Trail Running, Diversity and Privilege

Back in March, I came across an article describing the experience of trail running in Israel. It described the county as small but having “incredibly diverse geography” and a thriving night life in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. I learned of Israel’s “well-maintained” trails complete with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea. Because of my own experience visiting the region ten years ago this month, I won’t deny its natural beauty; I traveled it freely with a U.S. passport. I would, however, hesitate to write such a broad brushed flattering article about Israel’s aesthetics without mentioning that much of its native Palestinian population is forbidden access to the rugged beauty described.

As trail runners of a certain background, we think little of our unobstructed access to some of the most beautiful places on earth. We plan and execute elaborate excursions and dream of ultrarunning’s most coveted races in the most remote of locales. We come and go as we please and rarely acknowledge how our appearance, race, place of birth or ethnicity defines the broad scope of our travel options. This privilege doesn’t exist for Palestinians living within Israel’s occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I think the article’s author missed a wonderful opportunity to recognize our advantages. Being Palestinian, and living under Israeli jurisdiction, defines your physical access to space and land, and for no other reason than being Palestinian. For decades, Israel has controlled access to and from the Palestinian territories. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, found over 90 checkpoints restricting movement within the West Bank. Dozens more exist to limit passage from the West Bank into Israel. Keep in mind that many of the Palestinians denied passage are refugees of the very land for which they are restricted from visiting.

The irony that a foreigner can come to Israel and, without delay, enjoy its full natural beauty while much of its indigenous population cannot was lost on some readers. Dissident thoughts were expressed in the forum below the article, but they fell on deaf ears or were aggressively dismissed. I was disappointed to read as fellow trail runners, those who embrace the natural world, shouted down valid critiques using distracting statements like this not being the place for this discussion and that “politics” were not relevant. One was so bold as to proclaim, in the face of such an obvious contradiction, that trail running is a great uniter and we should focus on the solidarity it creates. The irony, of course, is that if you can’t get to the run because of your ethnicity, what union are we talking about? Truthfully, the union referenced only concerns people like us. Palestinian runners can be left outside the group without disrupting “our” union.

Our community can be quite insular and when we are among our “own” we can forget about our privilege and take opportunities for granted. Detachment only removes us from the issues facing marginalized members of our community. For trail running to become more “diverse” we need a deep examination of our privilege. We should learn to recognize that the right to movement and travel, something sacred to the trail runner’s creed, is all too often withheld from fellow runners (and would-be runners). We assume that our experiences are universal at our own peril. With an open and critical examination, empathy can emerge and we can finally start to be the big tent community I know many of us want.

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