Reporter's Notebook: Born to Run

‘Post’ reporter Melanie Lidman takes a run with Mayor Barkat to talk about running and life.

Melanie Lidman, Nir Barkat running 150 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Melanie Lidman, Nir Barkat running 150
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Long-distance running is not a glamorous sport. From the skin-tight spandex to the grimacing, painful look of determination characteristic of most athletes in the sport, runners never look as camera-ready as, say, golfers. Unless you’re running with the mayor. I’ve never felt like such a movie star, getting waves, hellos and friendly honks throughout the entire 5 kilometers from the mayor’s house in Beit Hakerem to his office in Safra Square.
Mayor Nir Barkat, the force behind the Jerusalem Marathon, now in its second year, runs to the office two or three days a week. I joined him last week, and between huffing and puffing up the hills of Rehavia, talked with the mayor about his passion for how a simple footrace could possibly change Jerusalem’s image abroad.
Last year, 10,000 runners fanned out across Jerusalem in a sea of neon yellow shirts for Jerusalem’s first 10k, half-marathon and marathon races. More than 1,000 international runners joined as well. For Barkat, the measuring stick of international participation is one of the most important. He points out, as we jog through leafy Beit Hakerem, that most major cities around the world host marathons.
Barkat, a four-time marathoner, isn’t trying to reach the upper echelons of marathons, a tradition-rich field led by Boston, New York, Berlin and London.
“My goal is to put Jerusalem on the short list of meaningful marathons in the world,” he explained. The marathon in the capital is for the amateur racer, who’s not aiming for a fast time – good luck on those hills, buddy – but wants a unique experience after running in the popular races.
“It brings, in my mind, a message of honor and respect to the city, normalcy, and makes Jerusalem more attractive,” Barkat said. “My goal is not only for the residents of Jerusalem, and even not only for the residents of Israel. It’s part of a larger theme that I’m working on making Jerusalem a destination for people around the world. I’m creating excuses for them to come and enjoy the city.”
Barkat emphasizes cultural events, including the upcoming Ice City, and summer concert series, and sporting events, as “hooks” to reel in visitors, giving them excuses to visit the city.
Granted, the city still has much to learn. Last year, a planning snafu at the end misdirected the top marathoners, who got lost and finished at the wrong place. Torrential rain days before the race turned the finish line into a soggy mess, from which the grass still hasn’t recovered. And no one can forget the emotional horror of Jerusalem’s first bus bombing in nearly seven years, which killed Mary Jane Gardener, from Scotland, and wounded 39, just two days before the marathon. But the fact that not a single person pulled out from the race after the bombing is testament to the joys and heartache of this city.
Barkat credited the route of the marathon for showcasing the city in the best light.
“The route really let people go through and see the city the heart of Jerusalem,” he said, as we ran on part of the marathon route near the Givat Ram campus. “It’s not a race that takes you to the outskirts of the city; it’s a race to the soul of the city. Everyone felt the route itself helped in creating a very spiritual race,” he said.
This year’s route starts in Sacher Park, takes runners up to Hebrew University, through downtown to the Old City, a jaunt down the Haas Promenade and a long stretch down Hebron Road almost to Bethlehem before circling back to Sacher Park.
But the marathon isn’t just about running, explained Barkat. It’s about creating community. Last year, dozens of initiatives sprung up around the race. Many organizations, including Chai Lifeline, fielded teams and raised hundreds of thousands of shekels for charity. The Eretz Hatzvi Yeshiva had 25 students, and two rabbis, running the 10k and half marathon. Hebrew University student Bar Pereg and friends founded a group at the university called “Someone to Run With,” after the popular David Grossman novel. They organize biweekly training runs and volunteer opportunities for runners to make presentations about the marathon to high school students. More than 200 runners joined their group, including some, such as myself, who aren’t actually students, but are looking for someone to run with.
“It gave people a sense of community, plugging into the city,” said Barkat as we found our rhythm and flew past the Knesset. “[Last year], I ran with a group of friends, army buddies, it was a real strong sense of community which is really good.”
It’s not just good on a community level – there are personal benefits as well.
“I feel a strong correlation between physical and mental state,” said Barkat. “When you invest in your physical body, it’s a discipline you have to maintain. It influences other elements of life and decision-making. It also helps maintain balance in life. You have to have balance between the important stuff in life – family, health, friends, community, [and] employment.”
But it’s not all smooth sailing. Many residents complain about the frequent road closures from the city’s new explosion of sporting events and races, including the Tour de Jerusalem bike race and the Jerusalem Night Run.
“We consider how to balance between the two,” said Barkat. “The upside, the value associated with having events in the city is extremely high; it’s a big contribution to quality of life in Jerusalem. It’s a message of health, a message of normalcy… it’s mental health we need to maintain for the city,” he said.
The Jerusalem Marathon also drew the ire of Tel Aviv, whose marathon is a mere two weeks later. In 2013, the marathons were scheduled to take place on the same day, with both cities bickering and claiming they reserved the date first. Eventually, Jerusalem backed off and moved their marathon two weeks earlier.
As we neared Safra Square, I asked Barkat if he had any suggestion for runners. He ran the half-marathon last year and plans to run it this year as well. “Run a smart race,” he said.
“Someone who knows the route knows to take their foot of the gas,” he said. “The challenge in Jerusalem, in my opinion, is to know to take off the gas on the uphills. If you have the discipline, the hills are not the bad. Don’t beat the hill, climb it.”
“Is that a metaphor for being the mayor?” I asked, as we slowed down in front of his building and started to stretch. Barkat’s first meeting of the day is in a few minutes, so there’s no time for a proper cooldown.
He laughed. Being the mayor is kind of like running a marathon, he agreed.
“You can sprint here and there, but it’s about the stamina.”