Ready, set, run!

Four runners with inspiring stories tell ‘In Jerusalem’ why they are running in this year’s marathon.

Runners in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Runners in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There’s a point that distance runners hit called “The Wall,” which means the glycerin stores in the muscles are depleted and the body is screaming for rest. Smart people usually stop. Runners keep going.
Long-distance running is less about the body and more about the mind – convincing your legs that despite the pain, they really want to keep churning. Many long-distance runners have gone through personal trials and travails that give them an inner mental strength to push them towards the finish line, even when every cell in their body is screaming to stop.
Twelve thousand runners will descend on Jerusalem today for the city’s second annual marathon, which also includes a half marathon, 10-km. race, and 4.2-km. fun race as a fund-raiser to fight cancer. The number of runners from abroad has increased by 50 percent since last year, for a total of 1,500 international runners from 50 countries. There are also 3,000 more runners participating in races than last year.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat touts the marathon as an integral part of his vision for creating cultural and sports events to bring the city to the international stage. Many of the roads in downtown Jerusalem, as well as Highway 1 near the university and parts of Hebron Road, will be closed or partially closed on marathon day. Schools along the route will also be closed for the day.
In an attempt to temper the frustration of Jerusalem residents over the nearly total shutdown of the downtown roads on race day, Barkat focuses on the economic impact. The event has generated approximately 5,000 hotel stays, and each international runner is expected to pump between $1,500 and $2,000 into the local economy through restaurants, shopping and hotels, according to estimates from the Jerusalem Development Authority.
Behind the festivities and cheering crowds on race day are runners who have trained for months, pushing their body to the limits, peeling themselves out of nice warm beds at ungodly early hours of the morning to pound the pavement. Running can be a solitary sport, so many runners choose to run for a cause or a charitable organization, to give them inspiration. But sometimes the stories of runners themselves can serve as inspiration for the rest of us.
Ahead of race day, In Jerusalem caught up with four runners with amazing personal stories: a blind runner, a terror victim, a teenager suffering from a rare skin disease, and the city’s only professional Arab runner.
Every runner has a personal story that propels them out the door each morning. But these four runners won’t just finish their race, they’ll inspire you to aim high as well.
Running with courage
David Beiss, an 18-year-old New York native studying in Israel for the year, hopes to run the 10-km. race on Friday, but he hasn’t trained at all. It’s not because he’s too busy studying at Yeshiva Torat Shraga in Bayit Vagan, it’s because he can’t: Beiss was born with epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a painful skin disease that causes blisters and bleeding from the slightest contact. The skin on his feet and hands are the most sensitive, and he uses a wheelchair and wears only Ugg slippers to protect his skin.
“I get blisters everywhere from the slightest friction – anything. But I’ve never let it take over my life,” he says. For the past two years, he has run the last mile of the Miami Marathon while organizing fundraising teams who push him along for most of the course.
On Friday, however, he will be facing his largest challenge yet: running a full 10-km. The original plan was to run the last mile of a half marathon, but he couldn’t obtain a running wheelchair in time for the race. Instead, he’s decided to borrow a pair of sneakers from a friend (Beiss doesn’t own running shoes), and try the full 10-km. route.
“It’s a challenge, hopefully I’ll be able to man-up and succeed,” he said on Sunday. “Even if I can’t finish the whole thing, there’s no reason not to try and see if it’s possible.”
Even if he isn’t able to finish, he will have accomplished something amazing: 43 people are running with Team Butterfly, which is dedicated to fundraising to find a cure for EB. At press time, Beiss’s team, made up of mostly yeshiva and seminary students, has raised almost $35,000, with the goal of reaching $40,000 by today.
“Studying here and then running through the streets of Jerusalem… I tell people it’s going to be the highlight of their year,” he says.
“When I run, I know I won’t be able to walk for a few days after,” says Beiss. He is estimating that after the 10-km., it will be at least a week before his feet have healed sufficiently to walk again. But he is prepared to pay that price.
“It’s worth it,” he says. “That’s the message of not letting it take over your life.”
Training for peace
Jerusalem has approximately 250,000 Arab residents. As far as Badeh Yusef knows, when he gets to the starting line today, he’ll be the only Arab runner taking part in the Jerusalem marathon. He also happens to be one of Israel’s fastest runners.
Last year, he finished fifth in the half marathon – and the second Israeli – in a blistering 1:15.
A native of Isawiya in east Jerusalem, he has just returned from an intensive four-month training program in Morocco with the top distance runners and trainers from around the world. He finished the Tiberias Marathon in 2:29, and is currently focusing on the Israeli 10- km. championships later this spring.
Yusef, now 31, started his career as a promising soccer player. He quickly became a star on the local Isawiya soccer team, and dreamed of playing professionally in Europe. But he was frustrated by the lack of opportunities in Israel and switched to running, where he could compete without a team and advance on his own, he says.
That was 12 years ago. Now, he’s a professional runner, sponsored by Brooks and the Maccabi Tel Aviv sport club, and he runs with Jerusalem’s Breakfast Club running club. He runs approximately 160 kilometers per week, spread out over 13 workout sessions.
He shies away from politics: he’s a runner, not a politician, and he wants to focus on his sport, and the ability of sport to transcend conflict.
“Everyone asks these questions,” he says with a sigh, referring to queries about the political situation and calls by the Jerusalem mufti to boycott the marathon because it is a “Judaization” of east Jerusalem. “I pray to Allah and to God for real peace. Nothing would be better than that in the world.”
“I’m not going to get involved [with politics], I don’t want to cause problems,” he continues. “I run marathons. I’m running the Jerusalem marathon because I respect the peace here. It could be that the marathon will bring peace. I hope there will be a full marathon – half in the Arab part, and half in the Jewish part – that will be a real Jerusalem marathon.”
He has become somewhat of a local hero in his village, an impoverished neighborhood located next to the Hebrew University.
For weeks now, he says, his neighbors have been asking him when the race is and where he’ll be running so they can come to cheer him on. He plans to run the 10-km., which stays mostly in the center of Jerusalem.
He says more running clubs, especially for kids, are needed in east Jerusalem to bring more Arab runners to Jerusalem’s race day.
“In our village, the parents ask me to show their kids how to run, but the problem is that alone, I can’t do everything,” he says. “I can’t leave my work and train kids. But lots of people ask me to train their kids so that instead of doing stupid things, they’ll have running. I do a lot of things in Israel, and they see I’ve gotten to good places because of running.”
The long haul
Last year, In Jerusalem interviewed 19-year-old Pia Levine, who suffers from Crohn’s disease and raised $2,800 for Chai Lifeline, after attending the organization’s Camp Simcha for sick children. Two days before the marathon, Levine was sitting in the back of a No. 75 bus, when a bomb exploded next to the bus stop across from the International Convention Center. One woman was killed and 50 were wounded, as Jerusalem reeled from the first bus bombing in seven years.
Levine emerged from the bus without physical injuries – “a miracle,” she said at the time – but the psychological price has been high. She ran the half marathon two days later as planned, but has spent the past year overcoming the fear associated with the attack.
Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Levine is anxious in crowded places, especially large public transportation hubs like Penn Station in New York. When she is driving, pebbles hitting her car trigger flashbacks of shrapnel hitting the bus. Airplane turbulence is terrifying, she explains, because the sounds of the engine and the bumping are similar to the bombing.
Levine, who had been in Israel on a semester program and studies at Stern College in New York, returned to her home in New Jersey just a few days after the bombing as she had previously planned, and tried to continue with her daily life.
But a year later, she came back to Jerusalem, and to the Jerusalem marathon. Today she’ll run another half marathon, this time in honor of the One Family Fund, which provides assistance and support for victims of terror, and has helped her over the past year.
Sunday marked the Hebrew anniversary of the attack, which Levine commemorated with an event at the One Family Fund building, surrounded by friends, family and the support network she’s built over the past year.
“When I was in America, I never really got to have closure,” she says. “Now that I’m back I finally have this closure. I really want to go stand by the bus stop, talk to the guy who owns the kiosk [which was damaged in the bombing].”
On the anniversary, Levine climbed back onto an Egged bus. She passed by the International Convention Center, though in the opposite direction. “I decided I’m going to do this, I can’t limit my trip because I’m scared,” she says. “I’m just doing things slowly, trying to get through it. This is my way of finally coping with it.”
Running the half marathon again is an important step in her recovery, she says. “It’s not to relive the experience, but to come in a complete circle. And sometimes I just like to run to get everything out of my head.”
A tandem trail
Richard Bernstein has an impressive resume: 16 marathons, one Ironman triathlon, and the half-Ironman IsraMan race in Eilat. That’s in addition to a successful law career, with dozens of influential landmark cases for disability rights across America that have significantly changed issues, including handicapped accessibility on public transportation across America. The winner of “Michiganian of the Year” teaches a course in social justice at the University of Michigan Law School, runs the public service branch of his family law firm, and has a weekly radio show about social justice.
Oh, and by the way, Bernstein is blind.
“I have to see life this way, whether it’s true or not I have to believe things happen for a reason,” he said three days before the marathon. “I have to believe there’s a reason that God created me this way – that this is your purpose, this is why you’re here, you’re sent here to do a powerful thing to deal with challenges and struggles.”
He will run on a special tether with Maj. Shaked, an Israel Air Force pilot who guided him last year in the Jerusalem marathon. The two also completed the IsraMan half- Ironman in Eilat. Bernstein credits Shaked’s pilot’s training with enabling him to plan a few steps ahead, pointing out uneven surfaces and grading the up-hills and down-hills on a numerical basis.
It requires an incredible amount of concentration not just to run a marathon, but to explain and guide during the entire course, Bernstein explains. Shaked is working to integrate soldiers with disabilities into the military with the hopes of better integrating into society, and Bernstein hopes their races will raise awareness for the cause.
He says he never believed that he could be an athlete until the Achilles organization, which enables disabled people to participate in mainstream sports, asked him if he’d be interesting in running. He decided to give it a shot. One mile in Central Park with a guide turned into two miles, then three miles, then 10 miles – and then suddenly he realized he was ready for the New York City marathon.
On race day, he is usually accompanied by a team of guides, including a main guide holding the tether and giving directions, and the other guides acting as a human buffer. “The trust between the athlete and the guide is unbelievably profound,” he explains. “You’re just out there in the darkness, doing the best you can.”
In Jerusalem, he has only one guide, Shaked, who will have to point out all the obstacles. Bernstein says Jerusalem is the most challenging marathon he’s run, not just because of the hills, but due to the uneven surfaces, cobblestones and broken pavements. “I mean, what marathon has stairs in it?” he asks with mock exasperation.
“The only reason I’m doing this is for Shaked, this is the most brutal marathon for a blind person,” says Bernstein. But raising awareness about disability issues and working towards integrating people with disabilities into mainstream society is his passion, and he’s ready to run his third marathon in five months to prove his dedication, despite tender calves and knee pain.
“I’m not going for a personal record, I just want to have a great time,” he says. “This marathon has a profoundly beautiful and wonderful meaning. Out of all 16 marathons, this is the one that I remember the most.”