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Racing Israel’s Israman Triathlon

Triathlete.com contributor Erin Beresini competed on a tough course along the Israeli-Egyptian border.

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Triathlete.com contributor Erin Beresini competed on a tough course along the Israeli-Egyptian border.

I was afraid to go to Israel. The New Jersey-sized country is one of the most contentious on earth. It didn’t help that a few days before hopping on the 10-hour flight from New York to Tel Aviv, I read this headline: Palestinian man stabs people on Tel Aviv rush-hour bus. But I was invited to race Israman, a one-day event held at the southernmost tip of Israel that features both half and full iron-distance races, and relays of both distances. I was not going to miss an opportunity to compete on the other side of the world.

But first there was the business of getting there. Based on American news alone, I was convinced that a land-to-air missile shot from the Gaza strip would knock my plane out of the sky before it landed. And if that didn’t happen, someone would kidnap me when they found out I am a journalist. “But I only write about bikes!” I’d argue to no avail. I even Facebook messaged an Israeli friend to ask what I should wear because I wanted to blend in as much as possible. “people over there wear sheepskin, got any?” he wrote back. Translation: It’s just like here—you’re being insane.

He was right. It’s impossible to write or speak about Israel without politics (and Israelis will happily engage you in a political conversation) but I’m going to try from here on out.

The country of about eight million people is a modern, Westernized state in the middle of the Middle East. It is very easy for Americans to get around; nearly everyone speaks English, there are several English-speaking TV channels, and all of the road signs (people drive on the right) are written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. There are, I must note, a lot more soldiers carrying automatic weapons in public places, some of whom are women who look like they’re all of 15 years old (though they must be at least 18 to start mandatory military training). But somehow their presence makes those places feel safer.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because no American goes all the way to Israel just to race, though the gorgeous, grueling Israman course alone is certainly worth the trip. You go for the experience that is being in Israel—the birthplace of so many religions, filled with history and ruins and amazing Mediterranean cuisine. Nobody ever talks about the cuisine, a tourism rep tells me, because that’s how all of the other Mediterranean countries advertise themselves. Instead, Israel likes to focus on what you can only access through Israel: the Holy Land. Old Jerusalem. The stations of the cross. The Western Wall.

So here’s what you do, intrepid traveling triathletes. You fly into Tel Aviv. Then, depending on how Type A you are, you either head straight to the race start in Red Sea resort town of Eilat (about a four drive through the Negev desert, or a one hour flight), then tour. Or you tour then race. Or tour, race, then tour some more. Because there’s no way you’re getting within 25 miles of the Dead Sea (the distance from Jerusalem) without floating in it and covering yourself in mineral-infused mud. Or without visiting Masada, ruins of an ancient fortress built atop a plateau in the middle of the desert that was conquered by Romans and immortalized in a 1981 Peter O’Toole movie.

But first (or second or last or whatever), you race. Because the race is the gateway drug to the rest of the country. It’s what gets you there. It’s what makes you think, Hey, I think I’d like to go to Israel, despite the never-ending barrage of bad news about the region in American media. It’s where you meet locals who view you as something other than a tourist, and it’ll bring you that sense of accomplishment that lets you chill out and enjoy the rest of the trip without worrying about getting in a workout.

And the race, oh the race! Somehow Israman has managed to combine the production value of an Ironman while retaining the home-grown feel of the now-defunct Silverman full, but with athletes from all over the world; the 2015 event hosted 1,630 triathletes from 26 nations.

With a bang, you’ll launch into the Red Sea to swim in clear, high 60s water. (This year, race cannon honors went to a 20-year old Israeli soldier who was gravely wounded in a fight with Hamas in Gaza City half a year earlier.) Then you will climb. A lot. About 2,600 feet straight out of town through a lunar-like landscape, with the enormous steel Israel-Egypt border fence gradually appearing to the left. If you can focus on anything other than the pain in your legs, you might notice a few spectating camels or border guards in roadside dugouts.

After that first ascent, the route doesn’t let up. Once you’re into the mountains, strong head and crosswinds will test your mettle, and the road continues to undulate for the rest of the ride. Choose your plan of attack wisely, because the point-to-point bike course dumps you near the top of the mountain you first climbed, and you’ll drop about 1,600 feet in the first five miles of the run. (The descent affords spectacular views of the Red Sea and enormous Jordanian mountains in the distance.) Attack too hard, and your quads might give up. Go too easy, and you may never see your competition again.

After descending to sea level from about 2,100 feet in the first eight miles of the run, a few out-and-backs will let you assess your competition. It’s all about who can hang on to the finish as you run down Eilat’s bike path and wind around the boardwalk back to the finish line, located in the middle of several resorts.

In the end, you will have climbed about 10,500 feet on the full bike course, 6,200 in the half—a true cyclist’s course. Time for one of those legendary Israeli buffets and a free post-race massage. And perhaps time for a Jeep tour, just in case you can’t walk.

As for my fear of traveling to Israel, what I learned is this: Israelis themselves refuse to live in fear. Israman is a testament to that. The triathlon is a non-partisan celebration of life and community despite the chaos that surrounds the small country. Should you, as a triathlete, want to travel to the Middle East, Israman should be on your radar for the beautiful challenge that it is.

Thinking about taking on Israman? Check out my itinerary:

Together with another journalist and longtime Triathlete contributing photographer, Larry Rosa, I started with two days in Jerusalem, touring the old city with a guide named Beni who made his American TV debut when he ushered Rick Steves around the country.

On day three, we all headed to the Dead Sea to float in the 30-percent mineral water (the regular ocean is about 3.5 percent salt) took a cable car up to the top of Masada to look out at the desert, Dead Sea, and ruins of the Roman camps that surround the plateau. Then we pulled into Eilat on a Wednesday night. The race is held on a Friday, as Israel operates on the Jewish calendar—Sunday through Thursday. Israel’s Friday is like our Saturday.

On Saturday, we headed out to the Makhtesh Ramon, a desert valley that looks a lot like a giant heart-shaped meteor crater, for a Jeep tour. Then late Saturday night, we pulled into Tel Aviv and spent Sunday touring Israel’s modern city, as well as the adjoining Jaffa port, a harbor that has been in use since the Bronze Age.

Hotels:
Jerusalem- The Dan Panorama Hotel
Eilat- The King Salomon Hotel
Tel Aviv- The Crowne Plaza