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Running Cairo

Hosting Egypt's first half-marathon this Friday 10th May, we ran after two of the founders, Mohamed Seif and Ayman Guemeih, for a signature CairoScene interview...

Cairo Runners have been, well, running this town since they organised their first run in mid-December, 2012. Starting off small, it was only a week before the number of runners doubled, and the word got out that there’s a new, healthy and moral thing to do at the crack of dawn on a Friday morning. After 15 hugely successful runs around the city, they’re hosting a half-marathon THIS Friday, 10th May, and it’s the first of its kind in Egypt. With thousands already registered – by going to any of the outlets Cairo Runners have partnered up with, paying 30 LE, filling in a form, and walking away with their runner number – Friday is bound to go down in history, especially since there’s a musical surprise at the finish line. We caught up two of the founding members of Cairo Runners, Mohamed Seif and Ayman Guemeih, to find out what motivates them to motivate others and, of course, which is the fastest Pokémon…

So Cairo Runners has become kind of a big deal. How did it all begin?

Mohamed: We started off in mid-December last year. Basically it was an idea from the founder, Ibrahim Safwat, after he had been to Paris and seen people running in the streets with no regards to anything around them and they looked happy. He came back and told me and a few of our friends, and asked why we couldn’t do something like this in Egypt. I used to play professional football and run on my own, and I’m also a sports journalist so it was right up my alley. We got Salma Shahin and Ayman, and a few others on board and started with the social media, explaining our idea and our plan to do 15 runs, leading up to a half-marathon of 21 kilometers. We were 15 to begin with and organised our first run, expecting maybe 10 people to show up but there were 70 people! It was such a great feeling – we never expected people to get up at 6 AM in the middle of winter to run with us but they did.

Were you shocked?

Mohamed: Yes and no. What was really surprising is what happened later. That first run was in Zamalek, because we knew that it was a certain type of affluent person that would be interested. The next run was in Heliopolis, and participation increased 100% with almost 140 people. On Facebook, we went from zero to 1,000 like in a week..

Did it bother you that you got 1,000 likes and only 140 people showed up?

Mohamed: Not really because now we have 43,000 likes and that means we have around 2,000 regular runners. Once we started bringing photographers in to document the runs, our likes increased exponentially. It’s cool though because, through that, the numbers of runners are still increasing. One time in New Cairo we had about 4,000. 

But why 6AM? That’s crazy…

Mohamed: There are a few reasons for choosing 6AM over 8AM, for example. Basically, safety and security are high priority so that’s a good time because there’s little traffic, less pollution and less people around.

Security and safety are a big concern for people thinking about joining you. How do you ensure everything goes smoothly.

Ayman: We have is people especially assigned to security running among you, people in cars, like me, and people on bikes and scooters. So you always see one of the organisers whatever happens. We have a partnership with a cycling group called the Wheelers and they help us a lot, especially at intersections. 

Did you expect so many females to sign up?

Mohamed: Not initially, but we had lots of girls on the organising side of things so we knew there was potential. What’s great is that people are really vocal about their good experiences on the runs, so when they knew it was safe, they told others, and it grew from there.

Ayman: We have women in full running gear, wearing tank tops and shorts and just focusing on the run. We all know they wouldn’t do that unless they knew they were 100% safe.

What happens if someone does harass them?

Ayman: Unfortunately, it’s bound to happen and it has. Personally, I used to get mad and start a fight but the rest of the team convinced me to take a different approach. If it’s a dangerous situation, we take the people affected out of the run completely. But usually, it’s just guys standing at a kiosk saying vulgar things so what I do is get there before the runners, in my car, and have a conversation with them. The first thing to do is to embarrass them. I just ask them what they’re doing and if they think that’s okay. It’s never not worked! The good thing is that they usually then start asking questions like, ‘What are you guys doing? You run in the streets? Can we run with you?’ Of course, I invite them to join but they never do. At least they’ve been taught a lesson.

Mohamed: The quality of the run, the whole experience, that’s what we’re focused on so these things are dealt with quickly and calmly. We also have two ambulances around on every run, and first aid kits and medics riding around in the cars.

How do you encourage people who aren’t really fit and are worried about joining experienced runners?

Mohamed: That’s the beauty of sports to be honest! I mean when it first started, the first 70 people who came were really into running. You had a very specific group of people who wanted to get up early in the morning and exercise. And when we had the positive experiences and photos going up, people saw that people were quite happy running. I told you, photography works! So it started out with fit, young people, from 18 -25 years of age, but soon we had kids who are eight and grandparents who are 80! It’s important to remember that it’s not a race, it’s about the accomplishment of finishing. That feeling, even if you choose the short route which is usually six or seven kilometres, is amazing.

Ayman: Even though I don’t run, I find the best way to get people involved is to pass on the experiences of others to them.  A lot of people who come along with us say that they cannot complete on lap of the track which is usually 400 metres but they can manage six or seven kilometres on their first run because it’s different to just going round on a track or running on a treadmill. You stay interested because you run past different scenery, there are thousands of people running with you and there’s fresh air. These things all affect your ability.  

Wait. You don’t even run? Do people get annoyed by you?

Ayman: I’m there for security but I recently got a megaphone and started encouraging people as I drive past them and guess what? It actually works!

When you’re encouraging people to finish, have you ever shouted out “RUN FORREST, RUN!” ?

Mohamed: Hahahah! We actually had someone dress up as Forrest Gump one time!

Ayman: Actually the best thing to shout to get people going is: “3ash!”

That’s great! Has anyone else dressed up in costume for a run?

Mohamed: Yes! The best thing was two runners, one dressed as monkey and the other dressed as a banana that we did as a stunt for Qabila TV! (Check it out in the video below):

Do you run every week?

Mohamed: Yeah, we run every Friday morning every week in a new place.

What’s your favourite location ?

Well I live in Heliopolis so, Heliopolis! But the Nile run was amazing because it was around 6 kilometres on the Corniche, that was fun.

Do you run in any weather conditions?

Mohamed: Oh yes. The New Cairo run was attacked by a sandstorm then it started raining! It was actually a nice feeling though. When we know ahead of time that the weather is going to be bad, we give the runners the option to cancel. Like one time, before a run in 6th October, you couldn’t even see 10 metres in front of you because of the sandstorm, but everyone decided to go through with it though. There was a funny incident, however, during this run. We were going uphill and it was really windy, so suddenly I saw like 20 hats fly off people’s head then they all turned around and ran after them!

So tell us about this Fridays half-marathon. It sounds hard…

Ayman: It was always our plan to have around 15 runs to get people into it, then hold a half-marathon.

Mohamed: We’ve been building up to this since we started, and after all the success and growth, it’s about time! We’re starting at 6AM at Almaza Gardens in Heliopolis and have planned out at 21 kilometre route around the area. Again, it’s not a race, it’s about the sense of accomplishment you get from finishing. We’ll end the morning with a celebration, and we’ve got a big musical surprise up our sleeves! Registration is still open and it’s simple – go to any of the outlets you’ll find listed on Facebook page, pay 30 LE, half of which will go to two charities – The National Liver Institute and the Special Olympics, fill in a form and collect your runner number. We’ve got thousands already signed up, but we want this special run to be bigger than ever.

What advice would you give people training for the half-marathon?

Mohamed: Good shoes. Always get running shoes with good shock absorption because running on the street is different to running on a field or track. Other than that, just keep to your regular running schedule, drink water and don’t eat before the marathon! We don’t want you to throw up! If you’re not an experienced runner, don’t be ashamed from walking part of it. It’s about finishing not being fast.

Has anyone thrown up on a regular run before?

Mohamed: Surprisingly, no!

Has anyone fallen over during a run?

Ayman: We’ve had a couple of minor injuries. One girl fell over once and I panicked and called the ambulance and the paramedic thought it was a joke since it was just a few scratches!

Did you laugh?

Ayman: Not in her face!

What have you taken out of the whole Cairo Runners experience?

Mohamed: On a professional level, because I’m handling the media part, it’s been building my experience. Dealing with sponsorship and marketing is something I have a passion for. On a personal level, it’s when you see how you can literally change someone’s life like when someone has never run before and now they’re hitting 10-15 kilometres without stopping. That’s amazing.

Ayman:  Seeing the growth was the best part for me. From 70 to 140 to 750 then 2,000, all in a few weeks. And getting the feedback. It feels good to get people out and active.

But you don’t even run, Ayman! Do you ever blast music from the speakers when you’re driving next to them?

Ayman: I’ve done it a few times. The one that gets people most exciting is a well-known Arabic song, Et2adem! It makes people laugh and they get their second wind.

Who’s the fastest Pokémon?

Ayman: I’m not into Pokémons…

Mohamed: Pikachu, I guess…

Find out more about Cairo Runners and how to register for the half-marathon on Friday, 10th May at 6 AM, by visiting their Facebook page here or following @CairoRunners on Twitter.