For Marathon Runners, Jerusalem Syndrome Means Something Else

What do Japanese, Bahamians, Mexicans and Lithuanians have in common? A desire to run 42 kilometers in the Holy City.

Uri Talshir
Uri Talshir
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Uri Talshir
Uri Talshir

A mysterious man walked toward the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo. Shin Chan, a travel agent who wanted to add one more treat to a travel package to Israel, wasn’t at all interested in security matters or the peace process. He got the tourism officer to make a promise. Anyone joining the trip would receive a bottle of Israeli wine.

Chan’s trips are a little unorthodox. “My little agency organizes trips to marathons at the end of the world,” he says, at his hotel in this part of the world. “Not ordinary places, but exotic destinations like Africa, Alaska and South America. I collect enthusiastic people who want to experience different places around the globe. For the Japanese, Israel is like Tasmania.”

Chan, a 65-year-old Buddhist, arrived in Jerusalem with four bottles of wine – one for himself and three for clients aged 69, 71 and 78. The four Japanese are running the marathon on Friday.

“Maybe it sounds crazy to you, but for us running is routine,” he smiles. “On Sunday we participated in the Limassol Marathon [in Cyprus], and on Friday we’re running again. That’s what we do: at least seven marathons abroad every year. I’m not interested in ordinary trips; I like to run. Nothing here is crazy; crazy is to run 250 kilometers in the desert carrying your food on your back.”

Chan, who has 40 years of running and almost 100 international marathons under his belt, discovered Israel in 2012 at the Tiberias Marathon. (“You run a lot along the lake and that’s not attractive enough.”) Last year he experienced the Jerusalem version, which he’s much more enthusiastic about.

“I like the global feeling of people from different places along the route, and in Jerusalem I found a lot of foreign runners. As someone who runs slowly, I take in the view, take pictures and talk to people all along the way,” he says.

“In addition to English, I speak a little German, Spanish and French, and I always try to make contact with local runners so we can have dinner together. The language doesn’t really make a difference; when you run together everyone knows the feeling. I like to see the differences in all the countries: the food, the people, the culture, the history and the running. A marathon is a festival because they close streets and turn them into a runner’s paradise.”

Chan notes how for the Japanese, especially older ones, every foreign country is considered unsafe. It’s not hard to believe that Israel is considered particularly dangerous, but Chan gets the meek to do a rethink.

“Before I got here I thought Israelis were tough, narrow-minded and extremist, but all in all you’re like the Latinos – you like to talk a lot, enjoy life and eat well,” he says.

The hills are alive

On March 10, 850 Christians arrived in Israel seeking to relive Jesus’ last moments. In one of the 18 buses that wandered between the Galilee and the Dead Sea, there was a couple from the Bahamas. Evie and Theodore Jackson are the only Bahamians running in the Jerusalem Marathon this year.

On a trip that included Canada and Germany, the optometrist and the financial analyst landed on soil that for these evangelical Christians has a special meaning.

“Of all the races in my life, I’ll always remember Jerusalem,” says Evie, who has taken part in seven marathons around the world. “When we entered the city and saw all the hills I said to myself, 'Wow, what will a marathon be like here?’ We come from a very flat country, and this will be our challenge.”

Having traveled all over the world – including a ride in a dogsled from the top of a snowy Alaskan peak – the couple decided that it was time for Israel. Like her father, who visited Israel when Begin and Sadat signed the peace treaty, Evie feels her timing is perfect.

“In recent years God planted in my heart a strong urge to visit Israel,” she says. “When we arrived, the first thing I told my husband was that Israel reminds me of Manhattan. The fact that all the buildings here are white seemed strange to me, because in our country there are a lot of colors everywhere, and we’re colorful people.”

So what makes this couple in their 50s leave their idyllic island home and visit noisy Israel?

“We know that the Bahamas is one of the special places on Earth,” she smiles. “There has been economic stability for decades, and there has never been a war. Israel is considered a special place for our people, because Jesus came and left.”

The glory and the excitement

Ruth Atari Reik’s gift to herself for her 25th birthday was the Mexico City Marathon, the first time she ran the 42 kilometers. A decade later, in 2007, she upgraded the present and took part in an Iron Woman competition, in Wisconsin. She describes the Jerusalem Marathon as a belated present for her 40th birthday, which she celebrated last year.

The Mexican woman’s resume includes 11 marathons all over the world and five Iron Woman events. She’ll be arriving in Israel for the fifth time and will finally combine her great loves: marathons and Israel.

“I’m very Zionistic and this will be something special,” she says in Hebrew, immediately returning to English. “I like getting to know places in the world while running, because that way you see everything. Finishing a marathon is glory and excitement. You feel tired and you’re in pain, but you’re happy, too. I cry every time I cross the finish line, and I told my friends that in Jerusalem I’ll cry throughout the race because of my great joy and the emotions that will flood me.”

Atari Reik is a professional triathlon and marathon trainer, as well as a fitness-room coach.

“Through sports I can achieve a better version of myself,” she says. “When you achieve your goals in sports, you feel that there are no limits and that everything is possible. A marathon is tiring, so your soul has to be happy. Otherwise it will betray you and say ‘Don’t continue.’”

Whenever she’s running somewhere around the world and sees an Israeli or a Mexican flag, she finds new strength.

“I get into my rhythm and think about a lot of things; there’s a reason they say that running is cheaper than any therapy,” she says. “You can fix all your problems while running.”

The Jerusalem of the south

Among the 1,858 participants in the marathon there’s also someone who was simply looking for a nice place to run outside wintry Europe. He did a Google search and by chance got the Jerusalem Marathon. Until four years ago, Petras Akstinas had focused on tennis, skiing and shorter races.

“You get older, your speed declines and you already know everything about a 10-kilometer race,” he laughs. “I got interested in the marathon, which changes your lifestyle, demands a lot of you and gives you a lot.”

The Lithuanian secured his place for the event already in December. Instead of having a glass of beer with his friends, he’s celebrating his 41st birthday on the day of the marathon.

“I’m happy to arrive in a city for the first time and to run in it; and the nice thing is I don’t know if there will be another time,” he says.

“I like to travel and see the world, but the best thing for me is always to return to Lithuania. The feeling is that there’s no better place in the world than your home.”

Friday's second Palestine Marathon will be much smaller than the fourth international Jerusalem marathon on March 21.Credit: Reuters
Ruth Atari Reik. 'I’m very Zionistic and this will be something special.'
Evie and Theodore Jackson. 'Israel is considered a special place for our people,' Evie says.

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