Ready, set, go! (Just not on the light rail track)

‘Post’ reporter joins Mayor Nir Barkat for a training run before Jerusalem's first International Marathon which could change the city's image abroad.

Nir Barkat and Melanie Lidman 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Nir Barkat and Melanie Lidman 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There are two kinds of people Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat encounters on his morning jogs through Jerusalem: those who recognize him, and those who don’t.
The ones who recognize the mayor tend to harass him about the start date for the light rail. The ones who don’t recognize him – especially the security guards along the light rail – tend to yell at him for running along the track when it’s supposed to be free of pedestrians.
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“You have to turn around! You can’t run on here!” screams one guard, waving his arms and sprinting toward us as we run on the track across from the central bus station.
“It’s okay, he’s the mayor,” explains Barkat’s assistant and running partner, Yohay Asael.
The guards don’t believe him.
“He’s really the mayor?” the guard asks, incredulous that the head of the city is running to work at 7:30 in the morning.
As Jerusalem gears up for the city’s first International Marathon on March 25, there’s one runner who is more excited than most of the others.
Four-time marathoner Barkat has made it his personal mission over the past year and a half to bring the race to the capital, as part of his vision to turn the city into an international cultural destination.
Jerusalem will also be my first marathon, so I decided to join the mayor for one of his runs last week to hear his training tips – and understand more about how a simple foot race could change Jerusalem’s image abroad.
Barkat runs two or three days a week – usually from his home in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood to his office at Kikar Safra, which is about 5 kilometers.
Asael typically joins him, snapping pictures of broken sidewalks or other public hazards with his Blackberry to report to the municipality’s maintenance department. An SUV security vehicle follows behind.
Once a week, Barkat runs a longer distance, between 10 km. and 20 km.
Barkat himself will be running the half-marathon, as he says his schedule doesn’t permit the eight or more hours needed for training each week.
(There will also be a 10k and 5k race on race day.) “The marathon isn’t a race against something – marathons are for something,” Barkat says between heavy breaths as we make our way down Jaffa Road on Thursday morning.
“This marathon is sharing Jerusalem with people of the world. You see many people that run for a cause. Marathons are the best way to exploit something you feel deeply about,” he explains. “For me, it’s really putting Jerusalem on a pedestal and opening it up and showing it to people. It’s a great combination for people who want to do good for their body, their soul, run for a cause and enjoy a city.”
Barkat came into marathon-running accidentally eight years ago. He’d started running longer distances with the soldiers he knew from reserve duty, where he is the company commander in a paratroopers unit. He traveled with them to France for the Paris marathon, promising to run the first 20 km. with them. On race day, he suddenly found himself at kilometer 30 (out of the 42.195-km. race) with enough energy to finish.
He shrugs and laughs as he recounts his first marathon. “Yeah, I just did it,” he says.
Paris remains his best marathon, with a finishing time of four hours and 13 minutes. Since then, he’s run the Tiberias marathon twice, and a year and a half ago ran the New York marathon.
Upon crossing the finish line in New York, Barkat vowed to bring a similar race to Jerusalem.
More than 11,000 people are expected to take part in the races on March 25, slightly fewer than the 15,000 running various distances at the Tel Aviv Marathon on April 8.
But Barkat says the true test of the marathon’s success will be the number of people it attracts from outside of Israel.
Since this is the first year, he had hoped 300 international runners would join. Barkat was shocked when more than 1,000 signed up.
As he runs along the streets of the city where he’s lived for 51 years, Barkat says the marathon will help put Jerusalem on the map – and further his vision of making Jerusalem a city of culture.
“Jerusalem used to be very closed,” he says, as a light rail train passes us in the opposite direction. “We want Jerusalem to be not just a city of its residents, but a city of the world.”
“Nir Barkat! Nir Barkat!” calls out a passerby, as if the mayor is a movie star.
Barkat waves but doesn’t break his stride. We’re in the “zone,” and he’s got a meeting in 25 minutes.
Barkat declines to comment on an effort by Meretz city councillors to encourage Adidas to withdraw its sponsorship unless the route was changed to avoid entering east Jerusalem. The route was not changed, and an effort to encourage runners to boycott the race never materialized.
Aside from a huge marketing push – which included blanketing the country in billboards, dozens of announcements and a press conference on a platform hoisted 50 meters in the air – Barkat says the marathon committee also expended a huge effort on choosing the route.
“There were three points I wanted to include: going into and out of the Old City, viewing it from the south [the Sherover Promenade] and the north [Mount Scopus],” he said. “The route keeps you occupied. The beauty, the surprises we have on the run keep you alert and energized.”
The race will start at the Knesset, loop around to the Israel Museum, weave through major sites in the downtown area (including Kikar Safra), cross through the Mamilla Mall and enter the Old City, before it sweeps upward toward Rehavia, Beit Hanassi, Emek Refaim, the Sherover Promenade and the Arnona neighborhood.
From Arnona, the route doubles back to the Knesset and heads out to Mount Scopus, before returning to the finish line at Sacher Park.
Over coffee before we start running, when Barkat tells me that the race committee tried to make the route as “reasonable” as possible (with respect to uphills and downhills), I roll my eyes.
One of the longest ascents in the route is the uphill to Mount Scopus at kilometer 30 – the point in the race generally known as “hitting the wall,” when a runner’s body depletes its store of glycogen, or energy, and you basically want to crawl into a fetal position and give up.
When Barkat discusses the route, he’s prone to add adjectives like “minor” and “small” when describing the uphills.
“No problem,” he says about the uphill from the Sultan’s Pool, next to the Cinematheque, a part of the route that personally makes me want to cry each time I run it.
Finally he concedes my point.
“It’s a challenging marathon; it’s not the marathon to create your best score,” he allows. “It’s a marathon [where] you have to manage your pulse because of the ups and downs. You don’t run the same speed the whole marathon, you need to run slower on the uphills and faster on the downhills.
“You need to tactically plan the marathon,” he explains. “I want people to come back and say, ‘It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.’” Every major international marathon has its image. Berlin is for speed, Boston is for tradition, London is for size.
The mayor answers in a heartbeat when I ask him what the Jerusalem marathon’s international image will be.
“Jerusalem is for spirit and beauty,” he says as we wait for a traffic light to change near Kikar Zion.
“Not for the challenging hills?” I ask.
“Yes, I believe it is challenging, but that’s not the main point – because if we wanted to make a challenging marathon, we could do a harder one,” says Barkat.
I give a silent prayer of thanks that they didn’t try.
“It’s definitely the most spiritual, most beautiful marathon,” he says. “It’s hard to compete with.”
No one can argue that running in Jerusalem is, as the slogan for the marathon puts it, “breathtaking.” The history, the hills, the views, all combine to make this an unforgettable place to pound the pavement.
But how can a marathon really change a city? “When you do a marathon in a city... the city enters into your soul,” he says as we jog toward the municipality.
“You have tens of thousands of people running – you have hundreds of thousands of people cheering. With the cheering and the running together, you get the best out of the city they’re in.”
We arrive at the municipality exactly 30 minutes after we left the mayor’s house, just a few moments before 8 a.m. Barkat says he usually runs the route from his house to the office in 26 to 32 minutes, so I blame our slightly slower time on bad luck with the traffic lights.
Barkat doesn’t believe in stretching post-run, at least today. He has a meeting in 15 minutes and barely time to shower and grab breakfast beforehand.
Still, both of us have goofy runners’ grins on our faces as we take the elevator up to his office, feeling invincible with the high that comes from starting off your day with a brisk jog.
“There’s nothing like running in the morning,” Barkat says as he ducks into his office to start the day.
Melanie Lidman is running her first marathon to raise money for the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center. To sponsor her for a kilometer, visit