Ultramarathon runner Pat Farmer has already clocked nearly 1,000 kilometers in less than two weeks, but his mission is not yet complete: The former Australian politician still has more than 400 to go before completing his goal of crossing the Middle East, at 80 kilometers a day, in the name of peace, and more importantly, unity.
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The Middle East Peace Run isn’t the 52-year-old runner’s first ultramarathon, nor is it his most physically ambitious. He finished a 20,000-kilometer run from the North to South Poles, through 14 countries, in 2011. When the founder of Budo for Peace, an Israeli nonprofit run by fellow Australian Danny Hakim, approached him last year with the idea of a peace run, Farmer was already mentally prepared for the challenge. He had felt compelled to come to the region, he told Haaretz, but wanted to do more than just compete in a race.
There is no doubt in Farmer’s mind that he can finish the 1,400-kilometer mission – quitting is not an option. It’s that mindset, he believes, that can help bring about change.
Farmer’s goal is to “inspire the people on the ground” to have hope in the prospect of peace, and to encourage them to dedicate their own running, whether with him or on their own, to the cause. “I am hoping that when we finish we have hundreds of thousands of people dedicating their run to this cause,” regardless of the distances they cover. “That’s a substantial message to bring to the leaders,” he added, to show the government that its constituents “want peace.”
“You can’t get anything more concrete than that,” Farmer told Haaretz in a telephone interview after crossing the border Saturday from Aqaba, Jordan, to Eilat, a southern Israeli resort. When men come together for peace, there is hope in the world, and without hope there is nothing, he added, paraphrasing an old adage. “Let’s take this message to the leaders.”
Budo for Peace founder Hakim, who moved to Israel in 2000, has dedicated his life here to bridging gaps through sport, mostly martial arts, a discipline he describes not as a mode of self-defense, but rather a meditation in patience and tolerance.
Hakim met Farmer in Sydney, at a Friday night dinner hosted by the former’s sister and brother-in-law, old friends of Farmer’s. The idea for a Middle East unity run had been brewing in Hakim’s mind already, and he popped the question to Farmer. “To go from the North to South Pole, that’s meshuga [crazy], but to from Beirut to Jerusalem, that’s impossible,” Hakim told Farmer. When the seasoned ultramarathoner asked why, Hakim replied: “Let’s go for a run together and I’ll explain.”
Breaking down barriers
The run is being called a bid to promote peace, but Hakim says that misses the point of the endeavor. “Some people think it’s political, what we’re doing,” Hakim told Haaretz. “But the message is very simple. [Farmer] wants to show the world that [this region] is not what you see on television.”
This is the first time in modern history that a run of this kind has been organized, and it’s not just the political barriers, but rather the media's image of the region, the enmity between Arab and Jewish neighbors and the bird’s-eye-view of people living across the ocean, that Hakim, Farmer and the crew of supporters and film people with him want to help break down. “It’s the extremists – what I call the bullies – that you see on TV,” said Hakim.
In Israel, people of all political and religious backgrounds – whether secular or ultra-Orthodox, rightists and leftists, or fans of the rival Maccabi and Hapoel sports teams – are planning to join Farmer for segments of the run. Anyone can join, be it for 2 kilometers, a 20-kilometer challenge, or the full 80 kilometers of the day. Enthusiasts in Lebanon, including well-known singer Daniella Rahme, in Jordan and in Farmer's brief tour of Israel so far, have done so already.
Since crossing into Israel, Farmer and his team have been joined by a number of runners, including a 16-year-old who jogged 30 kilometers with Farmer, and said that while he wants to join a Israel Defense Forces combat unit to protect his country, “if there is peace, I don’t have to go to the army.”
The cost of running for two weeks and covering 1,400 kilometers has totalled $300,000, half of which Farmer managed to raise for himself, in good part from Lebanese businessmen, who Hakim said were interested in showing that they are pro-peace and pro-Israel.
The response in the cities and towns in Arab countries and here, which he's passed through since beginning his journey on May 1 – in Lebanon, then across Jordan and into Israel – has been “brilliant,” Farmer said. In addition to running with anyone who wants to join, he has organized a number of events at schools across Israel, to allow him a chance to talk to and engage the younger generation. Kids from the rocket-battered southern Israeli town of Sderot, Hakim noted, were, for example, extremely excited about taking part. “You only see them running into shelters [on TV],” he said.
The idea of trying to spread a political message may be a deterrent to some, Hakim admitted. “People want to meet someone who [struggles] to overcome challenges,” he said. “I’m sure if we didn’t call it Middle East and we didn’t call it peace, we’d get thousands more runners.”
Tourism Ministry balks
Hakim managed to secure financial assistance and logistical support for the endeavor from Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the municipality of Jerusalem, where the run will conclude with a celebratory ceremony on May 19. The municipalities of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat also threw in their support, as have private organizations including Magen David Adom emergency services and the Saucony athletics company. Farmer and his crew will be staying at hotels that are part of the Dan chain throughout Israel. The governments of Lebanon and Jordan and the Palestinian Authority also provided logistical and security support, after being lobbied by Farmer.
A few weeks before Farmer's visit, Budo for Peace approached the Israeli Tourism Ministry and requested tangible support in the form of two vans and two guides, or, alternatively, funding, but it was turned down. Ministerial officials later invited Farmer to meet Minister Uzi Landau, who they said was planning to provide certificates to the runner and his crew at the closing ceremony in Jerusalem. The ministry also offered to provide funding for hosting foreign journalists who are covering the run, and to help in the project's public relations campaign abroad, said Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Anat Shihor Aronson.
Hakim and the staff at Budo for Peace called this an empty gesture, however, and said they preferred that the ministry withdraw its belated agreement to cooperate and not attend the Jerusalem event, after denying logistical and other support for the run. In the end, Landau will not attend and the ministry is taking no part in the project.
“For us to get no sponsorship and support – I didn’t want that to happen,” said Hakim. Nor did Farmer, he added. “I don’t want the Tourism Ministry to have a bad name … They do a good job… [but] I didn’t want them to get credit they don’t deserve.”
“It could be the budget, it could be political,” said Hakim, trying to explain the ministry's lack of support. “I really get a feeling that politicians are worried that it’s a left-wing thing, or that peace – you talk about peace, you think you’re a loser. People like to back winners, [but when it comes to] anything to do with peace, you’re a loser, not a winner, and that’s the feeling I got from some members of parliament, or some departments. Pat is about humanity, it’s about what we have in common. The most important thing we [and the Arab countries] have in common is that we have a terrible image. And he can change that.”
“I see this as a fantastic PR opportunity for Israel and they don’t see it,” said Hakim, of the Tourism Ministry. The Dan chain saw it as a boon for tourism, he added, but the ministry didn’t. “Those who saw the opportunity jumped at it.”
The decision to turn down Hakim’s initial request for financial assistance was a purely professional consideration, the Tourism Ministry said in response to Haaretz’s request for clarification.
“The Tourism Ministry receives many requests for support of events, and they are considered in a logical manner, in accordance with the type of support requested and to what extent the event will encourage tourism [in Israel],” spokeswoman Shihor-Aronson explained. The organizers requested production assistance, the ministry said, a type of support that is “not in line with the ministry’s policy, which is to enable significant world exposure of the event.”
Farmer, a former Australian MP, forged connections with a number of Middle Eastern ambassadors before embarking on his journey, including Israel’s envoy in Canberra. He hopes to meet with government officials while here to pass on his message, and to help further the already close ties between the two countries.
His initial dream of being able to run directly from Beirut to Jerusalem was thwarted by the absence of any border crossing between the two countries, and Egypt was discarded from the itinerary due to the instability there and the arrest in Cairo in December of an Australian journalist.
After running through Lebanon, from the Cedars through Tripoli and Beirut, Farmer flew to Jordan, as there was no other safe option for border crossing. He ran south from Amman to the port of Aqaba, where he crossed into Eilat and began his journey northward again, in Israel. He has a stop planned in Jaffa on Wednesday, for a ceremony at the Peres Center for Peace, after which he will continue on toward the Arab town of Jisr al-Zarqa, north to Haifa, east to Nazareth and south to Afula, from where he will cross into the Palestinian Authority to the West Bank cities of Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem, then on to Jerusalem, where he will complete the run.
Farmer runs 80 kilometers in about eight hours every day. He trained by doing 20-40 kilometers a day in anticipation of this particular run, and has more than 30 years of "ultra-running" experiences under his belt. In this region of the world, Farmer has faced mountainous areas and hot deserts that could put any hardened runner out, and has pushed through the bruises, the aches and even vomiting on the side of the road to achieve his goal. “You have to accept pain,” he said. “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.”
“To be honest, I have no ultimate respect for myself and my own body,” Farmer told Haaretz. “I think the cause that I am running for goes beyond my own personal well-being. That’s why I am pushing on the big kilometers,” he said, instead of taking it easy by doing 5 kilometers per day during a months-long run. “I want people to know that I am prepared to hurt,” he added.
What keeps him going, even during the toughest moments? “The cause,” Farmer said. “I want people to know… Please keep forging ahead, please don’t give up …. You don’t lose until you quit.”