Is the Tel Aviv marathon measured correctly? Better ask that guy in Poland
Tadeusz Dziekonski, a 63-year-old economist at the Polish Finance Ministry, will make sure Israel's big race is exactly 42.195 kilometers long.
Two years ago, when Mogas Tasama crossed the finish line of the half marathon in the Israeli championships, he was sure this was his best race ever. He was sure he had smashed Haile Satayin's 13-year-old record.
But after a raft of complaints, the route was remeasured, revealing that Tasama was 133 meters off a half marathon's 21.1 kilometers. Despite changes in the Beit She'an route that year, nobody had bothered to measure the race. Tasama's celebrations took a sour twist a few days later when the record was annulled.
Track-and-field fans had witnessed a big problem for the sport in Israel: unmeasured courses. "There's nothing more aggravating," one runner told Haaretz. "You expect a certain time based on the distance you've trained for, and then you realize somebody was very careless."
According to international rules, Israeli officials have only one solution: a phone call to Poland, home of the top expert at the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races -- AIMS. The man in question, Tadeusz Dziekonski, will make sure that in the upcoming Tel Aviv Marathon, no runner misses a meter.
Dziekonski, 63, won't take part in the Tel Aviv race. On Monday he has to be back in Poland for his day job: He's a senior economist at the Polish Finance Ministry.
I met Dziekonski in the lobby of the David Intercontinental Hotel, a short walk from the marathon's expected starting point at the Tel Aviv promenade. The bespectacled Pole, wrapped in a faded yellow AIMS coat, had returned from a long day at the track – a day that included endless efforts to calibrate the measuring gadget he has been using around the globe since the late '80s. Former star runner Amit Ne'eman accompanied him, keen to learn the tools of the trade.
This is Dziekonski's third time in Tel Aviv to measure the Tel Aviv race, and the responsibilities keep growing. The Tel Aviv Marathon is the largest popular sporting event in Israel, and this year at least 35,000 runners will take part, 15,000 more than last year, the organizers say. The race is beginning to resemble the ones in New York, Berlin, Amsterdam and Rome.
Dziekonski doesn't blink when he hears these numbers. As a top AIMS measurer, he approves at least 30 important European races a year, including the world championships and world cup races. Dozens - if not hundreds – of marathon routes have received his seal of approval; millions have run the courses he measured. He's the entry ticket to marathon prestige.
"When I measure a track, I never give a thought to how prestigious the race is," Dziekonski says. "I come to carry out my work professionally so all runners cover the exact distance required."
He says he has never made a mistake in 25 years of measuring routes. Dziekonski and Ne'eman say complaints about errors are often due to the runners' GPS gadgets. "They simply aren’t precise," Ne'eman says.
This year, Dziekonski has to approve several new routes within the Tel Aviv Marathon. The rise in participants has brought on a rise in safety requirements. Dziekonski has to ride a rented bicycle through narrow streets, or often against the traffic on busy streets.
Ne'eman, riding behind Dziekonski, seems constantly worried, fearing the worst. Neither can forget the drunken girls who ran at them from a pub on Allenby one time.
In extreme cases, a police car halts traffic while the two go about their business. Every five kilometers the two stop and mark a spot on the road, a spot that will appear on the official maps. Tel Aviv drivers are curious but don't necessarily slow down. Dziekonski prefers to ignore them; he's only interested in one thing: finding the shortest route from the start to the finish.
Do you also run in the races you measure?
"I began measuring after being a competitive marathon runner for years. [At his peak Dziekonski ran the race in 2:29 hours, while his 7:51 hours for 100 kilometers is an excellent time.] So naturally, I often took part in races I measured. It's best to measure them by foot, and it's a very special feeling to run a course you helped plan."
Did you ever run one of the marathons you measured in Israel?
Yes, I measured the Tiberias Marathon and took part in the race.
What's the Tel Aviv Marathon's potential?
This is an urban route that passes through interesting sites, but it isn't a fast course. Even the best Kenyan runners won't go below 2:10. Unlike the fastest marathons, the Tel Aviv course has many turns and slopes. The race's success depends on the number of participants and its budget. If it continues to grow, and well-known runners show up, it could become a major event.
Dziekonski has heard the joke that he's paid for every centimeter he measures. It's half true: AIMS pays Dziekonski based on the distance, whether 10 kilometers, a half marathon or a full marathon. "It isn't enough to support a family on," he notes.
So why does he do it? "International and national records are made based on my measurements. This is my vocation as a runner, my contribution to the world of track and field."