Race day started at 5am in the hotel lobby, eating hummus, pitta bread and bananas while some of the team mixed pots of instant porridge. The journey to the race had begun just over a year earlier when I came back from my first trip to Palestine with Amos Trust with my mind full of the injustice and oppression that we had seen, asking the question ‘how can this be allowed to happen?’ I think a common reaction to that kind of exposure is to want to do something, but at the same time to feel completely powerless. What can I do to effect change in a situation that is so complex and so entrenched?
Chris Rose who heads up Amos told us ‘do what you do, just do it better.’ One of the things I do is run and so here we were about to run a marathon in Bethlehem. In one sense it was just a race, but in another it was something quite significant. There was a palpable sense of excitement as people gathered in Manger Square ready to start, and lots of interaction finding out where people had come from and why they were there.
The race itself was hard and lonely in many ways. I’d been dreading hot sunshine, and the pouring rain favoured those of us who had trained through a cold, snowy winter. The course was well designed in terms of giving us a taste of Bethlehem with sections along the huge concrete wall, then through Aida Camp and under the symbolic key which is a tangible expression of the longing to return home. On the walls of the camp are murals that depict the villages that refugees come from, and running past them was a poignant reminder of the freedom I have to travel which is denied to so many who live there. But the course was also hilly, with an out-and-back loop that we had to run twice. Only 55 people finished the marathon according to the results, so for most of the time I was running on my own. I choose not to listen to music in races so I can be in the moment, but that does make the moment more painful to be in and I wonder if that was a bit self-defeating in this case.
The highlights of the route for me were the children. We ran past the UN schools on the edge of Deheishe refugee camp. There was a huge crowd of boys standing outside theirs and you could hear their cheers and whistles as you approached up the hill. The girls were harder to spot hanging out of the windows of their school, but still waving and shouting in support. Guides and Scouts were manning the many water stations and handing out fruit. With so few runners doing the full marathon, by the end they were competing to be the one to hand over a cup of water but they were out in the rain for hours. And then there were children waving from the windows of their houses, calling out our names which were written in Arabic on our shirts and smiling in delight when we waved back.
I still like to think that I have a sub-4 marathon in me, but I knew deep down that it wasn’t going to be this one when we drove along some of the route the day before. I did manage the first half in just under two hours but the hills defeated me and the second half was much slower with my final time 4:12:43. This will be the one marathon in my life where I get a top ten finish – I was seventh fastest woman overall but then there were only eight women who finished. Ali came third and it was brilliant to share her delight at being in the awards ceremony. Paul was first international finisher and only just outside the top three. Bob needs a special mention for flying overnight, arriving in Bethlehem half an hour before the race started and intentionally revelling in the whole experience, listening to Handel’s Messiah as he ran and gathering up children to run alongside him. All of us found it an incredible experience and I can honestly say that it was the happiest race I have ever run.
We had some tiny tastes of the discrimination and frustrations that Palestinians have to face every day. Sa’ad was detained at the airport on the way in because of his name. Bob had to stay an extra night in Tel Aviv because El Al refused to fly him home, even though they had flown him out there three days before. They needed to be reassured that his epilepsy was properly medicated and fortunately accepted a letter from his doctor instead of the hospital visit they had first requested. And of course we were only in Bethlehem because Gaza had been cancelled, because women running alongside men was too threatening and disruptive and needed to be stopped.
The thing I find most difficult about marathon running is the mental endurance it requires when the going gets tough. I think my body was well prepared this year – my last six long runs averaged 20 miles each and although I didn’t follow my training plan to the letter like I did for Brighton, I consistently put in the miles. It was my mind that let me down. I’m frustrated that I walked some of the route and didn’t keep running, and I wonder how I can develop that determination not to give in. So I’m in awe of the Palestinians we met who hold on to hope that things will change, and persistently work towards that day. Marwan, one of our guides, says ‘I know the first hundred years of my struggle will be hard.’ We met so many emotionally intelligent, resilient people who put up with daily humiliation and restrictions and yet who refuse to be either victims or enemies. I can’t help wondering what would happen if more people like them were involved in the peace process.
We went out to run a race and I think we all came back humbled to have met some great people, with our eyes opened to what is happening in the land called Holy. I’m not sure that we have changed anything but I know that running the Palestine Marathon has changed us.