Runner’s chai

Runner’s chai

When the hotel operator rang to wake me at 3:50 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. ‘7, it took me a few seconds to understand that I was not in bed in Fair Lawn, but at the Team Lifeline hotel in Hollywood, Fla.

"This is your wake-up call," the voice said.

"I just started dreaming," I complained, still half asleep.

I am not an early riser. Three in the morning is more likely the time I will go to sleep than the hour I would wake up. But as I shook the sleep from my brain, I realized that the dream wasn’t over; it was just beginning.

Above, Rabbi Pesach Sommer and his student, Ben Rutta, congratulate each other at the end of the race.

Last October I committed to running the ING Miami Half-Marathon as part of Team Lifeline, an endurance training program that prepares people to run the marathon and half-marathon while raising money for Chai Lifeline. For four months I had run three to four times a week, depending on my schedule, until I could run for hours. I discovered the books on long-distance running were right: you learn a lot about yourself while running for several miles. Mostly, I learned that I don’t like to run. Nevertheless, a lot of people had sent money to sponsor me, and there was no way I was going to quit.

Melanie Kwestel

In exchange for raising a minimum of $3,600, Team Lifeline provides airfare to Florida, three nights in the official Team Lifeline hotel, race fees, and kosher pasta and victory parties. What team members get is much more than a weekend: it’s an inspirational 7′ hours where we realize how much a group of people with little in common can make a difference in the lives of seriously ill children and teens.

Team Lifeline started two years ago with ‘7 runners. Last year, 65 people ran with the team. This year, Team Lifeline was ’30 runners strong, including more than 30 present and former Camp Simcha counselors, three Camp Simcha Special campers who were pushed in their wheelchairs by counselors, a number of husband-wife, parent-child, and family teams, ‘0 runners from yeshiva high schools across the country, and members of ZBT and AEPI, the national Jewish college fraternities. We all had our own reasons for signing on: to get in shape, lose weight, challenge ourselves, or get into an exercise routine. But our overriding desire was to send kids to Chai Lifeline’s two camps this summer, and we had raised almost $1 million to make it happen.

Now, the only thing left was to run.

It seemed that only a few hours before, we had been yelling, screaming, and clanging on blue Team Lifeline emblazoned cowbells as race director Moshe Turk and Team Lifeline chairman Ari Weinberger announced the names of the 10 people who had raised the most money. At the time, we couldn’t wait to get started. Now I wondered if I could take a nap on the bus to the American Airlines Arena, where the race would begin.

I pulled on my bright blue and yellow Team Lifeline running shirt, laced up my sneakers, and went down to the lobby. I tried to force down a banana and granola bar, but my stomach wasn’t buying it. I grabbed a package of Jelly Belly endurance jelly beans (basically Jelly Bellys with lots of sugar), which proved to be a lifesaver later on in the race, and headed to the buses.

It was still dark when we headed into the corrals and waited for the start. We laughed and chatted as we stretched. Toby Tanser, our race coach, circulated amid the group, helping to break the inevitable tension felt by novice runners with his advice and quiet confidence.

Then we were off. The sun came up as I was crossing the MacArthur Causeway, looking at the cruise ships docked in Miami and waiting for passengers. The sky was overcast, but lit up before I passed Starbucks, where runners were the morning’s entertainment for the people sipping lattes on the front porch. A few minutes later, I passed a vintage Rolls Royce parked on the street; a wax figure of Humphrey Bogart sat in the driver’s seat. Later, someone told me it was parked in front of the Versace mansion, but the truth was, if it wasn’t right in front of me, I didn’t see it. By the time we ran through the barrier islands, more than halfway into the course, I was no longer thinking. My name was printed on both my shirtsleeve and bib, and every time a policeman said, "Go, Melanie," I wondered how he knew me. Was my picture on the wall of some South Florida police station?

A little more than two and a half hours after I started, I crossed the finish line. I was greeted by dozens of Team Lifeline members who were hanging around waiting for friends. While everyone had their "war stories" (the bottoms of my feet were sore to the touch, and one counselor ran a full marathon with a broken metatarsal), we focused on the victories.

I was delighted to hear that David Beiss, a Camp Simcha Special camper, and the counselor who had pushed his customized wheelchair, A.Y. Mernick, came in second in the wheelchair division. Our two other Camp Simcha Special wheelchair runners, Hudi Arieh and Rivky Deren, had finished as well. Rabbi Pesach Sommer, a Passaic resident with whom I had flown down to Florida on Thursday, had spent months engaged in a friendly rivalry with Ben Rutta, his student at MTA. When he saw him at mile 1′, Pesach slowed down and engaged Ben in conversation. The two finished the race together, then embraced in a giant bear hug. I had a big grin on my face when I heard that.

One of the most inspiring and entertaining stories starred Roy Naim, a Camp Simcha division head, who confessed that he never even ran for the bus before beginning training. Roy’s nerves had gotten the better of him, and he had spent 45 minutes on the sidelines with a medical team early in the race. When they told him he couldn’t go on, he protested. "So many people sponsored me. I can’t let them down." The medics finally agreed to let him run, paced by a motorcycle policeman for five miles; the policeman turned off only when he was sure that Roy would make it. When Roy crossed the finish line, he was engulfed by a phalanx of counselors who had vowed not to leave the finish area until their friend crossed it.

Two hundred thirty runners. Two hundred thirty stories. When we met that afternoon for our victory party, it was difficult to know what to do first: talk or chow down. We were starved. But we were also happy and proud. As we bit into our hot dogs and gourmet chicken fingers, we made ourselves two promises. First, that we would try to raise a bit more so that Team Lifeline would reach that million dollar mark. And second, that we would all be back next year.

For information about joining Team Lifeline and the ‘009 Team Lifeline schedule, e-mail race director Moshe Turk at


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