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Big Brother, don’t tread on my running shoes!

The Health Ministry's decision to cancel the Tel Aviv full marathon was an ill-informed overreach of powers
Muscle cramps in Tiberias (photo courtesy of the author)
Muscle cramps in Tiberias (photo courtesy of the author)

After two years of running and months of dedicated training, runs in hot weather and cold, flat runs and grueling uphill climbs, I found myself this past January at the start line of the Tiberias Marathon. Nearly five hours later, battling muscle cramps that began in the 26th kilometer, I staggered across the finish line. I hadn’t achieved my time goal, but the disappointment faded giving way to the realization that I had accomplished something that was momentous irrespective of how long it took, something that less than one half of one percent of humans would ever achieve. An accomplishment that could never be taken away.

Fewer than half the runners, who complete a marathon will ever attempt a second one, and I didn’t want to be a one-and-done runner. I already had last Friday’s date circled on my calendar, and had worked out a training schedule with my coach. That is why it took a few hours for me to be able to discuss the cancelation of the Tel Aviv Marathon using words that don’t have to be converted to punctuation marks for a family-friendly website.

In the run up to last Friday’s Tel Aviv Marathon, forecasts were calling for unseasonably hot weather on race day. The Ministry of Health forced race organizers to postpone the full marathon one week, and hold the half marathon and 10K races earlier in the morning to avoid the heat.

During the half marathon, one runner died of heat stroke. In the wake of that runner’s tragic death, the Ministry of Health impaneled a board of inquiry to investigate the cause and devise ‘guidelines’ for future athletic events in Israel. And they canceled the full marathon altogether.

There many obvious flaws in this decision making process, but I’d like to focus on the more subtle ones, starting with the fact that, despite the characterizations, Friday’s run proved safer than previous marathons. Of 35,000 runners in the half marathon and 10K, one died and 80 were treated by the emergency medical services. 34,920 were completely unscathed. In fact, fewer people were treated by emergency services in 2013 than in 2012, when there were fewer runners and lower temperatures. The degree of risk associated with holding the marathon was reasonable.

Furthermore, the last participants who need protection were the those planning to run the full marathon. Risk factors are not uniform among all runners. One group of runners spent months training; meticulously logging scheduled runs, racking up hundreds of miles, learning about physiology and nutrition, learning how their bodies are supposed to feel on long runs, and even passing ‘the wall’ on several training runs. These runners had their race canceled, while the runners who have run a few miles and thought a 10K would be a fun challenge and the runners who enjoyed the Jerusalem 10K and figured they could probably pull-off 21.1 kilometers two weeks later were allowed to run.

Ultimately, the mandate of the Ministry of Health is to protect us from others, not to protect us from ourselves. It regulates pharmaceuticals to ensure that they are safe, and the food supply to prevent unsafe additives, because I cannot regulate those markets on my own.

In the State of Israel, it is legal to smoke (outside). I can binge drink without limitations (as long as I don’t drive afterward). It is legal to eat fast food ten meals per day, if I wish to kill myself with heart disease and diabetes. Cliff diving is a legal risk for a person to assume for themselves. Driving has similar risks and endangers others, and we are allowed to elect to take that risk. I can even increase my consumption of public health resources as long as I don’t endanger others.

But, if a runner devises a hot-weather strategy, and makes the decision to run, the Ministry of Health sees fit to protect those runners from making informed decisions. In canceling the race, they made it more dangerous for someone who chose to run by taking away the support staff, hydration, nutrition, and medical services.

A marathon participant endangers no one but himself.

By creating a panel of inquiry, the Ministry of Health not only reinforced the government’s role of intervention in our personal choices, but signaled strongly that no risk is acceptable.

Imagine you are the newly sworn in Minister of Health. On your first day of work you are required to make a decision on whether to cancel the event. A runner died in last Friday’s half marathon. A panel of inquiry is investigating the decision to allow the half marathon to take place. Hot temperatures are forecast for this week’s full marathon. What possible incentive do you have to NOT cancel the upcoming marathon?

The Ministry of Health inserted itself into a decision where it should not have had regulatory oversight, failed to understand the relevant physiology – or differentiate between different risk pools, superseded the judgment of individual runners with no underlying public health risk (in fact, no risk at all to anyone who had not signed up for precisely that risk), and compounded that series of errors by creating a culture of zero risk tolerance.

In doing so, they arbitrarily threw months of preparation and hard work of thousands of dedicated athletes into the garbage, without any public health benefit whatsoever.

Some runners, perhaps wisely sensing impending sabotage, ran an unofficial half marathon last Friday before running the official half marathon. Having trained for a full marathon, and being a sucker for medals, official times, and finish line pictures, I held out, along with many others.

Some will hold an ad hoc marathon in Park Hayarkon in place of the cancelled marathon, robbed of medals and official recognition of their hard work. A few will try to hop a flight to Europe. The commercial sports Website Shvoong (Hebrew), has stepped into the gap and planned a full marathon for Saturday, though it is limited to 600 runners and is not an alternative for Shabbat observers.

Still running (photo: courtesy Noah Roth)
Still running (photo: courtesy Noah Roth)

Others, like me, have already run a marathon, and will wait for next year and repeat their entire training regimen. If you’re on the streets between Bet Shemesh and Rehovot early tomorrow morning, that super-slow guy you see waddling by will be me. I have 33.7 Kilometers left on my goal of running 1,000 miles in the year culminating tomorrow.

Still worse, some of my friends were robbed altogether of their first chance to complete the most daring endeavor they’ve ever undertaken.

It’s a brave new world. Our lives are being arbitrarily managed by utopian bureaucrats who know what’s best for us and will protect us from ourselves.

About the Author
Noah Roth is husband, father, business owner, and marathoner, living in Bet Shemesh.