Running is in my blood. My grandfather ran the marathon in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki; in high school I was the captain of the varsity cross-country team and one of the fastest three runners in my league. I grew up jogging in the wooded hills of Vermont. My coach taught me that races in October and November are won in July and August, and I would fully dedicate myself to the fall season by sweating through the summer miles. Running became a form of meditation for me and over the years, despite various aches and injuries and two hip surgeries, running has been a constant in my life. So imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when, on the hilly outskirts of Ramallah, a nine-year old Palestinian kid kicked my ass in a 5k run.
Two years ago I came to Palestine as a teacher and a writer. There are certain similarities between these vocations and the loneliness of long-distance running. Endurance, grit, tenacity, and a certain level craziness are all traits commonly found in those who choose either of these paths for themselves. And if running and moving to Palestine are a bit crazy, running in Palestine is insane. The hills here go straight up and down, and if the Mediterranean sun isn’t parching you in the spring and summer then a chilling wind and rain is cutting into you in the late fall and winter.
At each turn, young children held hand painted signs proclaiming “This Way”, “You Can Do It!” and “You’re Almost There!”
The morning of the 5k run began with a mixture of smells–sweat, sunscreen, and donated books. I was running in a charity race to raise funds for and awareness about children’s literacy. Starting in the village of Bir Zeit, the course twisted and turned between bakeries and falafel shops, churches and mosques, then broke out into the fields and olive orchards on the edge of town. Hundreds of feet pounded on the pavement, turned sharp corners and careened down the gravel road. At each turn, young children held hand painted signs proclaiming “This Way,” “You Can Do It!” and “You’re Almost There!” and passed out water to those who needed it.
As I crested the top of a hill in the latter half of the course, I heard a heavy breathing coming up behind me. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a small boy in jeans and worn shoes, catching up with me. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’m the one who trains on a regular basis, who lifts weights several times a week. I’m the one with the running pedigree. I mutter a compliment to him in Arabic under my breath “Ya’tikkallaffya, shab,” (“God grant you health and strength, young man”), but in my head, I’m thinking mean things. Like, he knows the roads better than I do, surely he took a shortcut behind me. Also, where did he learn to run this fast? Running from the IDF’s teargas?
Teargas is as much a part of the landscape of Occupied Palestine today as the Wall, military checkpoints, and olive trees–or the stumps where razed olive orchards once stood. If soldiers fire a canister and it lands anywhere near you, your body instinctively flees, scrambles to escape the hyperventilating, snot-inducing, blinding panic that teargas causes. The reptilian brain takes over, and you run.
On this sunny day in late April, however, none of that is present. It’s just this kid and me, racing in the street. As we round the last bend and the end comes in sight I see Beit Nimeh, the beautiful stone building housing the Palestine Writing Workshop (one of the sponsors of the race).
Somewhere in the bookshelves of the Writing Workshop library is Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. From Japan to Palestine to Vermont, those who run paradoxically share a common language formed in solitude. After the race is over, I will ask one of the teachers about this lone runner, and find out his name was Ayham. I wonder whether Ayham will pick Murakami’s book off the library shelves, and whether it might open up a new world to him. Or maybe running itself already had.
But on that Friday morning, as I kicked into the final sprint, I only had one thought. I wasn’t about to let him beat me. We crossed the finish line within fractions of a second of each other. He quickly caught his breath and disappeared off into the crowd. I tried not to vomit.