First Teheran marathon: ‘Let’s build bridges, not walls’

Over 1000 runners from more than 50 countries including the US, UK were expected to join the 42km April 7 race in Iran, writes Ted Regencia.

Halfway through the Athens Classic Marathon in November 2003, Dutchman Sebastian Straten was about to collapse. The then 30-year-old runner had trained for five months for his first 42km race, yet his legs were giving up on him as he hit an uphill section of the course in the Greek capital.

“But I told myself, ‘I want to finish this’,” he said. “When I start something, I never like to give up. It doesn’t matter how hard it is. I think that every runner has that mentality.”

Straten clocked four hours and 30 minutes as he reached the finish line at Panathinaiko Stadium, the same venue as the 1896 and 2004 Olympic ceremonies.

Organising the first marathon in Tehran on April 7 is like running in Athens all over again and doing it every day, Straten told Al Jazeera.

“It is extremely challenging. I feel like I am constantly running to make sure that everything goes well.”

Tehran-based organiser Maryam Feize said by bringing the marathon to Tehran, they want runners around the world to experience Iranian hospitality through sport, as well as their food, arts and culture, which were closed off to the West following decades of sanctions that were only lifted last year. “We want to show everybody that Iran is a partner in making bridges, not walls.” Just recently, Iran has been the target of US President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

On that first Friday of April 07, runners from more than 50 countries gathered in the Iranian capital to make history.

For a country not accustomed to the tradition of street running, convincing public officials to shut down 42km stretch of roads in Tehran, and allow runners to take over the metropolis of 16 million people was the first challenge, he said.

“To do something new is always more difficult. It took a lot of explaining what a marathon is all about,” Straten said.

“It is the first time something like this is being held in Tehran, so it is very special for local authorities to make sure everything goes well and safely.”

With the snow-capped Alborz Mountains serving as their backdrop, runners will crisscross Tehran, starting from Azadi (Freedom) Stadium.

Straten said having organised a similar race in the southern city of Shiraz last year helped convince officials that a marathon can be done in the country.

But for Straten, who also operates a travel agency helping foreign runners come to Iran, the event is not just about work. He met his wife, Foroogh, while touring the ancient city of Yazd in 2005.

“Lighting struck,” he said with a chuckle. He ended up staying in Iran for five years. They now have two children.

He hopes the race will also ignite passion in outdoor running among the country’s youth, who make up over 70 percent of the 80 million population.

Convincing foreign runners to join and come to Iran was another hurdle.

“We have to explain to the runners that Iran is a perfectly safe country, and that there is no hostility towards Westerners or foreign tourists or runners,” Straten said

Andre Doehring joined last year’s race in Shiraz, where only male runners officially participated. He said running close to the ancient city of Persepolis was “unique”. Doehring, who had also run a marathon in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, said he hopes the Tehran race will “bring people together”.

Family ties persuaded British runner Bobak Walker to join. He last visited his mother’s country of birth in 2009, before the 2011 incident that forced the British Embassy in Tehran to shut down, and cut off of diplomatic ties between the UK and Iran.

Relations have since been restored, but it is still “very difficult” to get a visa, Walker said.

“To be there for the inaugural event is a really exciting, once in a lifetime thing,” he said. “I’ve made a big effort to get there. But I think it will be worth it.” – Al Jazeera News

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