Most post-high school yeshiva students come to Israel for the year to learn Jewish texts and tour the land.
Not Joe Benun.
Benun, 18, of Flatbush, New York, came to study at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem this August, one month after he completed the Lake Placid Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run), and 11 months before his next Ironman competition in Switzerland. To stay in top form, Benun will be running in the first-ever Jerusalem Marathon this March.
For nearly two decades, Jerusalem has hosted an international halfmarathon.
But at last year’s competition, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat – himself a four-time marathoner – announced that “the world’s most beautiful setting for running” would be hosting a full marathon.
Upon getting settled in yeshiva, Benun began his usual workout regimen of training five days a week. And he soon found out he was not alone.
“I planned on running the marathon by myself, but when I saw a few other kids running, I realized that others might be interested as well,” Benun said.
Benun first appealed to his roommate, Ariel Rogoff.
“My initial response was ‘no way,’” Rogoff recounted. “[But] that day, we went for a run together.”
The Ironman veteran was soon joined by an additional 16 people who have since been training under his tutelage.
This is not Benun’s first time coaching, however. During his senior year of high school at Brooklyn’s Flatbush Yeshiva, he was recruited by the school organizer of Magen David Yeshiva to train a group of students for the Miami Half-Marathon to raise money for the Bikur Cholim charity.
“Coaching showed me that it’s not all about giving to your athletes. It’s really more than that. You really get back. As much as you inspire them, they inspire you,” Benun said.
Benun’s experience stretches beyond the Ironman and his onetime coaching stint: He’s been running competitively since he won a Brooklyn half marathon with a time of 1:28 at age 14.
Having prior experience made assembling the Yeshiva’s “Team Tzvi” relatively easy, and feedback among the runners has been positive thus far.
“I’ve always gotten good grades, but I’ve never accomplished any real physical feat,” said Boston’s Ben Fisher.
“Most people after three weeks of training never realized that what they could do was possible, and they were doubtful of their abilities,” Benun said. “I see my job as just getting rid of people’s doubts.”
The reservations mostly stem from the intensity of the commitment.
“I wanted to do the full marathon, but it was difficult to keep up with all the workouts,” explained Joe Hyman of Edgware, England, who is opting to compete in the half-marathon.
“I plan on running in the full marathon,” said Sam Cappell of the Upper West Side in New York City, “but just getting started is difficult.”
Despite their commitment to running, the members of Team Tzvi remain completely dedicated to their studies in the modern Orthodox yeshiva where learning Talmud, Tanach, Jewish law and Zionism can stretch for over 10 hours a day.
“Our first priority is as yeshiva students. We’re not going to start skipping class because of this marathon,” explained Zach Avigan.
The team is inspired by e-mails from Joe, daily updates to the “Team Tzvi” Facebook group, and messages scrawled on the whiteboard in the yeshiva’s exercise room.
“Mind over matter: if you don’t mind, it won’t matter,” read one.
“Everyone in this yeshiva could run a marathon,” Benun said. “It’s just a matter of putting in the effort.”
Rogoff, Benun’s roommate, said he once heard the Team Tzvi captain speaking in his sleep, saying “You can do it, I guarantee it!” “Joe is an animal, he doesn’t stop,” asserted Fisher. “I’ve never seen anyone so motivated in my life. He makes us more motivated.”
This is no understatement. Benun will attend Princeton University next fall, where he plans to try out for the cross-country team. Fortunately, weekly runs of over 15 miles and interval training (alternating between fast and slow speeds) put him in perfect shape.
To maintain an energy level high enough to complete his workouts, Joe
consumes over 4000 calories and six liters of water per day. Further
complicating matters is his vegan diet – he eats no processed grains,
only whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
Being a vegan, running a marathon and coaching Team Tzvi are not enough
for Benun; he also intends to raise money for a charity to be decided
upon by the team.
At 11 p.m. on a recent evening, Joe was exchanging running tips with his
roommates when Avigan walked into the room, dripping sweat.
“I just ran over 13 miles!” he said, panting between words.
Benun jumped up, beaming. “I would hug you!” he exclaimed, “but I’m a germ-o-phobe.