Israeli Grandmother Determined to Run Fourth Marathon, No Matter How Long It Takes

70-year-old woman shares her experience of running 42 kilometers, sometimes reaching the finish line when there is no-one left to clock her.

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Ilan Goldman
Ilan Goldman

The second Zohar Oved, the mayor of Tiberias, pulled the trigger and sent the 2012 Tiberias Marathon on its way, dozens of Kenyan and Ethiopian runners headed south on Hagalil Street at a speed of 20 kilometers an hour or even faster. According to the natural order of long distance running, seconds after the East African runners, a drove of Israeli runners set off.

Helena Teiber, one of the runners, had learned from experience that it is best to wait a while behind, until the dust settles. Only when Hagalil Street was vacant and the hundreds of runners disappeared in the distance, Teiber started on her way. She looked to the left, then to the right, and then the 70-year-old grandmother from Petah Tikva began the third marathon run of her life.

"I don't know how I have the strength," she admits. "I just tell myself that I can do it."

Those who know Teiber are aware that her love story with running goes far beyond struggling with the distance or her age. Alan Sillitoe's novel "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" aptly sums up her experiences running the marathon. In the four years since she decided to run the distance ("I have no idea why"), Teiber finished the Tiberias Marathon long after everyone else. How long? Last year it took her 6 hours and 21 minutes – there was one runner who finished after her – 21 minutes after the formal time limit, more than four hours after the winner and some two and half hours after most runners. If it wasn't for her daughter, no one would have stayed to clock her time.

Teiber says this isn't uncommon. "It's somewhat frustrating," she admits. "I understand that it's hard for them to wait so long, and I would love to run faster and finish within six hours, but I must be careful because of my age. I try to run the whole distance, and I know I'm doing my best."

Teiber ran alone most of the way to Kibbutz Ein Gev and back escorted by the bus that follows the last runners. In certain sections one of her daughters ran alongside her, but ultimately she was alone with the breathtaking view and her pulse.

"It does feel somewhat lonely, but there are often people on the side of the road who cheer you on," she says.

Apart from the relative loneliness, it turns out there are also technical difficulties when you're last. In recent years, when Teiber, grandmother to seven, finished the marathon, no race official remained behind to accept the time chip attached to her shoe, which could cause her to be fined by the organizers.

To make matters worse as far as her pride after running more than 42 kilometers, Teiber had to locate a medal on her own. The same happened in last year's Tel Aviv half marathon. It was a cold and rainy day, and no one bothered to wait until she finished. Nonetheless, she accepts it all in good spirits and understands the rules, even though it does leave here slightly sour.

The Israel Athletics Association, organizer of the Tiberias Marathon, responds: "As in every marathon in the world, streets and roads are closed, causing inconvenience to the residents, and therefore organizers must declare from the start when the race is officially over.

"The official time for ending a marathon race [six hours] is published long before the race begins in every possibly media outlet. The organizing committee also sends a vehicle to scan the route before it is officially over, in order to find out how many runners are still out there, and we wait for them at the finishing line."

Furthermore, the IAA says that "a representative of the organizers responsible for clocking the times always remains until the last runner has completed the course. Obviously, the finishing line isn't as festive as it was an hour, two or three before, and it often seems forsaken."

As for the claim that in the past no one remained to clock the time of the last runners, the IAA insists that "we never received such a complaint," but promised that in the future a representative will await the last runners.

"Sad as it is, that's part and parcel of the rules of the game," says Noam Pozan of Shvoong, a company that organizes endurance races. "It's not nice to tell a participant that he didn't finish the race on time, but often there's no choice."

Pozan admits that during the Iron Man contest, Israman, that the company produces annually, "we had to take contestants off the course. It's unpleasant, especially because you know that they have spent a year in preparation for the contest."

Teiber accepts this reality, but would be happy if those coming in last would receive a warmer attitude from the organizers. "I regret starting running so late," she says. "If I had begun several years earlier, I could be running much faster. I have a competitive streak."

Despite her age, she isn't even considering retirement. As far as she's concerned, the marathon challenge "only gets easier every year." Her friends and grandchildren are still amazed every time.

On Thursday the ritual will repeat itself and Teiber will again joint the starting line in Tiberias, armed with energy snacks and a bottle of water. According the strict training regime she adheres to – based on the book "The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer" – she completed a 32-kilometer run two weeks ago and now feels ready.

"During the marathon I'll free my mind and meditate," she says, "but I'll also try to overtake whoever I can."

In any case, she'll be most happy if someone does, in fact, wait for her at the finish line this time.

Helena Teiber says race organizers don't wait for the last runners.Credit: Sharon Teiber

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