Friday, September 27, 2019

Race Report: Pyramids Marathon (part one)

Beware... this is a long one, so much so I have to split it up into two parts!  Though my trip to Egypt was only five days long, I packed in LOTS of sights.  If you're interested in the race report, thankfully it's here, in part one of the report. Part two goes into all the sights I got to see in Cairo and Luxor over the next three days... planned pretty much to a tee, and I'm very happy to say I got to see everything I wanted to see!

In November 2018, I found out about the Pyramids Marathon at the Beirut Marathon expo. The TriFactory, the race's organizers, were advertising this inaugural race happening at the famed Great Pyramids of Giza.  Around for the last eight years, The TriFactory is a sports management company based in Cairo that specializes in triathlon events (in particular, the Sahl Hasheesh Traiathlon, Egypt's biggest triathlon event - going into its 8th year in 2019), and had previously organized two other marathon events in Aswan.  They had the race announced for February 15, which would be the day after my 35th birthday, and when I told them this, they produced a special complimentary entry code for me to use if I decided to come down.

Fast forward a couple months later, as I begin to decide my 2019 schedule, and this race comes back onto my radar.  I decide to plan out a detailed five day itinerary for a trip to Egypt centered around this race, pulling the trigger and adding it to my calendar.  Planning the trip was quite an experience, as it seemed Egyptian vendors such as EgyptAir (for flights), Watania (for trains), and even AccorHotels (a French hospitality company overseeing the Sofitel brand, who owns the hotel I was looking to book in Luxor) were not accepting my credit card information online. I'd eventually be able to book these essentials of my trip through other means, but it was still risky -- would I have confirmations for everything I was planning?  The only thing I did have was a hotel when I was in Cairo - I used points to book the ritzy Marriott Mena House, right next to the Pyramids, and at the time, located right where the start of the race was purported to be. I booked a direct flight on EgyptAir from JFK to Cairo on February 13, arriving on my birthday.

The course map changes...
About a week before my trip, the Pyramids Marathon announced the route had changed - from a course that started and ended near the Mena House gate to a course that started on the other side of the plateau near the entrance at Fayoum Desert Road, and then ended near the Pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure. A little bit of a disappointment, seeing that I wanted to be able to just simply walk to the start - and making me a little anxious about just how many hitches would end up happening with this inaugural race. However, knowing the pyramids site is under the jurisdiction of the country's Ministry of Antiquities, it wasn't a surprise to know that the race route was going to need to be reconsidered since it would overlap with the morning hours that tourists would be visiting the site.  The good thing, though was the whole race course was closed off to all non-event vehicles, meaning the route was entirely pedestrianized and safe for runners. So that was a big plus, especially compared to the Cairo Marathon, which was on the streets of the busy metropolis.

Traveler on a mission!
I researched the crap out of this trip, figuring out exactly which sites to see and asking questions of friends who had traveled there of their experiences. I was nervous when my departure date came (also having read weather reports showing that sandstorms nationwide were in the forecast for the first half of my trip) but I was ready.  I managed to pack very well, and quite lightly for a 5 day trip. Inside the only thing I brought with me -- my backpack: five shirts (ended up with an additional shirt for the race, which was expected); five pairs of underwear; five pairs of socks; three pairs of pants (two black slacks, one pair of sweatpants); two pairs of shoes - the sneakers I was wearing, and my shoes for the race in the bottom of the bag; a small toiletries bag w/ my gels, toothbrush, earplugs, eyemask, purel, and a pen (for filling out departure/arrival forms); a travel-sized pillbox containing prescription meds, ibuprofen, Imodium, any other needed meds; a hairbrush; and eventually the clothes in the photo I wore for the flight out on Wednesday merged right into Thursday (and I’ll be honest... I was so glad to be out of those clothes by Thursday’s end!)  The long sleeved light “jacket” I wore in the photo was the thickest “outerwear” I wore for the whole trip.

I left work at 4pm for my flight to Cairo out of JFK Terminal 4.  After getting my boarding pass, getting through security was pretty seamless, and I got to skip the massive line by utilizing my CLEAR access, and was able to get a beer in at the Irish pub located right across the way from the gate.  I ended up meeting a woman from Connecticut who was traveling to Egypt for the second time, joining up with a tour group after a few days in Cairo. We even found out we'd be staying at the same hotel in Giza!

We left the gate with an unsurprising hour long taxi to the runway, and were in the air for the next 9.5 hours, routing over Newfoundland and the Atlantic, then flying over the British Isles, Holland, central and southeastern Europe, then over Greece and the Mediterranean. Before long, we would reach the Nile Delta, and through the cloudy haze, saw the stark contrast of the green and brown that separated the desert from the Nile River Valley. Overall, it was a tough flight for me to sleep on, as I sat next to a rowdy child who kept on putting his feet up on the seats and kicking me, so despite my best efforts of getting some z's, I was going to try to rally through the day ahead as best as I could.

Uber in Cairo... the traffic is nuts!
Upon landing, I was able to get my visa on arrival ($25) and exchange a couple hundred US dollars into Egyptian pounds, before going through immigration and customs.  My international roaming had kicked in nicely, and I was able to get an Uber pretty quickly as I proceeded out the arrivals hall into the Terminal 3 parking lot, waiting for my ride into Cairo.  Uber (and at the time, Careem, which this past year was purchased by Uber) is all over Cairo.  I immediately felt the chill of the wind and a mouthful of dust as I waited for my car, and then was able to get myself into downtown Cairo in one piece.  Cairo traffic and the way Cairenes navigate their roads was quite a jarring experience for me - it was almost immediate, as I realized my driver didn't care to wear his seatbelt, the backseat belts were inoperable, road lanes were "suggested" but never adhered to, and horn honking was a way of life.  I also found myself jaw agape when we reached downtown Cairo, seeing that New Yorkers weren't the experts of jaywalking like we think we were - Cairenes have it to an art, able to cross as much as eight lanes of traffic with just an arm outstretched... they are the real professionals! The ride was quite cheap - the hour long trip from the airport to downtown, complete with the crazy traffic, was less than $7.
Picking up my race bib at the outdoor expo
Bibs acquired, map evaluated.
I made it to The Greek Campus, a tech center/coworking facility in the middle of the bustling city, by 2pm, where I got to pick up my bib in the open air courtyard.  There, I waited for my friend Le to show up.  Le and I met briefly back in November in Lebanon while sharing an early morning van ride to the start of the Beirut Marathon from our hotels, and through chats on social media found out we were both going to Egypt to run this race.  We decided to figure out a way to connect for the first couple days we would be in Cairo. She had arrived late the night before from Montreal, so after getting to the expo, we were going to tackle as much as we could in town while it was still daylight.
A local?
Tahrir Square
We walked over to Tahrir Square, taking in the vastness of this public space that was the focus of political demonstrations in Cairo, most notably those that led to the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the resignation of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.  At the centre of Tahrir Square is a large and busy traffic circle, and to the north is the edifice of the rose colored Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, better known as the Egyptian Museum. We had a quick bite to eat at a cafe overlooking the square, before deciding to walk across the busy street into the square (trying our best at Cairo-style jaywalking) before crossing the Qasr al-Nil Bridge over the Nile into Gezira Island. The wind was quite a nuisance, and made the late afternoon quite a bit chillier than I expected; I began to regret not bringing my overcoat with me on this trip! Using my GPS, we made our way over to the entrance to the Cairo Tower, one of Cairo's most well-known monuments and the tallest structure in Egypt and North Africa, where we purchased tickets to go up to the observation deck on the top floor.  We had to stand in a long line, since access to the top was through a single elevator.
An incredible view of Cairo looking west from Cairo Tower, toward Giza
Cairo Tower
Cairo Tower is sometimes considered Egypt's second most famous landmark after the Pyramids of Giza, and its open lattice-work design is intended to evoke a pharaonic lotus plant, an iconic symbol of Ancient Egypt. The tower is crowned by a circular observation deck and a rotating restaurant with a view over greater Cairo.  We made it to the top just in time for the sun to set, and grabbed some nice pictures with the Pyramids hazily standing ground some seven miles away. We only stayed for a few minutes as it was getting pretty cold with the wind still blowing strong, so we got back inside, only to realize that the line back down into the elevator wound all the way down the staircase back to where we had gotten off the elevator the first time.  Somehow, we managed our way to the front (first asking about a stairwell, which we were totally willing to use), and made it to the ground floor without having to wait.  We then called for another Uber to take us back to Giza, which was another experience in and of itself - riding along the highway, where not all the vehicles were using their headlights, and very clearly people were standing on the side of the road trying to get rides on the unregulated public vans.

Bib and outfit ready!
I checked in for the night at the Marriott Mena House, where I would be staying for my two nights in Giza and Cairo, and was thankful to get a shower after a long day of travel; before retiring to bed (since I had a very early wake up call thanks to the 6am start), I received a knock on my door and was delivered a birthday cake from the staff of the hotel, a really kind gesture!  I got my clothes ready for the race, and conked out, ready to run amongst the Pyramids early the following morning.

It was 4am when my alarm sounded, and I got myself dressed and downstairs to the hotel lobby by 4:30am, when Le said she'd come to meet me.  There was a couple in the lounge just off the lobby who looked like they were ready to go to the race start as well, so I befriended them, and found out they had arranged for a car to take them to the start. Rob running the full and Liz running the half were from Michigan, avid runner/travellers themselves.  In addition to touring around Cairo, they were embarking on a nine day cruise down the Nile a day or two after the race. When Le arrived, Rob and Liz offered to have us join them -- originally, we were going to take an Uber, using a discount given to us at the race expo, but it was a good thing we didn't, as we heard afterward that there were horror stories of drivers not taking those fares and people stranded trying to get to the start.  It would be even worse for many a couple hours later, as a few thousand participants were doing the half marathon and 10K races that started at 8am. Soon, we were off to the race start at the Fayoum Gate clear on the other side of the plateau, well before our 6am start time.

When we arrived, still under cover of darkness, people were milling around the entrance, the gate still closed off.  Security, though, was all set up, with guards ready to wand runners as they proceeded through.  It was SUPER cold, and after a few minutes letting volunteers in, they let runners through. We -- at least the overseas athletes -- were shepherded into warm vans provided by the official transport vehicle (Tez Tours) for the race, and were brought a bit up the road some 300 meters to the start area.  The sun wouldn't be officially rising until 20 minutes into our race, so we bore the brunt of the wind rearing its ugly head at us before we even started.  We still had some 40 minutes before the official start of the marathon, so many of us hid behind the bag drop trucks to shield ourselves from the wind.  Others proceeded to head to some of the fanciest portapotties I’ve ever seen for a race... full mobile WCs with working plumbing, set up at the start area! At 5:45am, I took off my jacket and pants to brave the wind and dropped off my gear bag, then proceeded to warm up a bit doing some jogs between the start area and the gear trucks.  God, I was hoping that when the sun would eventually come up, we'd warm up.

Sun not up yet for our race
There was a slight delay before the race began, but the announcer made the countdown, and the couple hundred of us doing the full marathon distance were officially off, immediately turning right past the start mat and then heading south, into the wind.  We also had a very slight uphill that we had to run up, right along the perimeter fence of the plateau.  The sky began to lighten up a bit, and so did our surroundings, and I logged in a pretty quick first mile.  The course then curved leftward (to the east), and once we hit the first aid station, there was a nice long downhill all the way to the 5K mark.  It helped that we were also carried by a light tailwind as we made our descent.  We crossed our first timing mat near a juncture where we were going to do an out-and-back at 2.5K in, which I crossed in 12:59, a decent 5:12 min/km pace.
Pyramids in the hazy distance early on in the race
The downhill to the first turn around
Continuing on downhill
I made light conversation with other runners as we ran downhill, meeting a couple European expats from the UK. It did warm up a little when the sun came out, and the clouds kept it pretty overcast and hazy, but the pyramids were in full view as we ran through the south section of the course.  As we approached the turnaround at the 5K, we heard the sound of hundreds of barking dogs and the smell of horse dung; it turns out we were close to the horse stables and the local animal shelter.  Then, of course, we had to climb right back up that hill we just went down, which wasn't terrible - but the wind was fierce, and definitely slowed me down.

Band setting up...
We went down a flat out-and-back section that was much better as we ran northward than southward, and here was when I started to take note of who I would be seeing regularly through the multiple out and backs the course would give us.  The wind, coming from the southwest, was seemingly going to be strong any time we'd run southward or westward, so anticipating that, I tried to take advantage of any northward or eastward running, evident by my mile splits as the race progressed.  I later found that the wind was reaching sustained speeds of probably 30 miles per hour or more.  We crossed the same timing mat we had passed at the 2.5K mark, now 9.65K in, recording a 58:11 split.  My pace slowed to 6:19 min/km, but it was expected considering the wind and the uphill I had to run.  A few kilometers later, and we passed the start area, just as half marathoners and 10K runners were beginning to assemble for their start, which at that point in time would be less than an hour away.  Another timing mat crossed there at 12.15K in recorded a 1:12:00.
Le captured this photo of me on the second out and back
On our way back toward the start
Last view of the pyramids on lap one
Steep downhill!
For the next four miles (miles 7.5 to 11.5, or kilometers 12.15 to 18.85) the marathoners remained alone, as we completed one of the tougher parts of the course, where the road heads to the more rugged northwestern part of the plateau, and the pyramids are mostly out of sight, with the occasional peek through. The terrain was mostly downhill, starting off with a steep curvy section (the steepest of the race), then flattening out before it continued a gradual descent.  At the 16k mark, we reached the final turnaround of the first lap, running back toward the start area where we'd begin the second lap. Of course, it was a southbound run, so into the wind we went again.  The steep curvy section was tough, and once I finally crested that area, it was only roughly a mile before we got back to the start area.
Village in the distance
Sun is starting to come out...
Official race photo from the Pyramids Marathon
The half marathoners about to start

At mile 11.5, we began our second lap of the course, but I happened to arrive just as the 10K and half marathon were starting, and the road became as chaotic and crowded as everyday Cairo street traffic, but just with people.  There was even a moment that the road bottlenecked as runners struggled to get over the narrow stretch of timing mat.  I had to slow to a walk, pushing my way through before the road cleared enough to allow me space to move through.  We were now 18.85K into our race, and my split was a 2:03:59. It was here when my quads and calves also began to start cramping (probably thanks to the steep climb at the end of the first lap) which significantly hampered my efforts for the rest of the race.
A bottleneck near the start of my second loop (Official race photo from the Pyramids Marathon)
Me on my second lap
(Photo by LeBinh Huy)
Now that it was 8:30am, the wind only got stronger, blowing dust and sand every which way. The first few miles of this second lap were tough, mainly because of how crowded the roadway was; it happened that I started my second lap near the back of the corrals, so there were many more walkers taking on the race, some walking 4 to 5 or more across, which was slightly annoying.  Not only that, but a section of course was barricaded off for runners coming back in the opposite direction.  Fellow runner Dan described it perfectly - "we got to share the course with hundreds upon streaming hundreds of 10k runners, who kept coming at as in droves in the opposite direction, seemingly for hours, as if they were spawning somewhere near the top of the hill."

The tough uphill in the wind
Thankfully, after the road veered eastward onto the southern stretch of roadway, the turnaround for participants doing the shorter distance came rather quickly.  Along the way, so did the halfway point of our race, but there was no timing mat for that "official split"; that same timing mat I crossed at 2.5K and 12.15K registered a 21.35K split for me in 2:23:08.  After the 10K runners turned back, the roadway became a bit roomier for marathoners and half marathoners as we made our way to the first of the three out-and-backs we'd be repeating on the second lap: the first one near the horse smells and dog barks (a bit less of both; maybe the wind carried the smells away and the dogs were fed?), before beginning the tough uphill ascent back along the road.
So windy now.
One of the windiest parts of the race
The second "north-then-south" flat out-and-back that took us closer to the pyramids was nice since the morning's hazy daylight lit the area up nicely, and we could easily see the massive triangular shapes framing the landscape before us.  Off to our left, we could see a steady stream of runners doing a "south-then-north" out and back section we had yet to do; we would get there a couple hours later, after completing our second lap. After reaching the turnaround, we ran into the roughest headwind thusfar of the race; with nothing blocking the way, the wind was just brutal, practically giving us microdermabrasion!  This was when the buff I wore became super useful, blocking sand from getting into my nose and mouth as I soldiered on.
Look just how windy it is.  That box had no chance.

More shots with the pyramids...
Just as we finished that second out-and-back and turned right to curve back to the southern pass, it was like night and day with the wind; it immediately felt so much easier being able to not run directly into that squall.  We crossed the timing mat at that juncture for the last time, 28.5K in now, in 3:28:24, the immediate previous 7.15 kilometers being a real strugglebus for me clocking in in just over an hour. I followed the road as it made its way north back toward the more isolated and harder third out-and-back, and eventually crossed the last timing mat until the finish, the 31K mark, in 3:47:32.
Video taken by LeBinh Huy.  Watch the other runners flag flap wildly in the wind!
Official race photo from the Pyramids Marathon
Heading toward the finish!
One more push took us out to the last out-and-back of this second loop, the wind really making it difficult on the way back with the hills.  After the last steep curve uphill, we continued on for another kilometer before we were directed to turn left into a previously "undiscovered" path for us, a new section apart from the two loops we had run to cover the last 4K of the race.  We made our way to the last out-and-back section of the race, the one we had seen in the distance a couple hours earlier.  We braved the wind as we headed south to the turn around, then let the tailwind carry us back, before we were sent toward the shadow of the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure.  A short section of rocky pathway, the first area not on asphalt lay before us, as we crossed an area that seemed to look like the finish line, since the inflatable arch was deemed a danger to those standing around because of the wind.  Not knowing this, I continued running as we made our way toward the finish "festival" area, but I had already crossed the timing mat two minutes earlier.  My official time: 5:26:56.  A valiant effort considering the wind!  For an inaugural race, there were quite a few runners ending up participating, even with the longest distance.  Per the results, the marathon had 180 finishers in the marathon (+6 DNFs and 5 DQs), 920 finishers in the half (+7 DNFs and and 5 DQs), 1892 finishers of the 10K (+ 12 DNFs)
The massage actually wasn't that terrible.
Hello Sphinx!
My favorite headstand pic to date!
I took advantage of the massage therapists who had set up in a tent in the finish area, while waiting for other friends, notably Le, to finish their races.  It turned out Le was only about 8 minutes behind me, but we managed to find each other in the finish area, and then headed out of the Giza Plateau together, not only braving the wind, but also capturing shots with the massive pyramids and of course, the Sphinx, behind us. And, of course... my customary victory headstand picture.

Yum... Koshary!
After being mobbed by Egyptians visiting the Pyramids (somehow, they all wanted to take selfies with two Asians!), we exited through the main gate and found our way over to a place I had found online as the place to have koshary, a type of Egyptian street food.  We found our way to local Giza favorite, Koshary Hekaia, and enjoyed the unique dish: koshary is made of rice, macaroni and lentils all mixed together, topped with a spicy tomato sauce; then it's garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. Mix it all up, and you’re golden. Price? 40LE, or $2.28. We also stopped into a bakery across the street where everything was 1LE, not even $0.06 apiece.

What a celebration meal!
After a much needed shower and a nap back at the hotel, we met up a little later for dinner at the locally recommended and family owned Felfela Village; while it was drizzling a little that night, I decided to walk over from my hotel along the main road the 20 minutes over to the restaurant.  We had quite the filling dinner: she had the chicken shish tawouk and I had a fattah moza - lamb shank over a mixture of rice and eish baladi (pita) cut up into pieces and prebaked in the oven, all covered in a tomato sauce. And to share, we had hummus, pita, falafel, and fattoush. YUM!  We shared an Uber back to my hotel, where we enjoyed a couple more drinks at my hotel bar, before retiring for the night and parting ways; I planned to enjoy Cairo the following morning, while Le had her own plans!

Ending the night with a drink with a good friend!  Thanks, Le!

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