Welcome to Israel. Welcome to religion, tradition, a fully-loaded military, and admittedly, after seven wars and two infitadas, a frank concession that it doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with its neighbours.
And welcome to Israel. Welcome to the highest literacy rates in the world, technology companies filling the NASDAQ, the planet’s premier water recycling, and the most entrepreneurs, start-ups, museums, coffee shops, and PhD qualifications per capita you’ll find anywhere on Earth. Oh, and the small matter of one iron-distance triathlon that takes place this Friday (17 January)
220 has left chilly Blighty and landed at the spiritual home of the Jews/Muslims/ Armenian Christians/Greek Christians/other Christians (delete denomination as appropriate, sorry for offending with any omissions) to take part in Israman. It’s the 226km swim, bike and run epic that’s been running annually, with the odd break, since 1999, and often makes the top 10 when it comes to the world’s toughest triathlons.
Movers and shakers
A well-established race for a country formed as recently as 1948, it starts in the Red Sea, cranks its way up 3,000m of climb over two loops into the Negev desert, before a marathon drops back to shore for the finish. Up to 1,300 competitors will take part, a mixture of full, half (à la 220) and relay entrants for a challenge that is worth taking a look at (head online for videos of the 2009 race).
But that’s all for tomorrow. For today, the trip affords the chance to meet some of the movers and shakers of multisport in this part of the world and for them to dispel any preconceptions of Jewish culture and dispense their wisdom on the wider triathlon community.
The trip has been creatively put together by non-profit organisation Kinetis, who are so forward-thinking they probably know 220‘s finishing splits already (I’ve asked them to withhold so as not to ruin the trip just yet).
The immersive build-up has been as hectic as the rush hour traffic in Jerusalem, a ‘hotchpotch’ (the tour guide to the old city’s favourite terminology when describing its religious incumbents) of characters that after a hectic first day left 220 with the following nuggets of wisdom:
1. An early morning jogging tour of the Jerusalem with Sivan Weinreich reveals not many people jog in the streets, but the old city offers some spectacular views if you do.
2. Israelis are such hi-tech innovators that when it came to sending a satellite into orbit, they created one so small and light it could be launched against the turning of the globe so it would not hover directly above suspicious Arab states. A little reminiscent of Clark Kent in his pyjamas.
3. In Tel Aviv resides Sam Hamis, a biomechanical clinician who provides 3D imaging to rehabilitate athletes. With the patient wired up on the treadmill, Sam’s well-trained eye examines the dancing skeleton on the computer screen before he prescribes functional training to address any weaknesses. Indicating the multiple cameras in situ, he stresses the importance of 3D to hone in on rotation of the joints, for example, the knee or pelvis, that is often the root cause of injury.
4. An Israeli company called Cupron makes clothing with a copper oxide thread that claims to kill 99.5 per cent of bugs and doesn’t smell. In the ultimate test case, its socks were handed down the shaft to the stricken 33 Chilean miners after a collapse in in 2010 left them trapped for 69 days and captured the attention of the world’s media. Their feet came up smelling of roses, even if the rest of them didn’t. Look out for the technology being taken on by some big name brands in sports kit to curb nasty odours. Plus, it’s being prepped to use in nappies to reduce rash and even pillows to smooth your wrinkles as you nap.
Finally, having quaffed a decent drop of Israeli red (the vineyards number in the hundreds), eaten my way through a mountain of hummus, a Red Drum caught from the Med, and a Krembo, a kind of marshmallow, chocolate-covered, biscuit-based confectionery, of which 70 million are guzzled every winter, it was time to turn in. The internal flight for race HQ in Eilat leaves early this morning, and at some point the taper needs to begin.
(Image: Ester Inbar)
Israel ends like the point of a knitting needle in the holiday resort of Eilat on the Red Sea. To the left are the mountains of Jordan, to the right those of Egypt and behind us somewhere are the ones that steeple into the Negev desert, making this one of the trickiest triathlons anywhere in the world – or so we are constantly reminded.
Israeli champion Tom Marmarelli targets this race every year to be acclaimed as the nation’s no. 1 long distance triathlete. Triathlon in Israel mirrors other nations in being niche but blossoming. The Alterman brothers Dan and Ran have had limited success trying to crack it at ITU short course, and the country’s most impressive results have come from the recent investment in youth, through backing from the military.
Recent impressive finishes of seventh and 15th from Amitai Yonah and Shachar Sagiv respectively in the Junior World Championships in London have come from those conscripted at 18 being given dispensation to concentrate on triathlon during their three years of national service and build a strong team ethic.
As for the age-groupers, it’s a relatively small pool. Tom estimates a total of 4,000 of his countrymen and women compete in Israel – and he probably coaches a good portion of them through his Tel Aviv-based business called TriHard.
The overall champion in 2012, he was the first domestic athlete home last year too, but was beaten by a sizeable margin by the prolific Czech Ironman Petr Vabrousek, veteran of 73 top 10 finishes at the full distance.
On the female side, participation is sparse. Israel’s only female long distance pro is Nina Pekerman, who won the full Israman in 2010 and has a further four victories in the half distance, is the home favourite. Defending champion is fellow domestic hope Dora Heller.
Doing it for Blighty
The half though has a British presence with Alice Hector moving back into triathlon after she departed for ultra-running in 2006. Unbeaten but struggling with injury, Alice, based in Windsor, turned back to multisport with instant success.
The overall age-group champion in the sprint distance at the ITU Grand Final in London in September, she is looking to boost her long course CV for the 2014 season. Having trained with the reputable Darren Smith D-Squad, don’t bet against her being the latest addition to an already stellar British female long course roster.
The race organisation is divvied up amongst the waterfront hotels, all within walking distance of one another making registration and racking seamless. Having been provided with a carbon framed road bike, and crossing fingers for no mechanicals, it’s all progressing worryingly smoothly for 220.
There is even time to test the salty waters of the Red Sea, set to be at a positively balmy 20 degrees, and although most of the swim will be done before the sun’s up, strobes on the distant buoys should make sighting bearable.
Seeking out a little extra insight, we met with Israel’s godfather of triathlon, the legendary Ron Shilon. No-one knows this race better than Ron. This veteran trailblazer has just turned 50 and has coached – and still does – thousands of Israeli multisport athletes.
Ron is so familiar with Israman he recites tales of the early days in 1999 when fewer than two dozen raced. On finishing, he’d drive back along the desert supporting the stragglers with Arabian tunes thumping out from an Egyptian radio station because he couldn’t get an Israeli reception.
Ron has also just turned vegan but could definitely do with some pies. No doubt 220 will want to be joining him by this afternoon.