Loping for Peace
Friday morning in Jerusalem is hard enough, in terms of logistics, without it being the Friday before a Saturday night Passover seder. Yet there I was, 7:45AM on Friday morning, standing at the Rachel’s Tomb junction, a.k.a., the Gilo 300 checkpoint that connects Bethlehem to Jerusalem, waiting for a group of Catholic pilgrims to come running by.
And by running, I mean running. At least, that’s what was promised by the organizers, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, the official Vatican tour operator; Ovunque Viaggi, an Italian sports tourism operator, and Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. Called the John Paul II Pilgrimage Peace Marathon, the run, (covering 8k from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity to Jerusalem’s Old City Walls), was initiated by the Vatican Office of Church and Sport. Though little-known in Israel, it is a very big deal in the Catholic world and the pilgrimage has grown by leaps and bounds (no pun intended) since its inception five years ago.
The word “pilgrimage” means “a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion”. Unlike the Italian group, I was merely a fellow traveler – a runner, in this case – joining along for a few hours for… what exactly? It would be inaccurate to say I was there to lend moral support, as their spirits were already enviably high. If I’d wanted a proper run, I could have signed up for the Rishon LeZion 10k, which was happening that same day. Was I looking for the contemplative experience that running sometimes is? No, because I didn’t have my MP3 player on me. So, in all honesty, I was there out of curiosity, for the sake of a good story to report, and – as it turned out – there to represent Jewish Israelis on a day when only the craziest of us would dare stray from the seder preparations that were at a fever pitch.
There are other reasons why I just had to be there. I am the daughter of a professor of theology, David Neiman, the first Rabbi to be tenured at a Catholic university and the first Jew to teach at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome – plus, I am slow but steady long-distance runner and a proud member of the Holyland Hash House Harriers (more about them another time). For purely crass reasons, I wanted a medallion from the race; material proof that I’d been there to show off to friends and family.
So there I was, together with about 14 other Israelis, including a few fellows whom I recognized from other running events: Michael (a veteran ultra-marathoner), Zalman (of Jerusalem’s HaSolelim Running Club), and Yaron (of Jerusalem’s Beit HaLohem and a fixture at every run in Israel). By the time the pilgrims showed up, carrying their torch aloft, the four of us were good buddies. After a quick rest stop and photo op – we were off.
The first thing we realized was that there would be little running done. The second thing we realized was that the Jerusalem municipality hadn’t closed off a lane on Hebron Road, which meant we had to follow in the wake of the bus the entire time, for protection. The third thing was that Jerusalem drivers – who are never good, even at the best of times – were not going to tolerate anything getting in their way on this Friday-before-Saturday-Passover. The Jerusalem police were also not pleased. We ended up run-walking the 8k distance to the Old City.
But the group’s spirit couldn’t be dampened and they ran-walked with vigor. I spoke with Father Kevin Lixey, who heads the Vatican Office of Church and Sport. He explained to me that as more and more non-running pilgrims joined the event, it became important to offer the real runners a proper venue for their sport, in addition to the Peace Marathon itself. This year, the runners participated in the Arad-Massada Half-Marathon – which took place 2 days earlier – and one of the pilgrims actually won. He also pointed out to me the more famous athletes in the group: Andrea Zorzi, an Olympic volleyball player and former member of the Italian men’s national volleyball team and 62 year-old marathoner Ulderico Lambertucci, on the last leg of a 6,000 km run from St. Peter’s Square in Rome that commenced on January 1st.
Lambertucci was visibly emotional at the awards ceremony at Notre Dame in Jerusalem. The run, he said, had been a long-sought goal for him. Understand, this is a man who’s in the Guinness Book of records for doing 46 marathons in one year – yet this little bitty 8k lope to Jerusalem was of special significance for him. He has turned his running into a tool of faith.
Did I get my medallion? Yes, I did (see picture – yay!). Did I get out of Jerusalem before the buses stopped running? Yes, I did. Would I do the Peace Marathon again? Yes, I would, and hope to see more Israeli and Palestinian participants next time around, to further the run’s message of peace, co-existence and interfaith dialogue.