Why Israelis Run: The Worldwide Marathon Craze Has Its Day in Tel Aviv

The props for a midlife crisis used to be cigars and fancy cars, but now they are just as likely to be a pair of Nikes or a high-end road bicycle.

Yael Shemesh, a 49-year-old lecturer in Bible Studies at Bar-Ilan University, began running 10 months ago. The first time out she ran for exactly six minutes before calling it quits for the day.

That was then.

Daniel Bar-On

Two weeks ago Shemesh ran the Jerusalem Half Marathon. She barely noticed the rain. The wind didn’t slow her down. The hills didn’t stop her. It was, in a word, “exhilarating,” she says. And “amazing.”

But that was just the warm-up. At 6:45 A.M. today Shemesh will join the crowds setting off along the Tel Aviv beachfront music pounding, fans cheering and her husband weaving in and out of the crowds on a moped, handing her vegan energy snacks along the route on her way to conquering her first full 42.2 kilometer race.
“It’s crazy, that’s what I think,” says Shmuli Bardugo, assessing the whole running “thing.” A 35-year-old smoker with a beer belly who sells cellphone covers in the Carmel Market, near the marathon starting line and its finish line, he is a little peeved with all the street closures and usual marathon mess threatening to create havoc with his Friday routine this week. Bardugo is not a runner. Oh, no. Not at all. He doesn’t believe in it. “It’s bad for your knees. And your heart. And everything,” he says, sitting down to relax.

“My cousin started running and actually she has never been healthier,” pipes in the guy from the nearby pomegranate-juice stall.

“Your cousin too?” asks the seller in the adjacent cheese shop, adding in his two cents.

"One hundred percent crazy," concludes Bardougo

Perhaps, but catchy too.

About 25,000 runners took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday. Only a fraction of them around 1,800 will actually be tackling the full, 42.2-kilometer full marathon, with the rest opting for one of the shorter routes. But whether it’s the half-marathon, the 10K or even the in-line skating half-marathon, it’s clear that Israelis are on the move.

When Tiberias hosted Israel’s first, and for many years its only, marathon, 35 years ago, fewer than 100 courageous souls showed up. Now Israel boasts three annual marathons, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Tiberias, that attract not only thousands of local but hundreds of competitors from overseas. Thousands of Israelis, meanwhile, compete in races abroad every year.

Shorter races abound in Israel these days. Triathlons, which combine swimming, biking and running, have also taken off: In the past decade membership in the Israel Triathlon Association has increased more than tenfold, from under 300 to 3,000. In a nod to the country’s growing prominence on the scene, the European Triathlon Union Triathlon European Championships 2012 are being held in Eilat, later this month, for the first time. The Red Sea resort city is home of the Israman, the local version of the Ironman competition.

Mikey Katz, who recently stepped down as secretary general of the Israel Triathlon Association after 12 years and who helped organize the first Jerusalem marathon, last year, estimates that the number of competitive runners and triathletes in Israel is growing by 15 percent a year.

“There are some Shabbats where we have two or three races going on at the same time in this country. And with barely any advertising, you are seeing hundreds, even thousands showing up,” Katz says. “It’s a craze.”

Israelis are far from alone when it comes to this trend. Participation in marathons, ultra marathons, triathlons and other competitive endurance sports has skyrocketed over the past few decades worldwide. If anything, as with many international trends this one actually took a while to get here late, claims Ron Shilon, whose company, Endure, was the first to offer focused triathlon sport coaching almost a decade ago, encouraging the development of the field.

“There was almost nothing going on at the time,” says Shilon. He returned to Israel in 2001 after nine years in the United States, where he worked in high tech and discovered and got hooked on extreme sports. “The problem in Israel was that most people, after their army service, were so traumatized by the experience that they just stopped doing sports. And here there is no such thing as college sports to counter that,” Shilon says.

“There was no market, no need, no awareness, no buzz, no nothing. If there were coaches, they were either just part of community sports centers, or gym teachers,” he recalls. “Everything had to be invented.”

Sensing an opportunity, and undergoing a midlife crisis at the ripe old age of 39, Shilon quit his lucrative CEO job, folded up his suits and ties, did his homework, enrolled in a certification course in Florida and began coaching. What started as a one-man show, with Shilon training a handful of friends, soon snowballed into the country’s largest outfit, with an estimated 7,000 clients going through its training programs over the years.

“I really came to believe in Endure’s motto: ‘Everyone can do it,’” says Shemesh, the Bible scholar and marathon hopeful. “I don’t mean everyone has to, but anyone who wants to can,” she says.

Genesis of a trend

As to the genesis of the larger worldwide trend of otherwise normal people waking up at the crack of dawn to huff, puff, and sweat their way to a finish line, no one is really sure. Some say the spark was lit by the 1994 blockbuster “Forrest Gump,” in which Tom Hank’s eponymous character spends about three years running around the country, popularizing and giving new meaning to the whole concept of long-distance jogging. Others say growing competition among athletic shoe manufacturers fueled the fire, as the big names like Nike and Adidas began sponsoring and promoting community races and running clubs.

The beginnings of the triathlon craze are often traced back to 1996 when the so-called Olympic-distance triathlon became a part of the Atlanta Games. Before then, the only triathlons most people knew about were the daunting Ironman races, which involve swimming 3.86 kilometers, bicycling 180.25 kilometers and then running a full marathon. The Olympic-distance competition swimming 1.5 kilometers, riding 40 kilometers and running 10 kilometers a cinch, in comparison drew in crowds of amateurs.

In Israel, as elsewhere, a very high proportion of converts to these endurance sports are middle-aged. According to USA Triathlon, the governing body for the sport in the United States, the average American triathlete is 38 years old. In Britain there’s even a word for it: mamil, for middle-aged men in Lycra. In Israel the average age is even higher, with the largest group of competitors being the 40-54 range, according to Katz.

Part of the reason for this has to do with time and money both necessary commodities that are more often found among a more established, older set. Extreme sports, even just running, can indeed get pricey, involving not only good running shoes and power gels, but also everything from the entry fees, travel and accommodation for races to proper coaching. And triathletes need gear for bicycling and swimming, including wetsuits and the road bikes themselves.

Another draw is the eternal desire to look better, be fitter and generally to recapture that younger version of oneself that many begin to feel slipping away with every additional candle on the birthday cake.

“People going through a midlife crisis used to buy an SUV and start smoking cigars and going to fancy restaurants, if they could afford it. Today they get expensive running watches, great running shoes and high-end bicycles,” says Shilon.

Today Ronen Mendel will be on the sidelines, cheering on his friends. He is saving his strength for September, he explains; he has set his sights on spending his 50th birthday running the Berlin Marathon. A year and a half ago he could not even jog 100 meters without losing his breath, nor did he have any runner friends to cheer on at a marathon.

“I got into running when I got divorced,” he says, in what is not an uncommon beginning for runners’ stories. “The day I left the house I signed up for a program I guess I needed a new structure.”

Mendel joined MyWay, one of the most popular of the dozens of new coaching groups on the scene. He went to their training camps, team parties and trips to the overseas competitions. “It’s a whole world,” he says, sitting down to a casual cafe dinner with members of his triathlon team to chat about nutrition, gear and life in general.

Not just about the race

Orli Netanel, a 36-year-old veterinarian, began running two years ago in one of Nike’s free weekly training programs. She then upped the ante and joined MyWay. She has signed up for and withdrawn from two marathons. In Amsterdam she decided at the last minute to do the half marathon because she got nervous and felt she was not ready. And a month before the Tiberias event she had to pull out due to injury. But like Mendel, she says, the Berlin marathon in September has her name on it.

It’s not just about the race, as someone on hand is always bound to say. This may be particularly true in Netanel’s case.

“We met at the Jerusalem training camp, when we were both training for the Amsterdam marathon,” she says of fellow runner Shay Yaron, who used to smoke and was, as Netanel puts it, “a little chubby,” and is now training for the June Ironman in Austria.

Last Saturday, when they were sitting down, for a change on a bluff overlooking the sea, Yaron proposed to Netanel. He had originally planned to surprise her with a ring next week, at the finish line of the Jordan Valley triathlon, for which Netanel had registered. Mendel and other teammates intended to throw confetti and hold up “Mazal Tov” signs. But that race was called off, and so their engagement began a week earlier, in a quieter way. “Better,” she says. “I was less sweaty.”

The message of this particular tale is that running is great, but there are times in life when it’s better to be sitting down.