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Running ancient crossroads

Most people visit Israel to see its inspiring holy sites and magnificent archaeological remains. For runners, this ancient crossroads also has much to offer as the Holyland is blessed with some great running options.

In a country where fried chicken shnitzel with french fries remains a staple and the national food is deep-fried ground chickpeas, known as falafel, fitness is fast catching on. Mountain biking is quite popular, and so is walking, but a male runner wearing tights is still bound to get strange looks. Nevertheless, several times each week I suit up in lycra tights, t-shirt and bandana and head out to pound the pavement.

One of my favorite running spots is Israel's Dead Sea resort. Known for relaxation and indulgence at hotel smorgasbords rather than exercise, the Dead Sea offers an absolutely gorgeous - albeit short - running route. The three kilometer-long promenade from the Ein Bokek hotel complex to Neve Zohar runs along the coast on a flat, packed dirt path lined with trees, shrubbery and plants. Salt formations in and along the water - the saltiest and most mineral-rich body of water in the world, add to the surroundings, making for a unique running environment.

For me, the vacation begins with the drive down to the Dead Sea. After the 45-minute trip from the commercial center of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem's outskirts, there is a turnoff to the road leading from the capital down to the Dead Sea. The geography changes, and soon you are alone with the desert, save for the occasional Bedouin nomads' tents. Road markers along the way delineate where you are in relation to sea level on your way to the lowest point on earth. When you reach the bottom of the long descent, hang a right and simply follow the road for what I find to be a beautiful and relaxing drive between the mountains and the sea. It offers the feeling of wide-open space in this small, often crowded Country where most of the population lives in the densely populated coastal plain. Even if you have a lousy sense of direction like me, you can't get lost here.

Once you have settled in at your Dead Sea accommodations, go for a run just before sunset and you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the pink Jordanian mountains reflecting off the still blue waters of the Dead Sea, as the sun dips behind the mountains on the Israeli side. Do not count on any hill work or downhill stretches - at 1200 feet below sea level, it doesn’t get any more downhill than this.

You can extend the run beyond its six kilometers (round trip) by starting at Ein Bokek's Meridien David hotel at the northernmost extreme, heading south on the paved road past hotels, a small park and mini malls, and finally onto the path, across from the Caesar hotel. One of Israel's national health maintenance organizations erected signs (in Hebrew only) here, the official starting point for what is meant as a walking path, and along the route, extolling the virtues of such exercise, like losing weight and improved blood circulation. Signs at the starting/ending point offer recommended before and after stretches.

Following your run, you can go for a relaxing dip, or more accurately - a float, in the Dead Sea's therapeutic waters, whose unparalleled buoyancy causes all who enter to float. The Dead Sea's black mud, renowned for its cosmetic properties, is abundant; people can be seen on the beach covered with mud from head to toe. And most hotels feature spas fed by thermo-mineral springs.

For cross training in the area, you can visit Masada, the mountaintop fortress where Jewish rebels held out against Roman legions, and where today some units of the Israel Defense Forces hold their swearing-in ceremony after cruising up the ancient winding footpath known as "the snake path". No matter how good shape you think you are in, if you take the Snake path you are likely to be huffing and puffing from climbing back up to sea level, unless you opt for the cable car! Either way, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view from the top; many people make the climb before dawn in order to watch the sunrise from this unique vantage.

Other nearby hiking options include Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, a lush desert oasis where fresh spring waters bring greenery and wildlife to the stark desert terrain; the mountain of Sodom, the wicked Biblical city that God destroyed with fire and brimstone and turned into a massive pile of salt; or the trails at Ein Bokek, just across the highway from the main hotel complex.

For race fans, the area features an annual half marathon known as the "Run for Peace" from Ein Gedi to Masada and back, as well as 10 kilometer and other shorter options. The Israeli race calendar can keep a runner busy. Many cities now offer full marathons, with options to run 2K, 5K, 10K and 21.1K segments. As in the United States, once you participate in one race, you learn about other events to come. The difference with the Israeli races and those in the States is that a 10 kilometer race actually has kilometer time breakdowns. Other than race day, don't look for much camaraderie; my greetings to other runners are mostly ignored or met with blank looks.

I regularly go for runs in Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park. A relaxed urban park along both banks of the Yarkon River, Yarkon Park attracts more than its fair share of picnickers and people on blankets reading by the river - all enjoying this slice of nature in Israel's largest city. Beginning by the river's outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, this part of the park is almost entirely flat, with brick, pavement or packed dirt paths with occasional palm and other trees, but not so much shade, although not even the trees can help runners escape Tel Aviv's summer humidity. That said, summer runs are best done early in the morning or in the evening. In the winter, take advantage of Israel's moderate weather for sun-filled afternoon runs.

On a weekend, the park is usually crowded with young families with baby strollers, barbequers, roller bladers, bikes and runners. By venturing further into the park along the river's northern bank, on sections of what is part of the orange, blue and white-marked national trail running the length of the Country, from the northern border with Lebanon down to the Red Sea resort of Eilat, you can avoid the crowds as you almost lose yourself running along the river, through eucalyptus groves and past flora and lush greenery where you may encounter birds and wildlife that will certainly make you forget you are in a city.

While the park is my preferred running route, for tourists Tel Aviv's seaside promenade is the more convenient route as most hotels are situated along the beachfront. Starting from the northern-most Tel Aviv beach, heading south, there are distance markers labeled in meters as you head towards the ancient Biblical port city of Jaffa. Your best bet is to run this during the week towards the end of the day, when you will be rewarded with a beautiful Mediterranean sunset, with the sun slowly sinking into the sea. This time of day is also recommended since the promenade offers no escape from the strong Mediterranean sun. Bear in mind that this is a promenade - not a running course, meaning you must be prepared to dodge two- and four-legged and other obstacles. During the weekend, when it is crowded with people lazily strolling and artisans selling jewelry, sketching profiles or selling henna tattoos, it is way too frustrating, unless you are an early riser, which also allows you to beat the heat. Some runners opt for the beach, running on the wet sand at water's edge, careful to avoid both incoming waves and bathers. Sometimes I take a refreshing dip in the sea after a workout before walking home dripping wet. For fans of urban running, Tel Aviv boasts bicycle lanes that wind through the city, where runners can test the nerves of impatient drivers who may not be so quick to yield at a crosswalk.

However one chooses to run the Holyland, your workout will justify splurging for a well-deserved falafel. You are on vacation after all.

Credits - WorldwideRunning.com would like to thank Gary Rashba for the authorization to reprint the article "Israel: Running Ancient Crossroads" originally published in the April 2006 issue of "Running Times". Gary Rashba is the author of "Holy Wars: 3000 Years of Battles in the Holyland", a book that allows the reader to examine an extraordinary breadth of military history, glimpsing in one volume the evolution of warfare over the centuries as well as the enduring status of the Holy Land as a battleground. Author of more than 30 articles on defense, aerospace and international topics, Rashba graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990 and currently lives in Israel with his wife and two children.


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