Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Jerusalem Is Much Harder to Run than Tel Aviv

My thigh muscles ache as I run up the cobblestoned ramp-like street leading to Jaffa Gate. I pass through the historic walls, breached for the visit of German Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898. I speed past the Citadel and down the narrow alleyways of the Armenian Quarter on my way to Zion Gate. I am running in the Old City of Jerusalem! I am running the Jerusalem Marathon’s 10-kilometer race and it isn’t easy!

I had challenged myself just three weeks before to run ten kilometers in the Tel Aviv Marathon. That was the first time I had ever run the distance in a real race. I have run 10 kilometers on a treadmill and on occasion I have made early morning 10-kilometer runs from my home in Moshav Neve Ilan to the entrance of the Arab village of Abu Gosh and back, but Tel Aviv was the first time I had ever competed with others.

‘Competed’ is not really the appropriate word as my main goal was to complete the distance. That said, I finished the Tel Aviv course in a respectable time – 62 minutes. Jerusalem, I knew, would be much harder. Jerusalem is hilly. Jerusalem is colder. Did I mention that Jerusalem is hilly? My goal, again, is to make it to the finish line.

It had rained the day before and heavy downpours were predicted for the following day, but Friday morning dawns just partially cloudy. And cold. I join some 40,000 other runners participating in the various races. There are marathoners from overseas and families running together in a one-kilometer fun race. I take my place for the third start of the 10-kilometers. And then the race begins.

The early stretches are slow going as everyone is bunched together. It is exciting to see others running for charitable causes, to see fathers racing while pushing baby strollers, to see people accompanying blind runners. This is not a competition, I realize, but simply a very fun thing to do. Fun, but challenging. I am enjoying myself.

And then Bezalel Street, the first uphill part of the run. People slow down. People start walking. I keep on running, putting one foot in front of the other as I make my way up the street, but I need to steer clear of the walkers. Avoiding these human obstacles isn’t easy as my muscles take the incline.

Things get easier as we turn onto King George and then race down Jaffa Road. Here the street is wide, marked in the middle by the tracks of the light rail train. We are cheered onwards by people on the sidewalks. Elderly pedestrians carrying shopping bags and ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students ignore us. A few brave citizens dart across the street between the runners. A band plays uplifting music in Zion Square. Teenagers hand out bottles of mineral water and then, before we know it, we face the Old City walls.

Running through the Old City is the most memorable part of the run, but also the slowest. Participants walking the course nearly block the narrow alleyways of the Armenian Quarter and it is hard to pass by them and keep up my pace. A sharp turn at Zion Gate and we are again outside the walls, cheered on by a group of Japanese tourists. Around historic Mt. Zion and down into the valley. And then another steep ascent.

My legs ache but my breathing is regular. I can do this, I tell myself. I keep running, pushing ahead with a renewed burst of energy. I pass the Jerusalem Cinematheque and then I reach the top.

At the First Station, Jerusalem’s original train station, I spot runners going in the opposite direction. These are participants in the half marathon, a distance far beyond the capabilities of my body. Ten kilometers I can do. Just a few more kilometers more and I will complete the course.

Jabotinsky Street – another steep climb. My muscles cry out, almost begging me to stop, or at least slow down. But I keep going. At the crest of the hill, we turn down a narrow side street and then begin the descent on Derech Aza in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood.

As I make my way downhill, I near a group of older men running together as a bunch. I can pass them easily, I see, but then I notice they are accompanying someone I recognize.

Nir Barkat! The former mayor of Jerusalem and now a candidate on the Likud’s list for the Knesset in the upcoming elections. I shake his hand and he wishes me luck. I pass by him on his right (although it would have been more fitting, from an ideological perspective, if I had passed by him on his left), and keep speeding downhill.

Ben Tzvi Boulevard and the final stretch. We are going uphill again? As we’re almost at the end of the race, I try to pick up my pace but it’s impossible because other runners are in the way. And then the finish line is in sight. I cross the line, slow to a stop. My unofficial time is 66 minutes. That’s 4 minutes slower than my run three weeks before, but then, Jerusalem is much harder to run than Tel Aviv. I catch my breath and smile. I did it!