Trail Running In Israel

Destination Dirt logo[Editor’s Note: Guest writer John Marks has penned iRunFar’s Destination Dirt guide to trail running in Israel.]

Israel, a small and vibrant country in the Middle East, is awakening to the joys of trail running, and there is every reason to be part of the celebration. Israel–where trail and bible tales co-exist in curious harmony–is a beautiful country. There are vast expanses of unspoiled nature and wilderness, great weather, it’s easy to get around, and to top it off, there are well-organized trail races and an enthusiastic and welcoming running community.

About the size of New Jersey, Israel boosts an incredibly diverse geography: the Mediterranean coast and its unique calcareous sandstone ridges and balmy breezes; the cooler, delightful Jerusalem Hills; the Galilee, steeped in biblical history; and the dramatic basaltic plateau of the Golan Heights. To the south and occupying over half of Israel’s landmass is the rocky Negev Desert: a wilderness of meandering wadis, box canyons, high plateaus, and dusty mountain tops, where silence is only broken by a Nubian ibex negotiating a steep rock face or, in winter, a tremendous flash flood.

Ultramarathon Sovev Emek travels along ancient Roman roads and is Israel’s longest ultra race. Photo: Ultramarathon Sovev Emek

The Ultramarathon Sovev Emek traverses ancient Roman roads and is Israel’s longest ultra. Photo: Ultramarathon Sovev Emek

Israel’s Mediterranean climate offers great trail running conditions year round. Think Southern California. Winters are very mild, often with weeks of warm temperatures and blue skies broken by the odd spell of colder and wetter weather. Summers are hot and humid along the coastal region and in the north, and very hot and dry in the south. Even then, early-morning and late-evening hours are good times for hitting the trails. Hydration packs are a must on longer solo or club outings during the hotter months. Plenty of water is provided at races.

Israel has an extensive, well-maintained, and marked network of trails. The highlight is the Israel National Trail (INT). Labelled an ‘epic trail’ by National Geographic, the trail runs from the northern tip of Israel, close to the border with Lebanon, and meanders across Israel for 1,009 kilometers/627 miles, ending at the southern resort town of Eilat on the shores of the Red Sea.

Owing to the country’s small size, visitors can do and see a lot in a short period of time: you run an ultramarathon one day, visit the Old City of Jerusalem or Tiberius the next morning, and in the evening find yourself bar-hopping or dining in Tel Aviv–one of the most cosmopolitan and lively cities in the Mediterranean.

Javier Marina Gomez, winner of the 2013 Promised Land Sea to Jerusalem Race. Photo: Carin Goldblatt

Javier Marina Gomez, winner of the 2013 Promised Land Sea to Jerusalem Race. Photo: Carin Goldblatt

Trails

Trails in Israel are marked simply and clearly: a red, black, blue, or green stripe between two white stripes. The INT is marked with three stripes: white, blue, and orange. The Golan Heights Trail is also marked by three stripes: white, blue, and green.

Coastal Region
Easily accessible from Tel Aviv, the coastal region offers relaxed trail running along sandstone ridges with glorious views of the Mediterranean and gentle sea breezes. The INT follows this stretch of coast all the way up to the Carmel Mountains. It’s easy to veer off the coastal trail and explore the trails around the adjacent fields and citrus groves.

A stretch of the INT overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Mila Ozersky

A stretch of the INT overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Mila Ozersky

Jerusalem Hills
The forested hills leading up to Jerusalem offer a welcomed respite from the summer heat and plenty of opportunities for working the quads. There are many clearly marked trails, including a popular stretch of the INT. The trail passes through several popular trail running haunts including Har Eitan, a beautiful and popular 8k circular mountain trail with glorious views of the surrounding hills; the Burma Road, an old military bypass trail that connects the central lowlands and Jerusalem; and, closer to Tel Aviv, the Ben Shemen Forest, which is crisscrossed with trails, some more challenging underfoot than others.

The North
Steeped in biblical history, the north is beautiful and offers a dizzying array of landscapes and trails to explore. Once again, the obvious choice is the INT which travels through the Lower Galilee, with its wildflower meadows and rich cultural heritage, down to the balmy Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee, and then uphill to the higher elevations of the Upper Galilee. The Golan Heights has its own 120k trail that crosses this dramatic and rugged basaltic plateau from north to south.

The dramatic Golan Trail in northern Israel. Photo: Adi Peretz

The dramatic Golan Trail in northern Israel. Photo: Adi Peretz

The South
The Negev Desert is wild and rugged. The INT passes through this expansive region, beginning with the flatter, semi-arid lands in its northern reaches, home to Israel’s Bedouin people. Further south, the landscape becomes more dramatic and at times more challenging as the trail passes through the unique Makhteshim, a Grand Canyon of sorts that is no less awe-inspiring. Further south, the red mountains of Eilat provide a startling backdrop setting against the Red Sea. These are truly rugged mountains with hidden canyons and steep ascents and descents.

Scene

Road racing is well established in Israel with three international-standard marathons in Tiberius, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, and hundreds of shorter-distance races. The local ultramarathon scene came to life thanks to the efforts of Carin Goldblatt who organized the first race in 2007. Since then, Israel has developed a lively and devoted local trail running scene, with well-organized ultra races and an ever-increasing number of participants.

Some notable Israeli ultrarunners who have enjoyed success both on the local scene and overseas include Daniel Keren, Gilad Krauz, Kobi Oren, Sari Bashi, Ron Shilon, Ziv Zwighaft, Ariel Rosenfeld, and Orr Shilon.

A runner is interviewed by local press as interest in trail races increases. Photo: Adi Peretz

A runner is interviewed by local press as interest in trail races increases. Photo: Adi Peretz

Israeli adventure runner Carlos Goldberg set the unsupported FKT for the 1,009k INT in 2007, completing the trail in a north-to-south direction in 12 days, 13 hours.

Races

Due to the summer heat, races take place during autumn and spring months. Ultramarathon Sovev Emek (October) in northern Israel is the country’s largest ultramarathon. A circular route on ancient Roman trails, the 2014 race includes 200k, 166k, 100k, 61k, and 33k course distances. The first three of those distances award qualifying points for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) race series.

On the Ultramarathon Sovev Emek course. Photo: Ultramarathon Sovev Emek

On the Ultramarathon Sovev Emek course. Photo: Ultramarathon Sovev Emek

The Promised Land Sea to Jerusalem Race (April), locally known as ‘yam-le-yam,’ is a point-to-point race from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, featuring both a relay race for teams of four, six, and eight as well as ultra distances of 144k, 70k, and 54k. The 144k and 70k courses award qualifying points for the UTMB race series.

Mountain to Valley Relay (May) is Israel’s largest trail race. Demand for the 215k relay race for teams of four, six, and eight people is so high that all the places are snatched up within hours from the start of registration. The point-to-point course travels through some of the most beautiful scenery in Israel.

In 2014 there will be several new races: the Golan Heights Ultra (April) with race distances including 80k, 67k, 42k, and 24k; a series of vertical races, kicking off at the Manara Cliff in northern Israel (April); and the Eilat Desert Marathon (November) trail race in the dramatic Eilat Mountains.

Daniel Keren during the Eilat Half Marathon. Photo courtesy of Marathon Israel

Daniel Keren during the Eilat Half Marathon. Photo courtesy of Marathon Israel

Tips for Visitors

  1. Runners tackling large sections of the INT can get help from Trail Angels who can provide advice, shelter, a shower, water, and other necessities.
  2. Ultrarunner and running-store owner Doron Shalmon regularly organizes fun runs on the local trails in the Lower Galilee and can help with route planning: [email protected].
  3. Ultrarunner and Eilat resident Gilad Krauz can provide a wealth of information about running in the Eilat Mountains: [email protected].
  4. A few Facebook groups provide good sources of information on local events and organized trail outings: ‘ultramarathoning Israel’ and ‘where and how far?’ Don’t be discouraged by the Hebrew. Post in English–everyone understands it here.
  5. For general tourist information, try the Israel Ministry of Tourism website.
  6. A couple of running clubs in the Tel Aviv area that regularly hit the trails include Endure and the Tel Aviv Running Club.
Racers wade water flooding the lower sections of the trails during the Promised Land Sea to Jerusalem Race. Photo: Carin Goldblatt

Racers wade water flooding some trails during the Promised Land Sea to Jerusalem Race. Photo: Carin Goldblatt

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • If you’re a trail runner from Israel, leave a comment and add to this article your thoughts on your favorite trails or parts of Israel’s trail running scene.
  • Have you run one of the ultras described here? If so, tell us about your experience!

There are 28 comments

  1. ranpergamin

    Hi,

    Great article !
    My name is Ran & I am a trail running based little south of Haifa along the heels of the Carmel
    (1hr north from Tel-Aviv).

    I am also running one of Israel's leading running gear & minimal footwear blogs http://www.zayedet.com
    Anyone travelling to Israel & interested in information in running around Haifa and South of Haifa is more than welcome to contact me for more details, and obviously welcome to join me on my trail runs.

    The place is packed with single-trails over diverse terrain of heels, forests, rocks & great views.
    If you love technical trail running, this area is for you !

    Cheers !
    Ran

  2. Suelovestom

    Great article and beautiful photos! I live in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem and spend many happy hours running the local trails. This morning–still recovering from the Jerusalem marathon–I passed Roman mile stones and a 2000-year old aqueduct, ancient mikvahs (ritual baths), wild crocuses and poppies, donkeys, gazelles, and wonderful fellow-runners. Last fall I did the 61K option of the Sovev Emek ultra and found it well-organized, generously supplied with food and drink and porta-potties (always a consideration for the female runner), and populated by the friendliest, jolliest runners in the world.

  3. ja51er

    Is there any trail which crosses or passes by the apartheid wall which confines Palestinians in the West Bank? Or is there any trail closed to Gaza to see how friendly Israel is creating the biggest prison in the world where one and a half million of Palestinians live? And regarding the trail in the Negev, does it show the real situations of beduins? What about all the sirian families splitted after the occupation in Golan heights?
    For those and many other very well known reasons I encourage every trail runner to boikot those trails until Israel stops the occupation.
    For more information : http://www.bdsmovement.net

    1. Ultrail

      You know, ja51er, I think you’re on to something here. Perhaps you could set up a company to hold trail races in all the out of the way places you mention. But why stop at the occupied territories? You need to think big! How about a vertical mile in the copper mines of South America? A tough mudder in the diamond fields of Sierra Leone? (With all the child laborers, the kids’ race would be packed!) A high stakes man-versus camel 50K against the Janjaweed militia in South Sudan? Or geocaching for landmines in Cambodia? How fun! This is precisely the outside-the-box thinking we readers of iRunFar have been longing for. Keep up the good work!

    2. Bryon of iRunFar

      Hey Ja51er,
      May I suggest that we try to let trail running bring people together? To make the world a smaller, better, more caring place? That's what I tend to see trail running do in every place I've been in the world.

      Thanks,
      Bryon

      Ps. There are a ton of better places on the web for engaging in political discourse if that's what you seek.

  4. ja51er

    Hi,
    First of all I have to say that I love mountains and trail running. I usually read this web and it is not my intention to show my politicals discourses here.
    I have been in many times in Israel and Palestine and I really know what I am talking about. What I want to show to the trail runners community is what would be the complete landscape they will face, not the "official" one. When I travel to other country to run though their mountains I also try to know something about its history and its people. I try to see the complete escenary.

    I have seen those mountains, this landscape andt its people from both sides of the Wall and I just want to share my opinion.

    I see you in the mountains.

  5. nimitzion

    I'm an Israeli and as there are two sides to every story my first reaction was to show our side of it.

    But on second thought I have too much respect for iRunfar to shift this into a political discussion and reply to ja51er and 1SWIZ (and I won't convince them anyway) so let's just say this:

    a. Byron is right – not the time and place. Would be happy to show our side of it, calmly, to whomever is interested and willing to listen (!) but in the proper forum.
    b. I hope they do publish a piece about trail running in Palestine.
    c. I hope – for my children's sake and their's, that I will be able to take my kids running in those trails as they will in ours.

    1. nimitzion

      Shanefelle,

      Very safe. I work in a multinational company and many of my colleagues who visit Israel are amazed to find out how peaceful and tranquil it is in contradiction to what you see in the news.

      Having said that, there are places you should try to avoid but all countries have those. None of the trails featured in the article is in one of those "better to avoid" regions.

    2. steeltownrunner

      Incredibly safe. I've spent a couple of long stays in the county and I've never felt safer. Truly. Wonderful meeting of different cultures. In some respects it's on the leading edge of 1st World countries. In others it feels like a 3rd World country. Probably the most enriching destination, domestically or abroad, that I've ever visited and I hope to go back soon.

  6. mfisher04

    Really thankful for this article. Been wanting to get back to Israel since my birthright trip 9 years ago. I had no idea there was a trail running community and so many miles of trails. If only it wasn't so expensive to fly there from Seattle! Such a beautiful country. Saving up my vacation time and money for another trip.

  7. run_jerusalem

    My name is Dave, I lead sightrunning groups in and around Jerusalem. In the city, you are able to see over 3000 years of history. There are hundreds of kilometers of trails around the city that connect Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Modiin and other nearby cities. If you are planning on visiting Jerusalem and want to see some amazing sights please contact me through http://www.runjerusalem.com. We run both in the city and on the trails around the city. Check out pictures of the city and the trails around it on our my twitter feed @runjerusalem.

    This was a great article. You covered all the major ultras. There are several smaller races, mostly put on by Brooks, of 50 to 60km throughout the year. I highly suggest the Mountain to Valley race (www.mountain2valley.org). It is an amazing experience. Just make sure to sign up early, my group almost missed out last year due to a mistake on the English website. It is over 200 km of amazing trails.

    The Promised Land Sea to Jerusalem Race is in its second year. Last year there were issues due to rain and poor trail marking, but this year there have been tons of improvements. This is one of the trails that we frequently run and it is amazing. Most of my Twitter trail pictures come from this one.

    The road marathons are growing quickly, too. The Jerusalem Marathon has grown from 800 to 1400 in the last three years. There are also marathons in Tel Aviv and Tiberias.

    Thanks for spotlighting Israel's trail running. It is an amazing place to run.

    1. JohnM44

      Thanks for the correction Gilad and for your support. Let's hope you get some visitors who want to explore the Eilat mountains with you (: John

  8. evanstuartkent

    Hi!! I moved to Israel in July and Sovev Emek was my 2nd ultra. The first was RAy Miller in Malibu, CA. Sovev Emek is a rough run- but it is incredibly well supported and had I trained harder I would have been much happier at the end. Friendly runners, water and food all around, encouragement from all. It was my first race as an "oleh chadash" and will remain in my repertoire of trail races here. I'm doing Yam to Yam relay and looking forward to running Desert Marathon in the fall.

  9. steeltownrunner

    Last year, Richard Bowles ran the Israel National Trail. There is a fair amount of footage online to get some sense of his journey.

  10. Sheryl

    What a great article! I have only visited Israel once,
    in my pre-running days, and was enthralled by its beauty. There is so much to explore – I still remember the many breathtaking hikes I went on. I hope to go back again soon and would love to check out the trails mentioned in this article.

  11. 1SWIZ

    Does Bryon still support tourism in Israel after recent events? It's not Okay to throw your hands up and ignore the facts grow a moral and ethical backbone Irunfar.

  12. Tali

    Hi,
    I’m arriving in tel aviv for a week today and have travelled to Israel many times. I’m much fitter than I’ve been while here before. I am mostly staying in tel aviv this time for a friend’s wedding and wanting to explore good runs (not too long, maybe max 20km) around the tel aviv area while I’m here.
    Any good and different ideas than the beach or park hayarkon?
    Thanks!

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