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Tokyo 2020Hopes other female athletes will feel able to talk about it

Israel’s Olympic marathon runner had to pause her race due to menstrual cramps

Speaking about an uncomfortable topic ‘can open some people’s minds,’ says Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, a medal favorite who led race but ultimately finished 66th in Tokyo on Saturday

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Israel's Lonah Chemtai Salpeter competes in the women's marathon during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Sapporo on August 7, 2021. (Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)
Israel's Lonah Chemtai Salpeter competes in the women's marathon during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Sapporo on August 7, 2021. (Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

Israeli Olympic marathon runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter said she was forced to pause running at the Tokyo Games on Saturday due to intense menstrual cramps.

“Women — we struggle sometimes with this kind of situation,” she told Channel 12 news during an English-language interview that aired Monday evening. “Not every day is good for us because every month we receive this period and some ladies, they’re ok with it, and some are not good with it.”

Chemtai Salpeter — a native of Kenya who became an Israeli citizen in 2016 after meeting and marrying her Israeli husband, Dan Salpeter — was out at the front of the pack of runners for much of the women’s marathon on Saturday. But with just four kilometers left to go, she paused on the side of the track after experiencing severe pain. She ultimately returned to finish the race and came in 66th out of 88 runners.

Chemtai Salpeter, 32, said while the topic was somewhat uncomfortable, she felt a responsibility to speak out.

“This is our nature, so [some women], they don’t [feel] comfortable to say it,” she told Channel 12. “I also feel uncomfortable saying it, but I say it’s nature, I don’t have to hide anything [just] because the men cannot feel the way we feel.”

The marathon runner said she feels that if she is open about her experience, “it can open some people’s minds.” And in doing so, she said, perhaps other female athletes will feel more comfortable “to even tell their coaches what they’re feeling in their body — because our body composition as women is really challenging sometimes.”

(From L) Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei qnd USA’s Molly Seidel compete in the women’s marathon final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Sapporo on August 7, 2021. (Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

Chemtai Salpeter was a favorite to win a medal in Tokyo on Saturday. She won the Tokyo women’s marathon in March 2020, setting a new course record as well as a new Israeli national record. And she spent nearly three months getting used to the climate and the topography of Japan.

“It was a really great race, I was in great shape,” she said. “I didn’t really suffer because of the conditions — all my training I did with my coach, it was planned according to the conditions of Sapporo,” the city north of Tokyo where the race was held due to its slightly cooler temperatures.

Chemtai Salpeter said she knew ahead of Saturday’s race that her period would make things particularly difficult.

“I knew it would be my hard day, but… I say go there, try do whatever comes,” she said.

“I tried to fight,” she added, “but I could end up maybe eighth position.”

The Tokyo Olympics were intended as a redemption of sorts for Chemtai Salpeter, who also represented Israel at the 2016 Games in Rio. During that race, she had to stop before completion due to shoulder pain caused by running with the extra weight of breastmilk, as she was still breastfeeding her son at the time.

Shortly after the race ended on Saturday, Chemtai Salpeter was visibly emotional.

“I was really proud to represent Israel, I was going today to fight for any medal,” she told Israel’s Sports Channel. “I apologize that I didn’t win,” she added, before breaking down in tears and walking away from the interview.

On Monday, Chemtai Salpeter said she doesn’t live life with regrets, and was already looking ahead at what’s to come.

“I don’t have regrets, because I just take my life like a book,” she told Channel 12. “I already came from that page from yesterday, so I need to open another page to see what is going on in the future. If I look back, I will be mentally destroyed.”

Lonah Chemtai Salpeter with her son, Roy, on December 9, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The runner pointed out that the 2022 World Athletics Championships are less than a year away, and “there is another chance — 2024 in Paris.”

For now, she said, she is most looking forward to reuniting with her family in Israel.

“I have to rest, to calm down my mind, to have time with my family,” she said. “My son is waiting for me, because I was not in Israel for like three months.”

Above all, she said, she is proud to compete for the State of Israel, and is far from done doing so.

“I feel support from Israel, and I feel proud to hold the flag for Israel,” she said. “I let them down, and I promise next time will be something different.”

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