When a riot of neon-colored spandex pours through the narrow alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City, it means just one thing: it’s the Jerusalem marathon time of year again.
After six years of springtime races, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat is confident that the race helps Jerusalem present a different face to the world, an angle not defined by terror attacks or the security situation.
A runner himself, Barkat has participated in the half marathon each year, and regularly jogs a few times a week from his home in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood to his office at the municipality building.
The Times of Israel joined him on a morning run in February, to hear his future plans for Jerusalem as we pounded the pavement of the capital.
“The marathon is becoming a global event,” Barkat said as we passed through the quiet and leafy streets of Beit Hakerem.
From the beginning, one of Barkat’s criteria of success for the marathon was the number of international runners who participate. These runners pump an estimated NIS 10 million into the city’s economy, through more than 12,000 hotel stays booked for the marathon and other tourism endeavors.
“We have 2,400 runners coming from all over the world [this year]. It is a testimony that it is one of the country’s largest annual sporting events in Israel, and that it has become global and meaningful,” said Barkat.
Asked how the marathon builds community, Barkat replies: ‘I’ll tell you when we get to the top of the hill’
This is the largest number of international runners since the marathon began in 2011 (it previously existed in shorter form), a point Barkat likes to tout to prove that the current wave of terror has not affected the city’s tourism appeal. The runners, 25,000 in total, come from 62 countries around the world, including 160 from China.
Running with Barkat through Jerusalem is a strange experience: everyone recognizes him and cheers him on. Strangers snap photos as they drive by. Barkat fields phone calls from various sources, answering his phone even while huffing and puffing up Jerusalem’s hills, planning the day’s meetings. He does not, however, like to be interviewed during the uphills. “I’ll tell you when we get to the top of the hill,” he said, when I asked him about how the marathon builds community.
“We know through interviews and through what we hear in the global press that the Jerusalem marathon is one of the top spring marathons in the world,” said Barkat. In 2012, British Women’s Running Magazine named the Jerusalem 10K one of the top ten international spring races. A Runner’s World reporter called it “one of the most difficult urban marathons I’ve ever run.”
“My Garmin profile looked like an EKG: nothing flat, few straight sections and a total elevation gain/loss of around 2,300 feet,” wrote reporter Rachel Toor.
Fewer than 2,000 people attempt the full 42.2 kilometer (26.2 mile) course. The most popular course is the 10k (6.2 miles).
Barkat has run four marathons himself, two in Tiberias and one each in Paris and New York. His first marathon was an accident. In 2003, Barkat traveled to France with some buddies from his paratroopers reserve duty unit for the Paris marathon, promising to run the first 20 kilometers with them. On race day, he suddenly found himself at kilometer 30 with enough energy to finish. “Yeah, I just did it,” Barkat recalled, shrugging and laughing.
During his last marathon, in New York in 2009, as he crossed the finish line, he vowed to bring a similar event to Jerusalem. That dream came true with the first internationally sanctioned Jerusalem marathon in 2011.
The run is popular “because it entails both sports and beautiful sights,” said Barkat, as we traced part of the marathon route that winds past Hebrew University’s Givat Ram Campus. The full route also encompasses sweeping views of the Old City from the Mount Scopus campus and Talpiyot promenade, a jaunt through Arnona, and a punishing uphill on Kovshei Katamon Street at kilometer 39. The 10k course sticks to the center of the city, with a winding course through Rehavia and the Old City. Some activists and politicians criticized the race because it runs through East Jerusalem, though the controversy has died down in recent years.
Promoting Jerusalem through different lenses is part of Barkat’s plan to attract tourists interested in specific things. Events like the Formula One race through Jerusalem, and the annual Light Festival in the Old City, give people who love to travel an excuse to make Jerusalem their destination, Barkat believes.
And he doesn’t expect anything to dampen that enthusiasm, even with the current wave of terror, in which 29 Israelis and four foreign nationals have been killed in Palestinian terrorism and violence since October. Some 190 Palestinians have been killed, around two-thirds of them while attacking Israelis, and the rest during clashes with troops, according to the Israeli army.
“I don’t think it’s different from any other year, or any other global marathon,” said Barkat, who insisted that Jerusalem is safer than most major cities around the world. “Having marathons run in the heart of cities actually promotes the cities, it showcases major elements of the city, and I think it’s a very good thing,” he said. “There’s no difference between this year and past years and future years.”
Barkat is coy about whether he will soon be running from his home to Israel’s Knesset instead of the Jerusalem municipality. Barkat, who ran for mayor as part of the independent “Jerusalem Will Succeed” party that he founded, officially joined Likud in December. After this current term or an additional term, Barkat said, “I would be very happy to take my experience in Jerusalem to serve Israel on a national level.” His current term ends in 2018.
As for race suggestions for the runners?
Barkat’s strategy is to harness Jerusalem’s notorious hills to your advantage.
“Come, and take the uphills easy,” he said, as we crested a hill in Rehavia and started the descent to the municipality, a few minutes late for his early morning meetings. “Anyone who’s not a Jerusalemite and doesn’t know the uphills of the city, be careful. Take your foot off the gas for the uphills and make it up on the downhills. And make sure to train on hills, because you use different muscles.”
With that, he disappeared into the municipality building. There’s no time for a cool-down stretch when you have to begin another day of running the city.