The Jerusalem Marathon, a Runners' High

Jerusalemites cheer the runners on, tolerate our roads being closed to traffic, our kids being home from school, but don’t ask me to be an ambassador.

I’d like to say I’m thrilled that the Jerusalem Winner Marathon, the third of its kind and growing by the year, is about to run triumphantly through the Israeli capital, and will pass just steps away from my front door. It represents so much I support: enjoying the beauty of Jerusalem, bringing together people from all over the world, and promoting the great sport of running.

But then there’s that word that Mayor Nir Barkat – along with other city and government tourism officials – kept using at Thursday morning’s press conference ahead of Friday’s marathon. Ambassadors, Run with us, he told visiting journalists and some of the international runners in the audience, and then be ambassadors for us when you go home.

“Our goal is make sure that the 1,700 runners from abroad, side by side with about 20,000 runners who are in Jerusalem from all over the country, will be ambassadors and will go back home and tell everyone how beautiful Jerusalem is, how open it is,” Barkat said.

Ilanit Melchior, Tourism Director of the Jerusalem Development Authority, hit on the same theme in her speech, as did Jerusalem City Councilman Elisha Peleg, as though the list of talking points had been well-rehearsed. “We hope you’ll be ambassadors for the message that Jerusalem is a place where you can come, enjoy, relax – and have a breathtaking experience,” Melchior.

A city so hungry for ambassadors in not a normal city – though whoever said Jerusalem was? The very term ambassador implies politics. A country in need of more ambassadors is one that is hard at work on the art of convincing, of negotiating, of explaining oneself. Of shaping the message.

So it perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise that the Palestinian Authority and all Palestinian sports groups are calling for a boycott of the marathon, for the expected reason: It legitimizes Israel’s control over East Jerusalem, which Israel conquered in 1967 and later annexed. The PLO’s Higher Council for Youth and Sports said earlier this week saying that they, Palestine Olympic Committee and the Palestinian Athletics Federation call on all participants and sponsors withdraw "or else become complicit in covering up Israel’s grave human rights abuses in its occupation of the State of Palestine. This marathon is part and parcel of other Israeli policies and practices in Jerusalem that are aimed at exerting Israeli control over the occupied city and isolating it from the rest of Palestine.”

The statement went on to say that “the racist policies of the Israeli government are most recently represented in the Jerusalem Winner Marathon 2013 by moving the runners from West to East as though the city were truly united.”

Is this city united? Yes, Jerusalem is under Israel’s sovereignty – at least by its own definition – and runners will come across no barriers or checkpoints on the way to the finish line. But no, this is hardly one city. All one needs to do is to take a look at the route of the marathon to see that it barely enters East Jerusalem, but rather skirts it. Runners will see East Jerusalem from the Haas Promenade in south Jerusalem, will enter a slice of the Old City’s Armenian Quarter and exit through the Jaffa Gate, will go up Road One (or as the municipality but no one else calls it, Heil HaHandasa Avenue), and then will cut over east to the Hebrew University, looping around the scenic campus and its sweeping vistas. But the neighborhoods where one-third of the city’s residents live – many of them deeply neglected neighborhoods where the municipality regularly demolishes homes – will remain sweeping vistas: quaint from a distance, depressing close up.

But I don’t want to rain too much on anyone’s parade. I have friends running in this marathon and I’m proud of them. I have other friends who think that boycotting Israeli events makes an important statement to the world – one which argues that the status quo in Jerusalem is unacceptable – and I respect their position as well. And sometimes I wish we could just run a race without letting politics get in the way – without being asked to be ambassadors, to be runners with an agenda.

Barkat, himself a runner – he may sit this one out because he has a broken rib – deserves credit for initiating the marathon and putting it on the map. “Women’s Running Magazine” in the U.K. named it one of the world top ten spring marathons, but suggested readers try to the shorter runs (the 10k or the 21k, a half marathon) to avoid the steep and potentially punishing climbs.

“It’s true that this marathon isn’t the easiest in terms of route, and it’s not a place to break a record. Most of the major marathons in the world are flat – Paris, New York,” said Barkat, when asked about his advice to runners not used to such hilly terrain. “Here, open your eyes, look around you.” In other words, he expects runners to come here not for the prestige or making their best time, but for a “breathtaking” experience. (Breathtaking, too, is in the talking points and on the cover of the brochure. And my favorite in the city’s promotional literature: “to be able to say you’ve run where Jesus once walked is pretty awesome, too.”)

Barkat added: “This is combination of a spiritual and sportive event – and that combination is second to none.”

Indeed, for many, to run in Jerusalem is inspiring, politics aside. Annalisa Minetti singer, model, athlete, and former contender for the title of Miss Italy will be running. She’s also blind. “My run will be a demonstration that if you want, you can do everything in life. I will run the name of God, who is the protector of my life,” she told the press conference. Another pair of inspiring international runners are Dan and Neva Handley, who came in from Winston Salem, North Carolina to run the half-marathon together. They met 30 years ago at a Christian seminary in Jerusalem.

There are countless other inspiring stories. And so we Jerusalemites will cheer them on, and will tolerate our roads being closed to traffic, our kids being home from school. But please, don’t ask me to be an ambassador for anything other than – a good runners' high.

AP