[Editor’s Note: Guest writer John Marks penned iRunFar’s Destination Dirt guide to trail running in Israel, which Arie Fishler of Holy-trails.com – Running Adventures in Israel updated in April 2018.]
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/night 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 almost endless collection of desert trails based on ancient human and camel routes. These special trails offer epic views that are unique to Israel and are accessible in the cooler months of the year. Israel National Trail (INT), labelled an ‘epic trail’ by National Geographic, is the longest available trail. It 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 another long trail and 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, non-technical, 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, are the Ben Shemen Forest and Ayalon (Canada) Park, which are 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 tallest mountain in Israel, the Hermon, is located in the Higher Galilee and offers substantial climbing opportunities and wonderful views. The Israeli peak is at 2,236m (7,336′) and due to its altitude, the climate can be cooler even in the hot summer days. Due to the proximity to the border it is required in this area to coordinate trail running and off-road explorations with the army.
Another beautiful area is Mount Meron, one of the tallest in Israel (1,208m/3,963′). The INT passes over its peak, but there are plenty other possibilities to log a magnificent trail run around it.
Closer to the center, near the city of Haifa is the ridge of Mount Carmel with its national park. An ever-green hilly area with vast opportunities for shaded runs, some on very technical trails through dense vegetation and superb groves.
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.
The Judaean Desert is part of the south that the INT misses and does not pass through. However, this piece of land offers some dramatic scenery of its own. The cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea, the Ein-Gedi Nature Reserve with fresh springs of water which turns the desert to a green oasis and the famous Masada Fortress are only few locations to point out. As in other areas of Israel, ancient trails cover the area and offer unbelievable diversity to explore some epic locations. However, the deserts of Israel are remote, tough, and sometimes wild areas. Cellular reception is scarce. Although possible to run independently, it is recommended to explore these locations with a local runner or guide who is familiar with the trails.
Road racing is well established in Israel with four international-standard marathons in Tiberius, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the unique Bible Marathon. Hundreds of shorter-distance races are also available. 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, Roman Spivak, Ori Gur-Ari, 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, spring, and some winter months. Ultramarathon Sovev Emek (October) in northern Israel is the country’s largest ultramarathon. A circular route on ancient Roman trails, the 2018 race includes 166k, 133k, 100k, 66k, 42.2k, 33k, 21k and 12k course distances. Some of these distances award qualifying points for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (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 beautiful scenery in Israel and is considered an experience every trail runner should take part at least once in his lifetime.
A newer race, now established nicely in the local race scene is the Israeli version of Hood to Coast, the Bible Revival. This race is a circular relay race covering 200 km in the central Lowlands of Israel. Teams of four, six, and eight people can signup. This race is also offering solo distances of 200k, 100k, 70k, 50k and 30k making it the only race in Israel to cover relay and ultra racing at the same event.
Another unique race is the Desert Marathon which takes place at the southern-most city of Israel, Eilat. This race offers the ability to taste the feeling of running in the desert and also enjoy the holiday opportunities of the Red Sea in Eilat.
In recent years the trail running scene has evolved to include a variety of mountain races and organized events (Some of them as fat-ass style). As opposed to the races above which offer non-technical, hilly routes with mild elevation gain, the new races are aiming to mimic European ultra races, providing more substantial elevation gain and also many technical sections on singletracks.
Several events take place in the Jerusalem hills. They gained a lot of popularity since their establishment. These are the HIRUS Ultra Marathon and the Jerusalem Mountains Ultra Tour (JMUT) organized by the Summit Running club. Other events are the Peak-To-Peak race that covers the Hermon, tallest mountain in Israel at over 2,000 meters, The Golan Volcano Run in the Golan Heights, and the Zeelim Sky Run (ZSR), a unique, tough, very technical route that takes place in the Judean desert, also organized by the Summit Running club.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- A few Facebook groups provide good sources of information on local events and organized trail outings: ‘Ultra Running Israel’ and ‘ultramarathoning Israel’. 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.
- The largest trail running club in Israel is Summit Running & Fitness. From time to time they organize Fat Ass runs all over Israel.
- Private runs and tailored running tours can be organized via Holy-Trails. A specialized service that offers unique routes in the heart of the most epic locations in Israel’s nature and running trails. Holy-Trails can also provide lots of information and detailed routes of trail running options for any skill.
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!