As some of you may know, either through my previous articles, numerous online posts, or non-stop chatter about the topic, I recently had the pleasure of attending Yachad’s marathon weekend event in Miami Beach, Florida. I was invited to participate in this incredible experience, both as a writer and as a runner, and to feel firsthand what the words unity, commitment, dedication, and inspiration truly mean.
It all started three years ago when Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, put together a team of 29 runners to participate in the ING Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, with the goal of raising much-needed funds for this incredible organization. The following year, that number doubled, with 77 runners committing to and running the marathon. This year was their most successful one yet, with 135 runners fundraising, training for, and running 13.1 or 26.2 miles, all with the same goal: to help Yachad continue their dedicated work of enhancing the life opportunities of individuals with disabilities, and ensuring their participation in the full spectrum of Jewish life.
My experience with Yachad began well before the actual marathon, dating back about six months or so when I first signed up to join the team. After my initial meeting with some of the dedicated staff members and runners in a New Jersey high school, I attended a couple of training sessions with Coach Jasmine (“Jaz”) Graham, who patiently answered every question I threw at her, and who provided me with my very own training regimen to fit my schedule.
After months of training and hard work, I hopped on a plane from rainy New York City to beautiful, sunny Miami Beach. The weekend began with the entire group meeting on Friday and registering for the race at the Miami Beach Convention Center, which was packed with booths, vendors, visitors and excited runners who were gearing up for Sunday’s race. After that, it was off to the beautiful Newport Beachside Resort in Sunny Isles, Florida on a chartered bus, followed by a lovely Friday afternoon lunch.
Then it was off to our hotel rooms to get ready for Shabbos. Walking into the beautiful room that the staff at Yachad had prepared, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a travel bag waiting for me, filled with goodies like snacks, drinks, health items, orange Team Yachad T-shirts, headbands, and several other surprises. On the bag were two tags; one had my name with the title “runner,” the other had my three-year-old daughter’s name with “fan club” underneath. It seemed like Yachad had taken care of every detail – from the couch-bed pulled out and made up for my daughter, to the many bottles of Gatorade that were provided for us even before the actual race.
It has been quite a number of years since I’ve attended summer camp, but that’s exactly what Shabbos with Yachad felt like. From the beautiful Friday night davening, to the heartfelt singing at the Shabbos table, to the warm feeling of unity that was felt throughout the entire Shabbos, from beginning to end. Many of the runners were high school students who are connected to or involvedwith Yachad and are tremendous supporters of its work. Other runners included college students, grad students, and professionals who took time off of work to support Team Yachad. Others were staff members from different branches of the Orthodox Union throughout the country, and came with their families, some even recruiting their spouse to run right along with them. However they got there or whatever their motivation, every member of Team Yachad contributed to the Shabbaton and to the entire weekend in their own unique way – helping make it as special as it was.
Shabbos afternoon consisted of a beautiful Shabbos lunch, followed by a chance for everyone to enjoy the boardwalk, the beach, or to simply rest. Right after shalosh seudos, everyone gathered in a circle to sing Shabbos zemiros as a group. This was followed by one of my personal highlights of the weekend: a question-and-answer session with Richard Bernstein. Bernstein, 37, is blind since birth, and ran with Team Yachad for the first time in this year’s ING Miami Marathon. He has completed 15 marathons – including seven NYC Marathons, the Ironman Triathlon and the Israman Triathlon. An attorney, he is a tireless advocate for disabled rights and was so excited to run as part of Yachad, an organization that works hard at enhancing the life opportunities of individuals with disabilities, the very same mission to which he has devoted his life. It was a privilege to hear him speak and to have him share inspiration with the entire team.
Another inspirational moment for me came at the end of Shabbos, during Havdalah. As many of the team members were teenagers, I expected them all to race out of the shul the minute Shabbos was over and head straight toward their cell phones/laptops/iPods/cameras/iPads, etc. Much to my surprise, Havdalah was a lengthy and very beautiful ritual that I don’t normally have the pleasure to witness. When it was over, the kids started singing, “Six more days ‘till Shabbos…” and formed a circle, singing and dancing as if they didn’t want Shabbos to end. It was incredibly inspiring.
But the night was not yet over. After some downtime to enjoy the pool, arcades, and other amenities the hotel offered, everyone gathered together for an amazing pasta party. Six hours before it was time to get up for the 6 a.m. marathon, the dining room was flooded with excited teenagers, loud and fun music, a colorful assortment of food, and loads of orange and blue – Team Yachad’s colors. Everywhere you looked, there were orange T-shirts, caps, headbands, and sweaters – even an orange tutu. The excitement was contagious, and everyone was getting pumped for the coming marathon.
At 4 a.m., after a few hours of sleep, everyone gathered again in the dining room for a healthy breakfast and to hear important information and instructions from Coaches Jaz, Melissa, and Yoav. Then it was off to the buses that took us straight to the American Airlines Arena, site of the marathon.
We arrived at the arena when it was still dark outside, and were greeted with the sight of thousands upon thousands of people preparing for the marathon – stretching, walking, talking, screaming, and jumping up and down. The excitement, the adrenaline, the rush that everybody seemed to have was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There isn’t anything quite like the hustle and bustle of 25,000 people getting ready to run 13.1 or 26.2 miles at 6 in the morning. There just isn’t!
After getting into our designated sections and walking quite a bit toward the starting line, it was time to begin! I had the privilege of running along with Aaron Winston, a Dallas Yachad member who was competing for the second consecutive year with Team Yachad. Aaron explained to me exactly what was going to happen since he had been there before, and shared with me some of his memories of the last race.
The start of the race was incredible. We kept meeting our teammates and shouting, “Go Yachad!” every time we saw a Team Yachad shirt. The entire 13.1 miles had fans and supporters lined up along the highway, the streets, and the sidewalks – cheering us on. Every few miles had water stations set up, where eager volunteers handed us cups of water and Gatorade as we ran, without us having to stop to help ourselves. Yachad also had its very own water station at mile 11, with Yachad volunteers providing drinks for all the runners, and cheering us on as we were getting closer and closer ot the finish line.
Before I knew it, the race was over, a trophy draped around my neck. I couldn’t believe I had just completed a half marathon with Team Yachad, something I never dreamed I would ever attempt to do. The feeling of accomplishment and pride that one feels is unparalleled, and I recommend that everyone go out and run a half marathon with Team Yachad, if only for that exhilarating feeling at the end. There is truly nothing quite like it.
After meeting up with the rest of our teammates at our designated Team Yachad tent, we were all treated to massages by experienced physical therapists, as well as plenty of snacks and drinks, provided exclusively to Team Yachad members. We then headed back to the hotel where we all showered and changed, and then gathered again in the dining room for a delicious barbeque. We were all on a winning combination of exhaustion, exhilaration, and physical soreness, but hey, that’s what running a half marathon will do to you! Awards and certificates were given out, more food was brought out, photos were taken, and before long, it was time to leave for the airport and head back to New York City.
Running the half marathon with Team Yachad was something I never thought I would be able to do. The unity, the inclusion of every single team member, including 15 Yachad members with disabilities, was something I have never witnessed before. It was truly humbling to run hand in hand in support of inclusion, which is precisely what Yachad represents. I am so grateful to the incredible staff at Yachad for encouraging me, supporting me, and being there for me every step of the way. It was my absolute honor and privilege to partake in this experience, to be part of a bigger whole, and to be a part of Team Yachad.
Shaindy Urman is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She can be reached at email@example.com. To learn more about Team Yachad and to sponsor a runner, visit www.teamyachad.com. All proceeds, no matter the sum, benefit Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities.
About the Author: Shaindy Urman is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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