Unlikely marathon man

An Israeli hi-tech marketing expert is literally running a charity campaign – in the Sahara.

David Oberman 521 (photo credit: Courtesy )
David Oberman 521
(photo credit: Courtesy )
‘Still crazy after all these years.”
That was the e-mail I fired back to an old friend when he told me of his latest project. It was the only response I could think of when David Oberman – a mild-mannered, middle-aged marketing director at a Jerusalem hi-tech company – informed me he is preparing to run in a marathon, in the Sahara desert, to raise money for charity.
The Marathon des Sables is a week-long race in which 800 people from different countries attempt to cover 252 kilometers in temperatures that can reach up to 50ºC during the day and drop to near freezing at night. They carry on their backs all their clothes, food supplies, first aid and emergency equipment – and a sleeping bag and mattress. Not everybody makes it.
Admitting, “I’m really, really, really not the sporty type,” David notes with a shy smile that “this is the craziest and most difficult endeavor of my life.”
He’ll be 53 by the time the marathon takes place in April. The married father of two sons – Shlomi, 24, and Shavit, 21 – David is not exactly the first person you’d think would be running across an African desert – unless, of course, it’s for a good cause. In this case it’s for Zichron Menachem, a charity that helps children with cancer and their families.
David might not be sporty but he was always a good sport.
We first met as teenagers in London where we were both involved in the campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry. (His mother, Barbara Oberman, was one of the founders of the “35s,” a women’s group that worked tirelessly for Prisoners of Zion.) He made aliya in 1977 and we stayed in touch when we both served in the IDF, where David was a paratrooper. We were later classmates for some courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where David was studying Japanese, English Literature and history, and I was studying Chinese and international relations.
Last week, we met in my office at the Post mid-morning – after he’d been for a run. My first question was: “Why?”
David, being David, chose to answer by emphasizing the value of the organization on whose behalf he is running.
“I looked for a charity with a general appeal and which is important. Here [with Zichron Menachem], you’re raising money for kids with a particular problem and to give them a good time, like giving them a trip to Disneyland. For some of them it will be the last trip of their lives.”
He started running marathons six years ago and the idea itself was born three years ago – “you have to sign up three years ahead of time.” Demand is very high and there is a waiting list, although “lots of people get hurt while training for it,” he notes.
Since being accepted, he has delved into the “science of training” – “Probably the best advice I’ve got is: ‘There is no way to prepare for this thing.’ It’s so extreme that if you do the correct training for it, by simulating a run in the desert with a heavy backpack, it would disable you before the event.
“One important principle is to build it up, and the other is to wind it down. So for the last few weeks I’ve been running 16 km. a day; 18 km. a day; 20 km. a day; next week, I’ll do 10 km. a day to give my body a chance to assimilate what I’ve done and not get Dead Leg Syndrome or any of the other things that happen to people who overdo it.”
His Canadian-born wife, Yael, is a keen runner but is not training with him. They met at university where she also studied Japanese and English literature. Now a psychologist, Yael has pronounced David “crazy.” This professional assessment is seconded by his brother, a doctor, who lives in Ra’anana.
“My mother, obviously, is doing everything she can to stop me doing it,” he quips in answer to a question.
David is nothing if not dedicated. He continues to work a 12-hour day as marketing director for Mobileye, a company that creates safety devices for vehicles, as well as training three to four hours daily.
His varied CV includes 10 years as the director of his own fast food company, the Bagel House, which turned into Holy Bagel. The company motto was “If it isn’t boiled, it isn’t a bagel.”
Ironically, he’s experimenting with the freeze-dried food he’s planning to take with him, to see whether he can make it without heating it up. The weight of the food, and everything needed to prepare it (such as a burner), is a big consideration. The food has to be carried by the participants, and the organizers measure the number of calories – “at least 2,000 calories a day, for seven days.”
Water is provided on a daily basis according to the number of kilometers to be covered that day.
The list of required equipment to be carried includes an emergency flare, a signaling mirror and a thermal sheet for surviving the cold night if lost. Although David cheerfully admits that navigation was not his strongest skill in the army, he seems to relate to it as part of the challenge. “An Italian policeman once got lost for 10 days and survived, just about.”
There are, apparently, mixed views on whether or not to take a mattress: On the one hand it’s more weight; on the other, without it you could wake up in the morning too stiff to run.
“I don’t sleep very well when we go camping,” he confesses. And this sure ain’t no family vacation.
David doesn’t know anyone else participating and since there are no other Israelis, he expects he will probably find himself sharing the Beduin-style tent that’s put up at night with Brits “or maybe Japanese.”
David speaks the language fluently, and following his MA at the Hebrew University and a two-year scholarship in Japan, he taught it for a while at our alma mater. He has worked as a consultant to firms doing business in Asia as well as for some major Japanese conglomerates, including Mitsubishi, when they came to Israel.
He continues to use it for his work, which frequently takes him to the Far East – traveling in much more comfortable conditions.
I catch him just before a business trip, during which he needs to maintain his training.
“Listening to your body and filtering out the chaff” is vital, he says, “because your body is always telling you ‘I want a rest day today.’” David participated in this year’s Jerusalem Marathon, which he found “hard, because of the hills.”
He realizes that as marathons grow in popularity, the races are becoming more challenging. “Marathons are very quickly becoming the 10 kilometers of yesterday,” he notes.
As to his future plans – the long run, as it were – he says, “I don’t believe for a second I will look for a bigger challenge. I’m not even sure there is one. But although this is a superenormous challenge for me, I think it’s doable.”
His goal is “survival – staying alive and finishing. I have absolutely no interest in how long it takes me.”
His other goal is to raise $1 million. “It’s really encouraging when people donate,” he says. David is paying all his own expenses (around $7,000) so that all the money he raises can go to the charity. “I’m asking people to give a little, not for me, but for people who really need it.”
To donate, fill in a donation form on the Zichron Menachem website and write: For the David Oberman MdS Fund in the “Earmark this donation” box.
You can be sure he’ll do his best to give you a good run for your money.
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