In February 2002, Avichai Goodman lost his younger brother Netanel, who died after getting caught in a malfunctioning security gate. Though it left deep emotional scars, the ordeal changed Goodman's perspective on life.
"I understood that life is too short and that it is impossible to know when it will all end," he said. "I decided that the time had come to make the most of my life, to go after what I want, and not to get dragged into a banal, routine existence. Up to that point, I had dreamed of two things - taking a skydiving course and to run a marathon - but because of my studies and my job I didn't pursue them. The accident cleared my focus, and I decided that I was going to go for it no matter what."
After he finished his army service, Goodman took a hiking trip through South America. It was there that he managed to check off skydiving from his to-do list. Once he returned to Israel, he could focus his attention on the second goal. Initially, he turned to the Internet in search of training regimens and programs. Then he joined the runners of "The Breakfast Club," a group of enthusiasts dedicated to marathon preparation. At age 24, Goodman began his journey to the Tiberias Marathon.
As he was preparing for the 2005 race, he suffered an Achilles tendon injury, forcing him to miss the event and began looking toward the Berlin Marathon, which was held a few months afterward.
"At first, I just wanted to finish the race," Goodman said. "Then I was focused on improving my time and finishing in less than three hours. I ran 32 kilometers at a moderate pace. When I reached the last 10 kilometers, I suddenly unleashed a burst of energy. I ran past hundreds of other runners and I reached the finish line at 2:36. I thought about my little brother the entire time. When I finished, I was in a state of euphoria, and my dream came true in the most incredible way possible. From that moment in Berlin onward, I fell in love with running."
After the emotional competition in Germany, Goodman was contacted by Dr. Rafi Vischnitzer, who would sign on to be his running coach. Vischnitzer suggested that his new pupil participate in the 800- and 1,500-meter races in order to improve his speed for the marathon.
"I discovered that I'm much better at medium distances than I originally thought," Goodman said. "I won medals in the Israel Championships and since then I haven't done a marathon. Now I'm on my way back to get ready for the Tiberias Marathon in 2011."
After finishing the 15-kilometer Eyal Race in second place by virtue of his 48:45 result, Goodman will try his luck at this Friday's half-marathon in Beit She'an. The race is a warm-up for the main event in Tiberias next month, where Goodman expects to emerge as one of the top runners.
"There's something very beautiful in running," he said. "Here luck or shortcuts do not play a factor. You do need talent, but the real results are gained by hard work. In running, as opposed to soccer, you can't score a lucky goal. The pleasure that is derived can be divided into two - the competitions, which are the icing on the cake, and the practice, the long haul. I get together with the same group of people at the same time. After a long day, running is not a burden, but rather it's like a trip through the park."
When he is not snaking his way through forest trails while training for marathons, Goodman is pursuing a master's degree in children's clinical psychology.
When asked why the focus on children, he said: "Simply because I have a natural connection with them. I still feel a bit like a kid."
Before hunkering down with his academic textbooks, Goodman found time to work as a referee in kids' basketball games. "I took a refereeing course in 12th grade just so I could get into Hapoel Jerusalem home games for free," he said. After his running days are over, Goodman plans to combine child psychology and sports in his future endeavors.
"I learned that running has to come from a place that is fun, and not obligation," he said. "Enjoyment is really awakening, and it brings out the best in me."
Before he takes his place among the runners in Beit She'an this Friday, Goodman plans to listen to his favorite sounds. "I'll either put on powerful songs from the Rocky soundtrack, songs which are the height of energy and adrenaline, or quiet music that gives me a pleasant feeling," he said.
Goodman, who comes from American stock, will be competing against some of the best athletes Israel has to offer, most of whom are of Ethiopian descent. "I used to think that they had physiological superiority, but today I don't believe that," he said. "They have talent, but I don't view myself as inferior. Because of the success that I had and the fact that I have climbed toward their level, the gaps between us are less apparent."
"Because of my master's studies, I'm swamped like never before," he said. "I could very easily have despaired and given up because I had no chance against [runners of Ethiopian origin], but the moment that you try, believe, and work hard, everything is possible. In practice, there are a lot of Ethiopian runners, and only a few of them manage to outpace me."
Goodman, 30, is a member of the Maccabi Tel Aviv runners group. What started as an initial flirtation with running on the streets of Berlin has turned into a drive to reach some of the largest marathons in the world - all in a span of five years. "I'm going to have to finish the marathon in faster than at least 2:18, but I still have many years in front of me," he said. "The dream is still far off, but it is starting to look somewhat more realistic."
Goodman will certainly not give up so easily. Even when he is physically exhausted and his feet start feeling heavier, there is always an extra intangible that gives him another push. "When I train hard, I imagine that I'm in the middle of the race, and I summon even more strength," he said. "When I struggle in the middle of the race and I want to stop running, I think back to the training sessions, when I continued running no matter what. When things aren't going your way and the running becomes extremely difficult, the final card is to think about my brother and to imagine that he's there beaming with pride over my success."
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