Anatomy of a long-distance runner

A Weizmann Institute biochemist keeps on breaking boundaries.

The Jerusalem Marathon is part of Zwighaft’s training program ahead of his next ultra-marathon tour event in Italy in June. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jerusalem Marathon is part of Zwighaft’s training program ahead of his next ultra-marathon tour event in Italy in June.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For many of those running the Jerusalem Marathon this morning, completing the 42.195 kilometer course is the ambition of a lifetime. For Ziv Zwighaft, it was practice.
The 29-year-old is Israel’s top ultra-marathon runner, regularly taking part in events four and even five times longer than a regular marathon, usually in mountainous terrain. He also participated in the Tel Aviv Marathon last month, accompanying a friend in the race after already running 25 km. earlier in the morning.
In Jerusalem, he will act as a pacesetter, beginning the marathon with the target of crossing the line after exactly three hours and 15 minutes, allowing other racers who wanted to finish in that time to follow his lead.
However, just as importantly, the Jerusalem Marathon is part of Zwighaft’s training program ahead of his next ultra-marathon tour event in Italy in June. He will compete in the Lavaredo Ultra Trail race in Italy, which is part of the prestigious World Tour. The 119-km. race will start from the center of Cortina and will pass through the spectacular sights of the Dolomites. The winner is expected at the finish line after around 12 hours, with participants having 31 hours to complete the course.
Zwighaft, who will also take part in the Sea to Jerusalem race next month – a 144-km. course beginning at Jaffa Port and finishing at Jerusalem’s First Station – will be hoping to build on his impressive performance at his most recent ultramarathon tour event. He finished the 166-km. Ultra- Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), which is held once a year in the Alps, in 73rd place last August. He clocked a time of 28 hours and 23 minutes, with half of the 2,300 contestants not even reaching the finish line.
It was only by coincidence that Zwighaft became an ultra-marathon athlete. The Weizmann Institute biochemist doctoral student decided to spend a year in Chamonix, France, where the UTMB starts and finishes, between his first and second degrees. He ended up discovering that he had a natural stamina that allowed him to achieve what other athletes could only dream of.
“I wanted to become a rock-climbing instructor, which is my passion. But when I got there, I noticed that I had something that enabled me to survive longer than others,” he says. “I saw that I had some natural stamina that allowed me to continue and climb and continue to think, while others around me collapsed.”
Zwighaft learned about the UTMB from a poster in Chamonix, only later discovering that it was one of the most prestigious competitions of its kind in the world. He had no previous experience but told the organizers that they didn’t have any Israelis participating and that he wanted to represent Israel. Zwighaft had taken part in triathlons and half-Iron Man competitions beforehand, but the organizers asked him to run a full marathon for the first time in his life before they agreed to sign him up. He did so and enjoyed every moment of his first ultramarathon event.
“I wasn’t tired during the race and never stopped smiling,” he says. “That is why I continue taking part in these races. These competitions give me freedom, both to my thoughts and my body, to run like there are no boundaries.”
Zwighaft admits that people are often perplexed by why he would want to take part in such grueling competitions, but he sees things very differently.
“I do it because I can,” he explains. “It is like when Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why climb Everest and he said ‘Because it is there.’ I’m trying to break boundaries. I don’t have any countries to discover, but I have a curious soul and want to try to go where no one else has been before. I have a need to try to keep breaking the boundaries I set myself and reach the next level.”
He adds, “There was a South Pole explorer who once apologized to his wife for being an explorer, telling her that he did it because he was trying to resist his natural inclination to be lazy. I think that I, like any other person, am lazy, but I really fight it. I don’t want to give up. There is nothing more fun than spending all day in bed, but afterwards I feel bad about myself for wasting my time. It is an eternal war not to be lazy and not to be mediocre and to always strive for success.”
Zwighaft uses his knowledge as a biochemist to achieve the best possible results in extreme conditions.
“I know my body from a biological standpoint, and I use my knowledge to make my training more efficient,” he says. “My laboratory at the Weizmann Institute studies the connection between the biological clock and metabolism. We have expanded knowledge about how the body works. There is a certain characteristic regarding our body for every hour of the day. For example, the best time for physical activity is in the evening, while at three o’clock in the morning my body will find it difficult to wake up. As soon as I understand that, I will plan my course accordingly and will not push myself at night. The races are sometimes more than 24 hours long, so I encounter all the hours of the day.”
Zwighaft owns a hypoxicator machine, which simulates high-altitude conditions. Ahead of major competitions, he erects a tent over his bed and breathes reduced oxygen hypoxic air throughout the night to prepare his body for the high-altitude conditions he will encounter during the race.
Despite his remarkable accomplishments, Zwighaft is eternally in search of a major sponsor who will help him finance the costly sport.
“One of the biggest problems in Israel is finding financial backing. It is difficult to live off a student’s salary, especially with these additional expenses,” he says. “The sponsors in Israel usually back sports that include a ball. An ultra-marathon runner should be a classic target for a sponsor, as this is a person who can cope with difficulties and is determined, and those are regarded as positive attributes in society.”
Last year’s UTMB winner finished almost eight hours ahead of Zwighaft, but he believes that he is nowhere near to realizing his potential.
“If I didn’t have any financial concerns, I would become a full-time ultra-marathon runner while practicing science in my free time,” he says. “I wish it were possible. I think I could be ranked among the world’s top 20.”