Reflections on the 200 km Mountain to Valley Trail Run
by Chaim Wizman
Most of you who are familiar with my writing style know that I employ the use of superlatives quite liberally. But even the most polysyllabic vocabulary would fail to accurately capture the flavor and spirit of the 200 km Har LaEmek trail run. I will therefore do my best so please bear with me if I begin to wax rhapsodic.
An Innovative Race Concept
I first heard about the race in October. The idea was to have a relay race covering 200 km of trails that would be run through the night. The organizers were a small group of friendly and not highly competitive runners from Yishuv Timrat in the Jezreel Valley who had run a similar race in Vermont the previous year and were so enthralled with what they has seen that felt that they had to bring it to Israel. The concept sounded so incredible that I signed up one team of four runners immediately even before anyone had committed to join me (I believe we were the very first team registered) and told the organizers that I hoped to bring a second team as well. The race director told me at the race that they had decided to schedule it on Thursday/Friday instead of Friday/Shabbat because they wanted our club to be able to participate. If you consider the fact that 660 runners (the vast majority of whom were clearly secular) participated in a Shomer Shabbat event largely as a result of our presence, I believe that we can justifiably call this a Kiddush Hashem by any measure.
Team Bet Shemesh
I had mentioned the race quite a few times over the year but nobody appeared to take me very seriously. Our training for Tiberias, then Jerusalem, and finally for Tel Aviv was so consuming, that most of the club saw a 200 km all night trail run as a whimsical, pie-in-the sky type of idea. The truth is, however, that I was dead serious about it. Offir and Rael were the first to take up the challenge and once they realized that I was serious, they both signed on immediately. Rich was also enthusiastic but he needed to make sure that he was fully recovered from the injury that kept him out of the Tel Aviv Marathon. Once he knew he was OK, Rich signed on with the same enthusiasm he brings to every event. At first, we struggled to put together a second team but we finally managed and Yitz, Ari, Dovid andYossi happily joined our confederacy of lunatics.
I never once considered running an A Team of our best four runners and a B team. We have plenty of time during the training season to let our competitive juices flow and this event was going to be all about adventure, friendship and camaraderie. I genuinely pity those runners who become so obsessed with improving their personal records that they sap all the joy from running. We therefore decided to run two parallel teams with each runner running alongside another runner of similar ability. Yitz was paired with Ari, Rich with Yossi, Offir with Dovid and Rael with me.
The race consisted of 24 sections, with each runner running every fourth section. Each runner would therefore run six sections for a total of between 42 and 58 kilometers depending on which sections you ran. You could not vary the order of the sections that the runner would run. For example, Yitz and Ari (who were Runner #1) had to run Sections 1, 5, 9, 13, 17, and 21 and nobody else could run those sections for them. What this means is that you every time you finished a run, you had roughly 2-2.5 hours before your next run.
As most of you know, I have spent years studying the marathon and have devised training programs based on sound scientific principles. The fundamentals about how to train for and run the marathon are well established and the amazing results that our club members produce year after year suggests that we are getting it right. But how the heck do you train for an event like this? The specificity of training principle states that you have to train in a manner which closely simulates your goal race. Well, the fact is that running 200 km of trail at night as a trial run was not practical. Therefore, on the Monday before race week, I scheduled three runs at 2 hour intervals for our eight runners. We did the first one (a 12 km) with the regular Monday night group at 8:30 PM, another 8 km at 11:30 PM and a third run of 8 km at 1:30 AM. I had also done an earlier run of 8 km at 6:30 PM for a total of four runs and 36 km. So how did it feel running so many times in one day? Well, let's face it. We may be in better shape than most teenagers but our bodies certainly do not recover as quickly and therefore we were definitely battling some serious stiffness for the first kilometer or two of each successive run. Then there is the issue of changing between runs. Do you stay in your sweaty and smelly clothes or change them, knowing you are going to be doing it again very soon. Some of us decided to bring six changes of clothing but none of us actually changed that often. What was somewhat surprising and encouraging, however, was that none of us felt unusually sore the day after our multiple run practice session.
Strategy and Logistics
One of the many things that distinguished this race from all others was the sheer volume of logistics. Even in a marathon, the biggest logistical problem is how to pin your gels onto your shorts. But this was an entirely different ballgame. In addition to running six times in one night, you had to get to 24 different places by car and have the next runners ready to go before the others came in. We had to have illuminated vests, head flashlights, multiple changes of clothes, many thousands of junk-food calories, aspirin, Vaseline, baby wipes and enough cosmetics to make sure that the car did not smell like a Refet (cowshed) after the morning milking.
Here's where having a man in uniform comes in handy. Lt. Col Dor ( now officially promoted to Brigadier General by his clubmates) flew into action. He produced folders with detailed driving instructions to each of the 24 sections and descriptions of each running section and programmed the GPS coordinates for each location into his car GPS. This preparation was to prove crucial. Our teams met at Offir's house two nights before the run to strategize and the excitement around the table was palpable.
The Big Day
The race started at Nimrod's Fortress in the Golan. The organizers had scheduled staggered start times based on projected finish times because they wanted the runners to finish within a few hours of each other. There were 6 teams of 2 runners (only two of these actually finished the race), 58 teams of 4 runners and 52 teams of 8 runners. We were given the latest possible start of 4:00 PM and only two other teams started at this time. This was an indication that most of Israel's accomplished runners felt that race was either too extreme or too dangerous and preferred not to risk injury.
Offir provided the transportation for Team 1 while Yossi provided the transportation for Team 2. We all met at my house at 9:30 on Thursday and headed North. By the time we stopped for lunch at a quaint little restaurant in Rosh Pinna it was hot as hell outside and we knew we were in for a challenge.
At around 2:45 we drove up the incredibly long and steep hill to Nimrod's Fortress that Ari and Yitz would soon run down. The atmosphere at the staging area was charged with excitement even though the vast majority of runners had left much earlier because of the staggered start times. The race organizers briefed us soberly about safety rules and made each of us sign a very formal looking waiver of liability.
They then assigned us team numbers 51 A-D (A was Runner 1, B was Runner 2) for Team 1 and 149 A-D for Team 2.
We were required to wear vests at all times and head flashlights and a flashing red light during the sections run at night. A yellow plastic bracelet would be passed from the runner finishing his section to the next runner who was beginning his next section.
After some pictures and good wishes, our race started at precisely 4:00 PM. The two other teams who shared our 4:00 start time were both dream teams and it became clear very early on in the game that we had little chance of beating them barring some mishap (which we fervently prayed for).
As soon as Ari and Yitz (who were our first runners) began running, we all hopped into the two cars and sped off to Station 1. We noticed that the hotshot runners from the other two teams were opening a big gap on our runners so we screamed at them to move their butts and not humiliate us. This first section was actually one of the only two sections where we drove on the same path as the runners. The vast majority of the course was on very rugged trail and the cars had to drive on the road to the trail exit.
When we arrived at Nimrod's Fortress, we noticed a huge plume of black smoke coming from the area of the Banias. As a result of this fire, the organizers cancelled Section 2 of the race which was supposed to be run by Yossi and Rich. After Ari and Yitz finished in an impressive time (especially considering the oppressive heat), we headed to Station 3 where Dovid and Offir would run their first section. Just before we arrived at the station, Offir's car overheated and refused to climb the hill. While Yossi drove Dovid and Offir to the station, we started frantically adding mineral water to the radiator and managed to get the temperature gauge to drop. At that point, we thought we were in serious trouble. We needed the car to get to 22 additional locations (a total of 300 km of driving) that night and without it, we were finished. There was also no way that we could have stuffed all of ourselves and our equipment into Yossi's car. As a result, we all became amateur mechanics that night. At every stop, we filled the radiator (sometimes with bottled water when there was no place to fill the Jerry Can) and kept a vigilant eye on the temperature gauge the way a NASA flight crew monitors its vital systems.
Pace Yourselves, Boys
I warned everyone before the race that it was not physically possible to run six races in one night and that everyone had better pace themselves and run moderately. Naturally, everyone (including myself) ignored this sage advice in the early going. Rael and I began our first section at 5:30 PM, a 9.2 km trail section along the bank of the Jordan River through Agmon Hachula. The section was flat (which turned out to be quite a novelty for our sections) but we had to battle powerful and hot wind gusts throughout. We finished with a 4:30/km pace and I told Rael that running that pace into the wind was probably not smart considering we had a sleepless night and 50 km ahead of us.
The Switching Stations
At the end of each stage, there was a switching station manned by volunteers from Yishuv Timrat. The finishing runner would check in with the station and that way they knew that nobody was stuck in the middle of a trail. Also, if a runner failed to check in at a particular station, they knew that he/she must be somewhere on the trail between the previous station he had checked in with and the next one. The people manning the station were the kind of salt of the earth people who made you realize why you fell in love with this country in the first place. Their warmth and encouragement was unbelievable. These were people from a small Yishuv in the North who, by sheer vision and determination, managed to stage the most ambitious, well-run event in the history of the country on a shoe string budget and without a major sponsor. When I told these volunteers how blown away I was by what they had accomplished, their response was uniformly, "You, runners, are the real heroes".
After our first run, Rael and I would run our next four sections in the dark. Neither of us had ever worn a head flashlight before and it's a good thing we adjusted to it quickly because without it, we were toast. Although the sky was supposed to have been illuminated by a full moon, we could not have seen a thing on the pitch black trails without the headlight which gave us a 3 meter field of view. The trails were rugged and rocky with many grooves. In theory, the odds of injury should have been astronomical and yet none of us fell once. The trails were marked with signs bearing stick lights so that they were visible at night. They were marked well but it was easy to get lost since there were many turns and some of the stick lights had begun to lose their luminescence. Fortunately, we did not get lost at night. That privilege would have to wait until the morning, but more on that later.
I thought I would change my clothes after each run but I wore the same ones for the first three sections. Our second section was a beautiful 9 km downhill trend toward the Kinneret and once we got used to the headlights, it was a fantastic, primal experience to run the trails at night. We did encounter a few curious bulls during our second section but I suppose that was more harmless than the swarming beehives we passed during our first section. Both events passed without mishap and we averaged a 4:28/km for our second run.
With nightfall came incredible humidity and all of us were sweating profusely after each section. The only thing that consumed more water than us that night was Offir's radiator. I ate Snickers, Twix, Doritos, a Mana Chama, bread and whatever else was not nailed to the ground. After the first three runs, I switched to water and pretzels because I started to have some stomach cramps.
I also thought that it might be possible to catch a few short naps but I was wrong. We were always on the move, navigating to the next station. Some of us managed to catch a few minutes of sleep here and there but personally, I did not sleep one minute. The driving part was as much fun as the running. Offir had a Yakov Shweki tape playing on his stereo and his song V'he She'amda became our theme song. We must have listened to it 60 times through the night and, as we drove from point to point, all of us were singing it off-key with incredible Kavana.
At the first nine stations, our two Bet Shemesh teams were literally in dead last place. This was because we had the latest start and the two teams we started with were both ahead of us. After we checked in, they would close the station and I'm sure the volunteers were looking at us with a mixture of pity and amusement. However, as we went from station to station, we noticed that there were more cars at each station. True, they would take off before we did but we knew we were gaining on them. Finally at Section 10, Rich and Yossi, running a brutally uphill section, passed two runners. Offir and Dovid passed a few more and then the hunt was on. In the pitch black night, all you could see on the trail was the flashing red lights worn by a runner in the distance. This was our inspiration. I would spot a runner and tell Rael. "There is our next victim". It became a sort of contest who could pass more runners during their sections. As we passed each runner, we wished him or her Hatzlacha and moved on. The friendliness of the runners was also phenomenal. Nobody resented being passed and everyone really was pulling for everyone else.
A thousand times during the night, our decision to run in pairs was reinforced. First of all, it was much safer that way. If anybody had gone down, it could have been quite a while before another runner came along. Secondly, this was the running adventure of a lifetime. Why would anyone want to experience it alone rather than have a buddy to share war stories with?
And experiences there were aplenty. Our third run was a 9 km hill which made Burma East look like a speed bump. The fact that we could not see the hill at night made it much easier psychologically. We managed a 5:04 pace on the hills and passed seven runners.
We started Run Number 4 at 1:22 AM. The course was 10.2 km of rolling terrain but the surface was so uneven and visibility was so bad that it was difficult to find a rhythm. Passing nine runners gave us a lot of motivation, however, and we finished this section with a 4:58 pace.
We knew from the map that our last two sections were going to be tough but we were in the home stretch now. Section 5 which we began at 4:10 AM from the old train Station at Bet Yehoshua, was, as advertised, a doozy. Rael and I were sure that Hashem was altering the terrain mid-run just to taunt us. We had agreed to say a Dvar Torah during each section and I must have said something blasphemous on this particular one because the hills were absolutely relentless. Still, we forged ahead and encouraged each other and somehow finished with a 5:17/km pace for the section. About 2 km before the end of our run, the sun rose and we switched off our headlights. After we arrived at the station, we davened and quite a few non-religious runners came by and asked me to put in a good word for them with the Big Guy which I dutifully did.
7:22 AM. Just one more run. Nothing stood between us and Nirvana other than 10.6 uphill kilometers. How hard could it possibly be? True, we had already run 47 kilometers on zero sleep and yes it was hot enough to fry Malawach on the trail, we already had one man down, two malfunctioning cars and the last Twix bar in my backpack did not look remotely appealing. As Dovid and Offir handed us the bracelets for the sixth time, we headed for the hills. The terrain wasted no time getting ugly. From the very start, we trudged up the steep hill with the grace of Arkansas mules. There were no other runners in sight and we soon found a nice rhythm despite the stifling heat. Rael asked if I did not mind skipping the Dvar Torah that section, apparently to conserve what little energy we had left. That would prove to be a costly error and the Almighty would soon exact His revenge. As we crested a steep hill 4.5 km into the trail, the trail signs, which had been spot on all night, suddenly disappeared. We circled stupidly for awhile trying to see where we had gone wrong and eventually we encountered several other runners who had also gotten lost at this exact point. It was hot and we had no water so we called the race director and asked him where the hell we were. He told us he would come and get us and I think he tried to but he never found us. We ran down the steep hill and then back up again (personally, I was shooting for an even 60 km anyway). We knew we had to cross under a road but we saw no such crossing. Finally, we waded through the thicket and crossed over the road and picked up the trail again. Our detour cost us 57 minutes but we never panicked or even got upset. We knew we would eventually get there and the experience was way too precious to be sullied by a solitary screw-up.
Once we were back on course, we encountered two menacing looking bulls who appeared unhappy about our intrusion. We walked slowly until we had passed a good distance from them and we would have hot-tailed it out of there if the terrain had not suddenly transformed itself into a ninety degree angle.
We comforted ourselves with the thought that the last 2 km into Yishuv Timrat was rumored to be downhill and it was but it turned out to be so rocky that it was at least as hard as running uphill. We came into the Yishuv and there were our teammates waiting for us. They had been extremely worried about us because we had been gone so much longer than they had expected and they were genuinely happy to see us (at least until they realized how much time our mistake had cost the team). We gathered together and ran the last few hundred meters to the finish line together.
The post-race gathering was, like every other aspect of the race, fabulous. We finished at the Yishuv pool (most of us went in) and the celebration and sense of accomplishment among the finishers were overwhelming. It had taken us 17 hours flat to traverse nearly a third of the country and our teamwork and efforts were rewarded with the 2nd and 3rd place trophies in the masters category.
Ironically, the fatigue did not compare to the fatigue of a marathon. Even though I had run 60 km, much of it on steep uphills, I was strangely limber afterwards. The exhilaration was indescribable and the close bond forged with my teammates was profound and I believe, enduring. In short, it was the running adventure of a lifetime…. the kind of adventure that makes you feel eighteen again and enables you realize how much vitality and exuberance you can have at any age if you stay fit and remain connected to the extraordinary people who make up this running club. I don't know whether I will ever have a greater running adventure than this one but I do know that this one will be tough to beat. I can only bless those of you who did not have the opportunity to participate with the Bracha that you, too, get to experience the beauty of this Land and its incomparable people in the same exquisite fashion that we just did.