“Sight Jordan on the way out, and Egypt on the way back,” the announcers was saying.
I’m standing by the Red Sea on the 12km of Israeli coastline listening to the pre-swim briefing for the Israman, Ironman distance triathlon. With my Hebrew not quite up to scratch, the American next to me is translating. His gut and long straggly beard disguise more than 50 Ironman races well, but his enthusiasm for this race is astounding. He’s competed almost every year since 1999. He says his wife loves the sun in winter.
Triathlon isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you mention Israel. More likely conflict, bloodshed and religion flash before your eyes. As host to the European Championships in July of 2012 it may start becoming so.
On the 20th of January, 850 from seventeen nations stood in darkness wondering whether a January Ironman or Half Ironman (run simultaneously) was the best New Year wake up call.
My mind was struggling to remember the time-perfected routines of last summer, and questions were beginning to arise in my mind whether this was a good idea at all. Most pressing was my lack of any swimming training in the past six months and absolute none existence of any open water swimming. My heart was beating with nerves rather than excitement.
Tinted goggles dimmed the light further as I pulled them over my blue swim hat. The pro wave entered the water as the sun jumped above the horizon bathing the rest of us in glorious warmth of sunlight before it was our turn. With 20 foot visibility and coral fed fish my swimming woes soon disappeared replaced with awe and wonder.
The eventual winner of the Half, London Irishman Rory Maguire, laughed, “I was so transfixed by the underwater beauty that I realized I’d stopped trying and had to call on my mental whip to get me moving again.”
In the full, Amir Bachar was first out of the water and began layering clothes and arm warmers as he prepared for a long climb into the mountains. This Friday (the Jewish Saturday) was the coldest day in Israel for the past 5 years which meant the local competitors were shivering, but us Brits, already sun blessed, were relieved to only be struggling through the mountainous course in temperatures amongst the high teens.
The course follows the Egyptian border and after unrest between the two countries recently there were a large number of Israeli soldiers present, all casually attached to guns that wouldn’t look out of place in a futuristic science fiction film. Amongst the sandstone mountains they looked like my old toy soldiers standing to attention in my childhood sandpit, which made me smile even as I summited the 12% toughest climb of the day. I raised a hand to say hi, they raised the fists in response cheering my spinning legs and gasping breath.
Meanwhile at the front, Lior Zach Maorwas had moved into first place and was extending his lead on Tom Marmareli after beating him by five minutes in the swim. Tom is a renowned runner in Israel and Lior knew he had to do something special on the first two disciplines if he was to stand a chance. After racking the bikes in the mountains a very fast decent by foot followed into town and 30km of loops left the boys level but Tom, pushing himself to new limits pulled clear and finished three minutes ahead.
Collapsed by the railings at the end of the race still clutching the finishers ribbon, Tom recognized my true British looks and stated he was glad Maguire wasn’t in the full race.
I laughed, looking at Rory, hobbling in the back ground saying, “I think he feels the same way.”
Two times Kona supremo, Norman Stadler, was by the sidelines to watch the race and said, “With the wind, hills, deserted landscape, superb organization and pre
and post race pampering this race has a Kona cum Lanzarote feel to it.”
The super star of triathlon looked a little out of sorts – you could tell he was craving to give this course a run for its money.
I finished with a smile, before I was tackled by a mob of helpers offering massage, soup and drinks. Perfect.
With an opportunity to see Jerusalem, float in the dead sea (don’t put your head under, the salt burns your eyes), with one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Petra in Jordan, and Mount Sinai, in Egypt, a stones throw away, a triathlon in Eilat Israel could fast become one of the most action packed, exciting, and intoxicating holidays you’ll ever have.