A Jewish History of the London Marathon, 1981 - 2019
The London Marathon would have taken place this Sunday, if the world had not changed. It is now scheduled for October.
But the empty sporting calendar presents an opportunity for looking back at the 39 year history of Jewish involvement in the event. It is a tapestry of stories of triumph over adversity and of millions raised for charity, but also of sporting excellence. The history includes a women's outright winner, Deena Kastor, who in 2006 became the fourth fastest woman ever with her winning time of 2:19:36. Kastor had placed third three years previously, with an American record of 2:21:16, and then taken the Olympic marathon bronze medal the following year.
Within the Anglo-Jewish community, the challenge of the London marathon set a non-runner, Danielle Sanderson, onto a path that eventually led to a European Championship gold medal. Beginning in 1990, Sanderson's five London Marathon appearances included three times placing as third British woman. Sanderson set her marathon personal best of 2:36:29 in the 28°C heat of the European Championships in 1994, and ten years later won the European 50 km Championships in a world best time for a veteran.
23-year-old Hendon student Daniel Felsenstein set a high standard from the start when he placed 39th in the first London Marathon in 1981, recording 2:22:49. He improved by exactly a minute the following year, having in the interim graduated from University College with first class honours, competed successfully in three events in the Maccabiah, and made Aliyah to Israel. Today Felsenstein, Chair of the Hebrew University Department of Geography, remains one of Israel's finest over-60’s runners.
The mantle of fastest Jewish competitor passed in 1983 to Hampstead dentist Alan Gold, who recorded 2:36 on his 37th birthday. His performances of 2:45 in 1986 and 2:44 in 1987 confirmed his status as the fastest Anglo-Jewish competitor at that time. In 1989, by then well into the 40-plus age category, Gold’s 2:53 performance was bettered by five minutes by 31-year-old Alan Ruben. Ruben, a New Yorker who grew up in London, had previously failed several times to gain a lottery entry to the London Marathon, and instead he competed elsewhere. Software specialist Ruben has now run the New York City Marathon 33 times in a row – every year since 1987. He achieved his lifetime personal best of 2:29:54 in the 1998 Boston Marathon.
Meanwhile several community members submitted to the challenge of the London Marathon year after year. Putney solicitor Jeffrey Gordon ran the first 33 London Marathons, running his most recent, 2013, at the age of 79. Always one of the fastest runners in his age group, Gordon achieved his marathon personal best of 2:47 in 1981, at the age of 47. Another prolific high achiever was Highgate Harrier Bob Slowe, who, at age 57, completed his 10th London Marathon in 2:57 in 1994. He set his personal best of 2:32 at age 49. In 2005, 51-year-old George Jackson recorded 2:54 to complete his second sub-three-hour marathon within the space of a week.
Cardiff solicitor Nathaniel Lane ran the event six times between 2006 and 2013, with times ranging between 2:24:46 (2008) and 2:43:24 (2012). Lane is the second fastest known Anglo-Jewish competitor.
Champion triathletes Sara Black and Oliver Ziff successfully transitioned to the marathon at London. Black, at age 46, was one of the fastest finishers of her age group when she recorded 3:06:34 in 2019 - a personal best that she improved by a full minute six months later in Chicago. Ziff finished in 2:47:30 in 2012 as the lead runner in a six-man family team that raised over £73,000 for charity. Switching perhaps more dramatically between sports, London bantamweight weightlifting champion Marcel Ostermeyer achieved a personal best 2:52:28 in 1998.
UK international miler and Maccabiah record holder James Espir recorded 2:47:03 at age 45 in 2004, despite falling and fracturing his hip and four vertebrae. Fellow miler David Peters recorded 2:48:40 in 2009, while restaurateur Andrea Fraquelli matched that time in 2016. Allan Cowen, a Maccabiah gold medallist who paced Ray Roseman to the first Jewish sub-four-minute mile in 1969, ran London in 2:55:00 in 1983 at age 42. Cowen improved to 2:50:08 later in the year in New York.
Jewish presence in the race has been boosted in most years by a strong Israeli contingent. Space permits the mention of just one or two performances. In 1988, sisters Zahava Shmueli and Mazal Shalom came 20th and 24th in the women’s section, recording 2:43 and 2:45 respectively. Several years later, Mazal and her husband settled in London, and their children Sagie and Reut were frequently featured in the JC for running and swimming respectively.
In 2015, Israeli amputee Eitan Hermon completed his first London Marathon in 3:07. Hermon’s right leg was amputated just below the knee after his tank was hit by a roadside bomb during the 2006 Lebanon War.
The last word in this tale of tenacity perhaps belongs to East Londoner Paul Freedman who earned his 23rd London Marathon medal in 2014. At age 89, Freedman was the oldest finisher of the event.
Brian Sacks completed the 1990 London Marathon in 2:59:36. His late son Daniel ran the event seven years in succession, recording 2:51:43 in 2004.