Marathon effort sparks memories of Jerusalem

Running the Jerusalem Marathon last Friday was a wonderful experience. “What?” several friends exclaimed. “You’re 60, you’ve never done a full marathon, and you choose Jerusalem?” It’s true; the route isn’t exactly flat. It’s considered a tough run, with an ascent of around 600 metres. But it’s stunning, and nowhere in the world is there more history at every corner.

The atmosphere is marvellous. There are musicians, clowns on stilts, and runners from round the world. Families, children, shoppers, everyone has an encouraging word. “Keep going, kol hakavod!” Two thirds of the way along, I passed a group pushing a man in a wheelchair; uphill, downhill, together they ensured their friend would participate in every one of the 26 miles.

It was a cold day, thank goodness, and there was often a strong headwind. But I knew I had an even stronger wind behind me; the generous, loving support of my community, family and friends.

I ran for the Israel Guide Dog Centre. The day before the race, I chanced on a puppy wearing a blue waistcoat stating that he was out for training with his walker. She explained: “When my father’s friend became blind, his guide dog gave him back his life. Since then, our whole family’s been involved.”

I’m a patron of the British Friends. The organisation depends almost entirely on donations. So far, I’ve raised almost £7,000 and hope to make it up to £10,000. There’s a new sponsor-a-puppy scheme, an ideal bnei-mitzvah project. Everyone’s invited to visit the centre in Israel.

Jonathan Wittenberg running the Jerusalem Marathon

I can’t say the miles flew by. My legs did feel tired. Associations kept me going – the climb to Mount Scopus, past where my father’s uncle was killed in the ill-fated convoy in 1948. The loop round the Hebrew University, where my mother once taught; the ascent up the now disused railway that had brought my grandfather to the city in 1932. In Jerusalem, there’s nowhere without memory.

I don’t entirely know why it mattered so much to me to make this marathon. Last year I’d been injured and had weeks when it hurt even to walk. I had great coaches, including a fabulous physio and ChiRunning trainer.

I ran for my late friend David Cesarani. “You have to run a marathon,” he insisted. “I can’t, it’s beyond me,” I said. A week later, he died, suddenly, long before his time, and that became our final conversation. I ran, too, in memory of my father. He never asked me to do it and wasn’t himself a runner. But it was for the love of him.

The last mile was special. My son Mossy, who’d completed his marathon in three hours and 28 minutes, had come back to wait for me. “Abba!” I heard him call out, as he joined me for the final 100 metres.

I’ll never forget crossing that line at four hours and 32 minutes, with him next to me.

“I’ll never do that again,” I thought, but only for a few minutes. Now I can’t wait to do it again.

About the Author
Jonathan Wittenberg is Rabbi at New North Masorti London Synagogue