A mile in their shoes

Four runners share why they are in the race.

J'lem runners (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
J'lem runners
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Mention the Jerusalem Marathon to any resident of the capital, and you’re likely to hear some grumbling about streets closed and traffic snarling their Friday shopping plans. Maybe they’re frustrated that the municipality is investing so heavily in sporting events at the expense of education or other things.
But when Mayor Nir Barkat launched his vision for the International Jerusalem Marathon four years ago, he knew that he wouldn’t please everyone. Now in its third year, the official certification has catapulted the race onto the international running scene, with a recent issue of the British magazine Women’s Running naming it one of the top 10 spring races around the world. The race has grown from 12,000 runners for all lengths of races in 2010 to 17,000 participants in 2013.
Each year, there are more and more runners on the streets of Jerusalem over the winter, as more people take to the streets to get into shape before race day.
Over the past three years, one thing hasn’t changed, however: The hills have not gotten any smaller. A Jerusalem runner is a special breed of masochist.
Compare our runners to flat Tel Aviv’s runners: We have better views – and better calves.
Here, In Jerusalem profiles four runners with inspiring stories who are running various races on Friday.Two for the road
Erika Lange may be one of the most unlikely people to find at the starting line of the Jerusalem Marathon 10k. Lange finished her last chemotherapy session five weeks ago and is still recovering from late-stage ovarian cancer. But even more unlikely, Lange, a religious mother of five from Beit Shemesh, will be joined by fellow cancer survivor Joules Evans, a devout Christian from Ohio.
The two women met through an online forum for breast and ovarian cancer survivors and “previvors” (women who are genetically disposed to contracting breast cancer and have preemptive surgery) called Beyond the Pink Moon. The 1,200-strong group has members from Australia, Canada, England, France, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Namibia, New Zealand, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Sweden, Tasmania and the US.
Both women are writers and runners.
Evans is the author of the humorous nonfiction book Shaken, Not Stirred: A Chemo Cocktail. She says she often writes in the middle of the night Ohio time, when Lange is also online. Through their blogs, phone calls and texts, the women began to share the ups and downs of Lange’s cancer journey.
“She was going through chemo, and I had been there, done that,” Evans puts it simply.
Evans began considering a trip to Israel to “cheer up Erika’s white blood cells” after Lange’s white blood count dipped too low for a number of chemotherapy treatments.
Evans was diagnosed with breast cancer on August 20, 2008, and underwent a double mastectomy nine days later. She is already planning a massive party for her five-year cancer anniversary this summer.
Lange was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer on July 22, 2012, and had surgery four days later.
Lange had gone on “the cancer journey” with her father eight years earlier, when he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.
Her father is now an eight-year survivor, and Lange credits him with inspiring her to keep running while she was going through the chemotherapy. Her father’s chemo cocktail included a drug that had to be administered through an IV for 48 hours. He would take the IV bag and put it in a fanny pack and go out running while the chemotherapy dripped through his veins, she recalls.
“I would get to the end of a week after chemo and feel sick and half-dead and tired,” Lange says. “But I knew that if I could go out on motzei Shabbat [Saturday evening] and put on my running shoes and do five kilometers and get the blood flowing, feeling my heart pounding, having color in my face and sweat pouring off my forehead, all of this reminded me that I’m alive. As long as I keep running, I know that I’m going forward. I’m not running away from cancer, I’m running in spite of cancer,” she says.
It was also reassuring for her children to see her return from a run, with pink cheeks and a sweaty face, to remind them that their mother, who had always been active, was retaining some of her normal, healthy activities.
Both Evans and Lange credit their religious faith with helping them through the soulwrenching journey of cancer. When they met for the first time at Ben-Gurion Airport last Thursday morning, they were dancing with joy.
“Joules gets off with her bleached hair and tattoos, and I’m there in my long skirt and head covered,” says Lange. “Maybe it was a spectacle for others, but that was beautiful.”
Both women are running to raise money for Tishkofet – Life’s Door, an Israeli organization that supports the entire family of someone going through a life-threatening illness, recognizing that the whole family unit needs support, not just the individual.
The two women will be joined by another 25 runners supporting Tishkofet, including Lange’s husband in his first 10k race.
“I knew she was going to try to do the 10k, and I had to come do this with her,” says Evans, who will run the half marathon with Lange’s father, now 61. “To run in this city with my friend Erika, it’s ridiculous and beautiful.”
Working through the pain
Raef Guirges does not like to run. At all. The 56-year-old Egyptian-American suffers from terrible shin splints, and every moment running, he is in agonizing pain. Which is why it’s hard to understand how the outgoing accountant, who lives in southern California, is running his 104th marathon in Jerusalem.
Guirges acknowledges that he is a very unlikely candidate for a marathon junkie: He smoked for 35 years and led a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle. But a chance email advertisement for a California 10k in 2005 brought him to his first race. After running 6.2 miles, he decided to try his hand at the Los Angeles marathon, about a month later, with no training. After completing marathons in all 50 states in approximately two and a half years (sometimes completing eight marathons in eight weeks in eight states), Guirges is now working on the Seven Continents Club, which includes a marathon on every continent. He found the Jerusalem marathon while searching for marathons in Asia.
“I saw the Jerusalem marathon [on marathonguide.com] and I said, ‘What? No way! Jerusalem has a marathon?’ Automatically I did not concern myself with any of the facts – I just ran and told my wife,” Guirges says in his hotel lobby a few days before the race.
Guirges has a simple training program: Don’t. He takes the time between marathons to recover – it takes him about two days to “stop walking like a 70- or 80-year-old man with arthritis,” he says. Usually he can’t sleep for the first night because the pain is so bad. The night before a marathon, he soaks in a warm Epsom salts bath to soften his muscles and relies heavily on Advil and Extra-Strength Tylenol – sometimes at the same time – but that’s about it in terms of a training regimen.
Guirges, who is Christian, does not have any sponsors.
He runs all his marathons with a giant flag and T-shirt reading “God is love.”
“I’m not running for religion,” says Guirges. “Mine is not a spiritual message, it’s a challenge message. If you believe what you love, then do it. My message is a reminder of believing what you believe for whatever you believe.”
Guirges says that in his most difficult moments, mile 18 and 19, when he just “runs into a black wall,” he often feels like his strength is coming directly from the heavens.
He says he will continue to run marathons as long as his body holds up as a way to thank God for everything in his life, as well as to convince others to live more peaceful, loving, positive lives.
“Maybe I want to [thank God] in the most difficult way,” he hypothesizes.
Guirges immigrated to the US from Egypt in 1983 and worked his way up from a nighttime janitor at the Denver airport to a successful CPA with his own firm.
“It’s allowing me to spread the word. I don’t want to tell [God] thanks in the easiest way. Can I say, ‘Thanks, God’ with a 10k? A half marathon? No, just a marathon,” he says.
What about ultra-marathons, or 100-mile races? Guirges explains that marathons are the perfect vehicle for his message because they’re crazy and difficult – but he gets to spread his message to a lot of people while doing them. Generally, he only participates in marathons with more than 15,000 people. Jerusalem is an exception.
He says he never worried about the political implications of being an Egyptian in an Israeli marathon. His best friend in Torrence, California, is an Israeli tax lawyer.
Despite being indoctrinated in Egyptian schools that “all Israelis are bad, all Israelis want to kill you,” Guirges says he quickly realized that was untrue on his travels abroad as a college student.
Politics did tinge his trip here, as he normally runs with a flag of the country hosting the marathon. Here in Israel, he wanted to run with an Israeli flag, or an Israeli flag and a Palestinian flag, but was conflicted because he didn’t want to alienate anyone. Eventually, a kindergarten teacher at the YMCA offered to have the children design a flag for him. It says “God is love” in three languages.
Guirges will run part of his race accompanied by the YMCA’s kindergarten class.
So despite the grimace you’ll see on his face on Friday or the obvious pain he seems to be in from the shin splints (he wraps wetsuit material around his shins to help support them) or if his shoes are streaked with blood (two of his toenails fell off during the Tuscon marathon, which took an agonizing six hours in soaring temperatures), inside, Guirges will be waiting for the elated feeling that comes after crossing the finish line.
“My dream is to drop dead running a marathon,” he says. “No, not right now,” he laughs. “I’ll stop when I get really injured, then I’ll know it’s a message from Him to stop. I have to feel the pain, to feel the pain God goes through every day seeing the horrible things we do to each other. My marathons, I feel it’s a portion of the pain.”
Run, Robins, run
There will be 17,000 runners in the various races the day of the Jerusalem Marathon, but Irwin “Win” Robins, from Beit Shemesh, has the distinction of being the oldest runner at the starting line. Robins, 78, came to fitness and running at a late stage in his life. He ran the New York City Marathon five times after age 50.
“When I had my first running injury, back in 1983, the orthopedist said to me, ‘You have a choice: Either continue to run and hurt when you are 70, or don’t run and perhaps you won’t make it to 70.’” A number of knee injuries over the years means Robins won’t be running the 10k. Instead, he’ll be “race-walking” the route. He’s quick to note that his form of race walking is not the type that’s the sanctioned race-walk form, an Olympic sport that adheres to a number of strict rules. He just walks at a quick pace that feels good.
“Exercise has been an important part of my life for the past 40 years,” says Robins. “If I didn’t get exercise, it used to bother the hell out of me.”
After spending two years in the US Air Force and graduating Harvard Law School, Robins worked as a lawyer in his birthplace of Manhattan for 40 years.
After retiring in 2000, Robins and his wife, Sue (a great name for the wife of a lawyer, Robins notes wryly), began spending half of the year in Israel, where both their daughters had moved. In September 2011 they completed the paperwork for their own aliya, and in December 2012 they made the move complete.
Robins spends most of his time as a volunteer photographer for various nonprofit organizations, such as the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and Yad Sarah.
What has kept Robins running for the past 30-plus years is the community he found in the running world. During all the years he lived in Manhattan, he ran six days a week at the 1.5-mile track around the reservoir in Central Park. Actually, it’s 1.577 miles, for those who want to be exact, the lawyer notes. From that 1.577 miles around the reservoir, Robins forged deep friendships with his running partners.
“We had a bunch of people. I would just go up to anyone who seemed to have a decent pace and say, ‘Could I run with you?’” he recounts. “I met some wonderful people. In Beit Shemesh that doesn’t happen, which is a shame. That takes a lot of the pleasure out of it. The miles melt away when you’re talking with someone.”
Now Robins has a few favorite routes, as well as two regular partners who walk from the railroad tracks to the convent above Kibbutz Tzora. He plans to wear his marathon T-shirt on Friday, which has his name “Win” emblazoned on the front.
“Someone said that’s the secret [to marathons] – to have people cheering your name,” he says.
Robins takes the accolades as the Jerusalem Marathon’s oldest runner in stride. “To be truthful, I’m only starting now to feel my age,” he says.