Judaism? Islam? Israel’s New Religion Is Marathon Running

Runners from abroad are getting into the act as marathon tourism ramps up around the world and in the Holy Land.

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About 36. 000 runners start in front of the Tokyo metropolitan government office building during the 2014 Tokyo Marathon in Shinjyuku Ward, Tokyo on Feb. 23, 2014. The participants filled the street and more than one million spectators cheered the runners. Dickson Chumba of Kenya won the men's category to post a race record with a time of 2:05:42 and Tirfi Tsegayae of Ehiopia claimed the women's event. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun )
The 2014 Tokyo Marathon in Shinjyuku Ward, Tokyo on Feb. 23, 2014.Credit: The Yomiuri Shimbun / Miho Takahashi / AFP
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

“Every city in which I’ve run is mine. I conquer it. Wherever I run a marathon I become part of the city.”

Miriam Rodrig-Farhi says this in a thoughtful voice. For a few minutes she tries to explain the magic of running a marathon in an unfamiliar city. It’s very hard to explain the attraction of a 42-kilometer (26-mile) trek to someone who finds it hard to get once around the track.

Rodrig-Farhi, 66, has been running for nine years. She says that when she began she didn’t know how to do it. Then she noticed that a running group had started up at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park.

“At first I ran really slowly and for short distances. I was surprised to see that I didn’t die. I had a lot of problems in my life at the time and running helped me solve them. When I progressed and was about to run 10 kilometers for the first time, I didn’t sleep all night. I was sure I’d fall and die, but that didn’t happen,” she says.

“Two and a half years ago I ran my first marathon in Paris. The whole family came to watch me so that if I died they could record it. It turned out to be fun. I really enjoyed the first marathon, and when I finished I asked, what next?”

A runner passes the Tower of David in the Jerusalem Marathon, March 18, 2016. Credit: AP

Since then she has taken part in three more marathons. She really enjoyed Tiberias and Berlin. In Rotterdam in April she didn’t want to run, but others convinced her to. After 35 kilometers she stopped, a move she regrets.

Abandoning a race in the middle is an unpleasant experience, she says. She has just registered for the Vienna City Marathon next spring and is already worried.

Everyone interviewed for this article compared running a marathon to a religious experience. “I’m not very interested in tradition, but when it comes to running, I’m worse than the religious people in Mea She’arim,” Rodrig-Farhi says, referring to the Jerusalem neighborhood.

She illustrates what she means by trying to change my religion, which is walking in the park. She wants me to pick up the pace.

Daniel Keren, who has run dozens of marathons and longer races, describes running as a religious experience. “Running creates great closeness to yourself. These are things that are very hard to explain in words. But it’s a spiritual high,” he says.

“Maybe it can be compared to violinist Pinchas Zukerman’s high when he plays. Most people can’t play like Zukerman to achieve a high, but we can run and have a similar experience.”

Israeli marathon runner Miriam Rodrig-FarhiCredit: Debbie Kaufman

Keren, a 50-something accountant and economist, is a familiar figure on Israel’s running and extreme-sports scene. He’s the founder and head coach of the Marta Tel Aviv Runners’ Club, organizes and guides extreme trips for groups that run abroad, and is a veteran mountain climber.

Keren grew up in a religious family in Jerusalem and later specialized in Eastern cultures. He teaches martial arts and is into the body-soul connection. He says we’re seeing the creation of a new religion it’s not just a metaphor.

“Marathon runners try to get to the major marathons in London, Berlin, New York, which are the contemporary pilgrimage sites,” Keren says. “They take part in ceremonies – stretching, warm-ups and so on. And they have special outfits and priests – the coaches who mediate between love of running and the masses.”

Also, running demands daily devotion and asceticism. “It requires a profound faith and provides an uplift. There’s a clear and immediate reward and punishment,” he says.

“Anyone who doesn’t train won’t succeed. There are clear rules on which foods are permitted and prohibited, and there’s a constantly growing community the community of marathon runners who have gotten a taste and want more.”

Jerusalem’s ups and downs

Marathons are now an important part of the tourism industry in many cities around the globe. The world’s six biggest marathons take place in Boston (April), New York (November), Chicago (October), London (April), Berlin (September) and Tokyo (February). New York is considered the most popular, with over 50,000 people finishing every year.

Israeli marathon runner Ronen KrumholtzCredit: Tomer Feder

The New York run that took place Sunday is so popular that over 250,000 people asked to participate this year. Only 18 percent of those who registered won the lottery and could take part in the dash that passes through the city’s five boroughs.

In Jerusalem, about 25,000 people ran in the various heats this year, with 2,400 coming from abroad to venture the full marathon. These are tourists who probably wouldn’t have come for another reason.

Ofer Padan says Israel is a unique destination for marathon runners. He heads Marathon Israel and produces some of the country’s marathons including Jerusalem, Tiberias and the Desert Marathon that sets off from Eilat on November 18.

“Jerusalem is actually the antithesis of a marathon site. Unlike the Tiberias Marathon, which has a fast, flat route that runners like, the Jerusalem Marathon has lots of ups and downs and sharp turns,” he says.

“It’s far from an ideal route, it certainly isn’t fast, but runners really like it because it’s unique. It’s a different kind of adventure, and that’s exactly what marathon tourists are looking for today. They want a new and exciting destination.”

Padan says the Desert Marathon fits that description because “it takes place in the open, leaves the city and continues in wadis – ups and downs, exciting landscapes. The desert is a very different landscape from what most runners are familiar with. And unlike other marathons in deserts abroad, it starts and ends in Eilat – a city where it’s fun to spend time. There’s no combination that marathon runners like better.”

Danish marathon runner Vagn Kirkelund.Credit: Facebook

Marathon tourism is developing quickly, Padan adds. Globally there are millions of marathon runners and most of them love adventure; every year they seek new destinations. Most are over 30. At every race you can even find people in their 70s. There’s no cure, Padan explains with a smile.

Most people, he says, run one or two marathons a year. They’ll run one marathon in Israel – in Tiberias, the desert, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Usually they remain loyal to “their” Israeli marathon, the one they’re used to.

They usually run the second race abroad. Most try to experience a different city every year. Some try new things like the Marathon des Sables (the Marathon of the Sands) in Morocco or the high-altitude race in the Himalayas.

Israel out of the ordinary

Like other runners, at the start of our conversation Ronen Krumholtz quickly lists the marathons he’s run: Jerusalem, Eilat, Tiberias, Berlin, Paris, Florence, Amsterdam, Edinburgh. He explains how he progressed to an ultra-marathon – 60 kilometers or more in the open, not on roads.

For Krumholtz, 48, it’s not only a hobby. As the sales and marketing director at Diesenhaus-Unitours Incoming Tourism, he markets the Jerusalem race and the Desert Marathon. His job is to bring as many runners to Israel as possible. His clientele consists of people who have done the six major world marathons and are looking for an interesting experience.

The New York City Marathon, 2014.Credit: Alex Goodlett / Getty Images / AFP

“Fortunately for us, Jerusalem, the Desert Marathon in Eilat and even Tiberias and Tel Aviv are part of this second series of exotic marathons. People will come here in order to ‘do it.’ They don’t come to improve their results but to enjoy an experience that combines running and landscape, a new city and sometimes even a spiritual experience,” he says.

“It’s reasonably easy to reach them because they’re members of running clubs, and every country has travel agencies specializing in marathon tourism. The clients are wonderful tourists because they come with their families and combine the marathon with a tour of the area. If they run in Jerusalem or Eilat they’ll also go to the Dead Sea, Petra, Tel Aviv and other places.”

Amir Halevi, the Tourism Ministry director general and an enthusiastic athlete, also sees great potential in the field. The weather, the landscape and the sites in Israel are an excellent basis for developing sports tourism.

“Every event that we hold is a magnet for tourists,” he says. “Who ever dreamed we would attract thousands of runners from abroad to a marathon in Jerusalem or the Arava?”

Halevi says sports tourists aren’t deterred by terrorism and the like. Even an incident like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing didn’t deter them.

Vagn Kirkelund, 49, began running marathons 17 years ago. He manages the deliveries department at a supermarket chain in Aarhus, Denmark. When he comes to Israel this month to take part in the Desert Marathon he’ll be running his 500th marathon.

If you add up all the miles he has run in marathons, he has covered half the circumference of the globe.

“When I began I didn’t intend to run so much,” he explains in an apologetic tone by phone from Denmark. “I met a few guys who had run a lot of marathons and that challenged me. In recent years I’ve been running one marathon a week, usually on Saturday or Sunday, 40 to 50 marathons a year. Believe me, it doesn’t get easier.”

Still, marathons reflect a passion for life, he says. “In that situation you’re inside the flow and your brain functions in a more relaxed way.”

Kirkelund has run in 53 countries, and the visit to Eilat will be his first time in Israel. He’s coming with two Danish friends and several family members. One of his friends has already run 300 marathons; for the other, this will be his 400th marathon.

“We looked for a special place and a special marathon to mark those round numbers – 300, 400, 500 – and the Desert Marathon seemed like a good choice, something unique,” he says. “So tell me, how’s Eilat?”

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