Sometimes it is hard to describe what makes Israeli so unique. And sometimes it is easy.
Modern day Israel is fundamentally about two things: The people and the land. Last week I had an extraordinary opportunity to interact with both in a totally novel way. I was part of an eight-member relay team that competed in the “Har L’emek” – the Mountain to Valley 215km footrace from the shadow of Lebanon into the heart of northern Israel.
Running is anything but new to me, having run consistently for over 35-years and participated in hundreds of competitive events including marathons in eight cities on three continents. However, this was unlike anything I had done before in so many different ways. It was almost like Passover in its distinctiveness. Why was this night different? Instead of running alone, I was running as part of a team; instead of running in the morning, I was running at midnight; instead of running on urban sidewalks, I was running down mountains, and through forests and fields; instead of running once in a day, I would do three legs, on average 10 kilometers each, over a 14 hour window. And while we often remark at Israel’s small size, as I ran across it, for once I wasn’t wishing that the country was any bigger.
Driving up with my friend, neighbor, and now teammate, Jason Rosen, we were struck, as we have been a few times this year, with the incredible infrastructure development that has taken place just recently. Windy roads through small villages have been supplemented with fresh, wide highways that make the country feel as small as it actually is.
We arrived at the location designated by our ever-reliable Waze app, but it took a few minutes to figure out where to walk from the parking. We gravitated toward some music and found ourselves face-to-face with the bouncer at a nightclub from where young people decked out in heels came and went. This would not have looked out of place on a busy Tel Aviv corner, but here we were in an isolated mountain-top about a mile from the Lebanese border.
Ultimately we found the starting area, retrieved our racing materials, and I prepared for my first leg, to kick off right at midnight. Jason had a look at the map and observed that the finish line was further away than Damascus, the capital of Syria, in the midst of a brutal civil war.
Already many waves of runners had departed – on roughly 10-minute intervals – for several hours before. Altogether there were 900 teams competing – some, like ours, with eight competitors, some with six and some very game souls were in teams of just four. My starting cohort had about 25 runners, each one adorned with large reflecting vests, bright headlamps, and flashing LEDs across their backs. The race is specifically timed to coincide with the full moon, which provided great scenery reflecting off the landscape and across the valley below. But the headlamp was necessary to see the ground in front. And at midnight, the starting gun sounded and I was off.
My first instinct as we started was the unevenness of the footing, to which I quickly had to learn to adapt. Far from the urban sidewalks I am accustomed to running at dawn by myself, here I was with a pack of people at the strike of midnight, running through forests and meadows on an unfamiliar mountaintop. Nothing was normal. Ultimately the terrain became more suitable for gaining my stride, and I was able to move to the front of the pack of runners with whom I began. While that was fun, it also meant I had to focus very intensively on the reflective arrows, and occasional green LEDs in the distance, to make sure I did not make a wrong turn. A few times the LEDs glowed red instead of green, and it soon became clear that was to warn runners of “cattle guards” on the ground that the feet would not do well on if they showed up without warning. And this was a course that was anything but straight and intuitive.
As I got used to the situation, I marveled at the beautiful valley below, at the land itself, and the incongruity of the event in it all. Later in the 11 kilometers that were my first leg, the arrows led me parallel to a road, and eventually to a spot on the side of that road where the second leg was to begin. From the isolation of the mountain path, now I drew close to an oasis of headlights – on cars and on foreheads. And as I approached the checkpoint I heard Jason call out. I handed him the wristband that was our team’s baton, he handed me the keys to the car, and he disappeared in to the cool night. I was directed to two middle-aged volunteers behind laptops set-up on a folding table who recorded my arrival. Then I opened my phone to see the chatter amongst my team on “WhatsApp,” and directions from Jason on how to find the car.
I found the car, and punched up the Waze destination to the next checkpoint where I would pick-up Jason. This venue was on Kibbutz Shamir, and a field that one can imagine is generally tranquil at that hour became a buzz of cars coming and going, and women and men in running gear coming in from a run, or headed out to one. There I met, for the first time, Yossie and Guy who were the third and fourth runners on our team. Guy took the registration materials we had received at the start, and went off to his car. Yossie and I waited for Jason to appear from the dark in a hole in a fence, and with runners arriving with bright headlamps, we couldn’t know who was who until they reached our location. Meanwhile I had a chance to see some of our fellow participants. They came in all shapes and sizes. Men and women. Young and older. Secular and religious. In talking to some they came from every inch of Israel. And from every walk of life. But they were all passionate about the land, about the people, and about running. I felt a source of tremendous pride and privilege to get to be a part of it.
Jason sent a note on the “Whatsapp” while running to let us know he was a few minutes away – coming in a bit earlier than projected. Yossie stretched and got ready to take off. At last a runner popped through the fence and we saw it was Jason. He handed the wristband to Yossie who took off into the night. Jason then checked-in at the folding table. He told me of running past several platoons of IDF soldiers, performing night patrol exercises, marching straight ahead, paying no attention to the athletes with headlamps streaming by them. A few months earlier, Jason and I ran side-by-side in the half-marathon in Jerusalem, finishing in an hour and fifty minutes. Coincidentally, we realized that the sum of the first two legs was 21.1 kilometers – exactly a half-marathon distance. And our combined time was an hour and 48 minutes! We returned to the car to drive to a campground where we pitched a tent for a few hours of sleep.
Jason, still full of adrenaline from his run, had trouble falling asleep in the tent, but I was able to make the most of our three-hour break. When we awoke I reached for my phone to see that our team was keeping to the “model,” the sequence and timing that captain Noam Zeev had applied to a spreadsheet the prior week. Upon awakening I also learned an unrelated but personally important fact — that the Montreal Canadians had defeated Boston in game 7 of their series, and would face my New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
We quickly folded the tent, put all our gear into the back of our small rental car, and let Waze guide us down the 10 minute trip to our next checkpoint, on the edge of the Kinneret. After posing for a few pictures in the early-morning light, I got myself stretched and warmed-up, and grabbed the trusty wristband from Noam, the final runner on our team, to begin our second rotation. This leg was mostly easy and pleasurable — along flat terrain on the edge of the lake. Jason, driving alongside my route, was able to stop the car to take a picture of me running — and I, in turn, was able to get a video of him taking the picture via the “helmet cam” I decided to attach to my head in place of the headlamp.
After some slightly more challenging terrain coming up from lakeside, I was directed across a main road and into a field that I followed to the next checkpoint near a gas station. Once again, Jason took over, and I was able to grab some beverage from the gas station before driving on to the next stop.
There again I found Yossie, and he and I waited for Jason to arrive, which he promptly did. Now Jason and I had a few more hours to wait before our final legs were to begin. Noam and a few other team members found a picnic table, which sat in a patch of grass just above a penitentiary, and in this unlikely location we shared some breakfast and talked about the race. Jason and I put on tallis and t’fillin to say our morning prayers, and relaxed some more before making our way toward the next checkpoint. When we got there we learned that our team had a small setback due to a minor dehydration issue, and we had a little more time than expected. After the relatively mild temperatures overnight and early morning, now the hot sun was bearing down across the area. We followed the lead of a few other participants who drove straight across a large field to find the shade of the trees on the other side. We laid our some blankets, did a little reading and had a little rest — until we were awakened by the roar of F-16s practicing maneuvers overhead. Hammerstein had it right – F16s making lazy circles in the sky do not lend the same serenity as hawks.
Finally it was time to run again, and we drove the short distance to the checkpoint. Noam arrived as expected, and I grabbed the wristband. This was by a large margin the hardest of the legs. My body is accustomed to running three or four times a week – not three times in 14 hours. Plus in place of the cool night air, and the morning breeze was a hot early-afternoon sun beating down on me as I ran through open fields, still following the arrows, a task actually more difficult in daylight than when they reflect off the headlamp. It was also an unforgivingly hilly terrain – long, steep, poor-footing uphills, and even steeper downhills that were more challenging still. Many were the other obstacles – more cattle guards and fences we had to work our way around. Despite thousands of participants, the way the race was staggered, and its distance, meant that for much of the time it was more like running on ones’ own than as part of a race.
And contrary to the description supplied in the materials, my final leg ended with an impossible incline up a dirt trail which led to a statue of a man on a horse. Just beyond there, exhausted and spent-up, I found the checkpoint and Jason waiting to take the wristband. He nearly forgot to give me the car keys – but when he did he warned it was a long, steep walk down the hill to the car. And it was so.
I drove to the place where Jason would finish his day of running. When he came in and handed off to Yossie one last time, he too was totally spent. We stretched and rested for a brief while, took a picture, and then drove a bit closer to the finish line, and found a nearby café. In the garage of the building where the café was located, we were able to change our clothes and brush our teeth — another incongruous experience. Then we were able to setup our laptops, get some wine and some wifi, and reflect on the day’s events as we monitored our team’s progress on the smartphone application of the race, and the WhatsApp.
After a few hours there, darkness had once again set-in, and it was time to head to the finish line. There festivities were well underway, with live music, food of all sorts, bright lights and vendors. And as the final runners from each team trickled in, the rest of the team joined up to run the last 100 meters together. We did the same. We gathered together and got word that Noam was a few minutes out. As his headlamp rounded the bend toward the finish line, the seven of us who had already finished our running joined him to cross the line, get our medals and take team pictures together. It was a fantastic feeling.
This was a competitive event – and every member of the team felt a responsibility to pull his weight. However, amongst the teams there was no sense of winners and losers, just a feeling of being part of a great adventure together- kind of like the Zionist cause itself.
Soon after, Jason and I packed back into the car and began the journey home — substantially shorter than the previous night, thanks to the progress we had made partly by foot.
My running career began at the age of 9 in 1977. It was a result of my dad’s influence. He started running that year too — after losing his out-of-shape father to heart disease. Ironically, the evening and day of the race turned out to be my grandfather, Abe Granoff’s 37th yehrzeit.
A century ago Abe was a young man living near Kiev, alongside Czarist Russia, as the Great War began and set into motion several decades of unimaginable events. One wonders what he and his villagers would have made of his grandson freely running through the Land of Israel, across gorgeous countryside that is part of a thriving, secure, sovereign Jewish nation-state. As with much else this past year, running through moonlit fields of the Galil with such diverse and determined Israelis vividly brought home my good fortune to be a part of this moment in our people’s history
Michael Granoff is a principal at Maniv Energy Capital, which funds and advises early- stage energy and transportation companies. But that’s only the start, look him up elsewhere and you’ll get the picture.