March 14, 2013

Sheep Thrills

The Jerusalem Marathon was on Friday March 1st.  This third annual marathon attracted some 20,000 people from around the world (an incredible leap in growth, considering the first marathon brought a crowd of 6,000 runners). A few days after Purim, festivity was still in the air with runners turning up in superhero costumes and clown wigs.

There was the option to run a full marathon, a half marathon or a 10 km. run. I was signed up, along with my husband, older daughter and younger son, for the 10 km. run.

Arriving in Jerusalem on a chilly Friday morning, we made our way to the starting line. The atmosphere was festive with clowns, jugglers and wacky cartoon characters parading on stilts.  A disc jockey belted out encouragement in a feverish pitch while music thumped from speakers.  The end result? A pumped crowd of runners who were mingling, stretching, and, if you were me, spending a half hour in line at one of four johnny on the spots that served tens of thousands. Hmmm…poor planning?  While standing in line, fiercely guarding my spot, I heard a lot of English and hardly a word of Hebrew.

We split into groups depending on our projected finishing times. Since my optimistic husband was in charge of signing us up, he placed us in the ‘B’ group, which meant we felt we would finish the 10-km run in less than an hour. Less than one hour? I was surely in the ‘C’ or  ‘D’  categories. Was there a ‘Z’ option?

Heralded by brash music, the race began. We were such a large group, we started out at a crawl that turned into a speed walk. I was thankful for this as I often feel that my jogging is more akin to shuffling.

We sped up and as the group scattered, the vista opened, displaying the wide avenues of this magnificent city. We ran towards the old city walls, and across ancient cobblestones that have been polished by pounding feet for millennia. We ran right through the Jaffa gate near the shuk. I leaned my hand across the shiny old walls, feeling such gratitude;  I had the physical ability to run as well as the incredible opportunity to be in this holy, ancient and vibrant city. My daughter, who was running with a large group who had fund-raised for a charity, later told me she cried when she entered the city gates.

We ran with ‘seeing’ runners attached to blind runners wearing wristbands. I ran past young men pushing disabled children in wheelchairs.  I ran up and up and up those twisting Jerusalem hills and then flew down, receiving encouragement every step of the way. People lined the streets offering high fives, they leaned over balconies, called out from bicycles and looked up from newspapers in outdoor cafes.

At one point, four confused sheep joined the crowd. I am not sure where their shepherd was, but they saw a crowd and since they are sheep, they instinctively joined us, refusing to leave the stampede. I ran behind them for a while, laughing aloud and watching the grins on people’s faces as they saw them. Only in Jerusalem. Where were the camels?

At the seven-kilometer point, the chatter died down and people entered into a quiet solitude, focusing on their stamina internally. The pounding of feet and beating of hearts kept me going. And on we ran until the finish line. I waited at there to watch others runners end, feeling their glee each time someone new crossed the line.

Here is some interesting information I gleaned from this race:
A 63 year-old-man ran, competed here. It was his 52nd marathon.
A 64-year-old Australian ran barefoot. “It feels like the most natural thing,” he explained.
A runner from Tokyo just celebrated his 86th birthday. He could not be missed as he was running in a pink cape with a brown teddy bear tied behind.

The top winners were all from Ethiopia. Two Ethiopian female runners used this race as an opportunity to run away from their country, disappearing in the crowds never to be seen again.

There was also a prize for the full marathon winner who came in last. The “Determination and Perseverance Cup went to a 19-year-old soldier who finished in six and a half hours.

I was so impressed by one young athlete accompanying runners who looked tired or challenged, ensuring they made it to the end. He ran back and forth over and over again, offering encouragement and bringing a hopeful grin to each person’s face. 

This was a run that inspired unity. The day was not about speed or fashion, rather it was about achieving personal best in one of the world’s most spiritual places.

Here's a youtube video we made to capture the energy of this race.

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