At 9 a.m. on January 5, the starter pistol for the International Tiberias Marathon will fire and 650 runners will surge forward, taking their first steps in the 42.2 kilometer run. Not everyone who starts will finish, but one thing is certain: Every runner is guaranteed a unique experience. A marathon in Israel is like no other in the world.
In Israel, marathons are scheduled for the winter rather than the sweltering summer. Another difference is that marathons here are considerably smaller than elsewhere. Long-distance running is still a relatively new pursuit in these parts - the rugged individualist model of solitary running hasn't quite captured the imagination of team-minded Israelis. In the Eilat Half Marathon, the route runs across the whole country - from the Jordanian border to the Egyptian border.
But the most unique aspect of Israeli marathons is the blessings - about 48,000 of them.
When BBC producer Hugh Levinson ran the Tiberias Marathon a couple of years ago, he ran with a Torah scholar who offered some statistics: "The Sages say that walking a cubit in Israel is a mitzva, a blessing," Levinson wrote. "So if there are four cubits in one stride, that works out to 900 mitzvot a mile, or 24,000 mitzvot per marathon. But running is better than walking - maybe twice as good. So there's probably 48,000 mitzvot, at least, when you run a marathon in Israel."
Levinson added, "Those 48,000 blessings helped me forget about the ache in my legs."
The picturesque setting also provides balm for the aches and pains. Runners in the 29th annual race will follow a 2,000-year-old scenic road, beginning in Tiberias, then heading south around the Kinneret to the opposite point on the eastern shore. There, they'll turn around, retrace their steps, and end up back where they started.
Which makes you wonder: Why would anyone run 42.2 kilometers - 26.2 miles - only to end up exactly where they started?
However lovely the scenery might be, that's not it. You could see that from a car. For the prize? Big money is theoretically possible - if a Category I runner finishes the race in less than 2 hours 12 minutes for men, or 2 hours 28 minutes for women, he/she will win a $40,000 purse. Beyond that, a few native Israelis will win trophies as national champions. But for the overwhelming majority, all they'll win is a medal and a certificate.
Maybe it's the fame. Last year, Negassa Bekele Habtamu, a 26-year-old Ethiopian, won by completing the race in 2 hours 18 minutes.
"Why do I run? Because I love it," says Yotam Lurie, an Israeli-born resident of Omer who's a veteran of several marathons. "That's the only reason. It's not for health, and at my age I'm not going to improve my PR - personal record. It's just that I love to take my two golden retrievers out and run through the fields. We run anywhere from five to 10 miles, out there by ourselves, in nature. When four o'clock rolls around, if I'm not getting my running shoes the dogs wonder what's wrong."
Lurie is a self-confessed addict. "I started running about 30 years ago in elementary school. We had a coach who was really into it, and I caught the bug from him. Once you're addicted, you can't stop."
"Running is not a cognitive experience," he says. "After 15 or 20 minutes, that famous runner's high kicks in and then you just drift. But I'm talking about just running for training, not racing. When Roger Bannister, the first man to run a four-minute mile, said 'Running is painful,' what he was talking about was racing. Competition is painful. You get very tired, your muscles hurt. You're completely focused on your position, your time, your pace, your body. But just running isn't painful. It's fun."
The what-I-do-for-love syndrome seems common among long-distance runners. Sari Bashti of Tel Aviv, a 30-year-old lawyer who's running her first marathon, admits she hated running when she started. "But now I love it," she says. "I've been running with friends for the last couple of years, and that's the difference. At first, I ran because I liked working toward a goal, achieving something. But as I got into it, I discovered I liked running itself. I especially like long runs. I love that feeling of freedom, where it's just me and the wind and the road. It's wonderful."
Bashti will be doing some running just to get to the marathon: The day before, she's scheduled to argue her first Supreme Court case. "The scheduling is a little complicated," she says.
Nechama Abramoff, a 30-year-old, nine-month new immigrant who grew up in New Jersey, is another run-for-love person, but this year she's tackling the Eilat Half-Marathon, not the full race in Tiberias. "I'm a workout-aholic, a gym rat, roller blader, jump roper - you name it," she says. "I ran a couple of races before making aliya, but didn't start training until I got here. A group of people from our synagogue in Tel Aviv - Minyan Ichud Olam - were training for the half-marathon, and when I heard about it I just said, 'I'm in!'"
"I love running. Right now I run 45 minutes to an hour, but the Eilat race isn't until March, so I have some time. For me, the half-marathon will take about two hours, so I'll work up to it."
Abramoff's Minyan group runs in the mornings, which means she can't participate because she goes to work early. "So I run at night, after work," she says. "I don't use music. I'm very focused on my breathing, my pace. Sometimes I realize I'm having a long conversation with myself, but for the most part I'm paying attention to my running."
Brian Falkenstein, another member of the Minyan group, says he started running to relieve stress. "I just went out and started running," says the 36-year-old who grew up in Passaic, New Jersey. "Every day I'd run for 20 minutes, from my apartment to a set of stairs. Then I'd run up and down the stairs a bunch of times, just like in Rocky. The truth is, running was my excuse to take a break and listen to music. I have to have music, something with a beat."
Falkenstein's progress was incremental. "After a while, I got tired of seeing exactly the same thing every day, so I started running to the beach. Then I ran along the beach - by that time I was up to an hour a day. It was a social outlet for me, too. I'd see the same people every day, so I'd always say good morning. Then it got to the point where I felt some obligation to everyone I saw every day. So I couldn't skip, right? I had to say good morning, didn't I?"
Eventually Falkenstein started to get serious. "I met Michal and Erik Wachstock, who were running 10 kilometers a day, training for the Eilat Half-Marathon. For me, I hadn't been paying attention to times or distances - I was just running. But then I realized I'd already been running about 10 K a day. So I entered a 10K race - why not? That's what I was doing every day. The race was a disaster - horrible. My worst finish, ever. But I still loved it. I like attacking races completely. I'm not one of those who say just finishing is good enough. I'm out there to win. A lot of success in running is mental. You have to believe you can do it. I lost the last half-marathon, too, but I had an absolutely fabulous time. I ran with music, singing all the way, just enjoying every minute. It was my chance to be wild. It was just great."
Falkenstein says there are several factors involved in deciding which races to run. "Part of it is stamina, but another issue is boredom," he says. "Can you really run for four hours without getting bored? When I started out, 10K was perfect. I had a CD player that played for 78 minutes, which was just right. Then I got an MP3 player - that was when I decided I could do the half-marathon."
The husband-and-wife team of Michal and Eric Wachstock are such passionate runners that when they had twins, they did their running behind the stroller. "Now the twins are two years old, so we take turns," says Michal. "Sometimes I run in the mornings while Eric babysits, then we switch."
Michal, who came from Los Angeles 10 years ago at age 21, was the instigator of the Minyan Ichud Olam running group. "I was always interested in aerobics or dancing, but about four years ago I wanted to run. I asked some of my friends in the Minyan if they were interested, and they were. Now there are about eight of us who run together, about half men, half women. The best thing about running as a sport is the independence - you don't need a gym and you aren't dependent on anyone else. You can just go and run, whenever you want. Running with a group provides inspiration. We encourage each other, keep each other going. When you're running a race, you actually run about 10 percent faster because you have the inspiration of other people running alongside you. I don't run to win - I won't be winning any of these races. I run for the satisfaction. I like to stay healthy and trim. But mostly, I just enjoy the freedom of running," she says.
David Kalinski, a 37-year-old who came from Australia about 15 months ago, is a little more vague about his motivation. "The Tiberias Marathon will be my first. I came to athletics late in life, not until I was in my twenties, and even then, long-distance swimming was my thing. So why do I run? I don't know . I was wondering about that last week when I was running in Tel Aviv. It was cold, windy and tough. But there's this thing about mind over matter, something I had committed myself to, and I was going to do it. It's a great way to relieve stress, too."
Attitude matters. When Falkenstein was growing up in Passaic, his inspiration was the local postman. "This guy delivered our mail, but he was also a marathon runner. He'd be out there running, training, and he'd shout 'Do it! to everyone he saw. Maybe some day I'll have that kind of gumption - to run through the streets of Tel Aviv, shouting 'Do it!' to everyone I see."
Whether you run for the love of it, for the stress relief, for the sociability, for charity or for the 48,000 blessings, the people who love to run all say the same thing: "Do it!"