The Column: In Jerusalem race, no such thing as running on empty

Visiting Jerusalem is an amazing experience on its own. But imagine if the city closed a bunch of streets for you — including a few of the narrow ones in the Old City — and that you weren’t traversing them alone, but with thousands of others.

That’s exactly what happened to me on my last trip to the Holy Land, when I ran the 10K portion of the second annual Jerusalem Marathon in March. With an estimated 13,000 Israelis and 1,500 people from overseas participating in either the marathon, the half marathon or a 10K — and at least that many lining the route to cheer on the runners — the energy was intense. You can read more about it on pages 6a-8a.

I know that people have all kinds of different spiritual experiences in Jerusalem — and this was mine. Not only does the runner’s high come quickly there, but when you’re coaxing your legs up a steep hill toward the Old City, alongside thousands of others, a wave of spirituality washes over you.

The day turned out to be one of the great days of my life.

It started at my small hotel in the Rehavia neighborhood, where I was met by my second cousin, Fannie, whom I hadn’t seen since her very Reform bat mitzvah in Los Angeles 35 years ago. Now an Orthodox mother of seven, she was going to walk me to the starting line in Sacher Park.

Our half-mile stroll drew some bemused stares and giggles from payes-wearing kids — me in my shorts and racing shirt with lots of skin showing, and Fannie fully covered in a long black dress, long winter coat and black hat. Major regret: I didn’t have the chutzpah to suggest we have someone take our picture.

By the time Fannie deposited me at the starting line, the other races were under way. But all the energy seemed to be right there, as about 8,000 people had gathered for the 10K. Jews from all over the world enveloped one another; music blared while people stretched and struck up conversations; gaggles of young Israelis were dancing and whooping it up.

Strong winds, cold rain and temperatures in the 40s made for harsh conditions, but suddenly the sun broke through and the starting gun sounded. We moved forward as a mass. Past the government buildings. Up Bezalel Street. Orthodox women jogging in long skirts. Onto Jaffa Street, running directly on the streetcar tracks. Cheering spectators everywhere. IDF soldiers on guard.

“I was a couple of feet off the ground,” Art Liberman, 71, of Palo Alto told me a week after running the 10K (and finishing well ahead of me). “I had been to Jerusalem and seen the sites before, but with so many people sharing the experience and the excitement, and the spirit of the people in the city, it was hard to believe I was in the same place.”

Next, a steep climb to the Old City. Through Jaffa Gate into the Armenian Quarter, where it hailed briefly. The only hail during my run, exactly when I was in the Old City. Talk about a runner’s high!

I saw the sign marking 5K (3.1 miles) — the farthest I’d ever run before — but cold as I was, I was energized. I knew I’d be able to finish. And I did, even though the weather got worse, and (full disclosure) I did walk for about five minutes. But I was buoyed, as were others.

“Looking at all the historical sites and unbelievable scenery around me allowed me to take my mind off the grueling task at hand,” said 10K runner Zach Feinberg, 23, of Palo Alto.

After the race, which was on a Friday morning, I rested, visited the Mahane Yeduda market during the pre-Shabbat rush and then went to the Wall, followed by Shabbat dinner with Fannie’s family. All in all, a remarkable day, but the race was definitely the jewel.

“It was phenomenal,” agreed Laura Kent, 63, a Peninsula resident who ran the half marathon. “People were so overjoyed, and the fans were cheering you on, and because it’s so hilly, you’d be running up some historic street and seeing hundreds of people in front of you, winding past places we hear about all the time. And the camaraderie — just amazing. I think I’m going to do it again next year.”

Indeed, next year in Jerusalem … what a grand idea.

Andy Altman-Ohr
is the managing editor of j. Reach him at

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.