At 7 A.M. one day last month, a small car pulled up to the gravel parking lot of the Ben Shemen Forest. Each passenger has played a role in this story, a wondrous one that only sports can weave.
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From the driver’s side emerged Israeli coach Dan Salpeter, 30. His wife and trainee, 27-year-old Kenyan-born Lonah Chemtai, followed, while their 13-month-old son Roy continued to doze in his car seat. Ben Shemen Forest is where the couple first met.
Three months beforehand the family had gone to Berlin. There, as his mother prepared to run in her first marathon, Roy took his first steps. He also caught a cold, which he passed on to Chemtai. She began the race but didn’t make it to the finish line.
They had come to the park now to train for the 39th Sea of Galilee-Tiberias International Winner Marathon, which was held last Friday (January 8). Chemtai, who is affiliated with Maccabi Tel Aviv, had hoped to finish the 42.5 kilometers in under 2:45, the time needed to qualify for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, in August. Such a finish would, she hoped, help expedite the process of becoming an Israeli citizen.
Greeted by torrential rains and huge puddles reaching a depth of half a meter, she and the other runners set out last Friday, on the course around the Sea of Galilee. Chemtai began at a fast clip, and Salpeter heard by way of reports from one of the official vehicles accompanying the runners that she had finished the half marathon at a very promising 1:21.11. She managed to keep her excellent pace, running shoulder to shoulder in some stretches with fellow Kenyan Edinah Jerotich Kwambai, well past the 30-kilometer mark. However, at about 39 kilometers, Chemtai stopped running, collapsed and was taken by ambulance to the hospital, apparently exhausted and suffering from the cold. Kwambai went on to win the woman's title, at 2:56:23.
As a child in her village in Kenya, Chemtai had showed some promise in track and field, but her father refused to send her to an athletics training school, temporarily putting an end to that chapter in her life. She came to Israel in late 2008, where she served as head housekeeper at the residence of the Kenyan consul in Herzliya. When the consul’s wife went off to study in Australia, Chemtai took on temporary mothering duties to the couple’s three children.
In the spring of 2010, her employer suggested that Chemtai run the 10-kilometer race that was held as part of the Tel Aviv marathon. Her performance was so-so, spurring her to renew her running regimen. She began running in a Herzliya park every evening. The marathon runner Moti Mizrahi took notice of her, and invited her to join the group of Zohar Zimro, a marathoner from Ethiopia, and his coach, Amnon Gur.
The group trained at the Wingate Institute in Netanya on Fridays. It was around the time that Salpeter, as part of his reserve duty in the Israel Defense Forces, was training a group of army runners. He and Chemtai met, and began spending time together.
They would run together, often adding a meal or a friendly cup of coffee to the training session. After Salpeter and his girlfriend at the time broke up, the couple’s relationship took a romantic turn.
“At first it was discreet,” Salpeter relates now. “She worked at the consul’s house almost every day, and running was her escape. She had no other spare time, so we took advantage of our runs to grow our relationship.”
Was it difficult for you to “come out” as a couple?
Salpeter: “My friends and family noticed the spark between us. I knew that publicly it would cause much antagonism. In the Israeli mindset, especially among athletics, people don’t like to be taken out of their comfort zone. Think of how many levels there are here that can upset things: an inter-racial relationship, a runner who 'threatens' Israeli records and titles – people don’t know how to deal with that. But anyone who knows us personally can’t fail to realize the depth of this non-trivial story.”
A new chapter?
After the training session a few weeks ago, they had gone to the youth village in Ben Shemen, where they were relaxing on the porch of Azawant Taka, Chemtai’s co-runner, and spoke to Haaretz.
Salpeter and Chemtai were married last September in a civil service in Nairobi, and live today on Moshav Yanuv, a cooperative farming community in the central part of the country. They had hoped that a new chapter would be written in Tiberias in the amazing story they are creating together.
Chemtai is in the midst of a prolonged and exhausting bureaucratic process at the Ministry of Interior in order to obtain her blue Israeli ID card.
“It usually takes four years, but it’s possible to speed things up in cases of a person who excels [in some field] and who can be of benefit the state,” explains Salpeter. “An exceptional achievement on an international level could help us. The marathon has a certain aura around it."
In non-marathon running competitions, despite Chemtai's connection with and desire to settle in the country, and despite her marriage to Salpeter, she is not formally considered to be Israeli. Even when she comes in first in other local races, monetary prizes meant for Israelis remain out of bounds for her and she shares the podium with her runner-up. Such would have been the case even if she had been the first woman to win in Tiberias.
“If you only knew what a dark period in my life it was while we worked to get her a residence permit,” Salpeter recalls, “including sleepless nights in which you stare at the ceiling and ask yourself what kind of place you’re living in. Right now she gets no support from any agency. It all falls on us, that’s the situation.
"I’m not afraid of difficulties and I was resigned to this from the very first cup of coffee we shared. Every shekel I earn is for her and our child’s future. In Israel things work only when you shake up the system. All I want is to live here with my partner but reality has put me in a state of war.”
“Everything’s changed,” says Chemtai, about her life in the last few years. She no longer works at the consulate and is now devoting her time to her family and the realization of her athletic potential. “It was great to meet Dan. He’s a good and tough coach who understands me well, recognizing me weak points. I was very disappointed in Berlin but sometimes there are things that don’t go smoothly.”
“She sees what’s happening in Kenya in terms of her results – she’s not excited by times that don’t mean much in her country," adds Salpeter. "It’s important that she realize how far she still has to go."
“I love the experience things and I feel ready," Chemtai says. "Roy will bring me luck. I’ll think of him when I’m tired. I hope I succeed and I am waiting to become an Israeli. I’m patient, it will happen one day."
It is now a day after the Tiberias race, and Chemtai is healthy and optimistic. She still has one more chance to qualify for the Olympics, at one of the marathons slated to take place abroad during the spring, but her trainer-husband is wary of putting her in any danger.
"I won't put Lonah on the starting line in a marathon where there are extreme conditions, like tremendous amounts of rain," says Salpeter now. "It's a waste in terms of her achievements and her health, and it isn't worth it. Actually the Tiberias marathon gave her a feeling of confidence, because up to the point where she stopped running, she felt great. She is healthy and strong in body and mind. She certainly 'has it,' in her legs, and we are not giving up."