BEIRUT: A milestone was passed at the 15th edition of the Beirut Marathon Sunday, as Rabih al-Jammal became the first fully blind Lebanese person to complete the full 42-kilometer course. The 31-year-old professor of law undertook the race with his running partner and guide Mary Kleyany, 32.
Jammal lost his sight when he was 16 as a result of glaucoma, a disease that causes damage to the optic nerve and in some cases leads to blindness.
Competing in a marathon has long been an aspiration for him. “I’ve been dreaming of this for 14 years,” he told The Daily Star.
Jammal is not the first blind man to run the Beirut Marathon. Suhail al-Nashnash, a Jordanian national, became the first blind Arab runner to complete the full 42-kilometer course in 2014. However, until today no Lebanese had managed the feat.
Until last year, Jammal had not run a single kilometer competitively, when he ran a 7-kilometer race with the help of a friend. At that point, Kleyany offered her support to help him realize his dream of completing a full marathon.
Kleyany is an experienced marathon runner who has previously competed in the Prague and Cyprus marathons, as well as the Beirut Marathon.
“I told him, if you want to do the marathon I’m willing to run it with you,” she said.
The new partnership enlisted the help of the 542 program, an initiative of the Beirut Marathon Association that aims to assist first-time runners acquire the necessary skills and fitness to become marathon runners.
Despite the extensive training and support offered by 542, the technique of running alongside a blind man was something Kleyany had to learn herself. She researched the topic extensively online, and learned that the key was simple: “The best way to run with a blind man is to give him trust. When he trusts you, he runs with you.”
It was a relationship to which Jammal was happy to commit. “I give Mary all my trust,” he said. “If she tells me to go right, I go right. If she tells me to go left, I go left.”
Jammal and Kleyany ran Sunday’s event with the primary goal of completing the marathon, rather than achieving a particular time. “Today we didn’t talk about the kilometers or the pace, we just ran,” Kleyany said.
The marathon was not without incident: Kleyany said they “hit the wall” – a feeling experienced by many runners where they feel unable to continue – at the halfway point. However, their training and the strength of their relationship ultimately paid off, enabling them to complete the course. “I’m so happy, despite all the pain and fatigue,” Jammal said.
His success was not the only result of his partnership with Kleyany: the duo’s story also inspired others to achieve their goals.
Rawan Bannoura, 30, also completed her first marathon today.
As a member of the 542 program she frequently trains with Jammal and Kleyany, who provide her with motivation at difficult times.
“Rabih is doing not double the effort, but triple the effort, and Mary is doing the same because she’s not only running, she’s pacing someone else,” she told The Daily Star.
Seeing this, she said, “I have no excuse to quit and stop, so it’s always a motivation for me. ... It was so good to see how everyone was cheering for him. ... At a very dark moment [during Sunday’s marathon] between the 33rd and 38th kilometer, [I hit] the wall. Whenever I saw him, I was like, he’s doing great, I should keep going.”
Among the marathon’s 45,000 competitors, Jammal’s story drew the attention of its organizers.
“Rabih’s commitment and determination are so inspiring; he’s an amazing man,” May al-Khalil, founder and president of the Beirut Marathon Association, told The Daily Star.
“He will be the role model to many others who will take up the challenge. ... He’s an inspiration, a role model, and we’re so proud of him.”
Jammal also hopes that his story will encourage others with disabilities to take up the sport. He wants blind people to start running “to feel happy, to meet people and to experience this incredible feeling.”
Kleyany also wants to use her experience to help. With the support of Upstream Sports, an organization that facilitates sporting activities around Lebanon, she intends to start a running group specifically for blind runners.
Wherever Jammal’s running takes him in the future, Kleyany has committed to supporting him. “I promised him [I would] stay as his vision all my life,” she said.