Twenty years later, back at the Tiberias marathon

In 1999, Heather Polan Berken of the Milwaukee area’s North Shore ran the International Tiberias Marathon on a whim. It was three years after her first, the Madison Marathon. She ran that one on impulse, clutching the race receipt and change in her hand for the entire route.

The ensuing years haven’t dampened Berken’s enthusiasm for marathon running. But her planning process has become more deliberate. It’s also become more social.

From working out at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay, she “met a nice group of women and we would go running together in the mornings,” she said.

“We started doing destination marathons in winter, so you had some carrot to dangle to get you through the winter.”

This year, 20 years after the first time she did it, Berken returned to Tiberias with five other runners. The trip was significant for multiple reasons. One was the chance to experience how the Israeli marathon scene has evolved. Her traveling companions were not Jewish and it was their first trip to Israel so she got to play tour guide. And, perhaps most important, the chance to visit old friends and mark a significant yahrzeit.

“It was a way to honor the anniversary of my mother’s death,” she said.

In 1999, while visiting her sister, who’d recently made aliyah, they saw a story in the Jerusalem Post about the marathon that weekend. The sisters contacted the race director.

One phone conversation and a road trip later, Berken was running while her sister was cheering from the sidelines. 

“It was a great race,” she said, “but marathons were newer in Israel and it wasn’t organized the way I was used to in the States.”

At the end of the route, her sister had to beg a Popsicle vendor for a freebie because neither of them had brought any money and there were no drink or energy bar stations along the route or at the finish line.

“I called it the ‘Yom Kippur’ marathon,” she said.

Berken’s 2019 group visit was different in character.

“It’s such a lovely course,” she said. “You start in the middle of Downtown Tiberias and you kind of run along the southern shoreline of Kinneret, then go past Yardanit, the baptismal site of the Jordan River and then you start hitting kibbutzim.”

“We were running slowly so we could be tour guides,” she said. “At one point along the route there was a whole gan of children high-fiving us. We’d put on Hawaiian leis and we were giving them to the kids as we were running by.”

“It was no longer the Yom Kippur marathon,” she said. “It was so much fun what they give you for food. There are big trays of dates, massive blocks of halvah that are all crumbled so you take chunks as you run, and oranges and other fruit.”