BEIRUT: Ali Wehbe, better known as the Lebanese Desert Runner for running in the harshest conditions across the globe, began his latest challenge last week: to run 12 marathons in 12 days.
“Every year, I choose a cause and I run for it,” Wehbe told The Daily Star, citing his mother’s death from cancer almost 10 years ago as his central motivation.
“After my mom died right in front of me, I decided to do difficult things through sports and give motivational speeches,” he recalled. “Since then I have placed all my power into running for causes.”
Wehbe’s aim is to “shed light on disability cases,” he said, adding that he also trained a young autistic child to run last year. He has wanted to raise awareness about autism ever since. He hopes to raise money for the Lebanese Autism Society, which will use it to fund the construction of much-needed new facilities.
Wehbe is the very first Arab runner to join the private 4 Deserts Club, a race series founded in February 2002 in Hong Kong and considered the world’s leading footrace.
He received a Lebanese Order of Merit medal in 2007 by then president Emile Lahoud, and was awarded the National Order of the Cedar by President Michel Sleiman in 2012.
Wehbe, who works as an ICT consultant in Lebanon and holds French citizenship, will be running a total of 700 kilometers and is expected to arrive at Zeitouneh Bay, also his point of departure, at approximately 4 p.m. Sunday April 13.
“There are non-profit organizations that are ready to help in the areas I reach. Organizations have created a network among themselves to help me,” he said from the south Lebanon town of Jezzine while on a break from running.
“Every day there is a welcoming in the area I get to,” Wehbe said, citing that there was a big festival awaiting him in Zahle, east Lebanon, where he was welcomed by 500 schoolchildren. In the Chouf town of Beiteddine, there were 300.
“People are now giving me support all on their own,” he said.
Wehbe runs an average of 40-50 kilometers per day, but will sometimes run more depending on the terrain he is covering.
A private Internal Security Forces convoy and a Red Cross team accompany him at all times, while members of non-profit organizations as well as local schoolchildren run alongside him, either at the departure line or from a few kilometers before the finish line.
He is also giving motivational speeches to schoolchildren and university students in the various areas that he passes through.
The run, sponsored by BankMed and Alfa, one of Lebanon’s mobile phone operators, kicked off in Beirut’s Zeitouneh Bay on April 2 as Wehbe made his way towards Jbeil.
From there, the trail will take him through Batroun, Tripoli, Bnachii, the Cedars, Al-Yammouneh, Baalbek, Zahle, Beiteddine, Jezzine, Nabatieh, Bint Jbeil, Tyre, Sidon and finally back to Beirut’s Zeitouneh Bay.
While his current route might seem less straining compared with Wehbe’s previous journeys, which include running across China’s Gobi Desert and the North Pole, it is still no easy feat.
“There is a challenge, and you do begin to feel tired after a while, especially when running uphill like at the Cedars,” he said.
“I started feeling tension and exhaustion, but I kept going, even though the Red Cross insisted that I go to the hospital and undergo tests.”
The Red Cross managed to conduct some tests while Wehbe was still running, and he persevered in spite of his physical and mental exhaustion, saying that he felt rejuvenated and ready to run again the very next day.
The race is just one part of a much larger five-year project targeting the entire Arab world, where children, Wehbe says, are growing increasingly obese as they spend more time indoors on their computers and do little or no exercise.
“In November, I am going to the United Arab Emirates to run for cancer as an honor to my mother, as it will have been exactly 10 years since she passed.”
The project itself is intended to boost the development of sports and healthy lifestyles in the region.
“If every person places all of his abilities into something, we can build a better society,” Wehbe said.