Rock'n'roll Races Crash-land in Israel

Rock'n’roll races, where live bands and DJs play on the runners' route, are a hit in America. Their Israeli debut underwhelmed.

Friday morning, 6 A.M. The murky streets of Rishon Letzion begin to awake. Through the heavy morning mist that engulfs Rothschild Boulevard, hundreds of figures in fluorescent shirts appear, jogging their way to the starting line. Truck drivers unloading their goods rub their eyes in amazement. And perhaps their ears, too: Most seem taken aback by the rock music blaring from the intersection with Ben-Gurion Street.

A band called Rockville, which bills itself as “a tribute to the rock greats Queen, Pink Floyd, The Doors and U2,” is waking up the neighbors with a throbbing version of “We Will Rock You,” followed by an excellent rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”

The bleary-eyed residents of the surrounding buildings glancing through window shutters know they won’t be able to stop this party.

Rishon Letzion is celebrating 130 years since its founding and the loud music is at the municipality’s initiative.

The enormous loudspeakers are directed at the thousands of amateur runners about to kick off Israel’s first-ever “Rock ‘n’ Roll” race. It follows a concept that has become increasingly popular in the past decade in the United States in which live rock shows, DJs and cheerleaders are staggered every few kilometers along the route.

“I waited anxiously for an event like this in Israel,” one of the runners tells me at the starting line of the 10-kilometer race. “I even left my own music at home.”

Was that the right decision? All will be revealed shortly. Seconds after the starting gun, I glance back at a long trail of glistening yellow shirts. The race is dubbed “run to the beat,” which is what we do.

The beat accompanies us throughout the first kilometer. After a few hundred meters the heavy rock morphs into bouncy house music from the DJ stand overlooking the route. And when the ears ring, energy bursts out. Neither fatigue nor the morning fog can damper the sound. On a morning like this, music is the perfect energy source.      

But the euphoria doesn’t last long. A few seconds later, the music fades as we run past the stage, replaced by heavy panting. It suddenly feels like just another race.

“I didn’t plan around the soundtrack,” explains Ilan Algari, a runner from Modi’in who was wise enough to bring his own music player. “It was clear to me that they couldn’t provide music throughout the entire route.”  

He was right. Between huffs and puffs, he’s listening to “The Flower in My Garden” by the king of Mizrahi music, the late Zohar Argov. “My aim is to finish in less than an hour,” he proclaims and disappears in front of us. Later he said he achieved his target – thanks to Argov.

“What brought me here was the promise of music,” says Irit Samson, a happy, bouncy character who easily joined our group of runners. After we passed the second music stage at around three kilometers, she gave up and returned to her personal music player. She prefers the uplifting hits of French-Jewish DJ David Guetta to the mortifying silence that dominated until the third music stage at the fifth kilometer.

“We can always sing to ourselves,” she jokes.

The next musical moment comes from an unexpected direction. Close to the six-kilometer mark, the deep sounds of a group of Navy fighters galloping in front of us stirs our sleepy group of runners. They sing in honor of their warship, anchored in Haifa Port. “Please don’t write the ship’s name,” one of the sailors pleads. So I'm not.

When we reach the Latin music stage further along the route, no one is happier than these soldiers. “Every time there’s music we get a new burst of zest,” says a burly guy named Neil. From here to the DJ stand near the finish line, everyone is depending on each other for energy.  

In the United States, Rock ‘n’ Roll races have proven a hit. The Competitor Group, a giant corporation headquartered in San Diego, California, owns and operates Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathons in 27 locations across the country. Some of the races have become as big as the Boston or Chicago marathons, with tens of thousands of participants. Now the races are being introduced in Europe and Canada and the Competitor Group is forecasting “unprecedented” growth in 2014.

“Our aim is to turn running into a more accessible and fun sport,” the company claims, “to make every kilometer go by quicker.”

Does it really work? Not yet in the Holy Land, apparently. The dozens of runners I spoke to after the race said that the music had no effect on their running. The musical interludes were too brief, and the demons that stalk runners refused to go away. The psychological and physical difficulty involved in running long distances remained unaffected.

“Did you even hear the music?” wondered one runner, Eli Pardess. “It wasn’t really there. But to the organizers’ credit it must be said that in marketing terms the music was inviting.”

“It’s our first year,” said Rina Katash of Imagine, the company that produced the event. “It doesn’t matter what you put along the route – if the residents don’t come out in droves to cheer the runners on, the effect won’t be made. There’s something lively and colorful and kinky about this type of race, and it’s not easy to swallow at first. Every potential begins with a germinating seed. After all, the New York Marathon also began small.” 

Ronen Topelberg