March 21, 2017
For the past 5 days I have been away from home on a very exciting trip to Israel to report on the incredible sports scene that can be found there. I was invited by the Ministry of Tourism along with 39 other international journalists and bloggers to take part in one of the races at the Jerusalem Marathon and to get a feel for what else is on offer.
When the enquiry came in, I’m not going to lie, I was a little bit apprehensive. I’d never been anywhere in the Middle East before and knew very little about Israel, other than what I had seen on the news, which often paint a very negative picture.
But I figured, what the heck. I love to travel, I love an adventure…oh and of course I love to run.
Over the next few weeks I will be writing more about my trip and what I experienced. But for the purposes of this blog post I am going to purely focus on the actual race.
So here goes…its a long one so get comfy.
I don’t think it actually hit me that I was really going to be running a half marathon until I arrived at the Expo the night before the race. The itinerary had been pretty busy that day, I was really tired and this was the last thing we had planned, that and of course the pasta party.
Now I have been to a few so called Pasta parties before but this was pretty incredible. The food on offer was pretty impressive, pasta by the bucket load, but also beautiful breads, salads, platters of fruit…you name it. There was also a live band, and just a general sense that this was an actual party…a celebration ahead of the race.
Now we had enjoyed a huge meal at lunch time near Jaffa Gate close to the walls of the old town, despite it being described on our schedule as a “light lunch” the food just kept coming. We were all a little baffled, as they cleared away what we thought was lunch, but turned out was just the appetisers…then came the pasta, pizza and then salmon and rice, desserts and coffees too.
So as you can imagine by dinner time, I didn’t need much more.
I helped myself to a small plate and joined a table with one other guy. He was Polish, and this was his first time in Israel. He was to be running the full marathon, and is currently making his way around the world running races. We were joined by a guy from Croatia, and his story was pretty similar…he had spent the day in Bethlehem.
The Jerusalem Marathon sees 30,000 participants take to the streets in a range of distances, and this year there were 1500 international runners from all over the world, including some from nations where you wouldn’t expect to see support in this way, baring in mind the challenging politics of this region in the world.
So I guess its only right and proper to explain right from the off that I am not the most knowledgable on world politics or the tensions that can be found in parts of Israel, but I do know that just like many areas of the world, it’s often a complex mix of issues relating to religion, land ownership, resources, cultural beliefs etc…so I won’t attempt to even write about this here.
But what I will say is at the press conference which we attended the previous day the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat said,
This is not just a sporting event, it is a spiritual one too. Where runners from all faiths come together, putting aside their differences to run across the holy land and to experience peace and happiness.
I knew this race was going to be pretty special. Not sure I knew exactly how much so when I woke up on race day.
It was an early start. My alarm went off at 5am. I was dressed in less than 10 minutes and then went for breakfast. The Leonardo Plaza hotel was full of runners, many running for local charities…and I even spotted one lady in a tutu…whats a race without a bit of fancy dress hey?
I walked down to the start line with two of my new friends, Steph who writes for the New York Times and Marc from a running magazine in Tokyo. My race started at 6.45 so we didn’t have much time to hang around. When we arrived at the race village it was already buzzing. Security was tight but friendly, and we soon found ourself in the press tent with a few other VIPs that were taking part. Tiki Barbour, ex American Football Player for the Giants and now TV pundit, and Alessandro Costacorta, football player for AC Milan who we met briefly at a football project where children of all faiths come together to play.
Next thing I know, Steph and I were heading to the start line.
I felt relaxed. My plan was simple to enjoy the race and not go for any specific time. Jerusalem is a city built on 7 hills, so I was hardly going to break any records.
The first half mile was pretty flat, very busy as people jostled for position. I took things steady as I knew things would start getting a bit more difficult soon and I was right. The first hill came 6 or 7 minutes into the route and it was a steady climb. The sun had just made an appearance too and I was starting to worry that perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew.
But I kept plodding.
It was so early in the morning, yet there were already supporters out on the streets and lots of Jeruselamites just going about their daily business. I was in my element people watching, and trying to make sense of the Israeli running scene.
There were lots of women wearing headdresses and skirts over their running clothes, and a real mix of ages. This was a people watchers dream, and I made a decision early on that music or audiobooks would not be needed.
In fact there was music all the way around the course, and all kinds of entertainment. Bands, traditional and modern, street performers, clowns…and so many local residents, with calls of
Which I assumed meant well done
kol ha-ka-vod, kol ha-ka-vod
I hoped it was that and not “Get a move on you slow coach”
Turns out it does mean well done/good job, but actually the direct translation is…
All the respect
Which I think is beautiful.
I hit the 5K mark at about 40 minutes still feeling good, not bad considering the hills and my occasional stopping to take pictures. The run through the old town was simply indescribable…my slow pace meant there were only a handful of runners coming through rather than hundreds, so the sights and the sounds were completely undisturbed…and I did my best to soak up all of that energy.
The history of this place in simply magical, growing up in the Catholic church meant these places had real significance to me, something I’d not really considered until I was running the race.
I have always been a real supporter of diversity and communities learning from one another, East London is not that different in some ways to Jerusalem…we all have to find a way to live side by side, and events like this one bring us together for a moment of shared excitement and happiness.
There were some really touching moments out on the course, by mile 7 or 8 I was starting to struggle a little, I’d managed to miss the gels at the water station so my energy levels were low.
A guy ran past me while I was walking for a bit, and very gently tapped my shoulder and motioned for me to run with him. I did for a while before he sped up and went on ahead.
A little later along the same stretch of road I noticed an older lady over take me. She looked to be in her late 50’s, was wearing a skirt and scarf, and could have done with a slightly more supportive sports bra in my view.
I figured I would stay with her for a bit. NO CHANCE. This lady was so speedy and so, so determined. I just couldn’t keep up, in fact I couldn’t even keep her in sight.
But you know, this race was strange because normally during a half marathon I use all kinds of motivational tricks to keep me going, checking in on my pace, my 60 second rule, my 100 game, staying with people for as long as possible…but today I didn’t want to play this game.
Time wasn’t at all important for me…if it took me 4 hours or even 5 that would have been fine by me.
I approached 10 miles in about 2 hours, just as the first elite athlete from the Marathon overtook me Shadrack Kipkogey who went on to win the race is 2.17.
This gave me a bit of a boost and my running pace increased a bit.
The hills of this race were really tough, but do you know it didn’t make it unenjoyable…in fact some of them were so ridiculously steep I just laughed as I power walked up them and occassionally shouted out
Who put these hills here
…with my hands thrown dramatically above my head for effect.
At about mile 12 at the top of THE most steepest hill EVER…a family stood cheering the runners and handing out sweets…I have never been so grateful for a little pink chewy sweet in all my life…as when I eventually got my hand on a gel just after 10 miles…much to my disappointment I found out they were coffee flavoured…I HATE COFFEE!!!!
The final stretch of the event took us past the race village and the finish line for the full marathon, I didn’t realise there were two separate finishing areas so before I knew it I had reached the end…in some ways it was a little underwhelming…and I secretly wished I had signed up for the full.
Although, with those hills I would possibly have been looking at an 8 hour finish.
I had done it.
I had run a very hilly half marathon in a strange but holy land, and I had done it in a very respectable (I think) 3 hours 6 minutes and 55 seconds.
And I wan’t even that exhausted.
The race village was buzzing now, as the 10K, 5K and family race participants were now added to the mix, there were all kinds of interactive activities going on, and I had made it back just in time to see the presentations for the marathon winners.
After a brief stay in the Press tent to let the organisers know I had finished I headed back to the hotel. Clearly on a bit of a runners high I managed to get lost and with no map and no internet connection on my phone, I managed to walk around the city for 2 hours.
I might as well have done the marathon after all, as I clocked up 50,000 steps that day.
Now this could have been a disaster, but actually I thoroughly enjoyed myself sitting down on benches at some points to watch Jerusalem life go by.
Managed to use my credit card (I had no Shekels either) in a petrol station to get a cold drink and a snack…and thought come on nobody knows me here, so what if I’m red faced, sweaty and smelly.
I finally arrived back at the hotel around 2pm…baring in mind I had left out at 6ish…thats a long day right?
What an event.
So difficult to sum up in words, you really do need to experience it yourself to understand the magnitude of it.
I will never forget this race…EVER!!
Too often we make assumptions about places, about people. We take the stories we see in the press and don’t take the time to experience a place, a nation to make up our own mind.
Jerusalem has a charm that got me right in the heart, and I will be back for sure….the 2018 event maybe?
I would like to say a massive thank you to the Ministry of Tourism, and to all of the staff that made our trip so exciting and meaningful.
Look out for some future posts about the broader trip and in particular what I learned about myself out in the desert the day following the race.