[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tips for Visitors
- Runners tackling large sections of the INT can get help from Trail Angels who can provide advice, shelter, a shower, water, and other necessities.
- 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].
- Ultrarunner and Eilat resident Gilad Krauz can provide a wealth of information about running in the Eilat Mountains: [email protected].
- 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.
- For general tourist information, try the Israel Ministry of Tourism website.
- A couple of running clubs in the Tel Aviv area that regularly hit the trails include Endure and the Tel Aviv Running Club.
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!