At 5:30 a.m. one Friday in December, I stood shivering in the cold at the Tel Aviv Port ready to go. A few family members and friends came to cheer and support.
“Why do I need this?” I kept asking myself. I was full of excitement but also worried. I feared that I would disappoint myself, that I would not complete my mission, that I would not even get close to it. I was going to begin the race of my life. Four days before my 66th birthday I was to kick off 66 kilometers. One kilometer for each year.
It was supposed to be one more tough run. In the past I ran several ultra-marathons, 35 full marathons, hundreds of half-marathons, four Ironman competitions and more than 20 half-Ironmans. Every such exercise is hard, challenging and exciting.
Yet this run was special for me. I was more excited than I was in any other extreme sport event, partially because I knew I am getting older and this would be my hardest race, but also because I knew I would be running for important causes. I dedicated my run to raise money for three charities: Kesher, which supports families with special-needs children; Elifelet, which provides aid to African refugee children in Israel; and Israel Flying Aid, a group that delivers life-saving aid to communities, including Syrians, affected by natural disasters and human conflict.
Three months ago, I contracted a virus that made me fatigued and weak. Eventually the doctors diagnosed my illness, and when I was cured I began to return gradually to my normal self. After I resumed my running, I decided to celebrate my coming birthday for a cause. It was a spontaneous, even whimsical decision made without consulting my family or friends.
Weeks before my D-Day I increased my practice routine and ran more than 30 kilometers a few times. My longest distance was 39 km. From experience I knew it wasn’t sufficient preparation for a full marathon and a half. Despite misgivings about whether I could accomplish my goal, I was determined to try. For marathons and ultra-marathons, one needs mental strength, determination and readiness to suffer and absorb pain.
Such a run requires self-discipline; one has to run at the exact pace set in advance. Every small deviation, even of 10 seconds per kilometer, can be disastrous, and the runner will pay a heavy price at later stages. The pace I set for myself was seven minutes per kilometer (8.5 kph).
Accompanied by two friends, I began the run. We headed northbound on the promenade. After three kilometers, we returned, keeping religiously to the pace. After 42 minutes we passed the 6-km. mark. Only 60 to go. I drank two glasses of water and ate three dates. A few more runners who somehow heard via the running community about my race joined me. We ran southbound in the direction of Jaffa.
After more than an hour we touched the wall of the ugly and megalomaniac structure of the Peres Center for Peace, which is so foreign to Jaffa’s architectural style. I completed 15 km., almost a quarter of the distance. My pulse was fine – around 125 beats per minute – and despite the course’s rough concrete paving, my legs were fine. We headed back to the Tel Aviv Port. The sun rose and the Mediterranean was quiet, almost like a plateau, which had a calming effect.
After I finished 24 kilometers, “only” a full marathon remained ahead of me. I stopped for a few minutes to refresh myself with a banana, nuts, dates, water and isotonic drink to replace the salts and minerals that my body was losing. As I kicked off again, this time eastward inside the Yarkon Park, I fantasized that I could finish the full distance.
After a few kilometers I realized that my euphoria was premature. I tried harder and harder to keep the seven- minute pace, but slowly my pace was decreasing. 7:10, 7:20 and even 7:30. I tried to encourage myself that the pace mattered less as long as my legs were in motion. But when I completed only half the half distance (33 km.) after three and a quarter hours – I knew that the real battle was beginning.
I rested for 10 minutes, drank water and ate nuts. Every step was a struggle. Every height of even two meters felt like climbing a high mountain. My running mates encouraged me to keep running. Their words were confronted by inner voices that I began to hear. I called them “my little devils.” They tried to discourage me by whispering, “Stop it! Why suffer? You don’t owe anyone anything.”
In these moments of mental weakness I felt I was indeed ready to stop, but thinking about the sad children in Syria, Palestine and Israel, I somehow reached deep inside me and found the strength to go on, at least to complete the full marathon (42 km.), and then we would see. When I did it after nearly five hours, the Tel Aviv Port was my promised land. Though the weather was sunny and pleasant, I was covered with sweat, as though I had just emerged from a steam bath.
I sat on a chair and wanted to change my socks, but I couldn’t bend and reach my shoes. A friend helped me. I rested for more than 15 minutes, eating and drinking, and resumed my run, moving more slowly than ever. I looked at my wrist device and realized that my pulse was skyrocketing – 170. According to theoretical calculations I could be near clinical death. The final sentence of a book I wrote called Running Autobiography
says, “I hope to finish my life by running all the way to my funeral.” Was I on the way there? I stopped to let my pulse drop and then began to run again.
After another hour or so I completed 50 km. A few minutes of rest and then off I went again at an even slower pace – nine minutes per kilometer – almost walking, but not quite. My thoughts shifted to the Japanese writer-runner Haruki Murakami, who wrote, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” I ignored the pain and continued suffering. I kept running and counting: 53 km., 54 km., 55 km. I forced myself to keep going, but after 57 km. and more than eight hours, I stopped, burnt out. My legs refused to move. I quit. I could barely walk. I was disappointed, but also knew that whatever my condition would be, I would wake up the next morning and complete my mission.
The next day, even though all my muscles hurt and I could barely move, I forced myself to walk a while and then run. After an hour and 20 minutes, I completed nine kilometers, thereby completing the golden number – 66 km.
I paused for only a few seconds before deciding I would add another kilometer next year.