by Amy VanTassel
Ed. Note—Wattie Pro Amy "VT" VanTassel likes going long. At her three Ultraman attempts, she's won twice and placed second once. She and your faithful editor headed to Israel in November for a wildly different triathlon experience.
“This is Israel, everything is supposed to be challenging!” said Yuval, my new Israeli friend (and fellow competitor) as we slogged up another monster hill on the east bank of The Dead Sea. I had been crying and sputtering complaints because my rear derailleur had stopped working 63 miles into our 170 mile ride through the Negev Desert. The landscape looked like Mars (confirmed by NASA’s successful InSight landing), and I may have been hallucinating Martians at that point.
I coasted minor descents where I would normally gain speed (because I didn't have a big enough gear), and then mashed a hard gear on climbs, Paper-boying close to oncoming traffic, barely making over the top of my pedal stroke. Forget sparing my legs for the double-marathon the next day, my quads screamed as I thought each stroke might be my last and I’d topple down the sandy landscape into the country of Jordan.
Yuval’s retort was in keeping with my entire experience in Israel, and was actually the perfect micro-lecture to put me in check. Israel, in fact, put me in check. The whole trip provided me with a sought-after perspective on global dynamics, and the race alone highlighted for me how spoiled we are in the conditions we experience at other races. The distance of Ultraman notwithstanding, most full- and half-iron distances boast perfect road surfaces, nearly-closed roads (or at least a lane dedicated to cyclists), and PR-busting courses.
All Ultraman races demand you to be 100% accountable for course knowledge, your own fuel, and most staggeringly, your own safety on open courses. Ultraman Israel went above-and-beyond with extra aid stations and extremely clear directional signing, but the courses were tough by design - especially the 84 kilometer (53 mile) run that almost laughably twisted up the steepest and sandiest sections of the desert.
The tough course was a point of pride for the director and the athletes, echoing Yuval’s maxim and Israeli culture, in general. But there was more: the race had you cycling through military check points, past guards wielding automatic rifles. On the run, land mine warning signs hovered horrifyingly in the margins. As nature writer John McPhee wrote, "A landscape with a bear in it is unlike any other landscape you will encounter," Israel is a very real place. You never lose sight of the fact that this is contested territory, on all sides except the Mediterranean Sea. Things are difficult in Israel because, well, just living is difficult in Israel.
Travel casts your normal circumstances into stark relief, and I'll never look at the comfort of the United States the same way. Israel is a confounding place, full of beauty and harshness, kindness and wariness, generosity and envy, gentility and violence, all in equal terms. I managed to win the entire race after the double-marathon on day three, collecting (among other prizes) a pair of shoes at the awards ceremony. It was a certificate for a pair of Hoka One Ones, redeemable at the Hoka store in Tel Aviv. When I arrived there, an incredulous attendant kept insisting "No, no, this is for the overall winner of the race—it must be for a man!" When I finally convinced him I was that overall winner, he pointed to a small, dusty stack of women's shoes that stood like a tenement among the men's items. "We don't have many women's shoes," he said, and shrugged.
Beyond the hip metropolis of Tel Aviv, conservative culture is rampant, including signs of sexism I’ve never experienced. But that’s why I went there. When I was first invited to Israel I was giddy for days. My husband (fellow Wattie Ink. pro Chris Bagg) and I are fortunate to travel to Canada, Mexico, and Europe for most of our racing, but we rarely have the privilege of combining racing with cultural tourism. The Middle East is in the news every day, and some of the most significant turmoils in the world are occurring there right now. Yet if someone handed me a blank map of that region a month ago, I could have only filled in Saudi and Iran. OK, maybe Yemen, Israel, and Palestine, but definitely not Oman.
Yuval’s adage is my takeaway. I confess: I had a hard time over there. I was tried by obstacles in the race, and in our general travels. But I concurrently got to know a population that embraces challenge—not for martyrdom, but for purposes of grit, resilience, and pride. Israelis steel themselves in a significant armor, and an admirable sense of national pride.
Nothing can thwart Israelis. They live within the throes of conflict on every border (or water), amidst a coarse (but stunning) landscape, and surrounded by a majority of the globe that disbelieves their history, and tries to hold from them their future. My derailleur rendered my day two ride the hardest ride of my life. My new Israeli friends and flashes of memories crossing military checkpoints rendered my Ultraman the experience of a lifetime.