.

Safwat says the group spends the whole week organising the route and finding a suitable place to run the targeted distance. “The runs are also a good way of showing Cairo residents various districts where they might not have set foot before,” he says.

“We get to see the better side of Cairo, at the best time of the day,” says Rostom. Because they get an early start, they find the streets quiet and peaceful. It is also a good chance to stop and take photographs in locations which one normally passes by only in a car. “I took photos overlooking the Nile on Qasr Al-Nil bridge and in front of the Baron Palace in Heliopolis,” Rostom says. “I have always wanted to do that, but I couldn’t possibly stop my car in the middle of busy traffic.”

Yet the group has not gone without criticism. Some have accused the runners of apathy in regard to the revolution. Safwat is swift to counteract these charges. “Instead of sitting around doing nothing, we are trying to do something positive; to make people feel that there is still hope,” he says.

Mohamed Reda, a senior American University in Cairo (AUC) student, heard about the CRG from his aunt’s husband and decided to join the group because he felt that it was a shame that his 45-year-old uncle woke up early on Fridays to run for almost two hours, while he was in his early 20s and slept until noon. Reda told the Weekly that to overcome the criticisms levelled against them, the group needed to make Cairenes more aware of them and their goals through addressing a full spectrum of people and not just the type that used Facebook. They also needed to attract people of a lower social standard who were not members of private clubs in order to attain their goal of promoting a culture of sport in the city.

Reda suggests that the organisers of the CRG should, for example, make use of new advertisements which encourage people to volunteer and draw a smile on the faces of Egyptians. He says the CRG should contact ad campaigns and ask them to invent a special one for Cairo Runners. “Come and join us on a run through Cairo’s streets to strengthen your health if you see this madness and experience the mad choice,” he suggests as the CRG ad. “The same could be done on FM radio channels, which in their turn could sponsor the event and put their banners along the route,” Reda says.

After seeing the huge success of his initiative, Safwat is thinking of developing the idea into a business. Already he and his friends have begun printing T-shirts and mugs with the group’s logo, and they sometimes sell sandwiches and soft drinks to runners. “The demand for these products has encouraged us to think bigger,” he says, but he adds that he is putting all plans on hold until the half marathon is over. That, he says, will be a huge event and will need a lot of planning. For the time being it will require everybody’s attention.

Al-Edeissi has asked Safwat to expand the group into other governorates in order to promote the culture of sport there too. “I think if they can do a run every two weeks or once a month in every governorate it would be a blast,” she says. However, he is postponing that too until after the half marathon to be able to give it proper attention. Meanwhile, there is no denying the benefit to health and spirit the group’s members are experiencing.

Farah Mohab, a Senior AUC student, went on her first run a few weeks ago. “I’m not a morning person and I hate running, but I decided that day, for no particular reason, to go for a little run,” says Mohab, who went to accompany her best friend as well as to get a bit of exercise. “When I got there and started running I thought I should never be doing this crazy thing. I ran a bit, jogged a bit, and then I continued the route by fast walking. While I was walking I remembered American actor Tom Hanks in his movie Forrest Gump, when he runs in scene after scene after scene and his hair and beard grow longer and longer.”

Admiring the people who are running around, Mohab realised that running has captured the attention of hundreds of people around Cairo.

“In the middle of the route I tried to escape and go secretly to my car and ride back home, but my friend Lobna forced me to carry on,” Mohab says. At first I didn’t enjoy it at all, but frankly when the next Friday came I woke up early for another run in spite of the bad weather because it was raining that day. It seems that Gump has cast a running spell on me.”

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