A look at Israel's amateur triathlon scene

Joshua Hantman is an Israeli amateur triathlete, and a former advisor to Israel's Minister of Defense and Ambassador to Washington. He currently is a partner in a communications consultancy - Number10Strategies - working as a consultant with the organization bringing the first three stages of the Giro d'Italia to Israel, among other clients.

Slowtwitch: Tell us something about yourself. Where were you born and raised? What is your education? What is your connection with Israel?

Joshua Hantman: I was born and raised in the United Kingdom before moving to Israel. I have always had a strong connection to the State of Israel, growing up a proud Jew in London. After completing degrees in the UK and America - I was lucky enough to study both at Oxford and Harvard - I decided to move here, become a citizen and fulfill a dream. I never looked back.

ST: What is your background in sports? What led you to triathlon?

Joshua: Sport was always my life. I used to swim at school, but my sporting life had always revolved around team sports. I played tons of football (soccer) and also rugby while at school. However in recent years, I started running, then cycling, then swimming again; hence the triathlons!

ST: What is Number10Strategies about?

Joshua: Number10Strategies is a strategic consulting gig in which I am a partner. Our main focus has been international communications campaigns, with a focus on political campaigns and big sporting events (we like politics and we love sport!). We are currently lucky enough to be working on the Giro d'Italia Big Start Israel, a truly special event.

ST: How did the Giro d’Italia come to Israel?

Joshua: Sylvan Adams, a businessman and philanthropist who set up the Israel Cycling Academy, was responsible for bringing the Giro d'Italia to Israel for the start of the 2018 event. He wants to make Israel into a cycling nation in a short amount of time, and see Israeli champions on the world stage. He dreamed about bringing one of the grand tours to Israel - and through the Giro, he is making that dream a reality.

ST: Tell us about Adams and his quest to bring the Giro to Israel..

Joshua: It’s his dream. He is an inspirational guy, a Canadian Jew who moved to Israel with a number of philanthropic goals. One was to put Israel on the sporting map. He has invested so much already in Israeli cycling. As well as bringing the Giro to Israel, and setting up Israel's first professional cycling team, he is also responsible for building the first velodrome in the Middle East, which will be completed in Israel this year.

ST: Where will the courses be for the time trial and the first two full days of racing?

Joshua: The TT course will be around Jerusalem, finishing in the Old City. The next two days take the cyclists across the length of Israel. Day Two starts in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa, goes up the coast to the border with Lebanon and then races down all the way back to Tel Aviv with its famed beaches and modern skylines. Day Three brings with it new and different scenes. Starting in Be'er Sheva - the capital of the Negev desert - the cyclists will traverse a beautiful crater and the Arava Valley, and then finish by the clear waters of the Red Sea in Eilat, a small Israeli city sandwiched between Jordan and Egypt.

ST: What will be the physical challenges and the scenic and historic backdrops of the first three days?

Joshua:The scenery is magical. From the historic old city of Jerusalem to the high-tech startup capital, Tel Aviv. From the greenery of the North, to the vast wilderness of the desert. From the beautiful coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, to the beauty of the Red Sea. In three days, our guests will see a lot!

ST: Given the tensions in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab nations and the Arab residents of the West Bank, how will the security be obtained?

Joshua Security is paramount. International basketball tournaments, huge marathons, Champions League soccer games, and annual Maccabiah (the Jewish Olympics) are all held safely in Israel. If any country knows how to deal with security, it is Israel.

ST: How extensive are the logistics involved to move the whole Giro show 1,400 miles away and back?

Joshua: It is a huge logistical effort. Hundreds of cyclists, tens of thousands of tourists, helicopters, planes, buses, etc. The production company Comtec is working closely with all the relevant authorities, government ministries, and partner organizations to ensure everything runs smoothly. Daniel Benaim, the CEO of Comtec, has decades of experience in producing such events.

ST: Who stands to benefit?

Joshua: The world of cycling will benefit from its first Big Start outside of Europe. Israel will also benefit from the world seeing the beautiful terrain and the warm, welcoming people of Israel. Sylvan Adams believes that sport should bring people together, it should transcend politics, and hopefully this event will do just that.

ISRAELI TRIATHLON

ST: Tell us about your participation in a squad of Israeli triathletes.

Joshua: There are a host of Israeli triathlon teams in Israel. I train with an amazing group called MYWAY - over 60 members of the team are doing the full Ironman in Frankfurt this summer. I unfortunately travel a lot for work so don't train as much as I would like to with them. Every day they are either swimming, cycling or running around the center of Israel. We have the Mediterranean Sea on our doorstep so there is no excuse not to practice plenty of open-water swimming.

ST: Where can triathletes train in Israel?

Joshua: We have everything. Coastline to mountains, the green Galilee to the dusty desert. You can swim in the Sea of Galilee then cycle around it (60km). You can cycle up and down the hills of Jerusalem, take on the challenging Mt Hermon, race through the stunning craters of the Negev desert, run by the beach - all in such a tiny country.

ST: What are some of the most interesting places to train?

Joshua: Mount Hermon offers the highest point in the Israeli controlled area at 7,300 feet – 5,200 feet at the base of the ski resort. The climb lasts for about 20km and doing it in the fall or spring is perfect! Mount Hermon is the highest mountain in the region and was captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. In the winter, Israelis flood to Mount Hermon to ski and snowboard. In fact you can ski in the morning on Mount Hermon and water ski in the Sea of Galilee in the afternoon.

The Sea of Galilee is a fresh water lake 209 meters below sea level. The roads around the lake itself are mostly flat, 60km in circumference. So three times around and you have your full IM distance! The rest of the Galilee is made up of beautiful biblical green rolling hills.

The Sea of Galilee is an attraction for Christian pilgrims to see the places where Jesus performed miracles according the New Testament, such as his walking on water, calming the storm and feeding the multitude.

ST: Where are good riding and running trails around Tel Aviv or other urban venues?

Joshua: Along the coast the running trails of Tel Aviv are full of keen runners every day of the year, from Jaffa (the ancient seaport next door to Tel Aviv) all the way north to Herzliya.

ST: How do the seasons determine where and how Israeli triathletes train?

Joshua: In the summer you don't want to be training in the desert! But the diversity of the landscape provides diverse micro-climates which enables training all the year around.

ST: How does sport foster friendships across cultural lines?

Joshua: Sport in Israel brings people together of every race and religion. You see this at every level and in every sport. The Israeli national soccer team, in which Arabs and Jews have played together for decades, is a perfect example. There is also an amazing running and mountain bike race conducted in the North to show solidarity with the Druze community. The Druze are an Arab minority which fights in the Israeli army. Communities all across the north come to take part. The Minister of Defense himself has been known to frequent this special event.

At the same time, triathlon draws very few Israeli Arabs to events such as Israman. Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon do participate in triathlons around the world and in the Emirates.

ST: Tell us about the preference of Israeli triathletes for Ironman and Iron distance events? How does this relate to the fields at Israman and European triathlons?

Joshua: Israelis love the European races. Just this year alone our team will be taking 60 people to do the European Ironman in Frankfurt. Israman however is particularly special, the Red Sea swim at the beginning and the beautiful clear waters, and the initial climb up Netafim, make it a really unique race.

ST: I understand there is an interesting relay race in the spring?

Joshua: There are two amazing overnight relay running races, Mountain to Valley and Tenach Teshach that are truly beautiful team experiences.

ST: How do the IDF and other security sources protect the entrants in races like Israman, the Jerusalem marathon, and big cycling races?

Joshua: Security is paramount in all the races. Israel takes the security of all these events extremely seriously, and we feel safe, from moonlit half marathons in the desert, to the massive Tel Aviv marathon, the various security services are always there to keep as safe.

ST: What attracts Israelis to the sport of triathlon?

Joshua: Israelis are very competitive. You see it in business. You see it in high-tech. The startup scene is huge in Israel because Israelis look at Google, Intel, Facebook, and think, we can design something better. We are a nation that wasn't blessed with natural resources, so we had to succeed with human capital and hard work. This mentality comes out in sports too. In addition, the climate is pretty much perfect all year around so there is no excuse not to be outside training!

ST: What are the water conditions in various triathlons in Israeli? The Galilee? Israman in Eilat and other triathlons?

Joshua: Beautiful. The crystal clear waters of the Red Sea are absolutely stunning. Likewise the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee provide awesome swims for the Olympic and Sprint Triathlons during the season.

ST: When you first spoke to me, you offered a fascinating breakdown of various ethnic, religious and cultural groups in some areas of Israel. Please elaborate.

Joshua: Israel is made up of diverse communities - Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Arabs, Armenians, you name it. I used to play for a football team which contained all of the above in the starting line-up! Of course there are tensions in certain areas and at certain times, but in general we live and breathe co-existence. I do most of my training in the north of Israel in the Galilee, a hub of coexistence.

ST: What does Israman mean to the triathletes, the nation?

Joshua: For most Israeli participants it means a chance to compete in a really tough race on home turf. It also means a chance to take on the famous Netafim climb (2,500 feet in 10 kilometers) at the beginning of the cycle.

ST: Why do you welcome the steep and long downhill that starts the run? (While the Israman bike leg begins with a big climb, the cycling leg finishes at the top of that climb – and that is where the run begins. While the downhill is alluring, pushing hard smashes the quads.)

Joshua: By the time we amateurs get to the downhill run, you're so relieved to be off the bike and out of the wind, that jogging downhill with a little help of gravity is to be welcomed, not feared, if you take it easy.

ST: What is the hardest part of Israman for the pros, and for the average man and woman?

Joshua: I am so far from a pro I couldn't possibly answer that question. My goal is to complete each event with a smile on my face. Though the hardest part for amateurs like myself is usually the cycle, especially if the wind is not in a good mood.

ST: Do you feel proud to be an Israeli triathlete? Does that motivate you to grow the sport?

Joshua: I am a pretty average swimmer, an average cyclist and an average runner. I still run like a soccer player! So I try not to be too competitive and just enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, what is the point? And yes I’m proud to be an Israeli, and I love triathlons, so I suppose that does make me a proud Israeli triathlete!