It’s 2am in Jerusalem, an ungodly time in a holy city, and I’m waking up to run a marathon.
In a place where the call to prayer hangs in the air like a religious fog, my alarm clock’s shrill song sounded like musical sacrilege and I hurried to turn it off in a bleary-eyed panic that I might offend.
I am not a man of faith, but I was raised as a Christian; brought up on the stories interwoven through the city’s foundations. I was finally in the city I had sung hymns about, spoken in holy whispers and studied from school to university. When I was a student I had a medieval map in my room that placed Jerusalem at its centre because at the time it was considered the centre of the earth, civilisation’s focal point; it’s heart and soul. Because of that Jerusalem seems almost mythical to me. A city steeped in so much history and blood that the streets echo with the infinite.In the few hours I had spent wandering the city the night before, walking down the narrow mess of lanes that Jesus carried the cross down, I had come to the realisation that it was in reality just a city. One that is so deeply engrained in who we are as a human race and one that I had completely fallen in love with.
But, far removed from theological thought, here I was shifting my tired limps until my feet fell upon the cold stone floor of my room. Beneath my feet lay the holiest of holy land for three of the major religions but my only thoughts were of Vaseline (if you know, you know) and the taxi that would be the start of my journey to another land mythical to me; The Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea Marathon, the reason I was in Jerusalem, had been on my bucket list ever since I first read those three words collected together. The idea of running a marathon at the lowest point on earth was too irresistible to resist. Even in my tired state I could feel a surge of excitement radiating through me, like nothing I had ever felt before, knowing that soon I would be running in a landscape beyond my imagination.
But that start wasn’t until 6am and I was a world away from the desert landscape I longed to be in. The phone rang, jolting me further out of my dreamy haze; my taxi was ready, so I threw on the last of my kit, gulped down my lukewarm porridge and made my way into the Israeli night.
The taxi journey was a blur of sleepy city streets and traffic lights skipped until we screeched into an abandoned car park and I was ushered out into the night once more. As I stood there waiting for the bus that would take us to the start line I couldn’t help but spiral; fearing what I had let myself in for. While I knew how to run a marathon, there were a lot of unknown factors thrown into the mix for this marathon; two nights of little sleep after flying to Israel the morning before, my knee pain still rumbling on but the most worrying factor of all was my lack of caffeine. I had not had one drop of coffee in 26 hours which for me is a massive, massive deal especially when preparing for a marathon that I was lacking sleep for.
As we boarded the bus and waited for it to rumble into life I tried to steady myself in the sweat soaked serenity marathon running brings. In a sea of doubt I find myself drowning in, marathon running is my lighthouse. It is the beacon that draws me forward. The driving light that stops me from falling of course. I calmed my tumultuous and fraying mind with the thought of experiencing that light once more and a smile crept across my porridge stained face.
As soon as the bus jolted forward I began to drift off to sleep. When I lived in India the best way to get from Delhi to the town I called home, perched high in the Himalyas, was by bus; a 13 hour bone crunching, stomach churning journey from hell. I would do this trip so often that I got rather good at falling asleep on buses, useless on all other forms of transport, but out of necessity I can now switch off in seconds on a bus.
I blinked my eyes slowly, adjusting to the lights that were now back on in the bus; we had arrived. I checked my watch and instantly panic set in. We only had 30 minutes until the race was due to start and we were still a five minute walk from race HQ. I still had to get to the start, go to the loo, register, drop my kit, go to the loo again, get myself in the right frame of mind to run a marathon, get my music set up and probably go the loo one last time.
Finally, and with only a few minutes to spare, I was on the start line. We were still bathed in the purple darkness of night, the sky of early morning eagerly awaiting the light of dawn. But suddenly, as if God had flicked a light switch the dawn colours swept across the vast skyline. The sun, still hidden behind the Jordanian mountains ahead of us, would not cut through the sky for another hour and bring with it the baking heat of the day.
But as we finally began to run I could not help but think that I had never been in such a paradise. It wasn’t just the beauty of the landscape but the fact that I was running through a place so completely impossible. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on land, 430 meters below sea level, with water is so salty that nothing can survive within its waters. As I stared out at the incomparable landscape unfurled before me, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would survive my time in this inhospitable haven.