Chirine Njeim couldn’t fight back a yawn as she positioned herself on the start line at the Chevron Houston Marathon in January.
She arrived from Chicago the night before, but that wasn’t why she was so tired. The main source of her weariness was a three-month running obsession that included two races, more than 13,000 miles of travel, and a lifetime’s worth of skepticism.
“I was just exhausted,” she said.
Crouched on the starting line, she asked herself questions to stay mentally sharp.
What pace do I need to run well?
Am I maintaining between 6:00 and 6:15 pace?
What is my red zone?
But when the gun went off, her bleariness instantly gave way to laser-focus.
She knew she had a Plan B tucked away in case she needed it. There was no way she would allow herself to crash and burn today.
She had come too far and invested too much. She was not going to fail. And the thought of continuing her training during the frozen-tundra months of Illinois’ winter was the last thing she wanted.
“Honestly, the only thing on my mind was, ‘I don’t care what’s happening right now, I am sticking with this,’” Njeim said. “I was on a mission. All I kept thinking about was the time.”
Two years earlier, after missing an opportunity to compete in her fourth Winter Olympics as an alpine skier for her native Lebanon, Njeim embraced the idea of qualifying for the 2016 Summer Olympics in the marathon.
It was more of a pipe dream. Back then, her personal best was 20 minutes slower than the Olympic qualifying standard of two hours, 45 minutes.
Runners don’t shave 20 minutes off their PRs in two years. Not even with the help of Russian state-sponsored pharmacology.
But somehow, she worked herself to the brink of making the impossible possible. In October of 2015, she got about 18 minutes closer to her goal.
All she needed was to get two minutes faster.
She felt good through 18 miles. At 20 miles, the point most runners hit the proverbial wall, Njeim was still running strong. It wasn’t until Mile 26 that fatigue and doubt tag-teamed to sabotage her quest in the shadow of the finish.
That’s when fate intervened.
“The last mile of the race, it hit me,” Njeim said. “I just kept looking at my watch and started getting nervous. I was like, ‘What if I don’t hit that 02:45?’ As I looked at my watch going up, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to pick it up.’
“I don’t know if it was luck, but a woman came up to me and said, ‘My watch died. What pace are we doing?’ I looked at her and was like, ‘I don’t have time for this.’ She then said, ‘We have to get to the finish. We have to get up to 2:45.’”
Njeim and her new fairy godmother pushed through those final meters side by side. When they crossed, she stopped her watch and looked at the time.
Her watch read 2:44:19.
She had broken her own Lebanese national record. But more importantly, she was the first female athlete in the history of her country to achieve the automatic qualifier in a track and field event.
“I’ve never really felt that way in my life,” Njeim said. “I honestly screamed at the top of my lungs. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I am going to Rio!’ I just wanted to kick my shoes, take my watch off. I was so mentally burned out. I just couldn’t believe this happened.”
When she competes in the marathon at the Rio Summer Olympics on August 14, Njeim will join an even more exclusive club. According to Bill Mallon, co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians and the website Olympstats, only 132 athletes (105 men, 27 women) have participated in both the Winter and Summer Games.
Seven athletes have competed in cross-country skiing and a track-and-field event. The eighth, three-time Czech Winter Olympic cross-country skier Eva Vrabcova, has qualified for the Rio marathon. Forty have competed in a track event and in bobsled—most recently, Americans Lauryn Williams and Lolo Jones in Sochi in 2014.
No one has ever competed in alpine skiing and a track event at the Olympics. Njeim will be the first.
There might not be a more unlikely athlete on the precipice of such history than the 31-year-old Njeim. She is a woman who has origins in the war-torn Middle East, and has overcome a staggering number of obstacles.
“When I try to wrap my head around everything that has happened over the course of my life and what I have accomplished as an athlete, I don’t know how to explain it,” Njeim said. “If I dwelled on some of these things at the time, they would have really just destroyed me.”
Njeim was born October 4, 1984, in Antelias, a suburb situated about five miles north of downtown Beirut. Antelias is most famous for being the site where the remains of a 30,000-year-old man were discovered in the caves of Ksar Akil.
She was the youngest of five children to Raymond, a chemical products tradesman, and Najah, a homemaker.
Antelias, with its picturesque Mediterranean coastal plain to the west and cedar-dotted foothills to the east, was a perfect setting to raise a family. But from 1975 through 1991, even the most idyllic settings in Lebanon were not completely immune to the violence of civil war.
“When I was growing up, there would be nights when my mom would say, ‘You can’t sleep in your rooms tonight,’ because our rooms had windows,” Njeim said. “She would make us sleep in the hallways of the house because there were no windows. All night, there would literally be bombs and guns going off outside. We even had bullets come through our living room.
“The electricity was never that great, and during the war, there was no electricity,” Njeim continued. “We still went to school during the day, but at night, we would sit in the hallway with candles so we could see to do our homework.
“One year, we were forced to leave our city house and go up to the mountains for safety. The highways were closed; all the jobs, work—everything—was shut down. We all stayed in the mountain, just hiding there. My sister, brothers and I enrolled in a small school up in the mountains and we finished our year over there because there was no way we could get back to the city.
“I remember looking at my mom like, ‘Are we going to make it through this?’”
She found solace from the physical and emotional horrors of war on the snowy mountains outside Beirut.
Lebanon is generally pictured as having an arid climate similar to that of the majority of Western Asia. In reality, the coastal areas are generally cool and rainy in the winter, and hot and humid in the summer. Elevated areas see temperatures drop below freezing, resulting in heavy snow cover.
It’s the kind of place you’d never expect to find aspiring skiers working on their craft.
On weekends, Njeim’s father would bring the family to the mountains in Faraya, about 30 miles northeast of Beirut. He taught his daughter how to operate the ski lift, and how to make some turns when she was just three years old.
She quickly fell in love with the sport. Mesmerized by Italian star Alberto Tomba, she would watch his races on Eurosport and try to emulate him on the slopes.
“I had no fear,” Njeim said. “I would just put my head down, and try to go as fast as possible.”
By the time she reached age 10, Njeim was training and competing successfully for the Faraya Mzaar Ski Club. But with corruption and infighting destroying most of the country’s skiing infrastructure in the years following the end of the Lebanese Civil War, Njeim’s parents knew she could not develop further at home.
“Skiing was not very well supported in Lebanon,” Njeim said. “My career would never have come true if my family didn’t believe in me and push me to follow my dreams.”
As a 12-year-old, Njeim moved to Annecy, France, where she trained with a personal coach and competed on the junior racing circuit in Europe. Two years later, she moved to Salt Lake City to attend the Rowmark Ski Academy, the school that produced U.S. Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street.
Despite only speaking Levantine Arabic and French, Njeim adapted to the school. She also developed her skiing ability at a rapid pace. In a Junior Nationals race in Alaska, she stood on a medals podium with future U.S. Olympic stars Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso.
By 2000, just two years into her training at Rowmark and a year out from the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Njeim tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee, which forced her to undergo reconstructive surgery.
“I was pissed,” Njeim said. “Honestly, I was like, ‘My career is over, I’m done.’”
But she continued with her rehabilitation and worked her way back into shape and onto the slopes. Shortly thereafter, Njeim came down with a bout of double pneumonia. The illness, which confined her to Primary Children’s Hospital in Utah for a month, left her weakened physically and emotionally.
“I was by myself,” she said. “My parents would always call me. My mom was like, ‘Should I come?’ And I’m like, ‘No, no. I’m going to get better. I should be going home,’ but I stayed there for a month.
“I couldn’t walk two steps without having to sit down unable to breathe. My lungs, both lungs, had fluids in them. I literally thought I was going to die. I couldn’t eat anything because it just came back up. I lost a good 20 pounds.”
Njeim was determined to make it back from pneumonia just as quickly as she had when she injured her ACL. But that resolve to get healthy morphed into an obsession, and the obsession gave way to a different kind of illness: anorexia.
“At the start of my comeback, I thought my only way back was to get stronger and eat healthier,” Njeim explained. “I would say, ‘I’m just going to eat greens and salads.’ From there, I have no idea what my brain did, but I stopped eating altogether. I’d have an apple or soda or water, and that was it all day.
“My mom came here, and every day, she would make me come home from school and eat lunch with her. But honestly, I would eat lunch and I would just run to class and do everything possible to lose whatever I just ate. I got to the point where I was like, `Oh my God, I’m so fat.’”
In 2000, Njeim weighed 132 pounds. The next year, she weighed 86.
“I was forced to see a nutritionist and a doctor two times a week to get weighed,” Njeim said. “They would all tell me that if I didn’t get my weight back up to 100 pounds, I couldn’t ski at the Salt Lake City Olympics. You would think I would be motivated by that, but I just couldn’t do it.
“Being anorexic is like having this evil person in your mind telling you not to eat when you want to. It’s the strangest thing ever. It’s terrible.”
The summer before the Games, still struggling with anorexia, Njeim returned home to Lebanon for a visit. She walked up to the door of a childhood friend’s house and knocked. When her friend answered, she did not recognize Njeim until she introduced herself.
“You look terrible,” her friend said. It was a turning point—the moment Njeim realized she had a problem.
Njeim eventually got her weight up to 100 pounds and competed at the Salt Lake City Games. As one of two Lebanese athletes, she carried the country’s flag at the Opening Ceremony and finished 36th in slalom and 45th in giant slalom.
“When I look back on it, I can see that time as kind of a good thing,” Njeim said. “But I don’t wish that for anyone.”
Ahead of Njeim’s senior year at Rowmark Academy in 2004, Kyle Hopkins was hired as its new head alpine and conditioning coach.
Previously, he had served as the head men’s development coach for the U.S. Ski Team, as a coach on the U.S. Olympic Team in Salt Lake City, and as the U.S. World Cup technical coach.
During that year, Njeim and Hopkins began a discreet romance.
“I know we probably weren’t supposed to be dating, but it just happened,” Njeim said. “It was definitely under the radar.”
After graduating from Rowmark, Njeim accepted a skiing scholarship to the University of Utah in 2005. The following year, with Hopkins coaching the Lebanese Olympic Team, Njeim competed in all five alpine events at the Torino Games. She finished 34th in downhill, 39th in slalom, 46th in super-G and with DNFs in super-combined and giant slalom.
After the 2007 season, Njeim decided to take a break from the grind of offseason training in the Southern Hemisphere. Instead, she and Hopkins vacationed in Maui. Having traded in her skis for a longboard, she was determined to learn how to surf from her wave-riding boyfriend.
But puzzlingly, Hopkins lost his ability to stay on his board. Even more maddening was his inability to maintain his balance while on solid ground.
“He’d be on the beach, and he looked like a drunk person walking,” Njeim said. “He just kept saying, ‘There’s something off. My balance is really off.’”
Njeim and Hopkins were joined on that trip by a friend who worked as a nurse in an emergency room. The nurse urged him to go to the doctor immediately.
An examination revealed Hopkins had a brain tumor.
“We were both like, ‘That can’t be possible,’” Njeim said. “You don’t want to believe it. It’s crazy news.”
At the advice of the doctors in Hawaii, the two flew straight to Boston for a second opinion from a neuro-oncologist.
The diagnosis was terminal cancer. Hopkins was given a one-percent chance of survival.
“When we found out, I definitely thought, ‘We can fight this,” Njeim said. “Even when they told us how big the tumor was and that the cancer was terminal, we still thought we were going to fight it.”
After the diagnosis, Njeim spent her entire summer by Hopkins’ side. She was his primary caretaker and shuttled him back and forth to chemotherapy treatments. It was the first time since she moved to the U.S. almost a decade earlier that she did not return to Lebanon to spend the summer with her family.
The routine did not change much when the two returned to Utah for the fall semester. Njeim would go to class, then drive almost an hour back home from campus to care for Hopkins. Every day.
“So many times, he said to me, ‘Leave. Please live your life. I don’t want you to stay here and do this,’” Njeim said. “But at no point during the whole time I was with him, taking care of him, did I ever think, ‘He’s not going to make it.’”
Njeim missed most of the fall training season with her Utah teammates. But at Hopkins’ insistence, she accompanied the squad on a four-day retreat to Colorado over Thanksgiving weekend. She called Hopkins every day while she was away.
The night that she was returning with her teammates, Njeim received a phone call saying Hopkins had taken a turn for the worse. He was rushed to the hospital with difficulty breathing.
Njeim never heard him speak again.
After Hopkins spent a week in the hospital, Njeim decided to get hospice care in the house. She brought him home that December. Unable to speak, the two could only communicate with Hopkins spelling out words on a makeshift alphabet board.
“I still looked at him and I said, ‘I feel like you’re going to make it through this,’” Njeim said.
The season was about to get started with a three-day event in Park City. Njeim didn’t want to go. But Hopkins, using his alphabet board, insisted she race. She gave in, but called frequently to check on him during her first two days away.
The morning of Njeim’s third race, Hopkins shuffled the letters on his board.
“I think I am dying,” it read. She didn’t show up to ski, and instead stayed at home. That same day, December 17, 2007, Hopkins passed away.
“Physically, mentally, I was emotionally collapsed,” Njeim said. “Watching friends come to say goodbye was probably to me the hardest thing I’ve ever had to experience in my life. I’ve definitely had death in my family, but I’ve never really been day-to-day to the end watching it.”
Njeim’s friends stepped in as a welcome distraction from the immense grief. Her teammates at Utah moved her out of the house she and Hopkins shared outside Park City and in with them in Salt Lake City.
She was at a loss over how she would ever put the broken pieces of her life back together.
“At first, everything was black,” Njeim said. “I didn’t know how I could ski or how I could live my life this way. But my friends and teammates never left my side, and as time passed, I remembered that Kyle always said to me, ‘Never stop. Always keep going. Whatever you think you can’t do, just try it. Even if you fail, get up and try it again. Nothing is impossible.’ At the end, he left me with something positive, something special.”
Twenty days after Hopkins passed away, Njeim led the Utes with a sixth-place finish in the slalom at Steamboat Springs, and she became an All-American. Faced with terrible tragedy and insurmountable odds, she overcame them.
By 2008, Njeim’s life had returned to a state of normalcy.
That summer, she returned home to Lebanon for the first time in two years. She had one year of college left and was looking forward to reuniting with her family and her country full-time since her preteen years.
“When I was in Lebanon, I told my mom, ‘That’s it. I’m going back to the States to finish my degree, but I’m coming back home. I’ve lived away from home for too long,’” Njeim said.
Njeim was scheduled to return to the U.S. with an itinerary that would take her from Beirut to Dubai before heading to the States. When she arrived in Dubai, a Delta travel agent explained there were no open seats on the 16-hour flight to Atlanta. Njeim was placed on the standby list.
“I was really mad,” Njeim said. “I was like, ‘This can’t be real. There’s no way I’m staying a night in Dubai when I could’ve stayed in Lebanon an extra night.’”
Out of the corner of her eye, Njeim saw a Lebanese-American gentleman wearing a pilot uniform standing nearby. He approached her and introduced himself as Ronny Kamal.
“He told me he was waiting on standby for two days trying to meet up with his friends in Santiago, Chile, for a ski trip,” Njeim said. “As I was tearing up, he told me, ‘If you don’t get on, I can hang out with you. Don’t worry. You’ll be OK.’”
After all the ticketed passengers boarded the plane, the Delta agent turned to Kamal and said, “We have a seat for you,” and handed him a boarding pass. He apologized to Njeim but said he absolutely had to get on the flight because his friends were waiting for him.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what a jerk,’” Njeim said. “I couldn’t believe he was leaving me there.”
A few minutes later, Njeim was told they had a seat for her… in the last row of the airplane. Thinking to herself, “I don’t care. I’m short and don’t need a lot of space,” she proceeded down the jetway. The Delta agent chased after her, imploring her to wait. When he caught up, he took her boarding pass and replaced it with another for a seat in First Class.
“I get on the plane, and someone is sitting in my seat, 1A,” Njeim said. “The woman said her entire family was sitting in that row, and asked if I wouldn’t mind taking her seat, two rows back. I was like, ‘Whatever.’”
As she made her way to seat 3C, Njeim looked up. Kamal was sitting in 3D.
“He was a great guy, a really nice guy,” Njeim said of her first impressions. “We chatted for 12 hours. We watched a movie. We had dinner and drinks. We slept together, and it wasn’t awkward. It was a great first date.”
After the plane landed in Atlanta, Njeim and Kamal exchanged contact information before heading separate ways. While a torrid romance may not have been entirely struck at 39,000 feet, there was a spark.
That October, Kamal invited Njeim to visit him in Chicago, and they started dating long-distance thereafter.
Kamal traveled to support Njeim at all of her competitions, including at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, where she carried the Lebanese flag for the second time during the Opening Ceremony.
“I was in love,” Njeim said.
After the Games, Njeim moved to Chicago to be closer to Kamal. For the first time in her life, she found herself with time to kill.
While awaiting mounds of paperwork, including her work visa, to be processed, Njeim decided to start running to pass the time and maintain her fitness. It was also a great way to discover more about her new home city.
Every morning at 5:30, she headed out for her jog. Those short jogs gave way to longer miles, and Njeim began making friends in the running community.
On a whim, Njeim and Kamal decided to enter the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle, the world’s largest 8K race held annually in April to kick off Chicago’s running season.
On zero serious training, she finished the race in a respectable 37:34, almost a minute and a half ahead of Kamal.
“I remember clearly we both went home after that race, and we sat on the couch and we felt so proud,” Njeim said. “We were like ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we ran an 8K.’ We were so tired, and were like, ‘We deserve such a big breakfast!’ It was just one of those races that was exhaustive and exhilarating.”
The couple ran the race again in 2011, with Njeim improving to 36:21 and Kamal to 38:09. They married and began a life together. They were completely enraptured by the Chicago racing experience. Encouraged by her sister Nesrine, an avid runner, Njeim and Kamal entered the 2012 Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
She finished 119th among women without formal training.
“The idea of running a 26.2-mile course at that time was a crazy thought,” Njeim said. “Honestly, we just wanted to run it so we could say that we live in the city and we ran the Chicago Marathon. But because it was so challenging we decided to go for it, and that was the beginning of it all. After that race, I was hooked.”
Njeim continued to run recreationally. In 2013, she ran the Chicago Marathon for the second time and improved her finish to 3:05:40.
Although she was no longer skiing as much as she had while living in Utah, Njeim hadn’t given up the hope of competing for Lebanon at a fourth Winter Olympics in Sochi. But hope gave way to dismay when she learned through a Facebook post that Jackie Chamoun, her Vancouver teammate, had been selected ahead of her.
Njeim claims the Lebanese Ski Federation told her in 2013 that the Olympic selection process would hinge not only on points accumulated through racing on the International Ski Federation (FIS) circuit but also on results from the National Championships.
She seemed like a lock for selection after winning titles in giant slalom and slalom.
Two FIS races were held before Nationals and three afterward in Lebanon. Njeim skied out in the second run of one of those latter slaloms. She believes a slip-up sealed her fate.
Freddy Kairouz, secretary general of the Lebanese Ski Federation, wrote in an email that it should have been made clear to Njeim that a coefficient system was in place.
He stated, “The Lebanese Championship in 2013 was based on the accumulation of points for all the races organized in Lebanon and not only the races classified under NC (National Championships) on the FIS website.”
According to FIS, of those seven races contested in Lebanon – three slaloms and four giant slaloms – Njeim won six by an average of 3.96 seconds, with the one DNF.
Kairouz, however, claimed Njeim only won four.
Njeim believes she was a victim of retribution for claims she made about “very selfish” behavior by Lebanese officials at the 2010 Games.
“Our delegation had five people with them, and they announced each one of them were coaches or trainers or therapists,” she said. “When we got there, we had no coach and never had trainings from them. They would take our car and go shopping, and so we couldn’t take it to go up to the hill in Whistler. They wanted to go to the Olympics for tourism and for fun.
“When television crews would approach us and say things like, ‘Oh, you’re from Lebanon. Tell us how you qualify,’ they would answer, ‘Well, we train our athletes in this way,’ and I just couldn’t take it because it was all lies. I got frustrated, and we kind of got into a fight.”
That fight eventually resulted in court as the Njeims sued the federation. During court proceedings, Njeim said she revealed a recording of the argument she had with officials in Vancouver. The damning evidence forced the resignation of a number of officials.
While she admits she “would not have been physically prepared to compete in Sochi,” Njeim had by the winter of 2014 turned her attention to qualifying for the Rio Olympic marathon.
That October, Njeim ran the Chicago Marathon for the third time, and again improved her personal-best—this time, to 3:03:53.
“At the time, I didn’t think running 2:45 (the automatic qualifier) was possible, but I thought I might be able to get under three hours,” Njeim said. “I knew there was another Lebanese athlete, Pia Nehme, who had run 3:00:02. I thought, ‘If I can get under three hours, I would show that I am the best Lebanese athlete and maybe the athletics federation would select me.’”
Since 2012, Njeim had been training with the Chicago Area Runners Club (CARA), which provided her with some coaching, but mostly camaraderie while doing those 400- and 800-meter speed workouts on the track.
In 2015, she applied for Fleet Feet Racing’s elite team. As if Njeim didn’t already have Olympic-sized motivation, she was told she wasn’t good enough for the elite squad, but would be welcome on the club team.
“I wanted to get to know and run with faster runners, so joining Fleet Feet was good in that regard,” Njeim said. “Personally, it was motivating, because when they told me I wasn’t fast enough, I was in my own way preparing to show them up close that I can be as fast as the elites.”
Njeim’s fourth stab at the Chicago Marathon in 2015 yielded a remarkable result. Njeim shaved nearly seven minutes off her PR and finished 28th in 2:46:41, tantalizingly close to the automatic Olympic qualifier.
“I made a big jump but was left with that feeling like, ‘Oh, shoot, I should’ve run a little faster,’” Njeim said. “There was this little feeling where I wasn’t dead at the finish and should’ve given a little bit more effort.”
Nevertheless, Njeim had just blown the doors off the Lebanese national record in the event, and, in all likelihood, positioned herself strongly for selection to the Olympic team.
Lebanon had never had an athlete earn an automatic qualification standard for the Summer Olympics. As a result, the country typically used a scoring method that normalizes competitors across various running disciplines. The Lebanese Olympic Committee selected the top-scoring athletes to go to the Games.
Right about then, experience smacked Njeim in the face.
“I didn’t know what the politics in athletics were like, but figured it couldn’t be much different from skiing,” Njeim said. “I just didn’t know if they knew much about me, or if they did, would they be like, ‘Oh she’s a skier. I’m not sure what she’s doing running.’
“I know how things work in Lebanon. I didn’t need anyone to tell me, ‘Oh you’re going to make it,’ then turn around and say, ‘We’re not going to pick you. We’re going to pick someone else,’ again. The more those thoughts crept into my head, I knew I had to put my foot down.”
Rather than hold onto the chance of a wild-card selection based on her Chicago effort, Njeim decided to go all-in on a seemingly crazier hand: the Beirut Marathon three and a half weeks later.
“I really wanted to run Beirut because I felt like it would be good marketing for me,” Njeim said. “People in Lebanon know me as a skier. No one knows me as ‘Chirine, the runner.’ I wanted to prove to them that I can run marathons.”
Njeim took the two weeks after Chicago completely off from running as she tried to recover mentally and physically while also arranging for her trip to Lebanon. In between, a lot of her running friends gave her advice on how to approach the race.
“People were saying things like, ‘Just show up, be there in person, and don’t run,’ or, ‘Just run the first 10 miles and then drop out,’” Njeim said. “The consensus was, ‘You can’t just go out there and run another marathon after Chicago. You’re going to get hurt.’”
On November 8, Njeim toed the line for the Beirut Marathon exhausted, yet emboldened to prove she, “could run in the 2:40s and that Chicago wasn’t just dumb luck.”
Sensibility led her to begin the race conservatively, but it wasn’t long before Njeim’s competitive drive took over and the cadence of her turnover became more purposeful. Before the halfway point, she found herself “cruising, but faster than usual.”
Njeim wound up running a predominantly solo effort that day and finished as the top Lebanese woman and fifth overall in 2:49:23, seven minutes behind winner Kaltoum Bouaasayriya (2:36:05) of Morocco.
“When I finished in 2:49, I was very proud to be there and be very close to my Chicago time,” Njeim said. “Mentally and confidence-wise, it helped me realize that I can do it again. At the same time, I was like, ‘OK I’m done. Take a break. Rest my body for a month or two and then pick it up again.’”
While her mind was telling her to reset and focus on making a last attempt at the auto qualifier on a fast, flat course, like Amsterdam, in April, something inside Njeim was still unsatisfied. Her hunger for sub-2:45 was ravenous, and needed to be fed.
On the plane ride home from Beirut, Njeim emailed Walter James, the coach she met and began consulting with after Chicago, to tell him she wanted to run the Houston Marathon in July. His responded that racing a third marathon in three months “was like downing everything at an all-you-can-eat buffet—not a good idea.”
But Njeim wouldn’t let go of the idea.
“I told one of my friends at work, who I run with, that I wanted to run the Houston Marathon in January,” Njeim said. “She said, ‘That’s crazy. You will not do well. You will be left very disappointed. I just can’t get through to you. It just seems like you’re not listening.’”
Njeim decided to take what was, for her, a cautious approach. If training went well, she would proceed with her plan to run Houston, and if not, she would pull the plug. As conventional running wisdom dictated, the racing caught up to Njeim.
“Training was awful—just terrible,” she said. “I would have easy tempo runs and couldn’t keep up.”
Whenever anyone would ask her how the training was going, Njeim lied and said, “OK,” unwilling to concede how bad it really was going. But she did get a boost of confidence when James changed his stance and encouraged her to continue her crazy chase.
“Eventually, Walter told me, ‘I know I told you before that it wasn’t a great idea, but I really want you to do it,’” Njeim said. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen anyone so stubborn in wanting to do something that I believe you’ll actually do well.’”
On January 16, the day before the race, Njeim and Kamal flew from Chicago to Houston—another decision flying in the face of the norm. Before racing, most runners allow themselves a day or two to get acclimated and shake out their legs after a flight.
Then again, one would be hard-pressed to find a time in Njeim’s life where she followed the scripted outline to success. Perhaps some people are just born ad-libbers operating in an alternate universe where racing three marathons in 95 days is as commonplace putting pants on one leg at a time.
Proof of their existence flashed in red digital numbers the following morning when Njeim crossed the finish line in 2:44:19.
“This [scenario] does not have a high likelihood for success,” said two-time U.S. Olympian Kara Goucher, who still regrets being talked out of running the Boston and London Marathons six days apart in 2009 by her then-coach Alberto Salazar.
“Success is not impossible, it’s just unlikely. I’d be impressed and inspired if someone actually pulled this off.”
Perhaps even more remarkable than the achievement itself is how Njeim has been received in Lebanon since.
This past April, she was invited back to her home country by the organizers of the Beirut Marathon Association to serve as an ambassador for their youth races. That week, she supported the kids, spoke with them, and did some training exercises with them.
It was the first of perhaps many more opportunities where Njeim will find herself serving as a role model—not only in her country but also the region.
“I think that Chirine can have a huge impact,” said marathon world-record-holder Paula Radcliffe, who met Njeim when she served as race ambassador to the Beirut Marathon last November. “She is breaking new ground for women marathon runners in the Middle East and inspiring young girls every day. She is showing what they can achieve by staying true to their beliefs and integrity and giving their best effort all the time.
“By achieving her own dream of running in the Olympics, she is inspiring countless young girls to dare to dream their own goals and showing them how to work hard and conduct themselves in achieving them.”
Today, Lebanon’s two most influential figures in running are both women – Njeim, and Beirut Marathon founder and president May El Khalil – a powerful statement in a region of the world that largely remains patriarchal in almost all aspects of life.
In 2001, El Khalil was struck by a car and left comatose after she was pinned against a wall while out for a run. Over the course of two ensuing years, she required 37 surgeries to regain the ability to walk. Although the accident left her unable to run again, she was inspired to start the Beirut Marathon as an instrument to promote peace in the region.
“Lebanon’s road running culture has started infiltrating, and did spread quite rapidly among the middle class and wealthier class communities in the Middle East,” El Khalil said. “Road running was a sport exclusively entertained by veterans of the armed forces and some lonesome runners 13 to 14 years ago. The initiation of the Beirut Marathon and its 13 consecutive editions and many other road races has caused a serious surge in the number of runners in Lebanon.
“Road racing has become a trendy activity for both men and women. Comparatively, the road running culture is better entrenched in Cyprus and Turkey, however Lebanon is way ahead of Iraq, Iran and Jordan. In Gulf countries, excluding elite East African athletes acquired and naturalized by Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE and Qatar, and despite well-organized and high-profile races such as Dubai Marathon and the Ras Al-Khaimah Half-Marathon, road running practically has no adepts among the indigenous population.”
According to Roger Bejjani of the Inter-Lebanon Running Club, the Lebanese marathon record was broken in the first edition of the Beirut Marathon in 2003, when Marie El Amm finished in 3:35. She would go on to break the record three more times, and established a best of 3:07:52 in 2009. Three weeks later, Nehme lowered it to 3:00:02 in Zurich. Njeim has since lowered it twice.
The progression of the national record has come down nearly 50 minutes in 13 years, or an average of 3 minutes and 45 seconds per year.
El Khalil believes Njeim will spark the next running boom in the region.
“I am confident that Chirine will establish a new national record in Rio, and I have no doubt she will inspire a new generation of young girls to follow her footsteps,” she said.
Radcliffe, who was never able to win a medal at the Olympics, agrees the Olympic platform is large enough that the unlikelihood of Njeim becoming Lebanon’s fifth-ever Olympic medalist will not diminish her ability to make a positive societal impact.
“By qualifying and going to the Olympics and by being the gracious and lovely woman that she is, Chirine will inspire so many young girls in the Middle East,” Radcliffe said. “She will achieve so much in the run in the Olympics and by then spreading the word and continuing to inspire young girls to go after their dreams when she gets home, this impact will continue to grow.
“My congratulations to her and to May and to all the female runners of Lebanon for what they have achieved and will go on to achieve.”
Njeim has and continues to receive volumes of support. She finds it somewhat ironic that she has been embraced exponentially more as a marathoner than she ever was as a three-time Olympic skier—a testament to the power and appeal of running.
“As an athlete, my job is to do the sweaty, physical work that enables me to compete and represent my country,” Njeim said. “In return, positive support and commendation are expected. In the past during the Winter Olympics, this was always a battle. Support was extremely limited or nonexistent, and it was always difficult to do my job knowing my labors were never appreciated. On the other hand, running the marathon for the Summer Games has been quite different.”
El Khalil pointed out Njeim’s performance in the 2015 Beirut Marathon, the first time a woman dipped under the three-hour mark, was “well covered by Lebanese media,” which undoubtedly led to the bolstered assistance she is receiving.
While in Lebanon this spring, she was surprised with a deal from Nike, which has provided her with shoes and apparel for training and competition in the lead-up to Rio.
“I have always been a fan of Nike, so to have their support is huge for me,” Njeim said. “They sent me three boxes of gear. When I opened it, I was like, ‘This is so cool!’ I couldn’t believe it. I am so thankful.”
Back in Chicago, the support has been overwhelming since she achieved the auto-qualifier in Houston. Her co-workers at Livongo Health hung a sign over her desk that reads, “On The Way To Rio 2016,” and beam with pride that there is an Olympian in their midst.
“Everyone’s been so great,” Njeim said. “They make me feel special.”
Although she is a four-time Olympian, Njeim admits to being apprehensive about her first as a Summer Games athlete.
“It’s kind of interesting, because going from skiing, where everything became so easy to figure out after the first time, now I’m like, ‘Where do I go? What do I do?’” Njeim said. “It will be interesting to experience this all over again.”
Njeim said her goal for Rio is to run faster than the 2:44:19 that got her there. But she’s mostly excited to be able to do what she has done all her life.
“I am very excited and proud to represent Lebanon the best that I can,” she said. “What it feels like being an Olympian is not something that I can easily describe. You’re literally living the dream for two weeks. It’s really incredible.
“It’s going to be awesome.”
Chirine finished 109th in the Rio Olympic Marathon on August 14,2016 in 2:51:08.