The right to run

With the attack in Boston weighing heavily on their minds, two Danish women are sticking to their commitment to hold a marathon in a somewhat unlikely spot

On Sunday, runners from around the world will take to the streets of Bethlehem for the first ever marathon to be held in Palestine.

Although security has been a major concern since the beginning, the tragic events at the Boston Marathon this week have inspired the race’s organisers – the small Danish-Palestinian non-profit organisation Right to Movement – to put an even greater emphasis on keeping runners and spectators safe.

“We were shocked to hear about Boston,” said Lærke Hein, one of the women behind the Palestine Marathon. “Security was of course on our minds as something to be aware of for our race, but we never expected to hear about something like this at the Boston Marathon."

Hein said that she and her partner, Signe Fischer Smidt, who lives in Palestine, were deeply saddened by the attack in Boston, calling it “a sad day for athletes all over the world”.

She said that the security plan for Sunday’s marathon was developed in close co-operation with local police and authorities. Extra measures have been put in place in the wake of the attacks in Boston and the organisers and police will be in contact both on race day and during the days leading up to the event.

Hein felt it was important that the race goes on, because although freedom of movement is one of the foundational planks of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is not the reality in many parts of the world. That was the original motivation behind Right to Movement’s decision to hold a marathon in the West Bank.

From the start, arranging the race has been a challenge.

“What started out as a little project that we thought would be fun has turned into an around-the-clock effort over the last few months,” said Hein. “But we believe in it.”

Hein said the idea of running for pleasure was almost completely alien to Palestinians when she and her partner began training runs in the West Bank earlier this year.

“We started out with two or three runners, and now we are up to 40,” she said. “They weren’t even sure how to dress for running – some turned up in business clothes and high heels.”

Teaching people about running was one of the smaller hurdles of holding a 42 kilometre marathon in the West Bank, a place where movement is controlled by checkpoints and ID cards, which often requires a permit simply to travel.

The organisers were unable even to map out a full course that did not run into a checkpoint or some other type of roadblock, so they created a 21 kilometre course that runners will cover twice on the day. Organisers hope that as many as 500 West Bank residents will join the international runners in the race.

“Since running is new in Palestine, and we want to get as many people involved as possible, we are having shorter races – a half marathon, a 10k and a 5k – on the same day,” said Hein.

Although the race is not intended as a political statement, Hein was well aware that almost anything happening in the Palestinian territories carries with it considerable baggage. She said that the Right to Movement organisation will continue to use sport to attract attention to the human consequences of political conflicts.

“We want to get both men and women running and moving because it is good for them,” she said. Previously, men and women have often been prevented from competing with each other in sporting events in the territories.

The race has attracted attention and sponsors from several different countries, including The Copenhagen Post.

Jesper Nymark, the chief executive of The Copenhagen Post, felt it was important to support this seemingly “impossible” race.

“We supported the project specifically because it is not about politics,” he said. “It is about the right to run and proves that something that seems impossible can happen if enough people believe in it.”

Nymark himself will be in the West Bank for the race, handing out water to the runners.

Hein was thankful for the contributions made by the race’s sponsors, but felt the local support was the most critical.

“This has to become their race, not something run by a bunch of Danes,” she said. “We want this to continue and for them to take ownership and turn it into something they are proud of, like we are of the Copenhagen Marathon.”