Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Jerusalem Marathon 2011 Experience

The Jerusalem Marathon 2011. The first full marathon hosted by Jerusalem.

I must say kudos to mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, a runner himself who ran the half-marathon, who decided he was going to upgrade the annual Jerusalem Half-Marathon to a full marathon, and actually pushed it through and made it happen. Along with Barkat, kudos to the organizers, the sponsors, the volunteers and the security forces for making, what must have been a nightmare of an event to plan into, a tremendously successful event that was efficient, organized, fun, and challenging.
me and my sis in the freezing cold pre-marathon preps

With the forecast calling for a cold and wet morning in Jerusalem, we lined up at the starting line ready to go, expecting a tough terrain and possibly bad weather. My sister came in from Chicago to run the marathon with me, adding an exciting dimension to the run.

Running Jerusalem was going to be an historic experience, albeit tremendously difficult. The hills of Jerusalem are unrelenting, as it says in Psalms "Jerusalem, the Mountains surround her", and this was sure to be a marathon that would present a serious challenge to even the best of runners, let alone to someone like me. While looking forward to it, I knew this was not going to be a run where I would even get close to running my normal pace.

Me, Vic, and David running through the Old City
With a tough hill right at the beginning of the run, we knew what we were up against, but not the magnitude. As we headed up and through downtown Jerusalem, the difference between running a marathon like Tiberias which is mostly outside of the city on the highway and one in Jerusalem which cuts right through many residential neighborhoods was clear - there were people watching and cheering us on, almost throughout the whole event.

Running through ancient Jerusalem, crossing through one part of the Old City, was timeless, as we went from the ultra-modern Jerusalem to the ancient, and back to the modern in a heartbeat. While it would have been nice to run past the Kotel and stop for a momentary prayer, we entered via Jaffa Gate and exited through Zion Gate, only crossing the Armenian Quarter, so it was not meant to be.

Crossing through some more neighborhoods and residential areas eventually led us to Emek Refaim street, which is a bustling neighborhood that was a lot of fun to run through, as everybody knew somebody that was out there watching. Music was playing, people were cheering, we were talking about catching a shwarma at our favorite restaurants, and it was a blast.

Mind you, despite the murderous hills, it was still a breeze. Running felt great. Eventually we made it out through Talpiot, and after a long climb, we headed across Derech Hebron Street. This was a long stretch, and it was here that I lost my rhythm. I am not even sure why. This road was mostly flat, maybe a slight uphill on the way out, but it was long and fairly unexciting. About halfway through the way out, I started to lose my pace. This would have been at about kilometer 18 or so. I fell back from my running partners, and was on my own from there on out. I made the loop, and on the way back I struggled more as we went back through the neighborhoods we had just run down, now we were running them back up. It was getting a little better, even with the hills, but my pace was adjusted downward. I was still going steady though.

On Palmach street I saw former, and possibly future, politician Aryeh Deri, and said his as I passed him. he gave me a smile and a wave and another distraction was finished. Coming out from Tcharnichovsky street was tough, as the full marathon route and the half marathon routes crossed paths and you had to pay attention to your route. Half-Marathoners had to go left towards the finish line, while Marathoners had to veer right to the continuation of the course. Passing the half-marathon finish line was invigorating, as I saw a number of people I know who were cheering on their family members, and their words of encouragement as I passed them gave me a boost.

The truth is that my sister had been complaining a lot about the marathon before the race, and as I passed the area of the half marathon finish line I suspect that she might quit when passing it. This was already a tougher run, even at only 26km, than anything she had run before, because of the hills, and I suspected she would give up. I was happy to see later that she was not a quitter and continued to be a masochist like the rest of us.

Passing the area of the finish line, with still about 15km to go was tough. We still had another section of the city to traverse. We ran some of the original route again, and headed out to what was sure to be the most difficult part of the race. We ran back up Betzalel street, which is almost like climbing a wall, back down King George and down Jaffa Road. This time we hooked around the Old City and headed up to Har HaTzofim - Mount Scopus. This was a ridiculously long and difficult climb uphill, and doing it at the 30km marker was just  nuts.

My only complaints were the finish line disaster, and the sign-age along the routes. While there were a lot fo signs, I did not notice most of the, The ones I did see, I noticed were hard to see, in placement, color and design, and there was a lot of text to see, as they gave different instructions and kilometer marks depending on which race you were running. There were plenty of stories of runners who made a wrong turn because of the bad sign-age.

Climbing another hill, after the Old City

I took advantage of the water, food and gel stations to walk a few dozen meters while eating and drinking giving my weary legs a slight break, and then continued on.Up, Up and further up. I saw friends running back down from Mount Scopus on the other side of the road, and they looked worn out. I knew this was going to be trouble. I made it up to the top fairly ok, albeit very slowly, and then the even more difficult part was upon me - running around Mount Scopus itself. I dont know why this was more difficult, but for me it was. There was still some more uphill, some sharp downhill, and then some slight climbs on the way around and out. I felt some knee pain, and ankle pain, and I think it was because of the ups and downs, though I was not sure. I decided to walk a bit to stretch it out, and it helped. After a few minutes of walking, I continued running and headed out of Mount Scopus. On my way out the 4:30 pacer passed me, and I thought he was either running faster than 4:30 because he had nobody in his group, or else I was on serious trouble. I had expected somewhere in the range of 4:15-4:20, and with the 4:30 pacer pulling away into the horizon, I had no idea how much off my pace I was. What really kept me going was the thought that how can I walk when they shut the roads for us - people on the side would say they had to shut the roads so this shmuck could walk around!

I felt some relief when I heard him call out from the distance that this hill we were about to run up was the last hill and then it would be downhill the rest of the way. I made th climb and then the downhill was some relief, but by then even the downhills were difficult. On the way back down I even saw somebody else in Vibram FiveFinger Bikila running shoes, but he was standing off to the side stretching. I saw my sister heading up on the other side of the road and I was so happy to see she had not quit and was still pushing on.

At this point I needed  a bathroom, but was now about 4 kilometers from the end, and decided I could wait rather than cross the street and use the lavatories and take what might be a fatal break.When I got to another serious uphill, coming back up around the Old City, I was ready to kill that pacer who had said there were no more hills. It is definitely a good thing he was nowhere in sight at that point. Somehow, at the approach to every subsequent hill I heard someone say this is it, just one more hill and then it is all downhill. I knew they were lying.

After passing the Old City walls, we ran down, and hooked around onto Agron Street. This was nice and gave a boost of energy. The last 10 kilometers or so had been mostly empty road with few people watching and cheering. People there were lined up on the streets cheering us on, clapping, playing music again, and it got invigorating. I was nearing the end and I could feel it in my bones. I had my second wind. The climb up Agron to Rehavia was difficult, but I was pushing.

I look pretty good for kilometer 40.
Especially because this was at 5km.
Just joking. It really was 40km.
About halfway up Agron, I noticed somebody coming from behind. At that point he started singing a song from Tehillim, a very appropriate song as we climbed this long hill at about 39km, singing Esa Aynai El HeHarim  - I lift my eyes up to the mountains. It was more like a chant than a song. I dont know where he got the energy, but this guy was singing, and he eventually passed me for a bit.At the intersection he joined up with a spectator and they ran the rest of the way holding hands - I dont know if she was his relative, girlfriend, or just an excited spectator, but it was fun and made the last 3 or 4 km more enjoyable.
Passing the Gilad Shalit protest/solidarity tent I took two ribbons and tied them around my arms. At the top of the hill now, it was time to finish strong. 2km to go, and it would be downhill most of the way. I started to fly, and quickly passed the joyous singing couple. I still listened to the singing, but from behind me now instead of ahead of me. I was going. It is amazing how slow I was running, and it still felt like I was flying.

41km. I could feel it. i was going to fly right through the finish line. I had it in me.

As I get down to the bottom of the hill, the course is suddenly diverted off the road. this was very disappointing, and I thought the last 700 meters were horrible/ After such an amazingly efficient event, they really messed up the finish stretch. It went from this big, smooth and clean road, to some little path, i think through the edge of the botanical gardens, towards Sacher Park. The path was cracked cement, and even worse was full of people walking around, cars driving, people walking dogs, riding bicycles, and it was just disappointing after having such nice wide routes until then. Then after popping through a tunnel, it dumped me out into the finish line. I saw a beautiful looking stretch sectioned off. I could see it was designed to provide every runner with the strong finish he wanted to experience and remember. Then I stepped onto the plush artificial turf, and nearly fell over.

The artificial turn on the finish line was covering a bog of mud. But they did not put a board down under the turf, so it was like running in mud without the getting dirty. You could not run. It was like going through the motions without going anywhere. And then I crossed the finish line. I had done it. 4:36 was my official time. I had conquered the Jerusalem Marathon!

While I sat there, in pain, with my wife waiting for my sister to finish her run and cross the finish line, I thought about walking out to find her and run the last bit with her and cross the line together. Then I stopped thinking about it, as I could hardly stand up, let alone walk. We got up to cheer her across the last 100 meters and over the finish line. She is a champion!


dj said...

Well done for finishing!

Anonymous said...

We will there on that day, and cheered many marathoners on! Congratulations on finishing the race!

SarainAkko said...

Thank you for detailing the marathon so well. I'm prepping for 2013 and while this isn't my first marathon, I am atarting to get a bit concerned about all those hills. Thanks again.

Rafi G. said...

best of luck Sara. The Jerusalem marathon is a fun experience and is exhilarating. yes it is tough, but you can do it!

I did not run it last year, but I know they altered the course a bit. i think they lessened the amount of hill running, though probably not by much.