So what has been the most difficult adjustment for me? Well, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m an avid runner and perhaps surprisingly, running in Israel has been the most difficult adjustment that I’ve had to make. Why? There are five main reasons: hills, air quality, the lack of soft surfaces to run on, dryness and running partners. Some of these elements are not specific to Israel or Jerusalem, but apply to running in any city. Even so, let me take a little time to explain each one of these reasons.
Let’s start with those that are more generic, so these would be the lack of soft surfaces and the air quality. Jerusalem is a city like no other that I’ve seen – you mostly forget you’re in a city because of the lack of sky scrapers and the small streets, the lack of traffic (compared to New York or Boston with which I’m most familiar), and all of the parks that are almost as prevalent as synagogues. On the other hand, there are really no large patches of soft surfaces to run on with the exception of Gan Sachar. What do I mean by soft surfaces? I generally mean grass or dirt and certainly NOT pavement. Why is this important? Well, it helps on the wear and tear of your muscles, but beyond this, running on these surfaces usually also coincides with running through forested areas, so it also means a mental break and escape to a more natural environment, one in which I can relax more and also not worry about getting hit by a car. When I mention this to people here, they often suggest that I run in Gan Sachar (Jerusalem’s equivalent of Central Park). Well, I have and I do, but it doesn’t take me long to cover the entire thing. If I really try, I can squeeze about 2 miles worth of running out of it (involving some retracing of my steps), but on an 8 mile run, this doesn’t cut it. The other suggestion I have heard is to run outside of the city. This is great, but I need to get there. We don’t have a car and I’m not going to ride the bus each way for 45 minutes to do a run on a regular basis. There are running groups that I know of that arrange rides for members to join them on Friday morning off road long runs, but these typically leave Jerusalem at 6:15 or at the latest 6:30 in the morning (recall that the typical work week is Sunday – Thursday for many people). Again, I could do that once or twice, but not a weekly basis. I want to sleep until 6:45 or 7 on Friday mornings.
Now on to air quality, which is especially a concern of mine since I have exercised induced asthma. As with most cities, Jerusalem’s air quality is not as good as what we had back in CT, but in general it’s not that bad. The difficulty comes only at certain times of the year as I will explain. First, at a certain point after the weather warms up, we have to deal with the threat of dust storms. These are mostly just annoying, but they do force us to close our windows and even after they’re over, the air quality definitely drops. Second, there are the holidays of Pesach, Yom Ha’atzmaut and Lag Ba’omer. How do these affect the air quality? On Pesach, in addition to not eating chametz (bread, crackers, cereal, basically almost any grain product unless it was prepared and cooked so quickly that the process of fermentation didn’t even have a chance to really start at all), we are also not supposed to own such products. We get rid of most of this stuff by eating our stores, we then sell the remainder to non-Jews. It is, however, from a religious standpoint (for reasons that are beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here) preferable to eliminate the chametz in our households without relying on this sale. This leads to the phenomenon of giant bonfires in several neighborhoods throughout Jerusalem in which people burn their remaining chametz. This would be tough for me if all they burned was wood and chametz, but people are really not careful with what they do and they take garbage bags full of chametz to these fires and just dump them on the fires, bag and all. Last year the rabbanut (Israel’s central rabbinical authority) issued specific injunctions against doing such things as burning plastic, but people still did it. Then, just as the air is recovering from this, three weeks later comes Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s independence day). Just as in the US, many many people barbeque on Yom Ha’atzmaut. On it’s own it wouldn’t be so bad, but on the heels of the bonfires, it definitely sets the air quality back a little. Finally, after another 12 days break, when things are finally getting back to normal, we have Lag Ba’omer. At some point I should probably write a blog post explaining Lag Ba’omer or maybe we’ve already done that. I’ll have to check. Anyway, in short, this really is national bonfire day. Again, just about every neighborhood has a giant bonfire, some more well supervised than others. In some places kids scour the streets for scrap wood and really just about anything they can get their hands on to burn. Thus my asthma acts up again for another 2 weeks. It’s pretty annoying.
Let’s talk about hills and dryness. Jerusalem is a city built on a series of hills on the edge of a desert. Hills are great for training, but it can be difficult on the body to continually run hills. It stresses your muscles and tendons in different ways. For example, if one is not used to running a lot of hills and then starts doing so, a common injury is achilles tendonitis. Last May, as I was finally getting into a nice training routine and trying to get in good shape, I wasn’t paying enough attention to how often my running routes were particularly hilly. In Jerusalem running up and down hills is almost a default, but you can choose more strenuous routes and less strenuous routes. As I was increasing my mileage and the intensity of my runs, I didn’t pay enough attention to making sure that my easy days were really easy. That means, running say three miles on a relatively flat route at a slow pace. Instead, I’d run three miles but even on these easy runs, I would have a significant hill or two. In short, I developed achilles tendonitis, which was really annoying because the recovery time from this injury is very long. It took about three months before I was running normally again.
What about the dryness? Most people usually prefer dry weather to humid weather. I’m the opposite. I find that I have to drink constantly and I’m still dehydrated. I hardly ever seem to be able to consume enough liquids. This has hurt me in a couple races that I’ve done because I haven’t been able to compensate for the rate at which my body uses liquids. For example, I ran one 10k where I had been drinking throughout and 1 km from the finish there was a water station. I was a little thirsty, but I also was trying to beat a certain time and I made a calculation that I was only a more than half a mile from the end and that based on past experience (from the US), I should still be able to finish strong without slowing down to pick up more water. Well, I was wrong. About 200 – 300 meters past the water station, I started cramping and slowing down and it was all I could do to finish. I wound up missing the time that I wanted by about 20 seconds. The year before, at the same race, I was in a similar position, but it was raining and colder, so the conditions were closer to those that I was used to in the US and I finished with a sprint.
Finally, before we left for Israel, I had the best running partner ever. He and I complimented each other perfectly. We were at a similar level of fitness with similar goals for our running and similar approaches and commitment to reaching those goals. Since moving to Israel, I’ve found several really nice people to run with but no one who really matches me quite so well. This means that I’ve had to rely more on myself to know when and how hard to push myself and when and how much to rest. It’s so much easier to get these things right when you have someone else with a high level of running/training knowledge to bounce ideas off of. It also helps to have this type of person who will help get you and keep you excited and focused on the big picture when the details of everyday ups and downs start to weigh you down. Anyway, I’ve learned to manage on my own again, but it’s not as fun. That’s why I’m so glad that he and his wife are in Israel for the last few months of our adventure.
Although running in Israel and specifically Jerusalem has been my toughest adjustment, this doesn’t mean that I hate it or that there aren’t good things about it. In fact, now that I’m aware of everything and know what I’m doing, I’m going to miss it (with the exception of running on city streets). This is one of the reasons that running the Jerusalem half marathon this year was such a fulfilling experience for me. It’s always special to run in one’s hometown race, but beyond this, during both the training and the race itself I was able to manage all of the different factors that I talked about and I didn’t struggle to the finish line. Moreover, not only is the Jerusalem half the most challenging half marathon that I’ve done, I also wound up running for an amazing organization called OneFamily. In short, OneFamily is a charity dedicated to helping victims of terror in Israel. Thus the Jerusalem half marathon was symbolic for me of how we have adjusted to and become a part of life in Israel. (To get a sense of the hilliness of the race see the profile at the bottom.)