Endurance Sports Need More Jews – After all, we wrote the book on suffering

For as long as I can remember, my life has revolved around human performance, sports and athletics. My father was a golfer and competitive swimmer (didn’t get that gene), my mother participated in every sport imaginable from tennis and golf to riding on boys shoulders while surfing down in Mexico, and my sister turned Title IX on its ear in her own way by being a five sport letter girl and making the boys in high school and the men at UCLA look foolish in any number of sports. It was just part of our lives. Being Jewish has also been a large part of my life, and no, ordinarily I don’t go around wearing a kippah on a daily basis or even mention it, but I do think it has influenced my outlook on life and how I approach competitive athletics. Full disclosure, for the most part I grew up as what one might casually call a Beverly Hills Jew, getting Bar Mitzvahed, and going to High Holiday services, and not much more. Even so, I have always considered being Jewish to be a big part of who I am, except for the whole slaughtering and sacrificing of animals, keeping multiple wives, all that huge portion, high calorie tasteless food and that whole carnivore thing – I haven’t quite reconciled all of that yet.

What I have been in tune with is how these two important pieces of my life, athletics and Judaism, have occasionally come together to create a perfect synergy of spirit and purpose. I’ve often wondered, however, why when the discussion of Jewish athletes arises, only a few names like Sandy Koufax come to people’s minds. Maybe that’s because there are so few well known Jewish athletes and that makes it so easy to identify the few there actually are; it’s kind of like asking the question, do you know of any “Catholic American Presidents?” My earliest competitive memories of combining Judaism with sport are from back in high school playing Yeshiva Academy in some non-league basketball game and having to wait until sundown to start the game and thinking to myself, how ridiculous it was that we had to keep stopping for one of the boys to pick up his kippah that inevitably would continue to fall off of his head while running around.

Like many, however, my first and most memorable connection to Judiasm and athletics came in 1972 while watching the summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, watching American athletes, who’s names I will never forget collect myriad medals in individual sports that up until that time were sports there just to prove how weak I was as part of the Mr. Peanuts Physical Fitness Tests we did annually in elementary school: Frank Shorter, Mark Spitz, Dwight Stones, Shirley Babashoff and of course the ultimate front runner Steve Prefontaine, who actually lost to Gammoudi, Viren and Stewart in one of the greatest 800 meter races ever run as a part of a 5,000 meter final.

Combining with these amazing athletic success stories was the unfolding horror as members of Black September took Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches hostage, finally killing them on the tarmac at the airport in a botched rescue attempt. Like Beamer’s famous last words on Flight 93 “Let’s roll”, I still remember these words from Jim McKay from those Olympic games as if  he just said them yesterday:

“When I was a kid, my father used to say “Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.” Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone”

In the years that followed those 1972 games, I got actively involved in sport, even figured out how to do a pull-up and have thought about the best and the worst of those games ever since.

So as I sit here typing on Yom Kippur, thinking about what this holiday or holy day is all about, I do so through my own particular lens, one that continually combines human performance and sport with my own interpretation of Judiasm.

Beyond the tragedy of that event, it also opened my eyes up to really terrific athletes who were also Jewish, or maybe it’s more appropriate to say, really terrific Jews who were also athletes? And obviously with my passions focused since college in the area of endurance sport, I can say that we as a community still have a long way to go although if you look at the individual sports within a triathlon, we’re pretty well represented. Well, not all of the sports. Jews have continued to suck at cycling, even a guy named Levi Leipheimer isn’t Jewish, what’s up with that? We do alright in running with standout Deena (Drossin) Kastor leading that field, and absolutely own swimming. Think about these aquatic athletes, all Jewish, who are all household names regardless of your religious affiliation: Jason Lezak, Lenny Krayzelburg, Mark Spitz, and Dara Torres. As for the complete triathlete picture, well we don’t exactly dominate that sport but can point to Joanna Zeiger who was the Ironman 70.3 World Champion in 2008. Hey, it’s a start.

So with this mindset, I found myself in NY during these Days of Awe and was particularly thrilled to be able to attend services at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, NY, just a few miles from where Cindy and I lived for most of the past 10 years. It is a bet kennesit, (meeting place) where we can see old friends and neighbors and now perhaps most importantly, it is led by Scott Weiner, a rabbi, who is also a former Team for Kids member and one of the founders of Running Rabbis. Yes, you got it right, Running Rabbis, a group of rabbis that are committed to positive change in their communities and use running as a catalyst.

Scott was a TFK member back in 2006, where at the NYC Marathon he popped off a respectable 3:52 marathon. Since then he has run NYC two more times and has dropped his average pace per mile almost a full minute and finished last year’s race in 3:35. This tells me two things, First, he got a lot faster after he left the team I was coaching, and second a rabbinical appearance in Boston cannot be far behind.

Last night at Erev Yom Kippur services, I listened to Scott give an impassioned sermon on the purpose of a Jewish congregation such as that at Temple Israel, and took much enjoyment out of the fact that he made at least 4 references to sport and discussed a balanced nutritional meal of spiritual, mental and social calories. Cindy leaned over to me and whispered, “You can tell he drank the runner’s Kool-Aid”.

But being Jewish and an athlete, I can’t help but find a certain degree of humor in the process of fasting as a form of “suffering”, don’t they know that a fun day for people like us is to swim 2.4 miles and bike 112 miles BEFORE running a marathon? Like speed limits on roads that I feel should take into account the car you are driving, I’m pretty sure this whole simulated suffering thing needs to run on a sliding scale, otherwise for many it becomes simply a really convenient time to shrink your stomach and begin dieting so you can fit into you best ski bunny outfit this winter.

So here are a few recommendations for more effective suffering as our Jewish population gets increasingly athletic and performance oriented:

  • Instead of fasting, don’t let us use the bathrooms for 24 hours;
  • Set up bike trainers with reading stands in front of them and then make us go through services as if it were a Spinning class. Every time the arc is opened, we have to stand in the saddle;
  • Tie this to an American Cancer Society Relay for Life event and have us run or walk on treadmills in the synagogue for 24 hours while raising funds to fight cancer;
  • Let’s simulate a real exodus and put on an 80 lb backpack and hike the entire day in the hot sun without any food or water – I actually did this on a UCLA Outdoor Adventure instructor outing that was scheduled on Yom Kippur

Regardless of the changes we might make to how we observe the holiday, I hope Temple Israel understands the value that Rabbi Weiner can bring to this congregation by shepherding the physical as well as the spiritual health of its congregants. And they have a perfect 6-mile course right outside their temple that they can train on. Pinebrook Blvd might well become Westchester’s equivalent of San Vicente in Santa Monica, CA.

More broadly, I think it’s time for Jews to accept their rightful place in the endurance sport community. We come from a culture where suffering is part and parcel with whom we are. And let’s face it, we already have the complaining part down. We’re world class at that. L’shanah Tova. Have a happy, healthy and sweet new year.