Finding My Religion at the Jerusalem Marathon

We runners like to add importance and meaning to what others see as a simple, but at the same time painful and tedious method of exercise. My running friends and I half-joke about our Sunday services on the church of the trail, and speak quietly about transcending pain and finding peace after hours and hours of running. We talk about passion, and the spiritual journey of pushing beyond  what we think is possible. That is what made the Jerusalem Marathon such a natural fit. I was fortunate enough to have received an invitation about 7 weeks ago to run the marathon, and what better place for a running pilgrimage than Jerusalem?

Before the run, we walked. We toured sites holy to millions, and I tried to get out of the way as the religious pilgrims walked where they believed Jesus walked with his cross, or prayed at a wall that is said to be so holy that when you pray there, your prayers are closest to God's ear.

Pilgrims walk the Via Dolorosa

All of the sites were beautiful, but one stuck out for me, and maybe it was the lack of sleep and a jet-lagged clouded brain, but as we toured the Tower of David that first night, and descended through thousands of years of history, I couldn't help but think about the task we were to set upon in a few days. Dig deep. That is what we do, and for some reason, some of us continue to dig, to scratch away the layers, searching for something, that next moment of clarity, that flow, that high that comes with a faster time, or a longer distance, or a greater challenge as we push through barriers of pain, as we dig deeper.

Tower of David

We descended through an old prison with rusty bars on the windows and graffiti on the walls, a Star of David scratched by a member of the Jewish resistance on the eve of 1947's War of Independence. The stairs led us down a stratified window to thousands of years of Jerusalem's history, from King Herod's water system, to the fortifications of the first temple from the 8th century BC. As we ascended the stairs and stood on top of the Tower of David that first night, overlooking the old city and the hills surrounding Jerusalem, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I haven’t wanted to run a road marathon in years, but I couldn’t wait to run around and through this city.

The run started easy, as most do. I probably went out faster than what I was trained for, and my brain wasn't quite ready for simple math...the conversion of kilometers to miles, so I wasn't 100% sure what my pace was until the halfway point where I realized I was going too fast. I talked to the runner next to me about marathons and times, and told him my goal was to break four. He looked at me and laughed, and told me I was running too fast. Let the digging commence.

Running through The Old City

We were told that the marathon took advantage of Jerusalem's unique topography, which meant that there were a lot of hills. The hills weren't too long, but there were definitely a lot of them. There was also amazing crowd support. The music, from teenagers belting out one of my daughter's favorite songs, "Are You Mine" with all their heart to a couple of guys drumming and singing traditional Arabic music, was amazing and varied. There was always something to listen to or look at. Aside from the amazing views of Jerusalem from the hills, there were families lining the course, street performers, people in costumes on stilts, towering over the runners, and I will never forget running past the Jaffa Gate into The Old City.


I wasn't prepared to run a marathon, and it showed in the last 6 miles. That is where the digging started, and as the suffering set in on some of the hills, breaking me to a walk, I thought of the excavation at The Tower Of David. That is what we do, we strip away layer after layer of pain until we are down to the essentials, to the most basic instinct of "I must move forward," to the singular thought, finish. Towards the end of the marathon, every runner who passed me or who I passed (admittedly more of the former than the latter), had that bond, that cult of suffering, a shared purpose and common goal, and as we ran, overshadowed by this ancient city of holy sites, and relics, pushing through the pain together, turning the corner to the finish line, grabbing a small, plastic Israeli flag, the excavation complete. And, I got a Popsicle at the end.

Things to do at the Jerusalem marathon

Be ready for hills, and by that I mean train for longer than 5 weeks.

Take a picture with some of the finest members of the Israeli Defense Force (they are friendlier than they look).

I've never felt safer at a race

At the top of the Haz Promenade, one of the last big climbs, you'll see a bunch of kids and families. These are schoolchildren and they'll go crazy if you run by and give them high fives.

Eat some dates and hummus at the aid stations (aid station sponsored by Adam Sandler's new movie, Don't Run With the Zohan).


Look around. You are running in one of the most interesting and historic cities on earth. Take in the beauty, the history and talk to the people who are running with you. They are proud of Jerusalem, as well they should be.

After the race, and the post-run beer, head to Mahane Yahuda Market and eat a sabich, then walk through the market stuffing down all the samples you can handle. You just ran a marathon, it's okay.


Plan a recovery trip to The Dead Sea. Soak in the healing waters of the mineral baths (they smell like ass, but they do miracles for sore muscles), then cover yourself in mud and go float in the buoyant waters. You'll find out exactly where you chafed, but it's worth it.


Travel with a group. I was lucky enough to have been invited to go on this trip with a number of other writers, journalists, runners and photographers. We would absolutely be the most boring cast of MTV's The Real World Israel ever (there were no drunken hot-tub hookups), but runners know how to bond, and the seemingly endless meals, the talk of adventures, races, training and families filled the hours with nonstop laughter. It will be a trip that none of us will soon forget, and full of memories and bonds that will last a lifetime.

5 things to not do on your trip to Israel

Ask for a BRIEF summary of the Israeli and Arab conflict (expect to be there for awhile).

Pose like an immature 10-year-old on top of historic artifacts.


Try to find something to eat in Jerusalem after sunset on a Friday.

Expect to lose any weight, even after running a marathon. The food there is just too good.

And finally, don't expect to go to Jerusalem and not be moved by the experience. It is a special place, a holy place, and no matter what you believe, there is a feeling here of history, of destruction and creation, and of diverse people, with different beliefs, forced to coexist, because of the sacred meaning that this ancient city holds for them.


More info on the Jerusalem Marathon


Some other reports from my traveling companions

Heather from Dietitian on the Run (Jerusalem 1/2 Marathon Report)
Lee from The Manual (Craft Beer in Jerusalem)

Disclosure: My trip was funded by the Israeli Tourism Board. All opinions are my own.

Couch to Marathon in 6 Weeks -- My Ill-Advised 6-Week Marathon Training Plan

There's a scene in Something About Mary where that psycho hitchhiker has a brilliant business idea -- 7 Minute Abs. You know, it's just like 8 Minute Abs, but better (and it's guaranteed). Well, I'm your psycho hitchhiker, and you can get rid of your 24- or 30-week marathon training programs, because I have a 6-week program that blows those out of the water.


First, a major disclaimer: this is not an ideal way to train for a marathon. In fact, this may lead to injury. But if you only have 6 weeks to get in shape to run a marathon, this plan just might work for you. Just don't expect to set any PRs.

Some backstory. Four weeks ago I received an email from the Jerusalem Ministry of Tourism inviting me to run the Jerusalem Marathon. The trip includes a tour of some of the major sights in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I thought for a second, and just for a second about how tired and out of shape I had been feeling. I also thought about how the 10 extra Christmas/New Years pounds were starting to feel like permanent residents, not merely holiday visitors. After seeing the date of the Jerusalem Marathon, and how quickly it was approaching, I thought about how difficult it would be to get myself fit enough to complete a marathon in six weeks, but this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and there was no way I was going to turn it down.

So, after sending a quick "of course I'll do it" email, I changed into some running clothes and started my six week plan. That day I went out and ran harder than I had in months, and it hurt. My previous running over the previous few months, really since my last race in May, 2014, had been leisurely 5 milers at my friend's dog's pace (which is a lot of stop and go, because the dog gets tired and pretends to pee every few minutes). I was running fairly regularly, so wasn't literally a "Couch to Marathon" situation, it was more like a lazy-ass-ex-ultra-runner-burnout-eating-and-drinking-too-much-to-run-more-than-five-miles to Marathon training program. Again, a big fat warning: use this plan at your own risk, don't expect to PR your marathon, but you may just get fit enough to finish your marathon with a smile.

The plan's coming, but first a word about...

Strength and Mobility

This is the most important thing for me. I use a strength circuit plan from Competitor magazine. I feel that it hits all the muscle groups, and if I do 2-3 sets, it really kicks my ass, and I start to feel stronger after a couple weeks. I also do the MYRTL mobility routine after nearly every run. This keeps my hips from tightening up, and I can feel a difference in my flexibility when I do the routine regularly. I feel that both of these steps, along with using The Stick and the foam roller every night allowed me to increase the quantity and quality of my running while at the same time avoid injury, drop weight (at least 5 pounds so far), and increase my overall body strength.

Here's the 6-Week Couch to Marathon Training Plan (click the link, or check out the form below):



Thanks for reading and check back in a couple weeks to see the results.

Heading to the Holy Land and Other Upcoming Adventures

I usually sit down in January and plan out a race and training schedule for the upcoming year. Not this year. I didn't really have any plans except for a vague desire to run the Wonderland Trail at some point this summer, but to be honest, it could wait until next year, or maybe the year after. My motivation has been low, and the lottery and race entrance process doesn't help. It's hard to plan a race a year in advance. I have problems planning what I'm going to do next week and trying to squeeze runs in between the multi-colored Google calendar boxes.

I have a love/hate relationship with racing. I love racing when I'm doing it, but I get bad anxiety in the weeks and months before a big race. I lose sleep, I dream about the race, I get grumpy and stressed, and it's not just the normal tapering blues. It sucks, but what's really crazy is that I generally have a good time at races, I talk to people on the trail, I hang out before and after, thank all the volunteers, not to mention all the self-discovery and the mental and physical lessons that come with a long race.

I've been running consistently, but not very much, just enough to be fun, and to stay within a 10 pound weight-gain threshold, but then all of these opportunities started to come at me. I have a hard time saying no, so when I received an email from the Jerusalem Ministry of Tourism offering a trip to the Holy Land to run the Jerusalem Marathon, I immediately emailed them back and said I'd love to. Well, first I let out a high pitch squeal, then I emailed them, then I realized that I would be running a marathon in 5 weeks. On the road. The last road marathon I ran was three years ago, and I didn't think I'd ever run another one, but here I am, putting together a 5-Week Couch to Marathon Plan.

Who doesn't find religion at mile 22 of a marathon?

Then, I got a message from a friend asking if I'd be interested in doing the High Sierra Trail in July, and of course I was, and I realized that that would be great training for a Wonderland Trail Loop in August or September, and what better use of all that fitness than the Bigfoot 120 in October. I went back and forth on that one, and the marketing (read price increase) finally got me to click the bright green Submit button, so I'll be doing that in October.

120 mile of singletrack through the mountains of Washington? Count me in.

I didn't set out to make a list of races and adventures, but I guess a list just kind of came to me, and I'll be racing, and I'll be nervous and anxious in the months leading up to each of these, but I'm sure that I'll love every step of the journey. Here is my unmotivated, not wanting to plan too far in advance, unambitious race list:

March: Jerusalem Marathon
May: Georgia running trip
July: High Sierra Trail
August or September: Wonderland Trail
October: Bigfoot 120

I love it when a plan comes together.




The Trail Animals



I usually try to conserve my energy before a group run. I’ll sit on the ground, tie and re-tie my shoes, and pretend to stretch. But this run was different, this was the first meeting of the Dirty Running Trail Animals, and this group would not abide the conservation of energy.

I started the group for my kids, because I can talk all day about how they need to put down the iPhones, turn off the TV and video games, and get out in nature, but I feel that it is somewhat my responsibility to provide the means. I invited some friends with kids the same age and let them know that we were going to get out, run a couple trail miles, climb a few hills, and catch the sunset at the top of the mountain. Double Peak isn’t really a mountain, but for the kids at the bottom of the hill, looking up to the top, it must have looked like one.

I wasn’t stretching on the side of the road when most of the kids started showing up, I was climbing up a random trail because my son wanted to see where it went. It wasn’t really even a trail, although I’m sure coyotes used it as one. We quickly climbed above the cars, and when I told him that it was time to turn, he did so begrudgingly.

The kids started rolling in, and by 4:00, there were over 20 of them itching to start. I gathered the kids together as the parents stood off to the side and told them the two rules: help each other out, and have fun. I gave them a short course overview…run up the hill, take a left on the Secret Trail, then a right on the Super Secret Trail, then up an even steeper trail where they would have to scale some rocks, then to the top where they could play on the playground and watch the sunset. After the sunset, we would run down the dirt path back to the cars.

Life balance sounds good on paper, all clean and seperate with equal percentages for work, play, family, and hobbies. I’ve never been one for balance, so I’m throwing in the towel on that. There is no life balance, just life, and I’m going to share it with family and friends whether they like it or not, and they don’t always like it. As we were leaving, I had to practically drag my teenage daughter out the door, threatening to confiscate her phone for the week if she didn’t join. It would have been much easier to let her stay at home and just take my younger kids who were dying to run, but as she stood at the top, arm around her younger sister’s waist as the setting sun painted the feathered clouds in red and orange…at that moment, I knew that we were all exactly where we needed to be.



As we ran down the wide and steep dirt path next to the road, I watched the kids, leaning forward into the downhill, still running on their toes without fear of falling, and the adults, yelling after them to slow, to be careful, leaning back on our heels because we know what happens when we trip or turn an ankle on the smallest bump in the trail. I could have kept yelling, but they weren’t going to stop or slow down. They had gravity on their side, wind rushing by their ears, and fearless hearts, running like animals to the night.


Thanks for reading.

The Difficult Route


My youngest recently asked my wife where dreams come from and my wife told her that dreams are all the thoughts and feelings that we push down in our minds and when we dream, we get rid of these thoughts, kind of like taking out the trash. This conversation replayed in my head as I raced against the New Year’s Eve sunset in the uncharacteristic biting cold, struggling with sharp, short breaths in the frosty air, and wiping the tears that had suddenly welled up in my eyes. I forced myself to stop at a quiet point at the top of a climb and take in the ocean view, attempting to process the sadness of the last few months.

Writing usually helps, but I haven’t been doing much of that. The specifics are too personal to share, at least for now, but if I don’t get something out, If I don’t process these emotions, I’m worried that they will slowly build up, that they will somehow win.

I prefer the trail to the road, I prefer hills to flats, and I prefer dirty to clean. My favorite routes are winding, hilly, difficult, covered in rocks and branches that scrape and tear at my legs. These routes are challenging, but these are the ones I choose, over and over again, and I prefer them to the straight paths, the flat and boring routes.

One of my favorites is this offshoot trail near my house. It drops about a mile from the main trail on a steep downhill — a narrow, seldom used path covered with ankle-breaking rocks, roots and branches. It’s another mile uphill. It’s steep, but not steep enough to walk. And after all of this effort, all of these twists and turns, you rejoin the main trail about 30 yards from where you left it in the first place. You wind up in nearly the same spot, but dirtier, more tired, and sometimes a little bloodier than where you left in the first place.

One of the best books I've read in the last couple of years is Wild. I just went to the movie with my wife, and the part that struck me when watching the movie was a piece of advice from Cheryl Strayed’s mother about putting yourself in the way of beauty.

My New Year’s Eve run included what so many of my runs do, a stop at the top of Double Peak. It was actually the second time I’d been up there that day. The first was to see the rare snow flurries in North County. The last time I saw snow here was in 1990, and I wanted my kids to see it, even if it wasn’t sticking on the ground, so we headed to the highest point in the area. I found myself there again on that busy New Year’s Eve, surrounded by people with the same idea, people who wanted to put themselves in the way of beauty, to experience the last sunset of the year. The sweat and cold were working against me, but I tried to wait, and I was mad at myself for not bringing my phone, because it was the last sunset of the year, and all I wanted to do was watch it with my family. I set off for home while the sun hovered above the Pacific Ocean.

The sun was 10 minutes from the horizon and I was 12 minutes from my house, so I pushed, tempoing the mile and a half home, navigating the darkening trails, and sprinting the last quarter mile, but by the time I opened the door and felt the comfort of the heated house, dinner on the stove and kids under blankets watching TV, the sun had fallen and the dark blue was turning black.

Every year for the last seven, I have organized a New Year’s Day hike slash run, and the run has grown in popularity over the years, so popular that I received a call from the ranger telling me that I would not be able to hold the run anymore. This was kind of a relief, because I really don’t like organizing these runs. They add stress to my life, and the anxiety always builds a few days out from the run and doesn’t let up until I have ordered a post-run beer at stone. I love seeing everyone, and I love sharing the trails with friends and family, but the ranger was right, the run had become too big for the trail. I canceled the run, but let people know that I would still be there at 10 am on New Year’s Day and nothing was stopping them from joining.

It was a magical day for me. I hiked with my family and some close friends to the top, then ran with my two youngest kids who insisted on running down the steep hill as I trailed them, trying hard to push the thoughts of twisted ankles, face plants, and scraped knees out of my head. They ran with joy, jumping off rocks, smiling, breathing hard, and laughing. This is what I wanted on New Year’s Eve, this is what made me sprint home, racing the sun in the hopes of sharing this moment with my family.

I told my kids about the scene from the movie, about putting yourself in the way of beauty, and that this year we are going to try to get out more, to camp, to see more sunsets, to surf, hike, play in the dirt, and to take the trail that doesn’t lead anywhere.

This is what I want running to be for me this year — no race goals, distance goals, or time goals. I want, no, I need to take those trails, the pointless, winding trails that will take me up and down steep hills, force me to resort to hands-on-knees hiking over rocks, through bushes, and bounding down hills with tears in my eyes, and child’s laughter in my heart because I know the trail is long, the way will be difficult, but it always leads me home.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year.

And If You Close Your Eyes


I’m feeling my age today. Maybe it’s because my baby girl turned 13. Maybe it’s because I took her to her first concert last night, and we had to be there two hours early so she and a friend could reserve their spot against the stage, front and center, as I looked on from the far less crowded parent’s section off to the side. Maybe it’s because I thought her cut-up shirt that showed her belly button was too short, or maybe it’s because I thought she was wearing too much make-up. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t in bed by my normal 9:00 PM, but instead hung out by the guarded tour bus parking lot, waiting in vain for the band to shake hands and take pictures with their fans, waiting until midnight when I finally convinced the girls that they’re just not coming. Or, maybe it’s because the music just wasn’t as good, the energy and the poetry weren’t quite as strong as they were when I was her age.

It doesn’t help that I’m slipping into live music-induced nostalgia, to a time when my life’s meaning depended on the next thing that came out of Kurt Cobain’s mouth. I remember showing up to the show two hours early to secure a spot crushed against the stage in a run-down club in Tijuana, seeing this underground band with a headache-inducing superfuzz sound and a promising name, Nirvana. This was before they were polished, this was when the Marshal stacks blared, the guitars wailed, and Cobain, screaming himself hoarse into the microphone, spoke to us with pure, raw emotion. We climbed onto the stage and dove into the pimply and angst-ridden crowd, riding the manic energy of our tribe.

I walked into the restroom last night and there were a couple of security guards briefing a paramedic who was about my age on the status of the 19-year-old in the stall. All I could see were khaki pants and blue vans kneeling on the piss-covered tile floor. I couldn’t see him draped over the toilet, but judging from the stench, I could only imagine that it wasn’t a pretty sight. “Stay with me, don’t pass out, we’re getting you a wheelchair, and we’re going to get you to an ambulance.” It sounded bad, and I wasn’t in the mood to see some 19-year-old kid have a heart attack and die because of the latest new lavender bath salts that kids are bathing in, or eating, or snorting, or whatever they do with spa products these days. The security guards looked alarmed as they told the paramedic that the boy had half a cup of vodka and some marijuana in his system, and that he was in bad shape. The paramedic looked at me and said “half a cup of vodka and some weed? They sure don’t make them like they used to.”

I occasionally caught glimpses of my daughter, hands raised, watery eyes with too much makeup fixed on Danny, or Billy, or Kevin as they looked into the audience, into the bright lights. In her mind, they were singing to her, and after the show she told me about all the times she made eye contact with Kevin, I think it was Kevin, and how it was the greatest night of her life, and how it touched her, and that I just wouldn’t understand how deep the connection was, I mean, eye contact, EYE CONTACT.

I stood with the other parents for most of the night, necks straining, trying to watch over our kids, to make sure they weren’t crushed, and to walk that fine line between hovering just enough to keep them safe, but still let them feel the independence. Not that I’m ready to let her drive to Tijuana with a friend, walk over the border, take an unmarked taxi to a smoke-filled club to see a couple of punk bands, but there are only so many first concerts, and I wanted her to remember this one, and not remember me standing behind her, glaring at the college boys who were walking around, trying to find a free spot next to a cute girl, and me whispering in the boy’s ear, “she’s 13, and I can break you.”

I moved towards the crowd for the encore, nodding my head to the one song that I knew, mouthing the profound chorus, “eh, eh, oh, eh, oh, eh, eh, oh, eh, oh, eh eh, oh, eh, oh, eh, eh, oh, eh, oh,” and jumping with the crowd’s energy, singing along as Kenny or Dan or Kevin held the mic to the audience and sang “If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all? And if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you've been here before?” And I could have sworn, at that moment, he was singing it only to me.

Used



My Jeep is a gas-guzzling, earth-f%$#ing beast, and if there’s not going to be a zombie apocalypse anytime soon, I should probably prep it for craigslist and trade it in for something more sensible, but I just can’t bring myself to wash the layers of dirt off and bring the military-brown paint to a shine.

It’s not that I have a special place in my heart for poorly designed, American-made cars, but there are just too many memories in the cramped second and third row of seats, kids piling in, pushing against each other and against their own boredom on the way to Zion, falling asleep on each others’ shoulders and then waking up, seeing the ground covered in snow. The Jeep is scarred with small dents and scratches and melted surf wax on the roof, and the sour smell of old sweat, maybe from Joshua Tree a few years ago when we talked music and running after a long, hot day in the beautiful desert.

My shoes are old, too. They have covered hundreds of miles of trail, have holes on the tops and sides, and their permeating dirt makes every sock a slight shade of brown. The padding is worn out, and I’m starting to feel it in my knees and my hips, but these things tell stories, and it’s difficult to trade those stories for something clean, shiny, and perfect. New shoes and new cars will be bought (13 miles per gallon is just not sustainable) and new stories will be written, but it’s that first wear, or that first drive that brings to mind a posed family picture on the beach where everyone is wearing matching outfits and all the smiles are forced.

I remember when I tore the top of my shoes. It was an early morning run, and it was on a steep section of a rocky trail, and the side of my right foot connected with a sharp rock, and it hurt a little, but it was a long steep hill and I had momentum, and the rocks on the trail were the kind of rocks that had to be climbed or jumped on, and if I slowed, it would be a hobbled pace, so I just kept the feet moving, and I knew that in about ten minutes, I would see the view, the sunrise. It had to be earned, and if I stopped, I’d feel that at the end, and the colors wouldn't be as bright, and the lungs and the legs wouldn't feel as good without the struggle, the fire.

I’ll take the worn out shoes, the used, busted up and broken gear, the old car, and the ripped hat because that is where the stories are. It’s in the scars, the bruises, the scratches on my car, and the holes in my shoes. Those are honest. Those are real.

Ratings and Recommendations