Cairo running in the Sinai

Yikes!  That was a much longer hiatus than I had planned.  With work and traveling I’ve been pretty busy this past month.  And even though I’m really enjoying my new job, since what I do all day is basically, write and edit articles, it’s been a bit of a challenge to get motivated to do more of the same when I get home.

Anyways, a couple weeks back, my wife and I decided to head to Saint Catherine with Cairo Runners for their first organized run outside of the city.  Ever since moving to Egypt we’d been wanting to make our way out to the Sinai peninsula to see the region’s craggy, red mountains and centuries old monasteries, but for one reason or another we hadn’t had the chance to go.

The advertisement Cairo Runners put up on their Facebook page in late March finally gave us the opportunity.

st catherine run

And for those readers not from Egypt, 400 LE is about 55 USD.  This fee included our race registration, transportation, accommodations, 3 buffet meals and entry fee to the Saint Catherine Monastery.  At a price like that, I’d have been a fool not to go!  Needless to say it didn’t take much to convince my wife either.  We were even able to get a couple of our friends (both teachers at my wife’s school), to join us.

So bright and early on the morning of Thursday, May 1st we hopped in a taxi and headed for the meeting point in central Cairo.  As with virtually all taxi rides in this city, we got lost.  Fortunately after about 20 minutes of driving around aimlessly, and asking for directions from random people on the street (a surprisingly common occurrence over here) we came across a gathering of 6 buses, with hundreds of people mingling about in the adjacent lot.  Going in we were curious to see how well attended this trip would be – the numbers easily exceeded our expectations.  And we were among only a handful of foreigners in attendance.  We were stoked – this was going to be a real Egyptian experience!

Shortly after finding our assigned bus, we hit the road.  The 9 hour drive to Saint Catherine was uneventful for the most part.  As one might imagine, given the ongoing security issues in the region, there were a few more checkpoints than we’ve encountered in other parts of the country.  There was an especially long stop (30+ mins), where our race organizers had to negotiate for us to take the direct highway to Saint Catherine.  Apparently it has been closed for the last 3 years to tourist buses.  I’m glad they eventually let us use it because had we taken the detour, it would have added at least 5+ more hours to the trip.  I’ve come to realize that warnings like this are sometimes less about safety and more about the perception of safety (*it turned out that that weekend someone attacked a police checkpoint in a small town along the alternative route so it’s not like that option would have been any safer anyways).

Convoy of buses

Convoy of buses

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Shortly before arriving we stopped at the Nun’s Monastery, a beautiful oasis in an otherwise fairly desolate landscape.  One of the nun’s gave us an orientation, thanking us all for visiting.  She apologized for not being better prepared (ie. having cold drinks available for purchase) but they hadn’t had visitors since the highway closed over 3 years ago.  Not to worry.  Never a people to miss an opportunity to make a buck, there were some enterprising locals that had already set up shop outside the monastery as our group left.  I could only imagine the scene playing out as the buses pulled up.  “Tourists at the Nun’s Monastery!  Seriously?  Yes, get your ass down there as fast as you can.  And bring all the pop you can carry!”  It was even cold.  Bravo guys!

The Nun's Monastery

The Nun’s Monastery

Nun's Monastery

Nun’s Monastery

We eventually pulled in to our hotel at 4:00pm, and got checked into our room.  We headed to the hotel’s restaurant for our buffet dinner and found out that we’d be going over to a Bedouin camp to have our race orientation, drink tea and listen to stories from a Bedouin elder.  Even though it had been a long day and the stories were in Arabic the camp was still pretty cool.  You certainly can’t see stars at night like that in Cairo.

Welcome to Saint Catherine

Welcome to Saint Catherine

Saint Catherine Hotel

Saint Catherine Hotel

The next morning we were up early again to eat.  We eventually made our way to the race site just outside the town of Saint Catherine.  What an amazing setting for a run.  Since it was a shorter distance, I decided to aim for a rather fast (at least for me) 5 min/km pace, but shortly after starting, I was fairly sure it wasn’t going to happen.  My legs felt good, but my cardio was off.  I was breathing way harder than I should’ve been for my pace.  I knew we were a higher than Cairo, but it wasn’t until I got home that I found out the altitude of the town is 1500 m above sea level.  Even still, I managed a 5 min 7sec /km pace, which I was happy with.  I think I came in around 10-12th place – out of about 250, but since they didn’t keep official records, those numbers are just guesses.

Ready to run!

Ready to run!

A few of the highlights of the run were:

1) The scenery…. maybe aside from the K-100 relay race I ran a few years ago in Kananaskis, Alberta, this is probably the prettiest place I’ve ever done an organized run.  The red-orange mountains against the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky was pretty amazing.

2) Camels as trail markers….. A section of the trail was off road, so of course, what better way to mark the route than camels.

Trail that way -->

Trail that way –>

3) About halfway through the run, The Foo Fighter’s Times Like These came on my Ipod.  Very surreal.  It actually gave me tingles.  Tough to appreciate how cool it was to be doing this sort of thing in that location, in that moment….

After crossing the finish line, I drank copious amounts of water and waited for my wife to finish up.  She came in about 15 minutes later and after posing for some photos we headed for the food tent.

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A couple hours after the run, the whole Cairo Runners group headed up towards the Saint Catherine Monastery.  Saint Catherine Monastery was built in the 6th century and is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world.  For those out there unaware, it is built at the base of Mount Sinai, the mountain that Moses is purported to have received the Ten Commandments.  Within the monastery there are some pretty famous sites as well, including the Burning Bush and Saint Catherine Library, whose collection is only outnumbered by that in the Vatican.  I hope to be able to return sometime before we leave Egypt to climb Mount Sinai.

The Burning Bush

The Burning Bush

Saint Catherine Monastery

Saint Catherine Monastery

By the time we finished touring the Monastery, we felt ready to head back to Cairo.  We all loaded back onto the buses, went to the hotel, ate lunch and got back on the road again.  We ended up finally making it back to the city around 11:00 pm.

What a great little weekend it was.  Certainly a trip I won’t soon forget.

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