Published: April 4th 2012April 4th 2012
As always, my lead up to the Jerusalem marathon on the 16th
of March – 42.2 grueling kilometers of twists and turns, hills and valleys – started with my obsessive scrutiny of the ten-day on-line weather forecasts. Ticking down to the eve of the marathon the forecast ranged from truly terrible to absolutely terrible, with heavy rain and high winds predicted. And just to stick the knife in a little deeper, the forecast for the day after
the marathon, and several days after that, was for sunshine. Ah well, nobody remembers the sunny marathons anyway.
The night before the event I went through my pre-race ritual of laying all my clothing options on our living room couch, which included the rain-resistant black Nike tights and Segouy rain jacket that I wore for the Tiberias Marathon, and my short sleeved 2010 Vancouver Triathlon shirt with the black and red stylized image of a Haida Salmon on the front. On our coffee table I spread out an array of six GU energy gels ranging from Espresso Love to Vanilla Bean and Chocolate Outrage. I then prepared two large grey garbage bags for disposable weather protection, cutting out holes for my head and arms
in the first bag, and a single large hole for my waste in the second to be worn as a skirt.
I crawled out of bed marathon morning at 5:30 a.m., an hour and a half ahead of the 7:00 a.m. zee’nuk
(starting gun). The ground outside was wet, the skies grey, but the rain that fell through the night had stopped. I forced myself to eat my pre-race banana and a cup of hot water. Staring out the window, I opted out of wearing tights. Then, with the sun briefly poked through the clouds, I discarded the jacket as well. Instead, I grabbed a third garbage bag and cut out a head hole, but no arm holes, providing my bare arms a layer of protection from the wind and rain. Some people double bag. Me, I walked out into the Jerusalem morning at 6:10 a.m. triple-bagged.
As I stepped between puddles on Ruth Street I felt snug and surprisingly warm under my garbage bags. I walked up through the hillside neighbourhood of Katamon along Kovshai Katamon Street, which constituted the final monster-hill near the end of the marathon route. Cross streets were blocked with metal barriers to
keep vehicle traffic off the course. I focused on being in the moment and not looking ahead to my return to Kovshai Katamon later that morning. At the top of the hill, where Kovshai Katamon intersects with Palmach Street (which also forms part of the marathon route), uniformed and sleepy-eyed marathon security guards looked indifferently past me as though a person dressed from head to foot in garbage bags with white compression knee socks, and no arms visible, was as a normal as the many men hurrying off to morning prayers with their talit and t’fillin bags tucked under their arms.
I descended the back side of Katamon into Emek Ha’Matzlavah
(The Valley of the Cross) and looked up to the top of the hill one kilometer away where the gap between the Israel Museum to the left and Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to the right, marked the site of the Kav HaZee’nuk
(Starting line). All was silent as I walked through an olive grove by the Monastery of the Cross - the site where Christian tradition says the Romans cut down the tree used for the Crucifixion. Nearing the starting area massive speakers pumped out the song Le’olam lo lichbot et ha’shemesh
(Never put out the sun, never put out the light). Just as I thought to myself “I hope this bodes well for the race,” the rain started coming down, first in isolated large drops and then, in short order, in a torrent. The giant Israeli flag over the Knesset whipped in the wind.
There was no cover to stay dry until the zee’nuk
, still some 20 minutes off. The 1000-plus marathon runners milled about on Derech Ruppin
(Ruppin Way) in front of the Kav HaZee’nuk
trying to stay warm – stamping feet, swinging legs, and walking and jumping on the stop. The 30 elite African runners ran in tight circles wrapped in shiny gold space blankets issued by the event organizers. Clearly only the elite runners merited this benefit. Many runners disappeared behind trees and bushes for final preparations before the zee’nuk
Starting to feel the wet chill penetrating my garbage bags, I siddled up to a marathon security guard who was inhaling deeply on her cigarette while standing under the narrow cover of the starting gate. Somehow breathing in the second-hand smoke made me feel a little bit warmer. When my guard wandered
off I shifted to the side of the road and discretely eased under the umbrella of a spectator.
With minutes to go before the zee’nuk
, runners stripped off extra layers of clothing and handed them off to friends and family, or simply discarded them by the roadside. The Africans threw off their space blankets and stepped up to the Kav HaZee’nuk
. The golden blankets swirled away in every direction. Marathon volunteers chased down the blankets and threw them into garbage bins. With still a couple minutes to go I fished one out of a garbage bin and wrapped myself in it.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat fired the starting gun. I waited until about half the runners crossed the Kav HaZee’nuk
, then merged with the marathoners I knew would be running at a four to four and a half hour pace. As I walked under the starting gate and accelerated into an easy run, I let the golden space blanket fall away. It felt great to be running. On my streets. In my town. Streets that I had come to know intimately from many early mornings running in the darkness while the city slept.
As we headed west
towards the Givat Ram
campus of the Hebrew University I ripped away my garbage bag skirt. Thinking ahead to the Tel Aviv Marathon exactly two weeks into the future, I concentrated on running slowly. My running guru, Jerry Ziak of Vancouver Forerunners, told me the only way I could run two marathons in two weeks was to treat the first as a long, slow, training run. Looking up Derech Ruppin
to a gentle rise, an Israeli runner beside me said: Henay ha-aliya ha-reeshona
– Here’s the first hill
. And it was the first of many, most not gentle at all.
We circled the Givat Ram
Campus and within 10 minutes had gone up and down more hills than in the entire Tiberias Marathon. Again, men outnumbered women by a ten to one margin. But Jerusalem being Jerusalem, a religious woman - kerchiefed and wearing loose black sweat pants under a long black skirt - ran slightly in front of me for the first quarter of the marathon.
From Givat Ram
we circled around to Ben Zvi and Hazza Boulevards that run alongside Gan (Park) Sacker and the Kav HaSee’um
(the finish line). The finishing area next to us,
on Jerusalem’s largest lawn, was once the site of a make-shift landing strip used during the 1948 War of Independence to supply Israel’s besieged capitol.
I love the feeling of having the city’s main arteries like Ben Zvi and Hazza - normally clogged with traffic - all to myself and the other runners. These two boulevards are, in fact, different sections of the same street that changes names several more times – a phenomenon characteristic of a city with far too many historical figures and events to commemorate. Which results in a second common phenomenon – many Jerusalemites don’t know street names since individual streets often have so many of them.
Almost a half hour into the marathon the course climbed in stages up Tchernichowsky Street back to Katamon; it felt good to be running in my neighbourhood so early in the race. At the top of the hill the course turned sharply left and doubled back on Palmach Street - which becomes Nasi Street and then Jabotinsky Street (see what I mean) - and past the President’s Official Residence. The sidewalk in front of the Residence was patrolled by black-clad guards in sunglasses (rain or shine), automatic
weapons, and stony faces. By now the rain had largely subsided, though skies remained grey. A nearby runner called out to the guards, “Ha’eem Motti po
?” (is Motti here?). The guards pointed to a nearby security booth. The runner and a silhouette seated in the booth behind tinted and bullet proof glass – apparently Motti - exchanged waves.
High-fiving (very high) cheerleaders on stilts while descending sharply down Jabotinsky Street through the neighbourhood of Talbiya, I tried not to think of my return visit when I would have to ascend Jabotinsky at the three quarter mark of the race. By this point there had been no rain for a while so I pulled off my sleeveless garbage bag, dropped it on the side walk, and continued up Karen Hayesod Street, (which becomes King George Street, then Straus, then Yehezkel) just as the rain started up again, this time combined with a head-wind that drove the cold rain into my face, and my now-bare arms. The wind and rain followed me as I turned right onto Jaffa Street and headed down towards Old City along the tracks of the new light rail train (that was not running due to race).
As the stone walls of the Old City came into view at the end of Jaffa Street, so too did a wave of African runners returning from Givat Tsorfateet
(French Hill). Turning left at the corner of Old City I ran by New Gate and let gravity pull me down the steep incline of Tsanchanim
(Paratroopers) Street towards Damascus Gate. The Africans zoomed back up towards me apparently unaffected by the pull of gravity. I then turned left again onto the Kav HaTefer
(the Seam Line) cutting diagonally across the city between the Jewish neighborhoods of Musrarra, Me’ah She’arim and Geula to left, and the Arab neighbourhoods of Wadi al-Joz and Sheikh Jarrah to right. On the horizon stood Givat Tsorfateet
towering in distance. The Kav HaTefer
is the former armistice line that existed from 1948 to the 1967 Six Day War, dividing Israeli Jerusalem and Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem. “Jordanian” Jerusalem was Judenrein
(free of Jews) during those 19 years after the Jordanians expelled all Jews in 1948 and dynamited the ancient Jewish Quarter’s synagogues. On Marathon Friday, the road along the Kav HaTefer
was lined with groups of soldiers in the Border Police, including many Ethiopian Israelis who are
heavily represented in the force. This, in addition to 400 regular police officers stationed throughout the course.
The wide road, Bar Lev Boulevard, leading to Givat Tsorfateet
along the Kav HaTefer
is now Jerusalem’s central artery – and constitutes the longest sustained hill of the marathon, rising steadily for more than two kilometers. Well familiar with Bar Lev as part of my routine training run, my body climbed the hill on auto pilot, while I marveled at the second wave of runners returning from Givat Tsorfateet
– the sub-three-hour recreational runners.
Bar Lev also parallels the mid-section of Jerusalem’s light rail system, where the morning before - at almost the exact same time - a local young Arab boarded a train and repeatedly stabbed a 19 year old female soldier, leaving her critically wounded. This terrorist attack revived memories of a bus bombing in Jerusalem two days before last year’s marathon. The fact that neither attack derailed Jerusalem’s marathons is testament to both the ever-present threat of terror here, and the city’s resilience and refusal to permit terrorists to take away Jerusalem’s commitment to carry on normal life come what may.
At the top of Bar Lev
Boulevard the marathon turned right into Givat Tsorfateet
and then right again, heading south to the main campus of the Hebrew University on Har HaTsofim
(Mount Scopus). I heard a shout from amongst the marathoners who were already doubling back - “Frrrrrrrrrreddy.” I looked back over my shoulder to see my downstairs neighbour and friend Yaacov waving as he sped off 25 minutes in front of me. I waved and wondered how Yaacov managed to be so far ahead.
Circling around the Hebrew U on the east side of the campus we crossed over the highest ridge of Jerusalem, which runs north-south, and descended into the upper fringe of the Judean desert. In so doing, we stepped into a completely different environment. Suddenly the rain stopped, the wind died, and the temperature rose. As I looked down towards to the Dead Sea further to the east, I happily figured the weather had taken a significant turn for the better.
I sadly figured wrong. As I rounded the corner back to the west side Har HaTsofim
, a cold blast of wind and rain hit me in the face and almost stopped me in my tracks. Turns out that the
wind and rain had never stopped – they had simply stayed on the windward side of the hill waiting for me to round the corner. As I leaned into the head-wind, I looked south-west down to the Temple Mount in the Old City below and to my neighbourhood way off in the distance beyond. Many of the international runners stopped to photograph the dramatic view.
Just in front of me a blind marathoner and his escort ran side by side, tethered at the wrists. I pulled up beside them, synchronized by pace, and asked if they had a code for the steepness of hills. “Sure,” smiled the escort, who is an Israeli Airforce pilot, “Zero is flat, and five is hell.” The Kovshai Katamon hill in my neighbourhood, he agreed, topped the list.
Turning back down Bar Lev Boulevard and the Kav HaTefer
, I let gravity and momentum pull me back towards the Old City, crossing the half-way point of the Marathon on the way down. As I crossed the half way point on Bar Lev, the winners were already crossing the Kav HaSee’um
(Finish Line) in Gan Sacker. David Toniok of Kenya crossed first at 2:19:52, followed
by Gudeta Biratu (Ethiopia) at 2:22:42 and John Mutai (Kenya) at 2:23:31. The female winner was Mihiret Antios of Ethiopia, who finished almost a half hour later at 2:48:38. Note to self: next year I’ll have to spend a little more time on speed training.
As we neared the Old City a marathon supporter on the sidewalk yelled – Aze mikse atem?
– what running event are you in? Which was not a stupid question. Though the marathon was well organized, there were 15,000 participants in all the miksot
, and many points in the city where the three major events – the full marathon, the half and the 10 kilometer races - overlapped and then went off in different directions. So it was often unclear which way the full marathon turned. Last year the African winners of the full marathon crossed the half-marathon finish line by mistake. And I was determined not to get off course - 42.2 kilometers was more than enough. So as we reached the corner of the Old City I called out to a marathon volunteer – as I did throughout the race - Le aze keevun hamaraton hamaleh?
– which way for the full marathon?
The marathon entered the Old City through Jaffa Gate where the Christian (Arab) and Armenian Quarters meet. The merchants in the shops and the groups of soldiers casually lolling about inside the Gate seemed indifferent to our presence. Impossible to tell if they were indifferent to the marathon itself, or simply unimpressed with us four-hour-plus marathon-slugs. As for me, I focused on not slipping on the wet paving stones.
The course continued through the Armenian Quarter for a half kilometer and then out through Zion Gate. I started to look forward to a return to the ‘hood and meeting up with my wife Aimee and our two boys, Ezra and Adin. Running down from Mount Zion of course meant running back up to the neighbourhoods of Abu Tor, Baka, Moshava HaGermanite, Moshava HaYavanite, Talbiya and Katamon which all, more or less, bump up together within a few short blocks of our home. The “run” up to the ‘hood was without doubt a “five”.
As I passed the President’s Residence for the second time I looked over to see Motti in his bullet proof glass booth. With the sun now breaking through cracks in the cloud cover, I hoped the weather had taken a permanent turn for the better and pulled off my third and final garbage bag. Running along side the Jerusalem Theatre on Chopin Street I saw the boys and Aimee, standing on the corner as pre-arranged. They ran towards, and then alongside me, slowing down to “keep up” with my pace. We chatted as we ran down the hill to Emek Refaim Street - which is Jerusalem’s answer to Vancouver’s 4th
Avenue and Commercial Drive. They recounted watching the elite runners blaze along “The Emek,” and how they’d been hit with wet snow and hail earlier in the morning. For the moment the weather was perfect, and smiling marathon fans emerged from the side-streets, fashionable shops and restaurants along Emek Refaim.
As we reached the heart of Emek Refaim, two blocks from our home, Ezra looked to our right and said, “Hey, there’s our pizza man.” Sure enough, the co-owner of the tiny hole-in-the-wall “Red’s Pizza”, located around the corner from us, was running along side us. We exchanged running stories. Turns out that between serving up pizza slices and barad
(slurpies) to Ezra, Adin and the rest of the neighbourhood kids, he had been training for his first full marathon. After running with me for two kilometers, Aimee and the boys pulled off at the end of Emek Refaim with a promise to meet up again on Tchernichowsky Street to run the final two kilometers together.
I zigged left onto the bike path along Derech HaRakevit
(Railway Way) then zagged right onto Derech Hevron
, (Hebron Way) - the eight lane artery linking Jerusalem to Gush Etzion and Hebron to the south. Somewhere in the zag the sunny calm of the bike path turned into the gale force winds of Derech Hevron
, which were toppling the heavy metal traffic barriers along the sides of the road. After one landed inches from my feet I shifted to the middle of the road to create some distance between myself and the crashing barriers. At points along Derech Hevron
the head wind was so strong I felt like I was running on the spot.
Turning east onto Yanovsky Street the wind eased off. As we ran parallel to the Sherover Promenade I looked left to see the Old City rising from the valley, with Har HaTsofim
(Mount Scopus) and the Hebrew U rising above the Old City even further to the north-east – the exact same view I had of the Old City about an hour earlier from Har HaTsofim
, except in reverse. I looked ahead at the Hill of Evil Counsel. The Hill and it’s prominent stone buildings, now a UN compound, previously housed the official residence of the British High Commissioner in Palestine. The site has long been associated with betrayal; here, according to Christian tradition, Judas sold out Jesus then, filled with regret, later returned to hang himself from a tree on the hill. Odd how the British and the UN would chose this particular location for themselves.
By the time I doubled back onto Derech Hevron
the wind had largely died away. Running south up Derech Hevron
I encountered my second cheering section – Adin’s dreadlocked rock-star violin teacher Michael Greilsammer and his wife Shimreet. Though eight months pregnant Shimreet was jumping up and down and shouting my name, while Michael photographed us on his I-phone. With only four kilometers to go this gave me the huge lift I needed as I approached Jerusalem’s Heartbreak Hill, the Code 5 Hell of Kovshai Katamon Street that I had walked up so many hours and kilometers earlier on my way to the starting line.
At the bottom of the marathon’s final major hill, I glanced to my right at our apartment complex, visible 2 blocks away, and imagined myself soaking in a hot shower. Looking back up the hill I saw a marathoner walking up Kovshai Katamon. Determined not to walk myself, I willed myself step by step to keep running, grinding my way up the hill at a pace barely faster than the walker.
Turning left onto Palmach Street, my body adjusted happily to the flat road, though my pace picked up only slightly. I retraced my steps down Tchernichowsky Street where, finally, I saw my other cheering section – Aimee and the boys. Aimee said they’d been waiting in the rain, wind and hail for about almost an hour. All looked to be showing early signs of hypothermia. Ezra, hatless as always, was wet and shivering. Adin, his head under the hood of his red Spiderman jacket, was stiff with cold. The boys, having to make an effort to slow to my pace, wondered out loud how someone could possibly run so slowly.
We ran the final 2 kilometers together as a family. At the entrance to Gan Sacker, 200 meters from the Kav HaSee’um
, soldiers with M16 automatic rifles were stopping all non-participants from entering the park. The soldier who stopped Aimee was very apologetic, “Ani mitstaer aval atem lo yacholim la’avor
– I’m so sorry but I can’t let you pass.” Aimee pleaded with the soldier, who stood his ground. Sensing that the soldier would not leave his post, I grabbed the boys’ hands, said, “Hem eetee
– they’re with me,” and kept running. The soldier, distracted by Aimee, clearly didn’t have the heart to chase down two boys holding hands with their dad.
As we entered the park, the sun broke through. The giant digital clock by the Kav Ha’See’um
(finish line) showed 4:40 – my slowest time ever. The three of us crossed the finish line running side by side. A young girl volunteer – apparently assuming we’d all just completed the full 42.2 kilometers - placed medals around the necks of Adin and Ezra. The boys - Cheshire Cat smiles on their faces - were not about tell her otherwise.
The finishing area, part of the Gan Sacker lawn, had turned to mud. In seconds our shoes were soaked in mud. I wrapped myself in a golden space blanket, then entered the food tent where Aimee met up with us. The boys and I gorged on free food – the boys on cake, me on apples, then cake.
Our pizza man finished a few minutes after me. Outside the food tent I met up with my neighbour Yaakov who finished with a fantastic time of 3:54, and was beaming with satisfaction. He couldn’t help himself from looking surprised when I told him I had just arrived – 45 minutes after him – but quickly caught himself and congratulated me on my successful race.
We hung around taking pictures and eating, then walked home as the clouds finally swallowed the sun once and for all. Thankfully, however, no more barrier-crashing winds, rain, hail, or sleet. When we arrived back at our apartment building our next door neighbour Dani, a chain-smoking pediatric surgeon, sat outside puffing on a cigarette. As I shuffled over to him – pale, drained, shivering, dried sweat caked on my face, my golden space blanket clutched tight to my body - Danny motioned at me with his cigarette. “I am sure that smoking is healthier than marathon running,” he averred. Who knows, with the way I looked and felt, and with the prospect of the Tel Aviv Marathon exactly 2 weeks away, he was probably right.