Halfway through the Athens Classic Marathon in November 2003, Dutchman Sebastian Straten was about to collapse. The then 30-year-old runner had trained for five months for his first 42km race, yet his legs were giving up on him as he hit an uphill section of the course in the Greek capital.
“But I told myself, ‘I want to finish this’,” he said. “When I start something, I never like to give up. It doesn’t matter how hard it is. I think that every runner has that mentality.”
Straten clocked four hours and 30 minutes as he reached the finish line at Panathinaiko Stadium, the same venue as the 1896 and 2004 Olympic ceremonies.
Organising the first marathon in Tehran on April 7 is like running in Athens all over again and doing it every day, Straten told Al Jazeera.
“It is extremely challenging. I feel like I am constantly running to make sure that everything goes well.”
Tehran-based organiser Maryam Feize said by bringing the marathon to Tehran, they want runners around the world to experience Iranian hospitality through sport, as well as their food, arts and culture, which were closed off to the West following decades of sanctions that were only lifted last year.
“We want to show everybody that Iran is a partner in making bridges, not walls.” Just recently, Iran has been the target of US President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
On that first Friday of April, runners from more than 50 countries will gather in the Iranian capital to make history.
According to the event website, 1,121 have so far registered online for the race, which also includes half-marathon, 10km races and a 1km fun run for children. Straten said hundreds of local runners are also expected to sign up.
For a country not accustomed to the tradition of street running, convincing public officials to shut down 42km stretch of roads in Tehran, and allow runners to take over the metropolis of 16 million people was the first challenge, he said.
“To do something new is always more difficult. It took a lot of explaining what a marathon is all about,” Straten said.
“It is the first time something like this is being held in Tehran, so it is very special for local authorities to make sure everything goes well and safely.”
Running for the environment
That the run is being held on a weekend eased concerns that it would create more congestion in a city already grappling with vehicular gridlock.
Straten said that with the marathon, Tehran can also help promote environmental awareness and the importance of clean air. In November 2016, as many as 412 deaths were blamed on the city’s air pollution, according to Fars News.
With the snow-capped Alborz Mountains serving as their backdrop, runners will crisscross Tehran, starting from Azadi (Freedom) Stadium, passing by the Azadi Tower, the iconic marble structure prominent in many rallies and protests including the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Other landmarks dotting the route include the Ferdowsi Square, built in honour of the famous Persian poet, Ferdowsi, and the Tehran City Theatre along Valiasr, one of the longest streets in the Middle East.
Straten said having organised a similar race in the southern city of Shiraz last year helped convince officials that a marathon can be done in the country.
But for Straten, who also operates a travel agency helping foreign runners come to Iran, the event is not just about work. He met his wife, Foroogh, while touring the ancient city of Yazd in 2005.
“Lighting struck,” he said with a chuckle. He ended up staying in Iran for five years. They now have two children.
He hopes the race will also ignite passion in outdoor running among the country’s youth, who make up over 70 percent of the 80 million population.
‘Once in a lifetime experience’
Convincing foreign runners to join and come to Iran was another hurdle.
“We have to explain to the runners that Iran is a perfectly safe country, and that there is no hostility towards Westerners or foreign tourists or runners,” Straten said.
For Canadian Iranian runner Haleh Magnus, however, there is nothing more special than taking part in the first marathon in her city of birth.
Magnus told Al Jazeera she decided to extend her family’s stay in Iran for a week, so she could join the race.
“I truly believe running is the best sport for the soul and body, and a unique event like this can be inspiring to lots of people around the world,” said Magnus, who is running 15 races this year, including an ultra-marathon in June.
There were some confusion about the rules on female runners, and whether they could run at all. Organisers told Al Jazeera women are allowed to run as long as they adhere to Iran’s dress code.
The marathon website states: “Women are obliged to wear a headscarf or sports bandana (so that your hair will be covered). A T-shirt with long sleeves and a running pants can be a good choice. Please keep in mind that the length of the T-shirt can not be too short (T-shirt must cover your hips). You may not wear shorts or skirts showing bare legs.”
Andre Doehring joined last year’s race in Shiraz, where only male runners officially participated. He said running close to the ancient city of Persepolis was “unique”. Doehring, who had also run a marathon in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, said he hopes the Tehran race will “bring people together”.
Albertas Juknys had run 16 marathons including Paris in 2009. He managed to finish the Shiraz race after getting injured. Like him, he urged foreign runners to sign up for the Tehran Marathon.
Family ties persuaded British runner Bobak Walker to join. He last visited his mother’s country of birth in 2009, before the 2011 incident that forced the British Embassy in Tehran to shut down, and cut off of diplomatic ties between the UK and Iran.
Relations have since been restored, but it is still “very difficult” to get a visa, Walker said.
“To be there for the inaugural event is a really exciting, once in a lifetime thing,” he said. “I’ve made a big effort to get there. But I think it will be worth it.”
For the race, he is raising money for Amnesty International.
Despite some injuries and recent illness, Walker said he is determined not to miss out on the opportunity, “even if I’m hobbling over the line”.
“My grandmother will be there in Tehran cheering me on.”