Rafi Farhi decided to become an ironman when a triathlete passed him while biking. "I was riding with a friend during the winter, in freezing rain, up the path to Nes Harim, where you spit blood for 13 kilometers," he recalls. "I felt every cell in my body screaming. Then, a guy with a tattoo on his leg coasted past me. I had yet to absorb what happened when another guy passed me, as if he were just warming up. I asked my friend who these guys were, and he answered, 'Ironmen. Forget it. They're not in our league.' I immediately decided to become one of them, and to get a tattoo on my leg, as well."

The red tattoo bears the official Ironman logo, which Farhi earned.

Farhi, 49, of Tel Aviv, was one of 70 participants in the Israman long-distance race in Eilat on Friday. In addition to the traditional steep bicycle climbs and rugged off-road runs chosen by event organizers, participants had to contend with dicey weather. At 5:30 A.M., as competitors stood barefoot on the Red Sea beach waiting to dive into the sea, a cold wind began to blow, raising goose-bumps on the skin of bundled-up spectators. By 9 A.M., while the competitors were biking up the mountains surrounding the city, the temperature had already reached 30 degrees Celsius. By the time they were running back, the sun was blazing and the heat was oppressive.

In an Ironman triathlon, participants swim 3.8 kilometers, ride 180 and run 42. Only one race of this type has been held in Israel, and it was last year. In response to the disappointing number of registrants, organizers halved distances to launch the Israman, the "half-Ironman," this year.

After jumping into freezing water, shortly after dawn, participants swam for 30-60 minutes. Then, they ran, barefoot and wet, to the changing station, where they stripped off bathing suits and donned clothing, racing shoes and helmets before taking off on an arduous 90-kilometer ride through the Eilat Mountains.

"There's an ascent after every blind curve, and just when they think it's over and they're enjoying a momentary descent, they see another climb around the bend," says Nir Barak. Barak is an employee of Shvoong, which produced the event. Barak rides in his jeep alongside the course, which he planned and marked, to make sure there are tables bearing water, bananas and dates every few kilometers. Isotonic beverages will later appear on the menu, and sacks of carbohydrate gel will replenish burnt calories.

Tremendous motivation

It is hard to identify the common denominator that binds these athletic, sunburned, grinning participants as they exert visible effort to climb hills. And it is hard to comprehend the tremendous motivation that drives them. Unlike Farhi, Debbie Golan, 56, of Jerusalem, says she used to swim and bike for fun. After her swimming coach saw her biking, she asked Golan why she did not participate in triathlons.

"I didn't know what a triathlon was, so I didn't answer her. But I checked it out at home and for some reason, I was attracted to the idea. I decided to train for a triathlon," she says.

That was eight years ago. Golan has participated in a few triathlons since then, and this is her first "half-Ironman." Why is she here? "I do things slowly. I swim slowly, run slowly and ride slowly. But I know I can do it," she says. "The competition is interesting and challenging, and I like to test my abilities. I only hope to finish before they close the gate, so that I can cross the finish line."

Golan, one of two women competitors, crossed the finish line with time to spare. A pleasant surprise awaited her there: Her three sons, whom she did not know would attend, were waiting to applaud her, dressed in Israman T-shirts.

Danny Shahor, 33, of Ashdod, has participated in four full Ironman triathlons, in Austria, Brazil, the United States and Switzerland. Why is he here, in scorching heat, participating in a half-Ironman?

"Because my coach sent me to revive my training routine and evaluate my current condition. I cursed him during every moment of this competition, but I thanked him the second it was over. See, I'm all smiles, now."

Finding smiles among competitors was no problem - both during and after the event. Almost every rider who completed the 18 kilometer climb and stopped for water and fruit at the Netafim Pass smiled and waved at the production team. "Wait until they come back on the bike course, after riding 70 kilometers," Barak says, monitoring the mood, bicycles and stamina of "his" riders while simultaneously watching for gate-crashers.

People try to sneak in to the half-Ironman competition?

"And how," Barak says, pointing to one rider, then another, and finally a whole group without registration numbers on their backs. "People who don't want to pay the registration fee [about NIS 700] just come to the change station and start riding with the official competitors. They get an orderly course, security by the Israel Police, food, drinks, a rescue and repair team, supervision, and a competitive atmosphere without paying for any of it."

Barak identified 20 gate-crashers during the day. Some even waved at him because they recognized him from previous events.

"No shame," he mutters, waving back.

The competitors seemed to yearn for encouragement. Given the lack of audience, support was provided by the production team, police, rescue workers and family members.

Eilat District Police Commander Bruno Stein had no lack of supporters. Eilat policemen, who lined the course to stop traffic and secure the path, cheered him while he rode up the hill and ran down to the finish line. Boaz Rebak, a 32-year-old computer programmer from Haifa, had participated in four Ironman competitions abroad. "In Germany, 200,000 people lined the course to encourage and cheer competitors. I was in a competition in Canada, where 5,000 people volunteered to produce and organize the event, pass out water, help at the stations, hang signs, and mix isotonic drinks. Tens of thousands cheered us along the course. Here, people are lucky to have their families waving from the side of the road."

Rebak's wife and sons cheered him on, as did the families of most participants in this individualistic competition. In fact, the only thing most competitors had in common were their declarations that they could not have participated without the support of their families. The microphone at the finish broadcast thankful messages and greetings to the families of the competitors as they crossed the line.

Avner Shomron was the first to cross the line, and the first to deliver an address of this type.

One might think that Danny Ohana, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with an oversized picture of his wife and the words, "To my beautiful lover," had no need for words. But he added, "I dedicate this competition to her, because without her, I couldn't do it."