For Australian ultramarathon runner Pat Farmer, the Middle East is one big morass of misconceptions and misinformation. And he says he’s not the only one who thinks so.
Farmer, who regularly runs distances longer than a 42-kilometer marathon, plans to tell the world about ordinary people in the Middle East in an unusual way — he is going to run through several Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, with local people running alongside him and a camera crew in tow.
He’s calling it the Middle East Peace Run, and, as of now, it will have him running through Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel, starting May 1. Along the way, Farmer hopes to run through Beirut, Amman, the Negev Desert, the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv, the West Bank and Jerusalem’s old and new cities.
“I decided I’d like to show the positive side to these places,” said Farmer, 52, during a recent Skype interview. “When you see anything about the Middle East, including Israel, it’s nothing but violence, nothing but the problems and difficulties everyone’s having over there, which is completely contrary to what I’ve heard from my (Middle Eastern) friends.
“There’s a commonality between human beings all over the planet,” he added. “So I think if I can portray that, then I can get a message to people worldwide: We’re all human beings. We’re the same regardless of our geography.”
Farmer is a runner, so showcasing these countries through running made the most sense to him — but he doesn’t want to do it alone. He is inviting people in each country, no matter who they are, to run with him as he lopes through their countries, whether they’re comfortable running one kilometer or joining him for an entire day’s trek.
“When you’re a runner, it doesn’t matter what your origin is, your gender, or what your beliefs are,” he said. “We all feel very human when we’re pushing ourselves to our limit.”
The run will cost about $320,000; Farmer is overseeing the fundraising in Australia and has already raised the majority of the funds.
The sponsors include private donors as well as Sharon Davson, an Australian artist who, in honor of the run, will showcase an exhibit centered around peace in the Middle East. One Million Hands for a Peace Agreement and Budo for Peace, two Israeli organizations, are the major promoters of the run.
Danny Hakim, who recently met Farmer in Australia, is the founder and chairman of Budo for Peace, which uses sports to conquer cultural and political differences between historic rivals, such as Israelis and Palestinians.
“I’m a very big believer that sport is an agent for change,” Hakim said.
Hakim has been helping Farmer untangle some of the bureaucracy involved in his efforts to cross borders and run between some of the Middle Eastern countries. The runner has already met and negotiated with government officials from several countries, and plans have changed several times.
The peace run was initially intended to last about two weeks and cover about 1,300 kilometers. Farmer had hoped to run directly from Beirut to Jerusalem to start off the journey, but he’ll have to abandon that plan unless the Israeli government agrees to open the border to Lebanon. The border between Israel and Lebanon has been relatively quiet, but there are years of enmity between the two countries.
“He’s not giving up on Lebanon, which would have been an easy thing to do,” explained Hakim.
Farmer also hoped to include Egypt — the only country on the run he’d visited previously, with the Red Cross — but has set aside those plans for now, due to recent terror attacks in the country.
“I have been advised that, at this point in time, no one from the Egyptian government can guarantee the safety of those who run with me or my crew. And the Australian ambassador to Egypt has advised me to leave out this part of the journey for now,” Farmer announced. “I will run through there another time.”
The video crew accompanying Farmer on the Middle East Peace Run will not only send live feeds back to Australia, but will also be filming for a documentary that will outline the run and showcase tourist attractions in each of the countries Farmer runs through.
Farmer became a runner when he was 18, and saw marathon runners passing him as he worked as an auto mechanic. He decided that if these ordinary-looking people could run marathons… then so could he.
He has run all over the world, including around Australia and through Vietnam. Most notably, he covered more than 20,000 kilometers over the course of almost a year in 2011, setting foot in 14 countries on a run from the North Pole to the South Pole.
“The most powerful message out of all that was the fact that this world is not such a big place,” he claimed. “If one man can go from one end of the planet to the other on foot, in a relatively short time — about 10 months — this world is not such a big place after all.”
He used the Pole-to-Pole run to raise $100,000 for the Red Cross’s clean water efforts, and other runs were about competition, but the Middle East Peace Run will be different, he said.
“On this particular run, I’m not raising money,” he said. “It’s about raising awareness worldwide and also to create a sense of brotherhood among all the people I meet along the way. If you can touch people’s lives, walk or run a few miles with them, share a journey of their lives with them, I think that’s a blessing.”
Hakim plans to be one of the people running with Farmer.
“I feel it’s a historic event,” he said. “People said to Pat that it was impossible to run from the North Pole to the South Pole, but he did it. In Israel and the Middle East, people say it’s even more impossible to run from Beirut to Jerusalem. Think about that. It’s not that far, although we are worlds apart. I want to be part of bringing more unity to the Middle East.”
“He wants people to run for peace,” added Hakim. “It’s basically a Forrest Gump run for peace.”