Those words were never truer than for the runners of the Inaugural Jerusalem Marathon held on March 25, 2011. Finishers in every marathon realize the perseverance it takes to not only train and complete the race but also to break through both the physical and mental “wall” of a marathon before the finish line is even in sight. The combination of this racecourse with its hills of biblical proportions and recent terror activity made for an even greater challenge to its participants.
Two days prior to the marathon, Jerusalem had its first deadly terror attack in many years. Runners were concerned this might cause the race to be canceled but Mayor Nir Barkat, a five-time veteran marathoner, had different ideas. He said “We will not be terrorized. We will continue living our lives and opening up Jerusalem for the benefit of the world to enjoy. There are no cancelations and our plans are on track.” “The real Jerusalem will be showcased in the marathon- a peaceful, happy and healthy city which is more beautiful than ever.”
Among the 10,000 runners that day was my friend Anna Koutchmar and myself. Anna (Herndon, VA) was running her first half marathon (13.1 miles) and I (Sterling, VA) was running my fifth marathon (26.2 miles). The marathon racecourse covered almost the entire city of Jerusalem and provided an opportunity to see many sites in a way most tourists will never be able to experience them. But these views came at a cost and the payment was the considerable number of hills you had to conquer to reach the finish line!
Jerusalem is the home to Christians, Jews and Muslims and is considered to be the most holy city in the world. Runners in the race were just as diverse as the city itself with a mix of many different languages, races and religions. Anna is originally from Jerusalem and is of the Jewish faith, while I grew up as a Christian in Kentucky. So between the two of us, we were a perfect example of the cosmopolitan flavor offered by the race. Many people commented on the challenge this course offered, while others discussed the spiritual experience they had. Mayor Barkat said “when you run a marathon in a city, that city enters your soul.” I can tell you that was definitely my experience. From the moment the pre-race music began playing I burst into tears because of the spiritual experience that had already begun in me a few days prior to the race.
So, what makes a person decide to go to another country to run a race of this nature? Well, let’s go back to December 2010 when Anna and I were complete strangers.
I had originally become familiar with the Jerusalem Marathon through Ashburn resident Elena Steinke. I met Elena about a year ago during a triathlon-related event and immediately became friends. She later invited me to join her in her homeland for Jerusalem's first full marathon and provided me with information about joining an amazing group called Team Shalva. As part of a commitment to Team Shalva, members would raise funds for Shalva – The Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel.
In 2009, I had raised funds for McLean Bible Church’s Jill’s House as part of my commitment to run the Marine Corps Marathon. Jill’s House is a home for special needs children in McLean, VA. It's a place where parents can bring their children to get a respite from the daily demands of caring for a child with special needs. Because I attend McLean Bible Church, Jill’s House holds a special place in my heart, and therefore the cause seemed like a great fit.
When I found out about Team Shalva, I mentioned it to several friends. Although one of my friends couldn’t attend the race, her good friend Anna was overwhelmed by the thought of racing in her hometown of Jerusalem and raising funds for such an amazing program like Shalva, which provides its services free to the children.
As part of our commitment to run the Jerusalem Marathon, Anna and I raised more than $7200 for Shalva. Knowing we were partnering with Shalva gave us the extra incentive to finish the race. Some of the children of Shalva will never be able to walk, let alone run, a race of this nature. What we came to find out over the course of time was that Israel’s Shalva had been the model for Jill’s House in McLean. It was a “small world” connection that helped keep us focused over the course of our training and the race itself.
Elena, who was born in Jerusalem, ran the half marathon with her husband, Rolf. As we all planned for the trip abroad, a very sweet story unfolded. I had initially introduced Elena and Anna to each other through email. Since they both grew up in Jerusalem they tried to determine what part of the city they had each lived as children. Within a matter of minutes they came to the quick realization that not only did they know each other as children but they used to run and play together on the streets of Jerusalem! Now they would get the opportunity to run in Jerusalem together again! And, even though they have lived about 10 minutes away from each other for years, their aunts, who live in Israel, have been friends for more than 40 years!
The night before the race, Team Shalva members were encouraged by the words of Rabbi Kalman Samuels (Founder and Director of Shalva) when he read from Isaiah 40:31: “…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” He also quoted from Zechariah 4:7 “What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground.” Level ground was not quite what we received on race day but we did complete the race of a lifetime.
Anna and I are thankful for the friendship we have formed through our race training and fundraising efforts for Shalva. We also want to send a special thank you to the citizens of Israel and our Team Shalva teammates who not only cheered us on during our race but who opened their hearts and homes to us while on our journey to the finish line.