Johannesburg - I discovered the joy of running in 2015. Who knew that heading out before the world wakes up – accompanied by the simple soundtrack of my feet pounding the road and my own breathing - could be so liberating And addictive?
A year later, and with a few race medals already around my neck, I found myself in occupied Palestine to cover the unveiling of a statue of Nelson Mandela in Ramallah. It was then that I had seen posters advertising the Palestine Marathon. “One day, I’ll run this one,” I promised myself almost seven years ago.
Since then, I have conquered the Cape Town Marathon three times and crossed the line at the Istanbul Marathon. I’ve taken on the half-marathon versions of the Two Oceans and Soweto and gone on to complete dozens of 21km routes in and around Johannesburg.
Like any runner, I’ve sometimes “hit a wall” under the sheer physical and emotional pressure of completing a race course. But while competing at the Palestine Marathon recently, I literally hit a Wall.
A portion of the Palestine Marathon is run alongside a Separation Wall erected by the Israeli authorities, which snakes deep into the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), gobbling up swathes of land and separating Palestinian villages and cities from each other. The Separation Wall was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice back in 2004, but it’s clearly still standing tall. As are the hundreds of military checkpoints dotted across the OPT.
Palestinians queue at these checkpoints daily, sometimes for hours. They present their ID cards – eerily similar to an apartheid-era dompas - to Israeli soldiers, hoping that they are permitted to leave their village to go to work, attend school, receive medical treatment and to just live their lives.
In fact, there isn’t a 42.2-kilometre stretch in occupied Palestine that is not interrupted by Israeli military checkpoints. To circumvent Israel’s restrictions on free movement, runners at the Palestine Marathon cover a 21km loop twice to complete a full marathon, according to international standards. That’s not the only thing that makes the Palestine Marathon route unique.
The race begins in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was born, and winds through two refugee camps (Aida and Dheisheh), then past checkpoints along the Israeli Wall. While the Two Oceans offers breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, the Palestine Marathon takes runners on a powerful journey through everyday Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.
As any runner knows, pain and fatigue leaves your body instantly at the finish line and is replaced by a post-run high filled with exhilaration. However, that familiar euphoria of completing a race was dampened by the conversations I had with young Palestinians along the route.
Like 15-year-old Jibraeel from the Al Azza Refugee Camp. “About two thousand people live in my camp just up here, and it is very small,” Jibraeel tells me, pointing towards the main checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The two cities are just seven kilometres apart but are a world away for many Palestinians who are denied permission by Israeli authorities to travel between the two holy cities.
I wonder, as I make my way through the crowd of runners and families who have gathered to participate in the 5 and 10-kilometre events, which begin later, whether Jibraeel would now go straight to his part-time job in the kitchen at Hotel Paradise in Bethlehem, where he works every day after school. “I help to prepare food in the kitchen,” he says. I immediately think of my 20-year-old daughter back home, in her second year at culinary school.
The Palestine Marathon has all the elements of a typical marathon that both delights and frustrates runners: roads closed to traffic with grumpy drivers expressing their unhappiness; volunteers lining the route offering runners water, dates, bananas, energy bars and lots of encouragement; photographers on the roadside - and in the way; field medics on alert; and, later, medals and selfies at the finish line.
When it comes down to it, the Palestine Marathon is like every other race I’ve run: left foot, right foot, repeat. However, the Marathon uses the simple act of running – an activity which so many of us find liberating – to highlight how Palestinian runners are forced to get their running fix in between hundreds of checkpoints manned by armed soldiers.
At the finish line in Manger Square, Bethlehem, the party is in full swing. There’s good food, strong coffee, music, dancing, and unprecedented hospitality and generosity from the Palestinian hosts.
Less than 500 people participated in the first Palestine Marathon in 2013. A decade later, that number has now grown to over 10,000, and almost half of all participants are female. Around a fifth of participants are foreign runners.
In 2017, the Palestine Marathon was approved as an international marathon by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), and in 2018, it was recognised by the Association for International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS).
So if you miss out on the London ballot, maybe try this one next year. Yalla!
Hasina Kathrada is a former SABC journalist and producer, and is now a media and communications consultant. She is an avid runner.