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.

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