For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to run. That’s true of most kids — tag, hide and go seek and capture the flag all involve running at least moderate distances, and unless you were the nerd who preferred books to actual fun, you loved to run, too. But this love was formalized in 6th grade, when I joined the cross country team. It’s not that I liked running better than, say, soccer, but I was terrible at soccer. And baseball. And football. And, oh good lord, basketball. Running was the only ‘sport’ that didn’t involve me catching something, or kicking something, or doing anything coordinated with other people. All I had to do was run. So I joined the team, and happily played the supporting cast role of “kid who is small and usually comes in last, but makes everyone laugh so is an important part of the team.” Plus, I was (and am) diabetic, so doing any sort of sport, even poorly, gets people to say things like, “Wow, isn’t that inspiring?” and “He’s overcome so much!” Fast forward many, many years, and I still love to run. I do it all the time, too. I’m a lucky duck, because Tel Aviv is one of the most wonderfully run-able cities: it’s flat, it’s on the sea, it’s full of parks and the weather is always sunny and warm. What more could a runner ask for? As of a year ago, I began taking seriously the notion that I could run farther than my usual jaunt of 10 kilometers. So I began training my way up. 11k… 15k… 18k… Until last March, when I ran 21k in the Tel Aviv Half Marathon. The picture above is me with the Kahns, a family full of tough ass runners with great legs, after we finished our respective races (I think Yoni, far right, did the 12k rollerblade race). In October of last year, I signed up to run the Tel Aviv Nike Night Run. It’s more of a party than a race, as the entire 10k course through the city is lined with assorted light shows and DJs in addition to the usual mix of folks cheering on the runners and those who are angry that traffic is blocked. About 30,000 people run each year, and you spend nearly as much energy and focus on your own running as you do dodging people. But I’ve always been competitive, and so even in a race this big, I’m gunning for a good time. I ran the 2012 race and passed the current head of my NGO at the finish line — though he’d started the race 15 minutes before me. I finished in the top 700 out of about 15,000 male runners.
So in 2013, I was pumped to do even better. Sadly, this would not be the case. My first mistake was that I forgot to signup. In mid-October, I logged on to the race website to realize I’d missed the deadline by at least two weeks. I contemplated forfeiting the race shirt and possible glory and simply jumping on the course just after the starting line, but vowed that I wouldn’t be one of those dudes. Everyone hates those dudes. So I took to social media and asked around if anyone was selling their registration. Lo and behold, someone was. His name was Eitan and he was happy to sell me his identity to run the race. He even offered to pick up the ‘race kit’ for me. I told him I wanted a small shirt. When we met the next day, he handed me the Nike bag with my new race tag and shirt. What a good listener! He picked up a small! Oh, no, this is a child’s girl small. “Yeah, I thought it looked kind of weird,” he said. Way to go, Eitan. I swapped shirts on my own the next day, and I was all set. The day of the race, I was plagued by a stomach ache that I chalked up to nerves. That was a dumb mistake. Tal was working late, so she planned to meet me at the finish line. An hour before start time, I biked to Rabin Square, where over 30,000 runners in bright pink shirts were doing every assortment of pre-race ritual: sprints, stretches, gulping water, dancing to the DJs technobeats, incessant peeing and the like. I felt good, and the nerves subsided.
In the top heat, I neared the finish line. First a rep from Nike spoke. Then some celebrity spoke. Then the mayor spoke. Then Jesus spoke. Then the whistle blew and I was caught up in a human mass stampede for about a half kilometer. If I’d stopped running right there, I would’ve simply been lifted off the ground by several hundred bodies and carried along until things thinned out down the road. Strategy for next year. I quickly found the ’40-minute marker man,’ or the guy running with a balloon who was the official time designator. Five minutes behind him, you’d fine the 45-minute guy, the 50-minute guy and so on. The two-hour guy just walks, and the three-hour guy is an adorable baby. “Only stay with 40-minute guy until it starts to hurt,” I told myself. Because, you see, a 40-minute 10k (6.1 miles) is really fast. And yet, I felt fine. Better yet, I felt good. At the 5k mark, I checked my watch: 19:42. That was the fastest 5k I’d ever run. Including in high school. My first mile was 5:50 — tied with my best mile ever.
Then it all went to shit. By 6k, I’d recaptured a maintainable speed, but by 7k I started to feel shaky. I couldn’t put my finger on it — I was tired, sure, but it was something else. My head was pounding. I passed 8k and something felt wrong. 9k and I could see the finish line. 9.5k and I started to get dizzy. 9.7k I couldn’t see straight. 9.8k I had to walk; my vision was a carousel spinning, the earth moving towards the sky and the sky coming up from below. And at 9.87k, I…
Juuuuust about 9.8k, and everything went black I woke up with absolutely no idea where I was. I felt like my skin was on fire, but I quickly realized my entire body was submerged in ice cubes. There were a half dozen people standing above me. I was inside a tent. “Eitan! Eitan! Atah shom-eyah o-tee?” Do you hear me? “Eitan! T’daber iti, Eitan!” Speak with me! “Eitan?” I asked. “Who is Eitan?” “Anglit! Anglit! English!” someone yelled. “Eitan, can you hear us? Do you know what has happened?” “Who is Eitan?” I asked again, my voice hoarse and choked. In a second, I put a few pieces together. I passed out; I didn’t finish the race; and I was wearing a race tag that said my name was Eitan. “I’m Justin,” I said. My arms were full of tubes, and they were wrapping me in wet towels, sealing the ice cubes inside. “I’m not Eitan.” “Do you remember what happened?” asked a tall, male paramedic. “No, no.” “How do you feel?” “Terrible.” I’m not sure why I tried to revert back to Hebrew, but it suddenly struck me that diabetes could be an issue, especially after exercise. “Yesh li sucar-iot,” I said. “Mah?” responded the burly guy. “Yesh. Li. Sucar-iot,” I repeated. Blank stare. “Diabetes.” And with that, I remembered that the word for my disease was ‘succeret.’ ‘Sucar-iot‘ means hard candy. I was telling them I had candies. But ‘diabetes’ did the trick. They quickly checked my blood sugar; it was level. They poured more ice onto my body, and for a second I thought I was going to die. But a second is a long time to think you’re going to die, so I choked out, “Am I going to die?” and a different paramedic said, “No,” so at least I had that assurance. I felt suddenly ill, and I quickly vomited everywhere. Then the main paramedic told me, “This might hurt a bit,” and before I understood what he was talking about, the whole gang rolled me on my side and then there was a thermometer in my ass. He was right, but he undersold just how much. “Your temperature is 40. That is very high,” they told me. More ice. More wet towels. 40 C. Or roughly 104 F. I was rolled up like the coldest burrito in the world, where I was the meat and all the fillings were just ice. In a flash I had an odd moment of euphoria, a refreshing feeling, and I put my hand on the paramedic’s chest and said, “Thank you so much. You’re doing a great job.” A string of images swung through my head: I would have to quit my job and move back to the States, where I’d be taken care of and (for some reason in this fantasy) I would have made a ton of money. I might never work again. There would be stories about me in the newspaper. I smiled a tiny smile to myself. It’d all be so easy. I turned my head to the left and saw another runner, also laid out on a stretcher, and suddenly I remembered that I had a lovely, certainly confused girlfriend at the finish line and a phone in my running pack. I looked at a young, lady paramedic and said, “Please. Where is my phone?” My running pack had been taken off my waste. She reached inside and pulled out a phone. I dialed Tal. No service. Too many people at the finish line. I tried again. Nothing. I turned back to the woman. “Please. Please. I need you to call someone for me.” “I can’t right now. Whoever it is, they’ll be just fine.” “No, no, please, I need you to call her.” “Is she your wife?” “She’s, um, my fiance…” which is not true, but I figured would be more convincing than, “She’s my guh-friend.” She paused. “Ok, give me the phone.” I pulled up Tal’s number, handed it over and the woman was gone. In the meantime, I was starting to feel better. In fact, I was starting to feel cold. Then freezing. My fever was beginning to come down. The woman came back and handed me the phone. “She’ll be here soon.” I immediately started to cry and thanked her; she blushed and brushed it off. By the time Tal showed up, the paramedics were about ready to move me. To the hospital, that is. I cried again when Tal walked into the tent, and together we were put into an ambulance. My nausea was gone, but now I was shivering. I was still wearing my sweat-soaked clothes from the race: spandex running pants and a thin, pink race shirt. The ambulance took off, and we were accompanied by another runner who “Just didn’t feel well.” Tal sat up front and we joked to each other about the absurdity of the whole situation. The paramedic was less enthused.
A few minutes later, we were at Ichilov Hospital, the biggest, baddest hospital in central Tel Aviv. The guy who ‘just didn’t feel great’ quickly disappeared into the crowded ER, but we were stuck next to the intake desk for what seemed like an hour. And so began the longest day of my life. Thankfully, Tal had an extra shirt so I could change out of the terribly cold and wet race shirt, and I snapped this picture to document how I was feeling upon entering the hospital: strangely, much better. A few minutes later, I puked again. After an actual hour, I was rolled to a cozy spot in the corner of the ER, where I would remain for no less than half a day, otherwise known as the rest of eternity. Once we got the gist that we weren’t going anywhere fast, Tal took a cab home, grabbed an overnight bag with some clothes (I was still wearing my soaked spandex and I was utterly freezing) and cabbed right back. After just a few hours, my mood had significantly taken a turn for the this:
Guhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh All of which is to say nothing for Tal, who sat upright in a hospital chair through the entire night. We were pulling into the graveyard shift by 3am, and we still hadn’t seen a doctor for more than 30 seconds at a time, and hence still had no idea what the plan was for me. By 3:30am, thankfully, we found a kind soul who would speak with us: they wanted to do some tests to make sure that I’d fainted solely due to dehydration and/or overexertion, and not due to something serious like a heart condition or a flesh-eating bacteria. But those tests would take time. A lot of time. By 4am, the freaks really started to come out. Several homeless people wandered into the ER, as they likely do every night. One was a shoeless, blind African woman who felt her way along the walls and beds, which often included touching the people in those beds. So that was horrible. By morning, the doctors told me I could walk outside to sit on the bench near the ER entrance. Tal and I grabbed a coffee and watched people smoking. We hadn’t eaten a solid meal since lunch the day before. In the early afternoon, it was decision time. Doctors said — again, in 30 second bursts — that my tests looked good and I should be able to go home, but not before they ensured that my heart was fine, which required another test. I told Tal to head home, relax a bit, and that I’d keep her updated. She was the world’s best girlfriend, and had stayed awake nearly the entire night making sure doctors paid a bit of attention to me and that the blind woman didn’t tickle me. So off she went. By 2pm, they wheeled me from my cozy corner into the hallway, which was admittedly less cozy. In fact, it was terrible. A drunk Russian reeking of vodka and dumpsters was wheeled in on a stretcher and left across the hallway from me. A young family sat in chairs off to his side. He quickly tried to stand up, but couldn’t because he was so pathetically drunk. But, boy oh boy, did he keep trying. Doctors continuously came over to him, begged him to stay on the stretcher, then jetted away. I wished I’d been drunk and rowdy when I was brought in; doctors would’ve been all over me, too. Soon enough, the drunk Russian willed himself into standing up and took two steps across the hallway, and then fell onto my stretcher, where I was laying down. And that, friends, is the closest I’ve ever been to laying in bed with a homeless person. My body shot up at his sudden crashing down and he, in reaction, jerked backwards, took two baby steps, then fell, headfirst, into the wall. That, friends, is the closest I’ve ever been to killing a homeless person. The whole ER froze, especially the family who’d been watching the whole thing. It was a nasty fall. Was this dude dead? Nope! He got up slowly, dazed, and sat on his stretcher. I, for what it’s worth, had bounded down the hallway as soon as he revealed himself to be still alive. This was not going to be the day I was revenge-murdered by a drunk Russian man. By 4pm, the doctors said I was clear to go. Eighteen hours in the ER, and that was it: all tests clear, just a case of running too fast with not enough hydration. What a fucking idiot.