How one woman gave up Olympic skiing to become Lebanon’s fastest runner
By Adrian Brune JAN 3, 2017
The dais was up, the lights were switched low. Cameras were set back a respectable 20 or so feet from the stage for the “Meet the Athletes” press conference, ready to snap photos of athletes the day before the running of the 14th annual Beirut Marathon through the streets of Lebanon’s largest city this past November.
But before any of them appeared—before the Kenyans with their Olympic marathon medals, the Paralympians with their inspiring stories or even the marathon’s popular founder, May El-Khalil— Chirine Njeim stepped up to the podium, garnering wild applause as she did.
Njeim, a professional marathoner who cuts a low profile in every other country, is a celebrity in her native Lebanon. She’s made three Winter Olympic teams in alpine skiing—one of the country’s most popular sports—while this summer, she ran the marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games, making her one of only 28 women ever to participate in both the Winter and Summer Games. Anyone in Lebanon with even an inkling for sports either knows Njeim or has heard of her. The 35-year old made her first Olympic team in downhill skiing at age 16, carrying the Lebanese flag as one of two of the country’s athletes at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, where she placed 36th in the the slalom and 45th in the giant slalom. She went on to represent Lebanon at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics with a top finish of 34th in the downhill.
Now officially retired from skiing, Njeim started running by a “happy accident,” she says. After the Salt Lake Games, while training for the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, she began jogging nearly every day to stay in shape—a practice she brought with her to Chicago when she moved to the U.S. in 2010. Once there, Njeim quickly made friends in the local running community, and as a challenge, she and and her husband, Ron Kamal, entered the 2012 Chicago Marathon. Njeim crossed the line in 3 hours, 7 minutes, placing 120th in the women’s field.
Prodded by friends to try to break the 3-hour mark in the marathon, Njeim started running up to 14 miles per day, to and from her job as an office manager while carrying a backpack of clothes. In 2015, her dedication paid off when she finished the Chicago Marathon in 2 hours, 46 minutes—good enough for 29th place in the women’s field. A month after Chicago, Njeim ran the 2015 Beirut Marathon in 2:49:23.
Her next step? To run the 2016 Houston Marathon in January and break 2 hours, 45 minutes—the women’s qualifying time to make an Olympic team for Lebanon. She finished Houston in 2:44:14, a time that not only earned her a berth on the 2016 Olympic team, but also broke her own Lebanese national record and made her the first woman in her country history’s to run an automatic Olympic qualifying time in track and field.
“Rio was a victory race for me—it was so hard just to get there,” Njeim told Excelle Sports. “I was standing at the start and seeing all my Olympic heroes—I felt like I knew them. I enjoyed every single moment of it.”
In Rio, Njeim ran 2 hours, 51 minutes—good for 109th place. While she was disappointed, she can realize that she’s come a long way since deciding to run her first marathon only four years prior to her running debut at the Games.
“I try not to think about the things I cannot control,” she said. “There is a new road every day. You just have to keep your head up.”
As a elite athlete since 16, Njeim has had years of practice on how to keep her head up and persevere, especially in a country like Lebanon where support for female athletes is limited if not nonexistent.
“If I didn’t have my parents supporting me when I was skiing, I could not have left Lebanon to do what I did,” said Njeim, who began skiing at age 3 near her family’s home in Beirut before moving to France and then Salt Lake City to train. “Sports has never been the biggest thing in Lebanon—it’s not the first focus. Unless you say I want to be a doctor or a lawyer, people don’t understand that you’re actually running for a career.”
In Chicago, Njeim has had to make sacrifices for her running too, which wasn’t lost on the local community. “Chirine was known as the ‘girl with the backpack’ around Chicago because she would run to and from work,” said Dr. Loryn Kromrey, an anesthesiologist and competitive U.S. distance runner who trains with Njeim in Chicago. “She even ran with her computer in her backpack because she needed it for work.”
While running marathons has become popular in many Western countries, where the distance also has recreational appeal, the sport has only, at best, a nascent following in the Middle East. Instead, the region tends to excel in those Olympic sports like fencing and martial arts that have ancient cultural roots. Distance running has recently become more popular in Lebanon, though, thanks in part to the Beirut Marathon Association (BMA). Former runner and philanthropist May El-Khalil founded the BMA in 2003, not only to help further the sport of distance running in the country, but also to use events to help counter the country’s inflamed religious divisions and political impasses that have existed since the end of the Civil War in 1990. In 2005, the BMA organized a “United We Run” race to help foment unity after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. It attracted 60,000 runners.The Beirut marathon now has the endorsement of the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), whose president, Lord Sebastian Coe, a former Olympic track star, came to oversee the running of the race in November.
While Njeim now has to pick and chose which races she runs in order to keep her body fresh, she says she likes to run the Beirut Marathon where she can use her stature as a national celebrity to help raise awareness about the need for more Lebanese Olympic-level runners—and athletes of all kinds.
“The way I see it, going to the Olympics was great, but I want to make history in the Middle East, to be an ambassador for the sport,” Njeim said. “The Beirut Marathon has been doing an amazing job of promoting running and pulling people together through running. It’s not so much about getting women into the sport anymore—things have changed with the new generation. Now, we just need the promotion of our own elite athletes. It makes me so proud to say that I am from Lebanon and that I believe that we can achieve greatness in running, that we just need support.”
With the Tokyo Olympics less than four years away and counting, Njeim has her work cut out for her. At this year’s Beirut Marathon in November, she finished just under two hours, 54 minutes, placing among the elite women. That’s fast, but it might not be fast enough. Although the IAAF won’t announce the qualifying times for the 2020 Olympics until at least next year, Njeim would have to shave at least 30 minutes off her time in Beirut to medal in the Olympics and 20 minutes off her Rio time to place in the top 20.
“In skiing, you really have to be focused—you have one minute to forget about everything and get down the hill as fast as possible,” Njeim said. “When I started running, I came out of the gate so fast, I had to learn to be patient and not look for the same intensity or adrenalin rush. But it’s so motivating to see how people react. You run fast, good things happen.”