A couple of weeks ago I ran in the Tel Aviv Marathon for the third time. My husband and I look forward to this event as our ‘big race’ of the year, and we always come home exhilarated from the experience. This year was basically a massive cluster@*$^ as our 21.1 km run turned into something else entirely.
The race route was changed from past years, forcing us to walk 5 km to the start line before even beginning the 21.1 km run (and then the same 5 km to walk back to our hotel). We missed our start time by half an hour. By the time we were 10 km into the race, the sun was beating down and the humidity was choking.
I was pissed off and suffering from the heat, cursing myself for ever starting to run when I saw a group of women across the median running in the opposite direction. They were a team of full-marathon runners, all with the tell-tale skirts and comprehensively tied bandanas that mark Orthodox Jewish woman athletes. They were at kilometer 30 with another 12.2 to go.
Seeing these women made me happy, and I shouted words of encouragement as we crossed paths: “Hopa! Dosiot ratzot! Kol ha kavod!” (basically: “Go for it, ladies! You guys rock!”). They smiled and gave me the thumbs up, and we clapped for each other.
As soon as I smiled at them and they smiled back, I felt a rush of adrenaline course through my body. My fingertips tingled and heat flushed across skin. I felt pumped, invigorated… I smiled for the next hour. After crossing the finish, I walked back to cheer on friends who were still running and find my husband. We crossed the finish line together, holding hands, both of us moved to tears.
This is the power of care. This is the power of kindness. In Hebrew we have a word: FIRGUN. Google translates this word as ‘a lot of encouragement’. Suffice to say there is no word for firgun in English. It means rejoicing in the happiness and success of others. It means being supportive. It means connecting to those around us with empathy and love and mutual respect.
I am not a scientist, but I know that something happened in my brain when I smiled and shouted words of encouragement at my fellow female runners. Some endorphins were released, sending neural synapses into a manic frenzy, and I got high. Seriously buzzed. The buzz only lasted until the aggravation of being stranded in post-apocalyptic Tel Aviv brought me down, shutting off my adrenaline drip and essentially turning my smile upside down.
This race taught me something. Despite running a personal best time and having a much needed night away with my husband, the thing that really left an impression was that moment when I smiled over the median. We were unified by a common purpose and shared experience. We had all been working for this day for months, and just being there was already a triumph.
40,000 runners from all across Israel ran in Tel Aviv. Every nationality, religion, ethnicity and political persuasion, sweating and smiling and running side by side. We cheered each other on, congratulated one another and traded war stories. I saw hundreds of people on the sidelines with banners and balloons and flowers. In the days that followed my FB feed was flooded with race pictures replete with many ‘likes’ and positive comments. The ethos of firgun, of encouragement and kindness, seemed to take over for a brief moment. And then it was gone in a tempest of politics and religion and gender.
So what if we tried to resuscitate firgun? What if rejoiced in the success of others? What if we tried a little solidarity instead of divisiveness? What if we tried a little empathy?
Maybe those valiant neural synapses would turn on the happy tap and we’d all ride the buzz. I’ll smile if you’ll smile back…lets make a #happylanche happen.