“Happy 5.30!” This is Amany Khalil’s motto when she leads her running group, Zamalek Early Risers (ZERs), down the empty moonlit streets to downtown Cairo every Monday morning.
The group includes men and women, marathoners and newbies, ranging in age from their twenties to fifties.
Khalil – who has run 23 marathons and became the first Egyptian woman over 50 to complete a full Ironman Triathlon in 2016 – is not one to shy away from breaking barriers.
But when she first started running in the Egyptian capital's streets more than 20 years ago as a woman on her own, she says in her 2018 Ted Talk "it was like showing up at a funeral wearing a party hat".
With the city’s notorious traffic and pollution, it is rare to see anyone running around the roads. Combined with Egypt’s conservative society and a male-dominated sports scene, it is even less common to see women doing so.
'I enjoy encouraging women'
Khalil, 54, has helped change cultural norms, inspiring women to feel safe against harassment and reach their fitness goals, whether it be running for the first time or completing a half marathon.
Now, for the second year on International Women’s Day, Khalil is inviting women of all ages and abilities to join Zamalek Early Risers on an eight-kilometre walk / run to downtown's historic Abdeen Palace.
"I enjoy encouraging women, motivating women, because what happened to me changed my life. I love seeing it happen to them," Khalil tells The National.
Khalil grew up partly in Egypt and partly in the US. After graduating from The American University in Cairo in 1990, she started a banking career. When she got married three years later, however, she followed her husband to Pennsylvania and Texas, so he could pursue his postgraduate studies.
Shortly after their move to the US, she gave birth to two sons a year apart. She chose to stay home to care for her children, but soon started looking for something to do for herself.
“I used to wake up early and see people running in the streets. I thought, why not join them?” she says.
So she began training, building up to a five kilometre race, followed by a half marathon and culminating in a 42.2km marathon by the time her husband had finished his PhD.
'It's not easy for a woman to run by herself'
When they returned to Cairo in 1999, she discovered that “running in Egypt is not the same as running in the US”.
“It’s not easy for a woman to run early in the morning by herself. I received lots of harassment, dogs running after me, ditches that I fell into, cars not giving way … but I did not want that to stop me,” she says.
She would run at 6.30am, after seeing off her children on the school bus. She'd start by going around the block and gradually widening the loop around the residential island district of Zamalek. On the weekends, for her long runs, she would join Maadi Runner's, a group based in a leafy Cairo suburb.
Khalil trained for many marathons this way, starting with Luxor and Alexandria in 2003, followed by Madrid, Beirut, Rome, Prague, Copenhagen, Milan, Barcelona and others.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s running and triathlon scene slowly started to grow, with groups such as Cairo Runners, founded in 2012, and The TriFactory, founded in 2015, organising local races.
After Khalil’s sons went off to college, she started running at 5am, when Cairo is “beautiful … very quiet, no traffic, the best weather”. She also had more time to focus on a new goal: the world of triathlons.
“When I first started to train to become a triathlete, a lot of people said, ‘you know, you’re a mother, you’re going to be on a bike in the streets of Cairo and you could fall’,” she says.
To make matters worse, she failed in her first attempt to finish a half Ironman in Barcelona in 2015. She completed the 1.9km swimming leg and 90km of biking, but she was disqualified before she could go on to run the 21.1km portion of the race for coming in one minute after the cut-off time.
“People said, ‘we told you so. This was not meant for you.’”
Yet the naysayers only motivated Khalil to come back stronger. She enlisted the help of coach Khadiga Amin, who became the first Egyptian woman to complete an Ironman in 2014, and joined The TriFactory's first Egyptian Ironman team.
Becoming an Ironwoman and inspiration
In 2016, she completed the same half Ironman in Barcelona and, as a 50th birthday present to herself, the full Ironman as well. That entails 3.9km of swimming, 180km of biking and a 42.2km marathon. In a gruelling 13 hours, 11 minutes and 52 seconds, she finished the race among 17 Egyptians, four of them women in their twenties.
“Because I tried again and I succeeded … and finished the full Ironman, people started believing in what I’m doing and so this encouraged a lot of women to think ‘if she can do this, at the age of 50, why can’t we?’”
Zamalek Early Risers was born a couple of years later, after Khalil shared a Facebook post of herself with three female runners on the Qasr El Nil Bridge.
“It really made people see, ‘Oh, these women are running early in the morning and it’s safe and they’re happy and they’re doing something they love’,” she says.
'This was a dream to me'
Hamida Azouz, 35, says she joined ZERs after being encouraged by a Facebook post about the group’s annual New Year run on January 1, 2020. She had tried running at a sporting club track on her own, but stopped because of an injury and feeling overweight.
“I was worried whether I could complete the run, but Amany said to take it slow and if I got tired, I could just take an Uber back. That made me feel comfortable,” says Azouz, a trade marketing manager for a food company.
Azouz alternated walking and running to finish the 8km to El Moaz, a famous north-to-south street in the walled city of historic Cairo.
Over the past year, Azouz has committed to exercising and eating healthily. She now joins Khalil to run, do Pilates and swim, each twice a week, and has lost 10 kilograms since November. On February 26, she completed her first 5km race.
“This was a dream to me,” she says. “I’ve been taking pictures with my medal everywhere.”
Even her elderly parents, who at first had objected to Azouz leaving the house early to run in the streets, were so proud that they took pictures with her medal, too.
“They started to see that everything changed in me – my face, my smile, my mood,” she says. “I couldn’t have imagined that it would make such a difference in my life.”
The new normal
Aya Ayman, 36, was similarly changed by joining ZERs, which she signed up to in October after hearing about the group from a friend. She had previously joined Cairo Runners on their weekly Friday 7am run in Zamalek, but “loved the idea of 5.30am”.
Inspired by Khalil, she decided to train for her first half marathon. “I thought it needed an Olympian – not ordinary people,” says Ayman, a pharmacist.
The race, organised by Marathon Cairo, took place on the busy corniche along the eastern bank of the Nile with no street closures. Ayman says she was surprised that no one harassed her, and some even shared words of encouragement.
“It’s good to get people used to seeing women running in the street. When they see it more often, it will become normal,” she says.
No slowing down
Khalil has no plans to slow down and has now set her sights on completing the six marathon majors. She has already run Berlin, Boston and Chicago, leaving London, New York and Tokyo.
In October, Khalil ran her own mapped-out route for the virtual London Marathon, after the event was cancelled because of Covid-19. Starting at 3am, she ran from Mohandiseen to the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis with dozens of runners and supporters meeting her along the route.
In recent months, Khalil has also started organising running trips to other governorates around Egypt, including Assiut, about 400km south of Cairo, Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea and Kafr El Sheikh in the Nile Delta region.
“I’m hoping that, when I run there in those governorates … to motivate women, no matter where she is in the country, [so] that she can run outside on the streets.”