Marathon starting lines are scenes crackling with excitement. It is not the visually arresting or raucous kind of excitement such as precedes an El Clasico match or an NBA Finals Game 7. It is of a much more restrained, solemn, personal nature. It is excitement mixed with anxiety, hope mixed with uncertainty – the kind of compressed range of emotions evocative of what military special forces describe before setting out on a dangerous mission, or astronauts at T-minus 60 seconds to liftoff. Something momentous is about to commence, and there’s no predicting what reality will look like on the other side.
On the morning of Friday, February 24, 40,000 runners will gather in Tel Aviv to take part in the city’s 20th Tel Aviv Marathon. Of these, 1,500 marathoners will compete in the main 42.2-kilometer (26.2-mile) race. The marathoners, young and old, first-timers and seasoned finishers, will descend on the city alone and in groups, from near and far. Some will be competing against the distance itself, their goal to reach the finish line in one piece; others will be competing against the clock, striving to make TLV 2017 their fastest marathon to date; and a select few will be competing against each other, hoping to score a podium finish.
“I would love to PR in Tel Aviv,” says Wendy Goldberg, 41, of New York City, invoking an abbreviation common in running parlance that means “personal record.” Originally from Edinburgh, Goldberg got into running in her mid-30s, and her resumé already boasts finishes at the NYC Marathon, the Walt Disney World Marathon in Florida, and most recently the Edinburgh Marathon in her native Scotland. “But to be honest, I mostly plan on enjoying the atmosphere and the journey. Israel has a special place in my heart due to close family living there and the country’s history.”
When Goldberg takes her place at the start line on February 24, a lot will be going through her mind – “from enthusiasm, excitement and slight nerves, to ‘Why am I doing this to my body again?’ and yes, some doubt as to whether I will complete it.” Experience has taught her that as she gets close to the finish line, the questions and doubts will grow and spread. “Near the end I focus mentally on the finish line, because nothing prepares you and no words describe how you feel, especially on your first marathon, the feeling you get when you cross the finish line. It is an amazing, unforgettable feeling that makes me do it again and again.”Florida
Meesha Axelrad, 41, will be traveling to Israel from Boca Raton, Florida, with three close friends who run together regularly as part of the WeBe Running group.
Axelrad, originally from New York, has run six marathons, her most memorable being the inaugural Walt Disney World Dopey Challenge in 2014, where she ran a 5K, a 10K, a half marathon, and a full marathon over the course of four days. But Tel Aviv will be her first race outside the US. “It’s all Lisa’s fault!” she laughs.
“When I heard she was going to Israel, she said the more the merrier, so I said yes, too.”
What brings Axelrad to Israel is her WeBe Running friend Lisa Wolfe Swartz, and what brings Swartz to Israel is a cousin she has not seen in close to 40 years who is also a runner. “I had originally only planned on doing the half, but a few of my running friends said if I committed to the full they would join me.” Although a runner for more than three years, this will be Swartz’s first full marathon, and registering for it was not without its misgivings. “When I signed up to run the full, I kept telling myself I was crazy. Why would I ever want to run for that many miles? I’m a physical therapist and know the wear and tear it can do to the body. But I also like a good challenge and to experience new things and all that life has to offer. I actually get choked up thinking about it.”
Ben-Gurion Airport is notorious for detaining travelers to Israel, and when Axelrad and Swartz arrive in the country there is a good chance they will be delayed as well. In their case, it won’t be airport security asking questions, it will be customs, and they will take a keen interest in the contents of Swartz’s luggage. “I’m collecting 55 stuffed animals in honor of my 55th birthday, which was in December,” she explains. “We are bringing them to Israel with us to donate to the Bet Elazraki Children’s Home in Netanya. It’s important to me to help wherever I can. I decided to post on social media that I was collecting 55 animals for my 55th birthday, and the responses started to pour in. With each stuffed animal that arrives and each increasing long run that I do, the excitement builds. This is happening, it’s real.”
One runner who won’t be endeavoring to PR at the Tel Aviv Marathon this year – and who has a perfectly valid excuse for it – is Beatie Deutsch, 27. Originally from Washington and later New Jersey and Chicago, Deutsch now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. The kicker? A fifth child is on the way: Deutsch will be running the marathon almost seven months pregnant. “My first-ever marathon was Tel Aviv 2016, where I finished in 3:26. I started running not sure if I could even finish in 4.5 hours, and I totally surprised myself and beat that time by over an hour!” Asked what prompted her interest in running marathons, Deutsch explains: “I got into running a little over a year ago. After giving birth to four kids in under six years, I was tired of not being in shape. My husband had just ridden 180 miles for charity over the summer, so I wanted to set a goal for myself, as well. I said, ‘That’s it, I’m running a marathon,’ and that obligated me to start training and running. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Also of Jerusalem, Michael Spivak, 33, has an unsettled score with the marathon, and he plans to settle it in Tel Aviv on February 24. Last year’s Tiberias Marathon was marred by torrential downpours, which flooded roads and affected not only the runners’ performances but also the electronic devices laid out to measure their results. With an official finishing time of 3:05:50 at Tiberias, Spivak was less than a minute from qualifying for the Boston Marathon, universally regarded as the Holy Grail of world marathons.
The Boston Marathon is more of a symbol for Spivak than an actual goal, though. “Seeing as I lack the ambition and financial means to fund a trip to Boston at this stage, qualifying for the Boston Marathon isn’t something I’m preoccupied with. If I can reach a point where I’m able to whip out a BQ [Boston qualifying time] every year – whether or not I’ll actually run in Boston – that’ll mean I’ve attained the level I’m aiming for now.”Sinai
Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is also what partly motivates Jordan Deckenbach, 35. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Deckenbach BQed in 2012 at his first marathon in nearby Duluth with a time of 3:04:59, ran Boston the following year, and is hoping to BQ again this year in Tel Aviv. “I ran the Boston Marathon in 2013 and have been addicted to the marathon experience ever since,” he says. His addiction subsequently led him to finish marathons in Chicago, Berlin and the Twin Cities [Minneapolis-St. Paul], and it won’t be abating anytime soon. “I also have aspirations to run the New York Marathon, the London Marathon and the Tokyo Marathon before I reach the age of 40.”
Deckenbach’s other source of motivation is representing the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai, where he is currently deployed in his capacity as a reserve officer with the US Army. “The mission of the MFO is to observe, verify and report on the implementation of the security provisions of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace. I jumped at the opportunity to run a marathon in a beautiful city like Tel Aviv while getting to represent the MFO and the great work our organization is doing in the region.”Sweden
Scrolling through the list of participants in the Tel Aviv Marathon, one cannot help noticing the abundance of Northern European runners. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that inhabitants of countries like Sweden and Germany would choose Tel Aviv as a marathon destination, what with February being the coldest month of the year. Yet given the attitudes of many Europeans in relation to Israel, it does invite closer scrutiny.
“I first visited Israel on a cruise in 2009,” recalls Clas Lundstedt, 48, of Dalarö, Sweden. “We stopped in Haifa, and then Ashdod to go to Jerusalem, but we didn’t make it to Tel Aviv. When my partner and I were planning which races to run in 2016, we thought it would be fun to try the Tel Aviv half-marathon and combine it with a week’s holiday. We liked it so much that we decided to go back this year – but now to run the full marathon.
“I have always run,” Lundstedt adds. “It was something to do when I couldn’t go swimming.” Five years ago Lundstedt began competing in races, and since then running became a pleasure purely for its own sake. As for his marathon goal, he is noncommittal.
“My goal for 2017 is to finish sub-3:45, but I doubt if that will happen in Tel Aviv.”
Max Rosencrantz, 50, also from Sweden, chose Tel Aviv as the venue for his second marathon, after running his first in Copenhagen, and will be pursuing a sub-4:00 finish. “I love Israel and its history,” he says, “and I have for a long time wanted to visit the country.
When I can now combine my journey with both running and holiday, it fits me perfectly.”
How has Rosencrantz’s environment responded to his choice? “My friends in my own running group are all supportive. But I also feel that some of my other friends are more suspicious, unfortunately, and this bothers me a lot. It is considered controversial to go to Israel in my home country, and all are of course a bit surprised. Through my journey, I want to shine some light that Israel is a very fine country that everyone should visit.”
A word to the wise
As an ultra-marathoner with a long history of mentoring runners of all levels, Michael Spivak has a message for runners who are just starting out and might already have their sights set on running a marathon: don’t rush. In his role as the driving force behind the Jerusalem-based running group Someone to Run With, Spivak has seen how social media and aggressive ad campaigns push running newcomers to forgo patience and chase goals faster than their bodies – and credit cards – can adapt.
Runners, especially beginners, he insists, need to maintain perspective, to separate what’s important and meaningful from what isn’t, and stay attuned to their bodies. “The social networks and sports websites preach to us that we need the latest models and most expensive brands in order to be part of this sport. Our peers upload photos and GPS routes from their latest runs – a sin I’m guilty of myself at times. That’s all great, but it’s important to keep in mind that it isn’t really necessary. The only thing that’s relevant, especially for beginners, is a good pair of running shoes and maybe some moisture-wicking clothes.”
Beatie Deutsch also has a message for runners, though the audience for her message is specifically the mothers out there. “As thrilled as I am with my accomplishments as a runner, there’s nothing I’m more proud of than being a mom. To all the moms out there who haven’t made it to a marathon yet, give yourselves a pat on the back for running the most important and challenging marathon of your life – raising your children! “And don’t give up on yourselves. If you haven’t been able to fit exercise into your schedule, start by setting a small goal for yourself, but stick to it! So many women think, ‘A marathon, I could never do that.’ It’s really just about pushing yourself one step further and watching what you can achieve. Personally, I love running and it keeps me sane, but that doesn’t mean you should feel bad if you can’t get yourself a treadmill. I do think it’s important to make some time in your life to keep yourself healthy, even if it’s just a couple of times a week. Find a sport or exercise routine you enjoy and make it a weekly commitment. You’ll never look back.”
Meaning of the marathon
Being humans, we lack the capacity to parse an event like the marathon into its discrete individual components. If we were machines and had microprocessors for brains, marathons, with their hundreds of ultimately personal, self-contained dramas – back stories, struggles, triumphs, and missed marks – might very well rival the most popular sports out there for viewer ratings and media attention.
But running is not a spectator sport. Outside the Olympics, at any given race there are bound to be more runners than spectators – and in Tel Aviv, presumably more people that complain about the traffic than come to cheer the runners on. After the marathon, the evening news and the next morning’s papers will report who came in first, tally up how many runners had to be treated for dehydration and heat stroke, and quote the mayor. What is most important about the event – the profound demonstration of human willpower in pursuit of a goal – remains outside the media’s scope.
Readers of this article are encouraged to search the names above at the Tel Aviv Marathon website after the race, find their results, and appreciate a few of the personalities behind the numbers and the paths that led them there.
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