From marathon man to Hadassah hospital: The light and dark sides of the Jerusalem marathon
I feel cranky. There are so many triumphal Jerusalem Marathon stories in the papers. Even Ha’aretz, which could find the Good Samaritan’s dark underside if he called himself Zionist, gushed. My story, sadly, is darker, although it has many streaks of light too.
Friday Marathon day was glorious. With traffic shut down and school cancelled, Jerusalem enjoyed a Yom Kippur quiet leavened with a Purim gaiety.
The weather was more Canadian than Israeli with a mix of rain, hail, wind, and sunshine; but the organization of the event was more Swiss than Israeli. Signage and instructions were crystal clear. Supplies were abundant, assistants, gracious. I never expected to run a marathon, half or whole. I was never a jock, never thought of myself as such, and always wanted to be defined by who I was and what I did in the real world, not how I looked and what I accomplished in the wide but artificial world of sports. For decades, my sedentary lifestyle could have won me the worldwide competition for "least likely to suffer a sports injury." But in Jerusalem, I went on a health kick, as part of my own Zionist revolution, running through the Old City daily, shedding some of those extra childrearing-related pounds many of us acquire. Ironically, this health kick has caused my only two medical disasters -- a bicycle accident two years ago and my current nightmare.
My kids encouraged me to enter the 21 kilometer Half-Marathon. I figured we parents demand so much of them, and my running occasionally detracts from kid time, why not do this for them? Besides, I could not resist the romance of running through Jerusalem’s streets. The historical and spiritual allure overrode the rational fear of the hills. After a 16 kilometer practice run with a running guru friend, I was ready -- or so I thought.
The start was exhilarating -- but terrifying. It was a kick, counting down with thousands of Israelis and marathon tourists in front of the Knesset, the symbol of Israeli democracy, “fihve, forrr, srree, doo, von,” then surging ahead, feeling the people power. But navigating around all those pittering-pattering feet as we turned toward the Foreign Ministry and the Supreme Court was as stressful as navigating the parking lot at Jerusalem’s Azrieli Mall on Friday afternoon.
Once we spread out, it was easier, but I was suffering. What started as a minor pull on my left side was throbbing. I was slowing my partners down. The next two hours were tough but delicious. I never thought the encouraging crowds or the thrill of recognizing friends cheering us
along would matter, but it helped. And bonding with the streets of this special city by pounding the pavement, seeing the sights, absorbing the energy of my running partners and our insta-community of 15,000 was fabulous.
Approaching the finish line, sure I could finish, I sent my partners ahead for their final sprints, overriding their protestations. Walking a bit, each step was harder and harder. At kilometer 20.5 or so of 21 I started running. Immediately, my legs turned to putty. I collapsed and could not stand. It turns out I had started with an undiagnosed minor stress fracture on top of an unknown historic injury, possibly from my biking accident, that turned serious. The fracture triggered the muscle seizure which then obscured the fracture for two agonizing, dangerous days. The muscle problem required rest, vitamins, and fluids, and my non-fractured right leg recovered quickly. Sparing any more medical details, three things stand out as I recover from emergency surgery at Hadassah University Medical Center, Mount Scopus. First, stranded in traffic-clogged Jerusalem, immobile, cut off from my running partners, unable to reach my house because the Marathon route ran passed it, I experienced that famous Israeli sweetness underneath the prickly Sabra skin. Strangers carried me, called home for me, begged to help, as I sat, shivering, in a random office lobby, waiting for the traffic to clear and help to arrive. Second, shifting from faux heroism to humiliating helplessness, unable to complete basic physical tasks, absorbing prognoses ranging from optimistic to catastrophic, is dizzying. The traumas bond me to friends and relatives who have suffered far worse ruptures with the normal. Beyond realizing that we should never take the blessings of normal functioning for granted, beyond my gratitude for the angels of mercy around us -- be they kids caring for their temporarily disabled abba or total strangers -- I am trying to view this horror as a rebirth. As modern centers of life and death, hospitals give us an opportunity to reset, reorient, recalibrate, remembering what’s important.
Finally, Hadassah Medical Center remains one of Israel’s miracles. For starters, the first volunteer who approached me, asked, softly, “Do you publish,” and “are you from Queens,” showing he actually read my work – femur broken, pride wounded, but authorial ego intact, whew! More seriously, Hadassah hospital realizes the Zionist vision of serving humanity through particularist pride, as this intensely Jewish place with kosher food and a Jewish soul unites Muslims, Christians and Jews, as patients and staff, so naturally, so beautifully. I room with an Arab plumber from the Mount of Olives and a Sephardic retiree who speaks in prayers and poetry. We all receive the same dignified, cutting-edge, healing treatment from the multicultural parade of doctors and attendants. Hadassah hospital pulsates with love, skill, warmth and humor. Many staffers have walked in, bemused by the marathoning professor – although I feel like the scholarly klutz. Late Sunday night, after my emergency surgery, through my haze, I heard one doctor say lovingly, not mockingly, “don’t worry professor, you’ll be ready for the Tel Aviv marathon two weeks from now.” I am working on it…..
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