Sunday, May 2, 2010

Marathon in the Sands

Had I not come on aliyah, I told myself at the start of what would prove to be the most incredible experience (so far!) of my training, I would be in Boston this week, running in the world's most prestigious marathon. Nearly a year ago, I had competed in my first marathon, running a Boston qualifying time fueled by the quixotic idea that my military service would still allow me to run Boston. My dreams have a strange way of coming full circle. While I did not make it to Boston, this week saw me complete my second--and almost third!-marathon. It was a marathon like no other, a 70 km (43.5 miles) masa down the beaches of Israel. Fourteen hours after starting the epic trek south of Haifa by Atlit, my unit raced across the beaches of Herzilya to the north of Tel Aviv. It was a night I will not soon forget.

The masa began with the legacy of Atlit. Boats buried in the sand offered additional reminders about the Holocaust survivors who sought refuge from Europe in pre-state Israel. Many of the immigrants were arrested by the British and interned at a detainee camp located at Atlit. Following a daring raid (led by Yitzhak Rabin!) by the Palmach underground movement, the camp at Atlit was closed and the detainees sent off to Cyprus. As I trekked over the sands, the sun sank into the sea, a burning sphere passing through pink and azure clouds into the endless waves. Framed by the tough green cliffs, I thought about what the scene must have looked like to those survivors, from their first image before their boats were interned to the last images they froze in their memory as the British sent them off to exile in Cyprus.

The trip along the beaches also reminded me of a scene and a tune from the film Chariots of Fire that never fails to inspire me. I hummed the tune for much of the night, a fitting tribute to a song that has accompanied me on long runs across the world.

Pretty sunsets and inspiring tunes had long since been replaced with painful blisters when the sun rose off the coast of Netanya. Twice during the night our commander had led us through the surf and into the water, soaking my feet in salt water and speeding up the painful blisters that accompanied me for the rest of the masa. The sorry state of my feet, the weight on my back, the distance times the masa was one of the most demanding physical experiences of my life, with a friend grabbing my hand to make sure I kept going. Other times a burst of strength saw me pushing other guys who had long since slipped into a Zombie-like stride across the shifting sands.

We arrived at the Herzilya beach with half my unit seemingly near complete physical and mental collapse. My commander looked us over and coolly ordered us to open the stretchers. Somehow I found myself nestled under the extra load. We started off at a light trot. And then all hell broke loose. With mad shouts and cries, dozens of veterans of the unit stormed down on us from the nearby cliffs. They were wearing fake mustaches, covered in Mickey Mouse ears and silly costumes. Jumping on our stretchers, throwing M&Ms in the air, and chanting songs like "chel avir, commando, chel avir!" (trust me, it has a rhythmic flavor in person), the vets revved us up into an adrenaline driven run down the beach. The few seniors out for a morning constitution did not know what to make of the riot, as we ran up and down the beach and finally right into the welcoming water. Exhausted, in pain and pleased beyond belief, most guys stripped down to their skivs and splashed around in the sea. I could only lie back on the sand in a daze, sinking my body into the substance that had carried me along the beaches of Israel through one unforgettable night.

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