Long-distance running is not a glamorous sport. From the skin-tight spandex to
the grimacing, painful look of determination characteristic of most athletes in
the sport, runners never look as camera-ready as, say, golfers. Unless you’re
running with the mayor. I’ve never felt like such a movie star, getting waves,
hellos and friendly honks throughout the entire 5 kilometers from the mayor’s
house in Beit Hakerem to his office in Safra Square.
Mayor Nir Barkat,
the force behind the Jerusalem Marathon, now in its second year, runs to the
office two or three days a week. I joined him last week, and between huffing and
puffing up the hills of Rehavia, talked with the mayor about his passion for how
a simple footrace could possibly change Jerusalem’s image abroad.
year, 10,000 runners fanned out across Jerusalem in a sea of neon yellow shirts
for Jerusalem’s first 10k, half-marathon and marathon races. More than
1,000 international runners joined as well. For Barkat, the measuring stick of
international participation is one of the most important. He points out, as we
jog through leafy Beit Hakerem, that most major cities around the world host
Barkat, a four-time marathoner, isn’t trying to reach the
upper echelons of marathons, a tradition-rich field led by Boston, New York,
Berlin and London.
“My goal is to put Jerusalem on the short list of
meaningful marathons in the world,” he explained. The marathon in the capital is
for the amateur racer, who’s not aiming for a fast time – good luck on those
hills, buddy – but wants a unique experience after running in the popular
“It brings, in my mind, a message of honor and respect to the
city, normalcy, and makes Jerusalem more attractive,” Barkat said. “My goal is
not only for the residents of Jerusalem, and even not only for the residents of
Israel. It’s part of a larger theme that I’m working on making Jerusalem a
destination for people around the world. I’m creating excuses for them to come
and enjoy the city.”
Barkat emphasizes cultural events, including the
upcoming Ice City, and summer concert series, and sporting events, as “hooks” to
reel in visitors, giving them excuses to visit the city.
city still has much to learn. Last year, a planning snafu at the end misdirected
the top marathoners, who got lost and finished at the wrong place. Torrential
rain days before the race turned the finish line into a soggy mess, from which
the grass still hasn’t recovered. And no one can forget the emotional horror of
Jerusalem’s first bus bombing in nearly seven years, which killed Mary Jane
Gardener, from Scotland, and wounded 39, just two days before the marathon. But
the fact that not a single person pulled out from the race after the bombing is
testament to the joys and heartache of this city.
Barkat credited the
route of the marathon for showcasing the city in the best light.
route really let people go through and see the city the heart of Jerusalem,” he
said, as we ran on part of the marathon route near the Givat Ram
campus. “It’s not a race that takes you to the outskirts of the city;
it’s a race to the soul of the city. Everyone felt the route itself
helped in creating a very spiritual race,” he said.
This year’s route
starts in Sacher Park, takes runners up to Hebrew University, through downtown
to the Old City, a jaunt down the Haas Promenade and a long stretch down Hebron
Road almost to Bethlehem before circling back to Sacher Park.
marathon isn’t just about running, explained Barkat. It’s about creating
community. Last year, dozens of initiatives sprung up around the race. Many
organizations, including Chai Lifeline, fielded teams and raised hundreds of
thousands of shekels for charity. The Eretz Hatzvi Yeshiva had 25 students, and
two rabbis, running the 10k and half marathon. Hebrew University student
Bar Pereg and friends founded a group at the university called “Someone to Run
With,” after the popular David Grossman novel. They organize biweekly training
runs and volunteer opportunities for runners to make presentations about the
marathon to high school students. More than 200 runners joined their
group, including some, such as myself, who aren’t actually students, but are
looking for someone to run with.
“It gave people a sense of community,
plugging into the city,” said Barkat as we found our rhythm and flew past the
Knesset. “[Last year], I ran with a group of friends, army buddies, it was a
real strong sense of community which is really good.”
It’s not just good
on a community level – there are personal benefits as well.
“I feel a
strong correlation between physical and mental state,” said Barkat. “When you
invest in your physical body, it’s a discipline you have to maintain. It
influences other elements of life and decision-making. It also helps
maintain balance in life. You have to have balance between the important stuff
in life – family, health, friends, community, [and] employment.”
not all smooth sailing. Many residents complain about the frequent road
closures from the city’s new explosion of sporting events and races, including
the Tour de Jerusalem bike race and the Jerusalem Night Run.
how to balance between the two,” said Barkat. “The upside, the value
associated with having events in the city is extremely high; it’s a big
contribution to quality of life in Jerusalem. It’s a message of health, a
message of normalcy… it’s mental health we need to maintain for the city,” he
The Jerusalem Marathon also drew the ire of Tel Aviv, whose
marathon is a mere two weeks later. In 2013, the marathons were scheduled to
take place on the same day, with both cities bickering and claiming they
reserved the date first. Eventually, Jerusalem backed off and moved their
marathon two weeks earlier.
As we neared Safra Square, I asked Barkat if
he had any suggestion for runners. He ran the half-marathon last year and plans
to run it this year as well. “Run a smart race,” he said.
who knows the route knows to take their foot of the gas,” he said. “The
challenge in Jerusalem, in my opinion, is to know to take off the gas on the
uphills. If you have the discipline, the hills are not the bad. Don’t beat the
hill, climb it.”
“Is that a metaphor for being the mayor?” I asked, as we
slowed down in front of his building and started to stretch. Barkat’s
first meeting of the day is in a few minutes, so there’s no time for a proper
He laughed. Being the mayor is kind of like running a marathon,
“You can sprint here and there, but it’s about the stamina.”