The value I’ve learned by participating in the Jerusalem Marathon

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Tuvia after running in the Jerusalem Marathon, Oct. 29, 2021

After two and a half years, the Jerusalem Marathon is finally back! Held every year in March since 2011, the 2020 edition was supposed to be celebrated in March 2020 as the tenth annual marathon. Just a week before it was scheduled to take place, the pandemic hit Israel. They initially postponed it to October (remember when we thought COVID would be over in a few months?), and then they postponed it another year, to October 2021. On October 29, 2021, it finally took place.

As the 2020 was canceled last minute, they used all the equipment, and the designs left from 2020. The medals and the shirts all said “2020.” There were very few international runners this time, as individual tourists were only let in to Israel from November 1. Because of this, for the first time, the winner of the Jerusalem Marathon was a local Israeli who lives in Jerusalem.

When it all started in 2011, I would scoff at this “Greek” influence. Sports competitions came to Israel with the Greeks, and they were made to the pagan gods’ honor. I’d tell anyone who would listen that Jerusalem shouldn’t have a marathon. Marathon has a pagan origin, and people should come to Jerusalem for history and religion, not for artificial secular reasons, I’d argue. Maybe I was just bitter about the traffic problems on marathon day when half the city shut down for the runners. Maybe it was bitterness left from school when I always ran the slowest and were picked last in gym class. I don’t know.

But then I matured, and I made some friends in the congregation who ran the marathon every year. I realized that physical activity actually is of some value (1 Tim 4:8) and that it doesn’t matter how I compare to others. The only thing that matters is if I’m becoming a better and healthier person myself. I also realized that I’m adding a few years to my life by being physically active. So after spending most of my 20s and early 30s making up religious and historic excuses to sit on my sofa and gain kilos, I put the excuses aside and got up from my couch, joining the ones I once had scoffed. I’m getting closer to 40 now, and if I’m not keeping my body in shape, it’s going to make its own, round, shape.

So in early 2015, my wife challenged me to do at least a 10k in the Jerusalem marathon 2016. Which, of course, meant that I had to do at least a half marathon (twice the distance) to outshine her challenge. I accomplished that, and ever since, I have participated or tried to participate in one way or another every year, even if my commitment to it has had its ups and downs.

For the 2020 race taking place in 2021, I signed up for the 10k run. The day before, I was pleasantly surprised to find out my friend John from our congregation had signed up for the same race. Another believing friend, who is over 60, was doing a full marathon. These people inspire me.

I left home at 5:30 in the morning. The 10k wasn’t scheduled to start till 9, but since the entire city is shut down, I didn’t know how long it would take me to get there. I asked advice on Facebook and received some horror stories of people who ran 10k just to get to the starting point for the 10k run in time. Thanks. The half and full marathon run close to my home, so I had to walk a bit to reach a spot with a functioning bus stop. The police, who were busy shutting down the streets, looked at me passing with my running bib on my shirt. “Have you already started running?” they joked.

I was lucky to find a bus which took a long and different route than normal, but arrived at a spot close enough to the Sacher Park, which is where the main organizing event was taking place. I showed the guards my green pass and was let in. Vending tents, live music, big screens, stages with people leading workouts and warmups, and most importantly – free water and coffee for the runners, courtesy of the sponsors. I met up with John, and we spent the time chatting and drinking coffee until it was time to go to the starting point.

The current mayor, Moshe Lion, was running the 10k with us. It was the first time he participated. He used to be overweight when he was elected in 2018, but not anymore. Maybe inferiority complex to his predecessor and old rival, Nir Barkat? Barkat was the man who initiated the Jerusalem Marathon in 2011, and he did the 10k this year too. Did Lion hope to beat his old rival? If so, it was futile. Barkat did the race in 1:19 and Lion finished with 1:24. I must have passed both somewhere along the race, because I finished at 0:58. My friend John did 0:54. The winner of the 10k was Abuhay Shmuel with 0:33 and the fastest female was Halbi Karuan with 0:38.

But as I said, I’m not comparing myself to others. No, not at all… it’s not at all significant that I got to 724th place out of 2,356 male runners, or to 364th place out of 924 male runners in my age group (30-39). None of that matters to me at all, and I have no personal need to brag about figures like that in a public article about the marathon. Why would I do that? I’m a believer, I shouldn’t boast about anything but the Lord.

The run, as always, was beautiful. The 10k is the shortest race that is still long enough to let you run along the walls and through the gates of the Old City. Little encouraging signs, set up by the sponsoring water company, were set up here and there. “The faster you run, the sooner it will be over.” Thanks. It will be over even sooner if I collapse in the heat, so I’m just going to keep my current pace. I happened to run alongside a platoon of soldiers running together for a part of the run. When I got tired and walked for a while, one of them slapped my shoulder and encouraged me to keep going. Thanks, but I’m not 20 like you. I wasted my 20s eating chips. I still smiled and said thank you and picked up some speed. Close to the finish line, another (or the same?) platoon discovered that one of their friends was left behind. They followed the principle of not leaving wounded soldiers in the field, so they ran back and found him. Then they raced past me again. Along the race there were water stations, which were extremely helpful. As we ran through an Arab neighborhood I shouted a few words of thanks in Arabic to the teenage volunteers who picked up our water bottles. As I finally crossed the finish line, I was exhausted, mostly from the heat and the steep climbs. I received my medal and my free fruits, commenting that this was a lot of work for a free orange. Once back in the Sacher park area, I finally had free access to unlimited free water and coffee again. Someone ran into me and spilled coffee over my shirt, but that’s just part of people still not being use to crowds I guess. I’m just glad it happened after and not before the race.

In total, about 20,000 runners participated in the event, slightly down from the regular 40,000. Only 800 of them did the full marathon. The winner was Yamar Gethon, 29, from Jerusalem, who broke an Israeli record, finishing the Jerusalem marathon in 2 hours and 24 minutes. Gethon is an Ethiopian Jew, and he recently ran the Berlin marathon, finishing in 12th place. He dreams of representing Israel in the Olympics in Paris 2024. I saw him receiving the medal from the mayor at the ceremony, Lion beaming with pride that a local Israeli who lives in Jerusalem had won the race for the first time. The fastest female runner was Anna Price, 45, who finished with 3 hours and 25 minutes. Malka “Betty” Deutsch, an ultra-orthodox mother of five, won the women’s half marathon, running in a long skirt, finishing at 01:20. She reportedly started running only a few years ago. The winner of the men’s half marathon was Aymaro Almiya with 01:07.

Winners podium at the 2021 Jerusalem Marathon

As a 10k runner, I didn’t get to experience the full beauty of Jerusalem this time. I didn’t go on the train tracks, turned into a park, nor did I run past the beautiful Haas promenade where my wife and kids went to give out chocolates to the runners. I didn’t experience the probably horrible but beautiful run/climb up to Mount Scopus and back down again. The 2022 marathon is scheduled in just 5 months, on March 25, 2022, and I have already registered for the half marathon this time. My dream of doing a full marathon before I turn 40 will not come true, but maybe by the time I’m 41?

In 1 Tim. 4:8, Paul says that “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” I try to remember this as I run. It is only of some good value on this earth. I run to be around longer for my children and grandchildren, to be more healthy and be less of a burden on them as I age. But I also remember Paul’s words, and keep in mind that if I do this, but am not diligent in prayer and Bible reading, and don’t train myself in godliness more than I train myself physically, then my priorities are off. In fact, running time is a great time to pray and talk to God, thereby accomplishing both trainings at once.

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” 1 Cor. 9:24

“I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 3:14