A Marathon Runner With a Long-distance Goal for Palestinian Freedom

Israeli activist for Palestinian rights likens running to the struggle for freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank.

Besides the obvious, what do people do while they run? Some listen to music and get lost in the beat. Some pipe in podcasts. Some, usually those with the big fancy sports watches, pass the time calculating times and distances or monitoring heart beats. And then some just let their minds wander.

Sari Bashi, the 37-year-old founder of the human rights organization Gisha that fights for freedom of movement for Palestinians, belongs in this last category. She thinks about, oh, the usual random stuff, from her nephews to the situation in Syria to what she is going to eat when she is done. But more often than not, her mind eventually finds itself wandering to a particular recurring theme of her life - that of boundaries.

Sari Bashi
Daniel Bar On

"I have an intuitive longing for movement," she begins, perched in running clothes on a Tel Aviv cafe bar stool having an early morning post-training egg sandwich. "I absolutely love the feeling of moving my body through space - the sense that I can go across any boundary - up a one-way street, across a city line and through parks and neighborhoods. It's total freedom.

"And I identify with people who are trapped - for whom boundaries mean deprivation."

Like, for example, the 1.7 million Palestinians who live in Gaza, most of whom, due to Israeli travel restrictions, are barred from leaving their 360 square kilometer strip to go to the West Bank, Israel or further afield, whether it be for work, study, seeing relatives, going to the hospital or most any other reason.

Born in New Jersey to an Iraqi father and an American mother, Bashi went to an Orthodox Jewish school and then studied ethics, politics and economics at Yale, continuing on to get a law degree there. Israel was always a part of her life, and she visited frequently- to see family, take ulpan classes, do summer internships, as a Fulbright scholar, and even did a stint as a journalist. After graduating from law school, she spent time clerking at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem before starting Gisha, which means "access" in Hebrew, to help those Gazans, as well as Palestinians in the West Bank, with legal advice.

Seven years later her NGO, now with a staff of 18, is one of Israel's most respected human rights outfits, having brought the cases of thousands of Palestinians both into the public eye and before the Israeli courts - fighting, sometimes successfully, for their right to move as freely and as far as she does.

And that's what Bashi often thinks about when she runs - boundaries. What they are for, who they are for and why, and, above all, how does one overcome them when necessary. Not an easy concept to wrap one's head around - especially if, at the very same time, one's heart is pounding, lungs feel like bursting, legs are aching and socks are sweaty.

But luckily, she has a lot of time to contemplate the matter.

For Bashi is a long-distance runner, with an emphasis on long. Let's just say that 10 kilometers is the stuff of her pre-warm-ups. The woman whose athletic history up until less than 10 years ago involved rollerblading, soccer in the park and an occasional aerobics class, and who still gets strangers commenting that her running form - legs thrown out at all sorts of odd angles - is all wrong, happens to be a natural ultra-marathoner.

In March 2010, with several marathons under her belt (fun! ) Bashi trained and tackled a 100-kilometer race through the forests of the north, finishing first among the women and fifth overall out of about 60 participants. The following October, after getting a coach and training some more, she participated in Israel's first-ever 160-kilometer race, one that 25 people started but only eight finished as a heat wave of 44 degrees hit the northern Negev desert and knocked out one participant after another. She came in second, a full two hours and 45 minutes before the guy behind her.

And this week, petite Bashi - all 48 kilos of her - is facing her longest race yet, the 215 km Mountain-to-Valley race. It began at 8 P.M. Wednesday night in Tel Hai, where she set off along trails leading toward the Hula Valley and onward to the Jordan River, racing through the night toward the Kinneret. From there, she will welcome Thursday by crossing the Beit Netofa Valley and onward across the Jezreel Valley, toward the finish line in the communal settlement of Timrat in the wee hours of Friday.

Some 400 others have also signed up for the race, but 394 have opted to do it in relay teams of between four and eight. Only six intrepid souls plan to tackle the entire route solo. If and when Bashi completes the race, it will mark the longest distance ever run by a woman in Israel, beating the title she already holds for her performance in the 160-kilometer race.

"About 30 hours, give or take," she guesstimates cheerily, when asked how long she expects to be running.

She does not plan to stop for food or drink or to rest, and will take breaks only to fill up her camelback with water, relieve herself, maybe walk up the steepest of the hills, change socks, and switch from night to day gear - shedding the headlight and reflective vest and slathering on Vaseline, Body Glide and sun block to try and stop the friction burns and protect herself from the sun.

What many people want to know, she says, (presumably besides "why??!" ) is how does one keep running for that long? Bashi's answer - it's all in the pacing and the patience.

"When I first heard about ultra-marathons, it sounded absolutely impossible and scary," she admits. "And what I have learned is to break down the challenge into specific obstacles. I learn those obstacles, respect them, and remain humble about my own strength and work." There is no magic to the race, she continues - it's about going slow and focusing on it step by step.

"In my training, as in the race itself, I focus on how to hydrate, how to replace minerals, how to ingest protein, how to cool my body temperature, how to keep psychologically sane. I just focus on obstacle after obstacle and resolve each one slowly and in turn. And it all adds up."

So, Bashi, as you read this, is out there on some off-road, thinking about boundaries and focusing on pacing – and it all somehow comes together for her– both in running and work.

"In first half of a run, you need to struggle to restrain yourself. Not let ego push you to run more quickly than you can. The best way to get burned out is to race forward. And that's how I have come to approach my work too. I want my staff to maintain their motivation and strength. I want them to save strength for long haul.

"Promoting human rights for Palestinians living in Gaza also seems impossible and scary if you think about it, but if you break it down to specific challenges, you have a chance," she says, adding that it's this knowledge that gives her strength during the setbacks.

Recently, she says, Gisha lost a case that meant a lot to the staff. "We were fighting for a human rights lawyer in Gaza who was trying to get to his studies in the West Bank. The court rejected our petition and a lot of us felt overwhelmed with disappointment and defeat.

"What came to my mind right then was the 160-kilometer race. I was at kilometer five. It was hot. I was thirsty. It was uphill. And I said to myself, 'Okay. Take a deep breath and keep going, step by step.'"