Running The Jerusalem Marathon

When I let family, friends and coworkers know I was flying to Israel for the Jerusalem Marathon, I had first to explain that, yes, it was safe. They’d then ask about the course. After describing the hilliness of what promised to be a scenic route, I got clever responses, such as, “Godspeed.”

My counter to that was that my real reason for going was as an industrial espionage mission to determine whether highly-religious runners wore moisture-wicking versions of their sacred garments. If they didn’t, there may be a market for endurance sports apparel so that marathoners and other “ultra” orthodox runners could enhance their performances by believing without compromising their abilities to sweat and wick moisture.

The flight to Israel is at least 10 hours from the US so unless you are adept at running with jet lag, arriving a few days early is shrewd. I played the “I’m used to jet lag” card and arrived the day before the race, in time to register and attend a press conference with the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Markat, a classic rugged Israeli, past-soldier who, only weeks earlier had stopped a terrorist with his own hands and was running the 10k race. He told the audience that his Holy City’s “unique topography” — the euphemism he used to promote the “athletically challenging,” breathtaking route — would take runners through the site-packed course tomorrow, going over plenty of hills.

The Mayor and race staff also spoke of the Jerusalem community that would be out there to cheer the runners. Between the marathon, half, 10K and 5K races, there would be approximately 25,000 participants, many of whom would be running in memory of soldiers lost in recent conflicts. And on the sidelines of the friendly city would be hosts of cultures made up of a diverse mosaic of pilgrims and immigrants that are part of Jerusalem’s tossed salad of cultures, histories, religions and peoples. Running this marathon would take tourism to a whole new level, which explains why 2,500 runners came from outside Israel. They, like I, knew that this race ranked high on any runner’s destination list. “It is a holy land of peace” is how last year’s winner from South African described the city.

Not surprisingly, security is taken very seriously in Israel. Very. You will be keenly aware of it, from the half hour before your plane lands, when nobody is permitted to leave their seat on the plane, to the machine-gun-armed soldiers who guarded the route to assure runners’ safety. The entire city is shut down from 5 a.m. of the Friday race day until past noon, with most of Jerusalem’s thruways completely blocked to traffic. Some residents celebrated the stoppage, coming out to cheer as whole families or to play music with bands. Others did not, trying to go about their day even though so many runners were obstructing that objective.

The race itself was as challenging as it was built up to be, thanks to the hills that made up 90 percent of the course. The constant up and down, some of it rather steep and long, comes with the cost of slowing the pace by at least 10 minutes over the 26.2 miles, with barely-sub-2:20 winning times by sub 2:10 marathoners. But the long climbs also come with the bonus of outstanding views, as the route winds its way through Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, including an exciting half mile or so that twists through the Old City on its cobble-stoned corridors. There’s nothing like centuries of history to make you feel like you are moving quickly.

Side Bar: What To Do When Not Running

The marathon is scheduled during an exciting time in Jerusalem’s action-packed year of culture and heritage events. Beyond the obvious visits to the Holy City’s religious and historic attractions, there is the ubiquitous pastime of eating, an activity Israelis do very well and in a healthful manner, courtesy of the nation’s fresh produce and the rich Mediterranean influence. Can you say hummus? Markets in both the Old City and Jerusalem’s modern areas thrive and, even if you don’t want to buy anything, they still offer the exciting entertainment of tremendous human beehives.

There are more museums and other cultural establishments per capita here than any other place on earth. And, if that weren’t enough, Jerusalem’s music and light festivals overlap with the marathon. For pre or post-marathon touring alternatives, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv offer guided Segway excursions that are fun for most all ages, especially those who like to act like kids.

Being a small country, it is easy to travel from Jerusalem to historic and geographic attractions like Masada or the Dead Sea or to the thriving Mediterranean metropolis of Tel Aviv, which boasts a Barcelona-like beat.