The Jerusalem Marathon was in a word, breathtaking. The marathon, now in its 3rd year has grown significantly from 11,000 participants in the first year, 2011, to 20,000 participants this year. International runners have also increased, from 800 two years ago to this year’s field of 1,700 from 54 different countries. Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, has run marathons all over the world, including Paris, Berlin, New York, and Tiberias, and understands what a great promotional tool they are for a city.
Thus one of Barkat’s goals during his time in office has been to develop a marathon that shows “Jerusalem is open for the world to enjoy” and encourage runners who come from around the world to be ambassadors and show the event as a symbol of “coexistence and of the unique power of sport to bridge social, ethnic and political divides”.
Politics aside, I was more interested in the religious significance of running in Jerusalem, because as the promotional material highlighted: “to be able to say you’ve run where Jesus once walked is pretty awesome”.
Many other runners felt the same way, and came wearing their hearts on their sleeves, so to speak, with shirts emblazoned with Bible verses, church affiliations, and religious symbols, and one, Raef Guirges, a 56-year-old Egyptian-American, even running with a flag with “God is love” written in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Though this was my 3rd marathon, it was the first one where I wasn’t nervous. There were no pre-race butterflies. I slept perfectly fine the night before the race. Maybe this was because, despite the plan I made a few months ago to never run another marathon, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was where I was supposed to be. I must admit, however, I was a little nervous that I wasn’t nervous.
The Bible talks a lot about endurance and strength. There are also many metaphors about running and racing, and climbing hills and mountains used when discussing faith and Christianity. Since I knew I would literally need endurance and strength to run a marathon in Jerusalem, referred to in the Bible as a city set on a hill, I made a gospel-infused playlist to encourage me along the way and propel me to the finish line.
Here is the “run down” of my race with some help of from my playlist.
The race began at 7 am on a cool and cloudy Friday morning, and the hills came early and often. I wasn’t surprised by their presence. In addition to the biblical reference, there was that suggestion from the city’s mayor to “open your eyes, look around you” and enjoy the scenery because the marathon “isn’t the easiest in terms of route, and it’s not the place to break a record”.
I also had the chance to walk around Jerusalem a bit in the days preceding the race, so I knew what I was in for (at least I thought I knew) and there was no sense whining about it.
While I realized that this is only the beginning, the warm-up, I felt good, having made it over the first big hill and gone “Higher,I feel inspired”. We descended into West Jerusalem, the newer, more modern part of the city, and ran past one of the three Hebrew University campuses, the Monastery of the Holy Cross and the newest addition to the Jerusalem skyline, the Bridge of Strings.
The bridge, standing 119 meters (390 feet) high and supported by steel cables, resembles a harp and evokes the harp-playing King David, was slightly out of the path of the race, but since it’s the tallest structure in Jerusalem, it was hard to miss.
I approached what I consider to be the first important milestones of the race: finishing the first 10 km and since I like to mentally break the race into thirds, getting to the 14km mark, the first third of the race, was noteworthy.
I ran past the Great Jerusalem Synagogue and my hotel near the 10 km point and smiled to myself, feeling I still had “Strength to make it, strength to take it”, but glad that I passed the hotel during the first third of the race instead of the last third, when I might have been tempted to just stop and go to my room.
As we passed Mishkenot Sha’ananim, I got a glimpse of the neighborhood’s famous landmark, the Montefiore Windmill, and almost felt like I’m back in Holland. That is until I encountered another hill…
At the top of Mount Scopus I looked out over the city, and the view, in combination with the song that was playing at the moment literally took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes: “have a look around, the time is now, gotta be my “Destiny”. Yeah. I was supposed to be there.
Though 21 km is the halfway point, a marathon is more than two half marathons, and experience has taught me that it is much too soon to start doing a happy dance. The race is only just getting started. Things are just starting to get good. Thankfully, there were still lots of interesting things to see, including the Jewish War Cemetery, another Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus and the Old City.
Entering the Old City was definitely one of the highlights of the route. We passed the Tower of David Museum and the Jaffa Gate, which lies at the northwest end of the tower, and also “ran” into the half marathoners and 10k runners – including IDF soldiers – as our paths merged for a while.
I wouldn’t say that I “hit the wall”, but as I approached the end of the second third of the race, things started getting mental. This is where I questioned the sanity of putting myself through this and found my thoughts drifting to and lingering on post-race pleasures, like a shower, a massage, a warm meal and a bed!
I’ve done 2/3 of the race. Just 1/3 to go. Time to turn up the music. “Just a little
faith. That’ll do it. Get you through it. It’s much closer than you know.”
I started paying a lot more attention to the kilometer signs. Obsessing over them, actually. 32km. Just 10 kilometers more. 33km. Only 9 more km. Now we’re into single digits. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. Wait. What’s that song playing? Faith. “I can climb a mountain. I can reach my goal. Yes, I can, can, yes I can.”
7 more km to go. Single digits. Yes, I can.
Or can I? There is a switchback that seemed to go on forever, and seeing all of the runners ahead of me who have gotten to the turn around point started to frustrate me. When am I going to get to that turn around point?! “I Press…make it to the end”, and finally, I got there. Next, I set my sights on kilometer 37 because from there, it’s just 5km. A very hilly 5km.
Remember that thing I said about not moving my mountain…
The race ended as it began. With a hill. I stopped in my tracks and almost cried (ok, I actuallydid cry) when faced with that hill upon entering Sacher Garden for the final kilometer. A gentle nudge and words of encouragement – “Yasher Koach” (Hebrew for “may your strength be increased”) – from the runner behind me got me moving again.
I made it up the hill, and thankfully and tearfully crossed the finish line, where a race official draped a gold space blanket over my shoulders and placed a spectacular medal around my neck.
Ok, I might be reaching with that, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
*Disclosure: The Israeli Tourism provided my race entry, as well as my travel and accommodations. I was not asked to express any particular point of view, and as always, all thoughts and opinions are all my own.
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