Palestinian runners race to freedom in Edinburgh Marathon

The Palestinian runners have enjoyed training in Scotland's open spaces ahead of the marathon. Picture: ContributedThe Palestinian runners have enjoyed training in Scotland's open spaces ahead of the marathon. Picture: Contributed
The Palestinian runners have enjoyed training in Scotland's open spaces ahead of the marathon. Picture: Contributed
Pounding the Capital marathon route this Sunday will be a group of Palestinian runners who have flown over 3000 miles for the 26.2 mile race.

The nine-strong group have been brought to Edinburgh by Scottish filmmakers Cairsti Russell and Stephen Sheriff who are working on a project that aims to raise awareness of the restrictions on freedom of movement that Palestinians face on their home turf. They will be joined at the start line by ten Scottish runners who have already discovered the realities of living and running in war-torn Palestine where you can’t go more than 10 kilometres before bumping into a checkpoint or the occupation wall.

Cairsti, 32, who first visited Palestine in 2012 is a sociology PhD student whose thesis examines media coverage and audience understanding of the Israel Palestine conflict. Along with Stephen, 32, she hopes their film will go some way to explain the Israeli occupation to new audiences. As a recent running convert Cairsti found that the annual Palestine Marathon was the perfect way to highlight the issues.

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She said: “I’m a firm believer that once you visit Palestine and see the reality of how people live it provokes a powerful response. I really felt that the marathon was a great way to engage with the realities of the conflict.”

Thousands run along the dusty streets of Bethlehem during the marathon every March but due to the restrictions on freedom of movement there’s not a stretch of road long enough for a normal route so runners have to go back and forth over the same stretch of road in order to reach the finish line at the 42k mark.

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It’s not just running through conflict that the Palestine people have to bear but water restrictions, threat of ambush and landgrabs at the hands of the Israelis. People there live in fear from one day to the next, something that was highlighted by an incident experienced by Cairsti, Stephen and the group of Scottish runners as they filmed in Hebron in the West Bank, an almost lawless city that pulses with the threat of violence. Cairsti said: “We were chased by an extremist Israeli settler in an ambulance while out filming. It was too dangerous for our Palestinian crew to come so we were doing it ourselves.

“This man followed our bus and was very aggressive to our tour guide. The police cars came out too. It was very scary.” Later they discovered that the very man who had given chase had ordered the slaying of a young Palestinian man by Israeli soldiers in 2016.

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Cairsti is convinced the only reason they remained unscathed was because they had so many Westerners in their party. She said: “The Scottish runners were visibly upset and shocked. I was prepared for something like that but it was intimidating.”

The Palestine marathon was started by human rights organisation Right to Movement and the Palestinian Olympic.

Committee in 2013 to encourage more Palestinians to get active. When asked for the film what running means to them, the Palestinian contingent all replied: “Freedom.”

So to be running the Edinburgh route on Sunday will be an achievement of more than one kind – it will symbolise hope for these runners who have been able to traverse the obstacles usually in place. They have enjoyed running the open spaces in Scotland where they would usually see walls and watchtowers.

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For some this will be their first marathon and they are equal parts excited and nervous for the big day. They’ve enjoyed a warm welcome in Edinburgh so far and were delighted when a cabbie refused to take their fare when he discovered where they were from.

Cairsti said: “Running is universal and firm friendships have been formed. We hope that the film brings awareness to a whole new audience.”