“Next year in Jerusalem,” was the fervent wish of exiled Jews in Babylon who, 2,600 years ago, longed to return to their beloved homeland. And six years ago, when I ran the first Jerusalem Marathon, it became my wish too, and I’ve since returned to run in Israel twice more. I chose to do the half-marathon this year, which meant lining up just below the Knesset (parliament) with a field of 5,000 runners (36% of whom are women) at 6:45am. I’d vowed to run the entire way but, within minutes, when faced by the first major hill, I slowed to a walk and resolved to soak up the sights instead. I was fascinated by the unusual running attire I spotted – many women wore ankle-length skirts for modesty reasons, and most men sported skullcaps called kippas, indicating that they were observant Jews. I was also on the lookout for a group called Runners Without Borders, whom I’d been told would be wearing blue t-shirts. I’d met one of their coaches the day before and he’d explained how they hoped to break down barriers between Israel’s Arab and Jewish inhabitants by encouraging them to train and compete in races together.
After about 4K, I asked a fabulously stylish woman wearing red lipstick and funky-looking sunglasses whether I could interview her, and so began a most wonderful conversation that would last the rest of the race. It turned out Sara Eldor was a 60-year-old fashion designer from Montreal, who’d once lived in Tel Aviv. Having married her husband, Shlomo, in November, she was in Israel on her honeymoon and was running to raise funds for Shalva, a charity for children with special needs.
When we reached the steep road leading up to the Jaffa Gate, one of eight gates leading into into the Old City, Sara whooped with joy as she spotted Spiderman, Batman, Superman and the Incredible Hulk cheering the runners on. An impromptu photo session ensued, with Sara insisting that Spiderman run up the ramparts to prove his spideypowers and then dancing with him when he came back down. Eventually, we reluctantly dragged ourselves away and entered the Old City. Running through the narrow cobbled streets of the Armenian Quarter really did feel like stepping back 3,000 years in time. After a short while, we exited via the Zion Gate and descended past the graveyard where Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, is buried. Then we encountered some stiltwalkers who once again provided encouragement and a chance for Sara to do yet more dancing. “I make fun wherever I go!” she told me happily as we continued onwards.
Coffee to go
In the German Colony, a suburb of Jerusalem known for its laidback vibe and outdoor cafes, we decided it was time for a fortifying beverage. Disdaining sports drinks, we instead popped into a coffee shop wallpapered with covers from The New Yorker magazine before, lattes in hand, we trotted on.
Having reached the top of Mount Scopus, we were rewarded with one of the world’s most heavenly views: the gold-plated Dome of the Rock glinting in the spring sunshine and the serried rows of tombs on the Mount of Olives. Grabbing a few juicy Medjool dates, we doubled back on ourselves and all too soon we were back near where we’d started. Inspired by Sara, I did something that, in all the 162 races I’ve run so far, I’d never done before – I danced across the finish line.