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Chasing Adam: On the Run in Israel

Columnist Adam Chase recently visited Israel as part of the Vibe Fitness Tour and shares how the run culture is growing within the country.

This is the fifth edition of “Chasing Adam,” a new column from longtime running writer Adam W. Chase aimed at telling thought-provoking stories from all corners of the running world.

On our whirlwind Vibe Fitness tour of Israel this past spring, four “fitness influencers” from Canada, Spain and the U.S. and I met some incredible Israelis who have helped to shape the running, fitness and nutrition landscape of the small but powerful nation. While I’m not worthy of the title of influencer, fortunately the tour organizer, Vibe Israel, decided to include me among their selected group.

Each of the individuals we met had their own impressive story and, like the delicious food we ate, seemingly eight times a day, they left us more than satiated; rather, our brains were full by midday and yet the feast continued until our heads felt overwhelmed. In many cases our meetings occurred while engaging in exhilarating activities, including yoga, running, hiking, mountain biking, walking, gym, spa, martial arts, fitness class, sailing, dancing and lots and lots of noshing.

The historic political pressure, ongoing conflicts and violence and, for all Israelis, two years for women or three years for men of military service have strong formative impacts and build thick skin, a defensive and even aggressive survival mechanism, and a perspective that comes from a rich history and deep spiritual influence. Which is why Israelis are called “Sabras,” the Hebrew word for Prickly Pear.

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One of our stops was at the Wingate Institute, outside of Tel Aviv, where Israel shapes its future Olympians and we met two medalists, Arik Zeevi, who taught us some basic judo, and windsurfer gold medal winner, Gal Fridman. The sport and education campus abuts a military training camp, complete with an obstacle course on which Israeli soldiers train and test. As a moving perspective of the Wingate Institute, we saw a modern art statue that stands as a stark reminder of the terrorist attacks at the Munich Olympics, where 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and eventually killed by Palestinian Liberation Organization at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. The block figure stands with an impressionist open mouth, screaming, “Why?”

The first few days of our tour were based in and around Jerusalem, including running the Jerusalem Marathon. During that part of the stay, we had the honor of meeting Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, a marathoner who saw the value of highlighting his city through an incredible marathon course that includes a small segment of the Old City and seems to find most every hill that Jerusalem has to offer. Race participants come from a very diverse number of countries and the event has grown over its six years to 26,000, including the full, half, 10K and 5K. Barkat is a sophisticated politician and businessman with a “can do, will do” attitude and he is adored by the city he leads. Don’t be surprised if he becomes Prime Minister before long.

The most scenic part of our tour was a breathtaking mountain bike ride through the Judean Desert at the edge of the Dead Sea. Gavin Canning and Harel Nahmani, who organize ultra-distance running races and the Gran Fondo Israel, guided us through landscape that conjured memories of US Southwestern scenery like Zion and Moab, except the colors were chalky white instead of pastel red. We capped off the ride with a soak in or, rather, on the Dead Sea and its mineral-rich waters that are sadly but rapidly shrinking and may hold a fate similar to many of the world’s glaciers. The Dead Sea, the lowest point in the world, features a small monument displaying a rock from Everest, honoring the world’s highest point and a kinship with Nepal.

A big highlight was our meeting at the Tel Aviv marina with a nonprofit called Etgarim, which uses the mode of sailing to help those with disabilities or troubles overcome those barriers through boating skills. Guy Oren, one of the group’s managers, took us out with Elad Rosenzweig, a member who has won many sailing competitions, despite his disabilities. We sailed while blindfolded to mimic the experience of the organization’s many vision-impaired members. I suffer motion sickness and wasn’t going to join the outing because the Mediterranean was particularly choppy that day but was too inspired to miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

Our group was afforded VIP treatment at every turn and it was as though we had backstage passes to the whole country. We felt safe but we were assured of that, given we were surrounded by people who, having served in the military, are trained in krav maga, a defensive hand-to-hand combat technique that is quick, effective and “not nice so we only use it as defense,” as explained to us by an Israeli Defense Force trainer who taught us some very basic techniques. One day we were also shadowed by a guard as extra precaution, given the recent spate of stabbings.

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Yair Lahav hosted us at the Nutrition Studies & Exercise Physiology in Tel Aviv, a high-tech clinic where he fully analyzes his patients to determine their ideal diet and work-out routine. Lahav uses sophisticated equipment and a state-of-the-art gym to help his patrons reach their ideal body composition. Equipment aside, Lahav’s most effective tool is probably a psychological one: he impresses upon his patients to ask the question, “What do you want versus what do you really want?” In other words, they must ask themselves if they want that extra serving of halva or do they want to look good naked. [My question, not Lahav’s.]

We also felt like we were given red carpet treatment because of the constant presence of Israeli fitness celebrities who joined us at every turn, including running the Jerusalem Half and at Liky’s Studio, a boutique gym where the training groups work hard but are often too beautiful to sweat or even schvitz. Rather, they glow. With a healthy diet of lots of fruit, nuts, vegetables and Mediterranean food—hummus is the staple—there isn’t much in the way of obesity in Israel.

On our final full-day in Israel we were interviewed by Israeli television by one of the most watched news shows. The reporter asked us repeatedly whether Vibe Israel was trying to swim upstream because our audience or, rather, much of the world, had already made up its mind about Israel. Wasn’t this a futile effort? I answered rather passionately that running is a universal language and that runners tend to be rather open minded people who tend not to prejudge.

As runners, yeah, sure we may draw conclusions about someone based on their stride length or cadence or whether they are wearing Vibram Five Fingers or Hokas but running is an inclusive sport that is a tight community that comes together in situations like the Boston Marathon terrorism. Vibe Fitness was a goodwill tour that helped a small group of us appreciate all that Sabras may require a tough venire but that the Israeli ruggedness protests one very hospitable, technology savvy and athletic inside.

Runners without Borders

It is often said that running is a universal language. A nonprofit in Israel, Runners without Borders, has put that to the test and, fortunately, had some real success in bridging one of the most historic gaps to plague humankind. This Jewish-Arab running group is made up of between 70-90 runners, mostly in their teens. The purpose is to provide a common pursuit that allows otherwise separate communities to bond.

Vibe Fitness, the group of fitness influencers invited to Israel by the non-profit, Vibe Israel, enjoyed a Sabbath dinner at the apartment of Israel Haas on the evening following the Jerusalem Marathon so we could learn about Runners without Borders. Most of the group had run the 5k or 10k that day.

Haas is a Jerusalem resident and runner who helped form the organization to serve as an olive branch between Arab and Israeli youth, their parents and other interested participants. The group uses the silent language of running to break down barriers and introduce a common theme to allow for friendlier and lasting relations.

According to Haas, “this is the first Arab-Jewish team to run and compete in the Jerusalem Marathon and I hope, although the situation in Israel is not so good right now, that next year we will have more mixed groups of Jews and Arabs, that will compete in the Jerusalem Marathon.”

The Arab runners come from the eastern section of Jerusalem, land that was captured by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967. That is the land that Palestinians want as the capital of their separate state. Arab residents of East Jerusalem attend different schools and rarely interact with residents of the rest of Jerusalem. To get Muslim, Jewish and Christian teens running together is unprecedented and required Runners without Borders to overcome deep-seeded political, cultural and especially religious barriers when dealing with conservative societies that typically do not allow teenage girls to run in public.

There are more Arab participants than Jews in Runners without Borders and the group is segregated by gender. Marad Jamall, who joined us for dinner, grew up in East Jerusalem and, as a swimmer, is campaigning under “Swim for Life” for more opportunities for Arab youth to swim, given that almost all the pools are in the western parts of the city.

The girls’ group was founded by a young Israeli runner, Shoshana Ben-David, in 2014. She was aware that she had no Arab friends despite the fact that they made up one third of Jerusalem population. The teens are coached by accomplished runners like Ruti Sindel Ochman, who broke bread with us at Haas’ apartment. Michael Spivak, who lends his help to Runners without Borders, also joined us for dinner. He is an ultrarunner who organizes group runs and promotes the sport with zeal.

Itzik Karacik, a member of Runners without Borders, observes, “It is important to me to understand that the Israeli and Arab average boy do not have the opportunity to meet boys from the other side, and of course we don’t have the chance to do a common activity with them. The lack of acquaintance lead eventually to ignorance and hatred and this is a reality we try to avoid in quite a success. Thus I hope that our team will increase and that more groups like this will evolve and will let the two sides to know each other”

Ochman the women’s group trainer, added, “The joint trainings of Arabs and Jews blurs all the borders between them. The challenge at the trainings strengthen the connection and create a common language without words.”

One example of progress made by Runners without Borders came last year when the Jerusalem Night Run, an event that attracts thousands, was scheduled to take place on the first night of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Disappointed that the timing would preclude most of the Muslim runners who observed the holiday, Runners without Borders organized their own race the week earlier and they were joined by about 70 people in a great show of solidarity, Jews and Arabs together.

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About The Author:

It’s actually easy to chase Adam W. Chase because, as a guy who just hit 50 and has run more than 150 marathons and ultra-distance races, he’s self-admittedly rather slow. Adam writes a little faster and also serves as President of the American Trail Running Association and works as a lawyer in Boulder, Colo. Adam was inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame on April 20.