Over the years, several sports events have had the privilege of being staged at the resplendent pyramids of Giza in Egypt.
From squash to tennis to most recently a 3x3 basketball tournament, a few athletes have enjoyed the rare opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the last remaining wonder of the ancient world.
The running community in Egypt — and beyond — has been afforded that golden chance since 2019, thanks to the introduction of the TriFactory’s Pyramids Half Marathon, which returns to the Giza Plateau for a fourth edition on Dec. 10.
Some 4,000 runners from more than 80 countries took part in the inaugural staging of the race three years ago, held across a trio of distances: full marathon, half marathon and 10km. The marathon was won by Greg Billington, an American Olympian who competed in the triathlon in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and won Paralympic gold as a guide for Brad Snyder in the visually impaired category of the paratriathlon event in Tokyo 2020.
Despite its incredible landscape, scenic coasts and great weather, Egypt is not necessarily a destination for runners from across the globe but the people behind The TriFactory are one of the main driving forces looking to change that.
Ayman Hakky, the co-founder of The TriFactory, a sports events management company specializing in endurance sports, staged Egypt’s first commercial triathlon back in 2014 in the Red Sea resort town of El Gouna.
Originally a water polo player and a footballer, a knee injury steered Hakky away from his chosen sports and pushed him toward endurance races. He fell in love with triathlon and began participating in events worldwide, in the process forming a team of amateurs who trained together in Cairo for various races. The team was fittingly called Train for Aim.
From Trinidad and Tobago to Morocco, from Portugal to the UAE, Hakky flew everywhere to participate in races, and his team eventually completed a full Ironman.
“It became very costly to do all that traveling, and I started to wonder why don’t we have this kind of quality here in Egypt?” Hakky told Arab News in an interview in Cairo.
A first step
Using the knowledge he gathered from attending proper races abroad, but without any practical experience as an organizer, Hakky staged his very first event, the Gouna Triathlon. He had no expectations and thought only the 20 or 30 people he trains with at Gezira Club would show up. Instead, 200 participants signed up from various running communities across Cairo.
“All of a sudden, it was a major start for us, and I had no intention of doing this as a business,” said Hakky. “I just made a few calls so they can close a street for us in El Gouna, and it wasn’t at a professional standard of organization at all.
“But I realized the business potential from this event. We finished this one-off event and people were already asking me, ‘What’s next?’ I realized a community has been created and these 200 people all posted on social media, and each one of them had two or three friends that wanted to come to our next event.
“So, our next event was at least double in size. Three months later, we held an event in Sahl Hasheesh and 400 people took part. Things kept doubling in size, spiraling, until we gained lots of experience.”
The TriFactory was founded in 2015 by Hakky and Mahmoud Abdelhakim, and soon they were organizing triathlons and marathons all over Egypt, from Aswan to Alexandria to Sharm El-Sheikh.
‘Major turning point’
It was Abdelhakim who first got the idea to stage a marathon by the pyramids, knowing it was the natural next step for him and his partners.
Hakky was worried about the logistics of it all, the permits they would need from the government and the hassle of trying to organize something big at such an iconic location.
But they went for it, and gave it the slogan “Race through history,” reminding the runners they would be getting such a historic landmark for a backdrop. In February 2019, the Pyramids Marathon came to life, and it survived a terrible sandstorm that threatened the success of the event.
“The Pyramids Marathon was a major turning point for us. Four thousand people took part across three distances and so many different nationalities turned up. It was a great start, but it was a very difficult day for us,” reflected Hakky.
The tough weather conditions were overwhelming for Hakky and his partners, but overall, they knew they had started something special, and the participants felt it too.
“What I generally like about this event is that the course is really nice, the vibe, the people…Conditions were tough in the first one and the weather made things quite chaotic, yet everyone loved it because it was the first time we got the opportunity to run by the pyramids,” said Nayera Helmy, an amateur runner who has been an active member of the running and triathlon community in Egypt since 2013.
Helmy did not sign up for the 2020 edition of the event but returned last year and is currently getting ready for her third outing in Giza.
“When I took part in 2021, I saw how the organization massively improved. Everything that needed tweaking was taken care of,” she said.
“The course got much closer to the pyramids. Instead of having this massive uphill during the race, they reversed the direction of the route so it was more downhill for us. Everyone was cheering, a lot of participants, a lot of international runners…When you’re running, you can see the look on the faces of international runners who cannot believe they are running by the pyramids. It was so nice to see.”
From the second year, organizers made the strategic decision of scaling back the event to a half marathon, which requires fewer hours of road closures and is far easier to manage.
The demand for a full marathon in Egypt was also not very high, so since 2020, the event has comprised three distances: a half marathon, a 10km and a 5km, which opened up participation for people who were keen to run or walk a shorter distance.
“This is our fourth year. We’ve gone from strength to strength and this year, we are under the auspices of the Egyptian presidency, which is huge,” said Hakky.
With the support of the presidency and the Ministry of Sports behind them, The TriFactory has high hopes of expanding the race in the future, knowing that no major city can host a proper marathon without the backing of crucial governmental entities.
“We’re very excited about this step because we’re ambitious about the possibility of bringing it back to a full marathon in the future. We can start to aggressively promote the event abroad, so we can reach the numbers we see in events around the world,” said Hakky.
“The 4,000 participants we get is nothing compared to global numbers. Even the Beirut Marathon, which is a role model for me, attracts 50,000 participants. And Lebanon as a country has some tough circumstances.
“But the entire country is behind the event. All institutions — the military, the presidency, the tourism board — get behind it, and they lock Beirut down for a half day and they stage the marathon.”
Message from Bolt
The TriFactory prides itself on following international standards when it comes to staging its events, and that level of professionalism is what attracted so many people to sign up and brought several sponsors to knock on its doors.
Puma, its platinum sponsor this year, got its superstar ambassador Usain Bolt to post a video message wishing the Pyramids Half Marathon runners good luck and giving them some advice for race day.
“Now we are dreaming that maybe Puma can attract him to attend the event. There’s actually talk of him possibly coming,” said a hopeful Hakky.
While eight-time Olympic gold medalist Bolt might not be a shoo-in, there will be an Olympic silver medalist lining up at the pyramids this December, with Egyptian pentathlete Ahmed Elgendy, who was a runner-up in Tokyo 2020, confirming his participation.
Registered for the 10km but with the possibility of moving up to the half marathon if he feels up for it, Elgendy does not need to train over long distances in his main sport, the modern pentathlon, but says he is a runner at heart and has been keen to take part in the Pyramids Half Marathon.
“The first TriFactory event I attended was their recent Soma Bay Endurance Festival and I was really impressed by how well organized it was. I really liked the energy of the people behind TriFactory and could tell they really want to do something special,” Elgendy told Arab News.
“I’ve seen events here in Cairo where people are running between cars, which is not safe. But they’re not like that. They know what they’re doing and are trying hard to match international standards in everything. In the process, I feel they’re also educating the local community about how an event like this should be run.”
The appeal of running by the pyramids is not exclusive to visitors from abroad; it is a special occasion for locals as well.
“I haven’t even visited the pyramids since I was like 6 years old. So this is a great opportunity for me, to visit the pyramids and run there,” added Elgendy, who is not setting a specific target for himself this race but just doing it for fun.
‘Running at home is special’
Helmy is an experienced runner who has done both the Paris and New York marathons in the past. While taking part in such iconic long-standing events around the world has been incredible, she admits that running at home, in Egypt, has a special feeling to it.
She remembers the early days when the endurance sports scene in Cairo was in its infancy stages, where participants would complete the race and then rush back to set up water stations for those who had not finished yet. Things have massively improved since then.
“We now have a lot of opportunities to run in Egypt. It’s very nice to run with your own community. Running in international marathons abroad is very nice, but ultimately, you’re running with strangers, or just two or three people who have made the trip with you,” said Helmy.
“In Egypt, the nice thing is that you’re encouraging other runners from the community to run with you. So during a run, you can spot people whom you have personally helped get into the sport, or encouraged to participate. That’s a nice feeling to be part of that.
“Plus, it’s fun to run with people you know. So running in Egypt is always special, and it gives us a chance to run in places we don’t regularly visit (here).”
For Hakky and his partners, the goal is to establish the Pyramids Half Marathon as a staple on the international running calendar and to hit 10,000 participants (the roads around the pyramids are quite narrow and cannot handle much more than that).
Hakky dreams of a scenario in which Cairo streets can shut down for half a day so that runners can start elsewhere in the city and make their way toward a finish line at the pyramids, which would be the ultimate reward at the end of a full marathon.
“The advancements made in transportation and the underground system in Cairo (are) allowing us to dream of a scenario like that,” he added.
He also explained that “Race through history” is not just a slogan. The idea is to hold a series of running events at different historical sites across Egypt. The concept has already started to take shape as The TriFactory staged a 5km at the Saqqara Pyramid earlier this year, introducing runners to the unique Step Pyramid of Djoser.
In total, The TriFactory holds between 10 to 15 events annually, with lots of room for growth. But the heart of the business definitely lies on the Giza Plateau.
“The Pyramids Half Marathon has become our biggest event for sure in terms of size and exposure and everything. So long-term, we want to invest more effort in this event because it has become our flagship event,” he concluded.
The deadline for registration for the Pyramids Half Marathon is Nov. 30. You can sign up for the event here.