Fieldwork: Trailblazing in tandem

Blind runner Eitam Israeli and his guide will be setting the pace for two hours for 150 people in the half-marathon.

Eitam Israeli 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Eitam Israeli 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
It doesn’t take long to realize that Eitam Israeli is one special individual.
A bad cough revealed that Israeli had run the half marathon in Jerusalem the day prior to our interview despite being ill.
He should have spent the day in bed, but if being blind hasn’t slowed him down, a minor virus isn’t going to, either.
The 28-year-old lost his eyesight six years ago after an extended period of deterioration – and he has been involved in sports ever since.
He won a medal at the Blind Sailing World Championships and led Israel’s national goalball (a sport designed for blind athletes) team to the European title in 2009.
But if you have heard of him, it is likely because you are an avid fan of the Big Brother reality series and recognize Eitam as the first blind person to take part in the program in Israel last year.
He has since gone on to become a motivational speaker, and while his claim to fame may be his time in the Big Brother house, it is his sporting career that is truly inspirational.
After running in Jerusalem, Israeli will take part in his third half-marathon in Tel Aviv today, running alongside Offer Ben-Dor.
Israeli is just the latest physically impaired person Ben-Dor has mentored, with the two running tied together at the hip – meaning that Eitam relies completely on Ben-Dor to be his eyes and his compass.
Israeli took up running to improve his fitness level for goalball, but has since fallen in love with the sport. A bad fall resulted in him having to refrain from running for a year and a half, but he made his comeback in the first Jerusalem Marathon two years ago and has never looked back.
“I was really afraid of running again, but I ended up completing the 10-kilometer race in Jerusalem for the first time in my life and it was so easy and fun,” he tells The Jerusalem Post. “The turning point arrived last year. I was sitting with a group of runners after running 12K and suddenly realized that everyone around me could be my parents. They were all 40 to 50 years old and running marathons and doing Ironman competitions. After a long conversation with them, I decided that I would race a half-marathon.”
Israeli adds that it is also only a matter of time until he completes a full marathon and takes part in Ironman competitions. But he explains that running has additional significance for him.
“Running helps to bring down barriers,” he says. “When you reach a certain pace that you never thought you were capable of and maintain it for 6 km., for example, it helps you understand that you have made what seemed impossible into a reality.
Something that you had feared for years becomes easy all of a sudden and you project that on other barriers you might face in life.”
Ben-Dor, 54, a coach, lecturer and entrepreneur, has guided runners for almost a decade through the Etgarim non-profit organization.
He led the blind Beza Nebeva-Simei to fifth place at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 and has also developed a special relationship with Israeli.
“I work a lot in mentoring and coaching, so for me it is only natural to use sport as a means for empowerment in other aspects of life,” he says. “For example, Beza had no previous formal education, but after the Paralympics I studied with him for two years at the coaching school in Wingate Institute and he has become the first authorized blind athletics coach.”
Ben-Dor makes a point of speaking to his fellow runners throughout a race and he believes Israeli has the potential to be a trailblazer.
“He’s an optimist and doesn’t behave like a blind person,” he says. “His situation is more difficult because he slowly went blind during his life, which resulted in a serious crisis. He managed to overcome this crazy crisis and live a productive life. He doesn’t act like he’s impaired in any way.
“He’s an amazing human being and remains optimistic despite everything,” Ben-Dor adds. “He’s 28 years old and he physically depends on others, but you don’t feel that when you are with him because he doesn’t act like he’s a victim but rather like someone who can help others. I think that’s what makes him so unique.”
Ben-Dor says he now hardly ever runs by himself, as the satisfaction and joy of running alone is “about a 10th” of what he experiences when racing with others.
The responsibility of guiding a blind runner is particularly great.
“We are tied by the hip when we run and that demands of us to be completely synchronized. It demands of me to be alert to any small obstacle because he could trip on the smallest bump in the road and easily crash to the ground and break a leg,” he explains. “It demands of him to trust me completely. That is far from trivial, as blind people are naturally very suspicious. But I developed chemistry very quickly with Eitam and I feel that he completely trusts me.”
Ben-Dor and Israeli will be acting as pacemakers in the half-marathon in Tel Aviv, with the job of setting a pace of about two hours for a group of approximately 150 people.
“We are leading a large group of people and their experience of being led by a blind man is something very powerful,” he says. “I’ve seen people moved to tears by it in previous races. This will also be a breakthrough for Eitam and will be a powerful experience for him.”
Despite his struggles in Jerusalem, Israeli is looking forward to running in Tel Aviv.
“It’s a big responsibility and seems scary at times,” he says. “I’m not sure that it will be the easiest thing to do, to run 21 km. at a set pace, but I hope that it will be easier than the Jerusalem Marathon.”