Despite increased tension, Jerusalem Marathon attracts runners from around the globe

Marathon racers take their first steps during the sixth annual Jerusalem Marathon. Photo by Allison Deger

Marathon racers take their first steps during the sixth annual Jerusalem Marathon. Photo by Allison Deger

Minutes after runners from around the world kicked off the sixth annual Jerusalem Marathon on March 18 from Sacher Garden, next to Israel’s Knesset, the city’s mayor and architect of the racing course took a last peek at the starting line.

“If you love running, there’s nothing like a marathon, and I personally love running,” Mayor Nir Barkat, clad in shorts and a neon-green pullover, told the Journal.

“This time, I’m going to take a group of my army buddies with me. I’m going to be a tour guide while I run today,” added the avid distance runner, who is known to trail through the city he governs most mornings.

But while some of the city sites along the route, which leads runners inside the Jaffa Gate and through the Armenian Quarter, have been around for ages, one thing was decidedly new: beefed-up security.

Marathon organizers were well aware of the nearly 20 Palestinian attacks and attempted attacks on Israelis that have taken place in Jerusalem since October, when anxiety in Israel reached a peak. The March 18 marathon marked the first major international event in Jerusalem since tensions sparked.

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said 1,000 officers were dispatched throughout the city. A note on the marathon’s website warned, “Attention: no weapons are [allowed] in Sacher Garden area,” the starting point of the race.

Lydia Weitzman, foreign media adviser to the Ministry of Tourism, told the Journal extra efforts were made this year in particular to attract overseas participants. International travel to Israel has dropped slightly as of late, down 4 percent from last year.

Since the first year the race was held, in 2011, it attracted athletes from across the globe. This year was no different, with more than 25,000 participating. Of those, 2,600 hailed from 64 countries, with around 400 more international runners than last year.

“Today, the modern tourist understands that there is nowhere safe in the world,” Weitzman said.

Amir Halevi, director-general of Israel’s Tourism Ministry, said that sports tourism in general is less affected by geopolitical issues.

“A marathon runner who dreams of running through the streets of Jerusalem, steeped in history and culture, will not give up on his dream,” he said.

Indeed, come race day, most runners were unmoved by the recent bout of violence in Jerusalem, despite the loops along roads where multiple stabbing attacks were carried out.

“No, we’re not scared, but I don’t remember in previous years that [there] were so many soldiers, so I guess it means something,” said Mitushlach Brown, 20, a religious student from the United States who is attending seminary school in Kiryat Moshe and who was decked out in a rainbow tutu skirt.

Bringing an international race to Jerusalem was Barkat’s idea. He has completed four marathons and runs the half-marathon in Jerusalem every year. The route he designed goes from the seat of Israel’s parliament to the Hebrew University and toward the Old City, leading runners inside the Jaffa Gate and through the Armenian Quarter, and then along the southern and central parts of the city. The legs of the race have more hills and therefore are more exhausting, dipping through 2,300 feet of elevation.

At one time, the marathon caught ire from the Palestinian Authority, as part of its path weaves through sections of East Jerusalem, but the criticism has tempered over the past few years.

All of this year’s top-placing runners were from Kenya. Shadrack Kipkogey, 25, won the men’s race with a time of 2 hours, 16 minutes and 33 seconds, while the women’s record was set by Joan Jepchirchir Kigen, 38, who ran the course in 2 hours, 28 minutes and 30 seconds to beat her own time by seven seconds.

One of this year’s participants, Flora Frank, 72, power-walked down a slope early in the first leg of the competition with a plastic bag full of bananas dangling from her left hand.

“This will be — please God, if I get through it — my 33rd marathon,” she said.

Like many runners, Frank was raising funds for a cause. She had two: an English branch of World Emunah working on a special needs project, and Zaka, an Israeli emergency response organization.

“We’ve over 300,000 pounds so far, I’m not talking about dollars, I’m talking about sterling,” she said. (That’s the equivalent of more than $425,000.)

While huffing and puffing, runners catch views that extend to Jordan and include terrace gardens, high-rises and ancient stone walls.

Barry Sacher, 43, from South Africa was not sweating the steep scales. He trains in Beit

Shemesh, where he currently resides south of Jerusalem, also notable for its hills.

“Everybody says it’s the views, the culture, the history, the international feel,” he said of the race. “There’s something about it that stands out.”

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