Jerusalem's unique spirit helped us over the finish line

Runner's notebook: With a terror attack fresh in our memories, the J'lem Marathon was a testament to resilient, vibrant lives in the capital.

Marathon Winner 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Marathon Winner 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It was a unique Jerusalem moment: on one side of Haim Bar-Lev Avenue/Highway 1, about 30 young black-hatted yeshiva boys stood behind a fence, silently, and watched the runners pass. Three minutes later, on the other side of the road, a young boy and his father, both in traditional Arab dress, ran along the sidewalk, trying to keep pace with the runners.
As when I’d glimpsed the Dome of the Rock between the trees while circling Hebrew University, or run on the cobblestones of Zion Gate and up the hills of Rehavia, it was an inescapable reminder: This is Jerusalem.
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The international prestige that Mayor Nir Barkat so desperately coveted from the First Jerusalem Marathon may have been dented in the last few minutes of the race, when the three lead runners took a wrong turn and finished in the wrong place. But that confusion could not overwhelm the immense achievement of the marathon – an almost spiritual event that went ahead, as scheduled, with all of its participants, just two days after a fatal terrorist attack.
The trio at the front of the marathon pack got mixed in with the half-marathon runners, and followed them to the half-marathon finish outside of Gan Sacher instead of the marathon finish inside the park, leaving officials scrambling to work out who was the actual winner. The final results determined that Raymond Kipkoech, 34, of Kenya, with a time of 2:26:44, had won the First Jerusalem Marathon.
Second was Mutai Kopkorir, 24, of Kenya with a time of 2:26:55 and third was Kiman Njorage, 33, also of Kenya with a time of 2:27:19.
This was the trio that had wound up outside Gan Sacher. The first man to cross the official finish line inside the park was Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, also from Kenya, with a time of 2:27:48.
The top female runner was Oda Worknesh, 26, from Ethiopia, with a time of 2:50:05. Second was Rosaline David, 35, from Kenya, with a time of 2:50:06. In third was Wioletta Kryza, 42, from Poland at 2:51:21.
The world record for a marathon is 2:03:59, set by Haile Gebrselassie in Berlin in 2008, so the slower times give an indication of the challenging level of the course. My finish time was also about 23 minutes slower than I had anticipated. After all, if the pros are slower because of the hills, I can be too.
The mini-fiasco at the end of the race was just another reminder that Jerusalem will never be Boston, or London, or Paris or Berlin, sites of the world’s most famous and prestigious marathons. The Jerusalem Marathon will be about Jerusalem: ups and downs, pain, heartache, beauty. The fact that it took place two days after the bombing opposite Binyanei Ha’uma, and that no one – no one! – pulled out, according to race organizer Diesenhaus, was uniquely Jerusalem.
On Wednesday, after pushing my way to the front of a hoard of journalists at the scene of the terror attack just 45 minutes after the bomb had exploded at the city entrance, killing one woman and injuring dozens of people, I had asked the mayor, “Are you still running on Friday?” This was my first time reporting on a Jerusalem bus bombing, and what I was really asking was, “Can we continue with life so soon after a terror attack?” The answer from Barkat, from the dozens of runners I talked to from Israel and abroad, and when I took a moment to ask, from myself, was an emphatic yes.
Nineteen-year-old Pia Levine was sitting in the back of a No. 75 bus on Wednesday afternoon, when the bag with the bomb, placed underneath a phone booth, exploded, driving pieces of the No. 74 into her bus.
Levine, who suffers from Crohn’s disease, had planned to run the half marathon on Friday in honor of her father, who passed away last year.
She had raised $6,000 for the charity Chai Lifeline, which sponsors a camp for sick youngsters she had attended as a teenager. She emerged from Wednesday’s attack shaken but without a scratch.
“A miracle,” she said.
She was taken to Shaare Zedek Hospital and treated for anxiety.
“The whole Thursday, I was shaken up, I was scared to go outside because I didn’t know if it was over,” she said on Saturday night.
“I was thinking, I don’t know if I can do it, but I’ve been looking forward to it throughout the whole year. Then I thought, I survived the bus bombing, so I can survive the race.”
She had previously estimated the run would take her a little less than three hours. She finished in two hours and 10 minutes.
The same way that the history and the politics mean Jerusalem is not just another city, this race was never just a marathon. This race was a rallying point for so many different types of people.
It was about Binyamin Zwickler, 19, who was diagnosed with cancer 10 months ago and was able to run.
It was about the 25 yeshiva students from Eretz Hatzvi Yeshiva, and two of their rabbis, who ran the half and full marathons (the rabbis ran the 10k).
It was about Randell and Edna Turner from outside of Dallas, Texas, who had difficulties registering for the race and found the true meaning of Israeli love through protectzia (connections) when City Councilor Elisha Peleg (Sports portfolio, Likud) strode over to the race manager and said “Sign them up, right now!” It was about the families dotting Emek Refaim cheering the runners, and a chance for everyone to celebrate something wonderful in Jerusalem that brought together 10,000 participants from across the many sectors of Jerusalem society and far, far beyond.
Sure, it was lonely running at Hebrew University, with no spectators save for the security guards every 100m, who I would often high-five on my way by – to break up the monotony and take my mind off the fact that I could actually feel each individual muscle in my legs.
But it was also wonderful running past the Haas Promenade, hearing “Mi Shema’amin Lo Mifahed” booming out of the speakers and passing dozens of schoolchildren waving flags and chanting the Betar Jerusalem fight song. It was emotional, as well: I cried with happiness when my friends handed me a cookie after I struggled up Kovshei Katamon, in my opinion the hardest hill in an incredibly hilly course.
Around kilometer 30, marathon runners hit what’s known as “The Wall,” when the body depletes its store in glycogen and starts to consume itself. A friend who had done a marathon two years ago told me “The Wall” wasn’t like getting hit by a bus; it was like getting run over by one of those high-speed European trains and getting dragged under the caboose for the last 12 km.
This was my first marathon, so I didn’t know how my “Wall” would affect me: I turned into a crazy, hysterical, emotional mess. Running by the municipality near kilometer 29 and listening to a sad song, I burst into tears (although I once had a similar reaction at the municipality when I saw my municipal tax bill).
When the isotonic (Gatorade) drink wasn’t at the right stations, I threw a bona fide hissy fit (while maintaining my pace), demanding cups of “the orange drink” in unpublishable language while shocked high school volunteers meekly handed me bottles of water.
While running with Barkat a month before the marathon, he had told me that when you run a marathon in a city, that city enters your soul. I hadn’t realized to what degree this is true. Everyone I spoke to after the race, especially the runners from abroad, said it was a spiritual experience – hard to describe, difficult as hell, more painful than they’d expected, but something that will stick with them forever.
In the past eight months that I’ve been the Jerusalem reporter at this newspaper, I’ve often faced the worst aspects of this city – meaningless violence, tragic accidents, grinding poverty, and the overwhelming hatred and ignorance on both sides of the city’s conflicts.
At one point, to distract myself from the searing pain in my quads, I tried calculating the number of places we passed on the route which had been the scene of rock-throwing incidents, according to my police beeper (at least three that I can recall).
“Is it OK to recycle a congrats-on-aliya sign for your marathon?” asked a friend when I invited her to come to the race finish earlier in the week.
As I hobbled through the deep mud of Gan Sacher toward that finish line, her “WELCOME HOME!” sign was one of the first things I saw.
It was a moment of relief, and of joy.
It took almost two minutes to slog through the mud of the last hundred meters, and the whole time I was staring at that “WELCOME HOME,” and at the rest of my friends who had come to cheer me on, thinking about Wednesday’s attack, and the fact that when you call Jerusalem home, nothing, not Walls, and not terror, can stop you from running.