The Jerusalem Marathon: After the Glory, the Story

Spare a thought for all the runners in the Jerusalem Marathon who never dreamed of winning, but came for the singing, the sense of community feel and the great views of the capital.

Ilan Goldman
Ilan Goldman
Ilan Goldman
Ilan Goldman

It’s 5:30 A.M. on Friday, and the eastbound lanes of Route 1 look particularly lively. Among the rows of taxis, heading to Ben-Gurion International Airport, are dozens of private cars.

After the taxis peel off toward the airport one can see that many of the cars still on the highway bear the same identifying mark: a black-bordered white sticker reading “42.2” - the number of kilometers in a marathon.

The drivers, members of the running world’s most prestigious club, seek out familiar faces at 100 kilometers per hour.

In about one hour they will begin their common journey through the capital’s streets. But even after they leave their cars in the parking lots and walk toward the starting line in Sacher Park, the sticker-bearers’ common destiny engulfs the area. This is noticeable in their shared humor (“I swear – this is my last marathon”), in sharing experiences from the last Tiberias marathon (“What was your time?”) and mainly in the dress code (long socks whose purpose is unclear). Professional jargon quickly takes over, with terms like “tapering” (cutting back on mileage in the final weeks of training), "carbo-loading" and “over three hours” filling the air.

At 7 A.M. the deafening report of a gunshot abruptly halts the chatter and sends the army of excited marathon runners – 1,300 of them, according to the organizers – down Ruppin Boulevard. We are alongside them, typing as we jog.

For the first few kilometers the music and dancing electrify the atmosphere and help to banish forget the cold, but not the runners' worries. We can only assume that the same thought is running through most of their heads: How will we run those up damn hills near the end of the race?

“That’s part of the deal of the Jerusalem Marathon,” explains Eran Ketter, 33, of Haifa, who is comfortably ensconced in the middle of a bunch of runners. He is taking the run “easy” –he leaves getting a good time for another day.

“Running in Jerusalem is like running in nature,” exclaims Dganit Kuplik, 35. This is her first marathon and she’s running with a huge smile plastered across her face, although she worries about the later stages. Not to worry – that afternoon her Facebook page will feature dozens of congratulatory messages for finishing the course.

Zion Nagar, a 63-year-old local legend who is competing in his 52nd marathon, rushes past them. “I don’t have anything to get excited about any more,” he declares with a grin, before disappearing.

The first kilometers fly by. The chitchat helps the runners forget the difficulties awaiting them. When they lift their heads, the surrounding view is magnificent: a never-ending field of runners stretching into the distance that fills the capital’s gray streets with color.

“We’ve never seen Emek Refaim Street so full of life,” observes a local participant, who adds, “This is nothing, just wait 'til we get to the Old City.”

Every few seconds a call of encouragement from some apartment balcony breaks into the runners’ conversations and inspires them to pick up the pace. As the kilometers pass and they approach the city center, silence overtakes the group. The runners are now focused on their own, private race.

Hiding in the pack are the three Alankri brothers, from the center of the country, who decided together to conquer the distance as a family.

Alongside them, with a heavy and sluggish running style, Soo Takahashi is trying to survive the hills. He was supposed to participate in the Tokyo Marathon two weeks ago, but missed the registration date. Now he’s in the streets of Jerusalem, huffing and puffing in hope of finishing his first full marathon. His aim was to complete the course in five hours. His birthday was two days later, and this would be the perfect present, he explains.

The organizers clearly made an effort to attract participants from abroad: The English heard everywhere, after the oxygen returns to the runners’ lungs on the downhill stretches, banished the “neighborhood” feeling of other road races in Israel.

“My son’s getting married here next week,” explains Stephen Lenn, 64, in a thick Australian accent. “I’m here at this marathon because it was destined to be.” Lenn attracts journalists and spectators alike: While everyone else wears name-brand shoes, he runs barefoot, as he has for the past five years. “It feels like the most natural thing in the world,” Lenn insists.

The half-marathon starts at 8:30 A.M. The tension and cold that accompanied the start of the full marathon race give way to a party atmosphere.

“What’s there to be stressed about?” one participant said. “It’s just about running for a couple of hours and then we all go home.”

More than 3,000 runners line up for the event (including MK Ofer Shelah and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat), but most dawdle and dance near the starting line long minutes after the starting gun has sounded. One woman stays behind even longer than most, dancing sensuously. She fires up the spectators behind the barricades, who applaud and whistle. After a few minutes she remembered why she came and for and sprints down Ruppin Boulevard.

One hour after the dance show, the Ethiopian runner Abraham Kabeto Ketla crosses the finish line, earning $2,500 for his efforts. The Israeli runner Asrat Mamo, who installs car windshields for a living, finishes soon after him, in third place.

Meanwhile, the 56-year-old Egyptian-American peace activist Raef Guirges is fighting the hills. Sometimes his legs fail him and Guirges, who is breathing heavily, slows to a walk. But he will not give up – his legs have taken him through the finish line of more than 100 marathons and he intends to add Jerusalem to the list, at any cost.

The enormous flag in his right hand, with the words “God is love” in three languages, certainly does not make the running easier but he refuses to put it down. “I’m trying to spread peace between people through running,” he blurts between breaths. “I’m trying to form the largest community in the world.”

We’re at the back of the herd. A man who came all the way from Tokyo to compete is determined to catch up with us. When he does so, on a hill in the city center, he explains in broken English that he recently celebrated his 86th birthday. It is hard to ignore his pink cape and the brown teddy bear tied behind him. “Well done,” a woman shouts from an overlooking balcony, and he nearly trips.

Slightly after 9 A.M. the first runners approach the finish line. Hoards of reporters wait for them in Sacher Park. “I think you [Israelis] have pulled off a world-class marathon,” says a French journalist who came for the event. “In terms of organization I think it can be compared with the Paris marathon.”

A few seconds later we’re all on our feet as Kabeto appears around the corner and gallops toward the finish line. The hitherto anonymous runner wins his first marathon, even breaking the course record.

Amos Matui, the fifth-place Kenyan runner, says this was his most difficult marathon ever, “but I managed to enjoy the view.”

Katebu and Matui’s arrival marked the effective beginning of the race. With all due respect to the Kenyans and Ethiopians, who consistently win races and break records, the Jerusalem Marathon’s real lifeline is the 20,000 runners (according to the organizers) who took part this year. For four hours they straggle in, one or more at a time, earning applause that they will never forget. For some, it is the realization of a lifelong dream.

At 1:29 P.M., six and a half hours after the race began, Assaf Zer of Ramat Gan crossed the finish line. The 19-year-old soldier officially became the last runner and was awarded the “Determination and Perseverance Cup,” presented to him by Israel’s oldest marathoner, Ze’ev Naveh.

“I bet a friend NIS 1,000 that I could complete a marathon,” he later recounted. And if you don’t believe him, he has a sticker to prove it.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man looking at runners in Jerusalem's Old City during the annual marathon in Jerusalem, Friday, March 1, 2013.Credit: AP

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