When Jonathan Beverly ran his first marathon in Israel a few years back, he found surprises around every bend in the course.
The editor-in-chief of Running Times magazine and a veteran of courses all over the world, Beverly discovered that Israel’s International Ein Gedi Race — a half-marathon along the Dead Sea and up to the top of Masada — offered unexpected novelties.
He was startled by how hot and dry the terrain was, even in February; by the openness and diversity of the international crowd, a far cry from the insider culture of European club races; and most of all by “the scale,” noted Beverly. “It was so small, it was mind-boggling.
“You’re running through this barren wilderness that hasn’t changed since the days of Saul and David. The Dead Sea is on your left, the hills are on your right and then suddenly you’re at Masada and you see the fortress up ahead.”
Beverly was among a growing crowd of runners drawn to Israel’s unique history, spectacular natural settings and booming marathon culture. Marathon races have exploded in popularity here in the past several years, with the country hosting no fewer than five international events this winter between January and March.
The season kicked off on Jan. 10 with the 37th annual International Tiberias Marathon. The “lowest” full marathon in the world, at 650 feet below sea level, the Tiberias course winds through the Jordan Valley along the Sea of Galilee. A week later, Eilat played host to the Israman and Ironman Competition, ranked in the top 10 best long-distance triathlons in the world by Triathlete magazine; the Ein Gedi race followed in early February.
Still to come are the two marquee city events: the Tel Aviv Samsung Marathon on Feb. 28, with at least 30,000 runners expected in categories that include a kids’ mini-marathon; a half-marathon and a hand-cycle race and the Third Annual Jerusalem International Marathon on March 21, with three routes of varying lengths through a course that includes the Old City, Mount Zion and streets around the Mahane Yehuda shuk.
Both urban marathons will feature weeklong, citywide celebrations that include cultural and gastronomic events for the thousands who have traveled — some from as far as Korea, Russia, South America and Canada — to experience Israel in an immersive, collaborative environment.
The Jerusalem event, one of Israel’s newest, has a voluble champion in the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, himself an enthusiastic participant. “My goal, in spearheading this marathon, is to add sports as one further reason to choose to come to Jerusalem,” he said recently.
Haim Gutin, Israel’s commissioner for tourism for North and South America, pointed out that the booming popularity of marathons coincides with a steady increase in tourism to Israel overall, with 2013 seeing a new all-time high of more than 3.5 million visitors. “Along with this increase in tourist arrivals comes a growing awareness of Israel’s one-of-a-kind marathons, which allow for travelers to connect with and compete with locals while touring the diverse landscapes and historical sites by foot,” he noted.
In many ways, Israel’s combination of mild weather, compact size and geographical diversity make it ideal for those covering terrain on foot.
Gutin pointed out that Israel is blessed with an ideal climate for winter running, mild and temperate; the country boasts 300 sunny days per year, with average temperatures in the mid 60s.
“Athletes participating in the Jerusalem Marathon, for example, will run past thousands of years of historical sites, rolling hills and challenging upward climbs throughout the city in early March, when it’s too cold to compete in North America,” he explained.
If anything, the biggest weather challenge is likely to be heat — and the kind of bone-dry desert atmosphere that can leave athletes constantly thirsty. Last year, for example, Tel Aviv had to cancel the marathon course due to a heat wave. Given the range of activities, however, the event was still a success, with its 10K, 5K and other races deemed safe despite the soaring mercury.
Beverly noted that he and his fellow runners “had to moderate the pace” for the heat and dryness. He added that first-time Israel marathoners should arrive a few days early to settle in and adjust — not only to a different climate, he noted, but to novel foods and the inevitable jetlag. “You can fly to L.A. and do a race the next day, but for Israel, allow yourself more time,” he advised.
Perhaps Israel’s greatest allure is a landscape of unusual diversity — mountains, deserts and no fewer than four seas — within an astonishingly small footprint. First-time visitors like Beverly are typically struck by the radical changes in scenery along relatively short routes.
And that diversity is hardly limited to the natural landscape. Einat Torres, spokesperson for the Tel Aviv Samsung Marathon, pointed out that since Israel’s most dynamic metropolis is on the small side by U.S. or European standards, “the marathon track runner can really see the entire city,” he said. “The beach and boardwalk, main streets and boulevards, Jaffa’s old city and the port,” along with parks and other waterfront attractions, are all on the course.
Torres expects about 3,000 runners to participate in the full marathon alone, with overall registration up about 20 percent over last year. And while tourism is a large part of it, running is exploding in popularity among Israelis as well. “In Israel there is major growth in the running field in the past two to three years,” he said. “If we had a few hundred marathon runners 10 years ago, today there are about 4,000-5,000 runners in Israel who participate in one or more marathons a year.
Beverly noted that the Israeli running movement appears to be driven by a core group of young runners, in their 20s and 30s, who are entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan and enthusiastic. On the race, his fellow runners spanned the gamut from Ethiopians loping along, older runners jogging at a leisurely pace, and everyone in between.
As exciting as it was to sprint along the Dead Sea, however, Beverly said he was most moved by his daily morning runs through the streets of Jerusalem. He was surprised and delighted to find himself running alongside a reliable crowd of fellow devotees; the silent morning fraternity felt collegial and familiar, even as the sights, sounds and tastes were foreign.
“Israel is a hot spot for running,” Beverly said. “I think the international nature of Israel enhances that. It’s a way for people to get together, and you don’t need to have a place or a team. You just go run.” ◆