Orthodox women marathoners don’t skirt a 26-mile challenge

At 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 20, four cars headed from Los Angeles to the 2012 Pasadena Marathon filled with members of the Skirts for SOLA team. Despite training for weeks, many of these newly minted runners still could not fully grasp that the day truly had come. “There were moments when I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen,’ ” said Sarah Chin, captain of the Skirts team, which is made up of a group of Orthodox women from the Chabad-Lubavitch community of South La Cienega (SOLA) who would be testing their abilities in the marathon or its accompanying shorter runs.

“The beginning was very slow,” Chin said. “My very first run was just me and another girl, and the next week it was just me. I was really trying hard, and my initial goal was to get 10 women. We got 10, then we got 11, and then we needed to get to 25 and people started to join. One of our community members signed up her newborn baby to the kids’ race the same day he was born! We ended up with 38 registrations.”

Chin herself is not a newcomer to marathon running: “I started doing it when I lived in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “Everyone does running out there. There are races every weekend, and the majority of my friends did endurance sports. I didn’t like the way I looked anymore, and one day I saw this sign on the Metro that said, ‘Remember the time when running used to be fun?’ and I just couldn’t remember. I never thought running was fun.  I went to the Web site of the marathon training program and thought to myself, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ That was the first one. And then I got hooked.”

An Orthodox all-women’s team is not something you see every day. For one, they face some very particular challenges: First and foremost, running in pants, covered by a skirt, while also wearing a long-sleeved shirt is hot, and Chin reports that some women stopped training because they were uncomfortable. In addition, most of the team members are married and have children, so training during the week was not really an option.  Jewish holidays also presented an issue; during Passover, for example, the team missed a weekend of training.

Asked whether their spouses were supportive, all of the women agreed the responses were amazing. Their husbands had to give up much of their own free time and their hobbies to sit home with the kids while the team members participated in long practice runs. Yet, the team members said, all of them are very proud of their wives.

Chin said she also received mostly positive responses from the rest of her community. “I’m sure some people think that us running outside is inappropriate, but there are always going to be critics of something. Most people thought it’s really great and were very supportive.”

By 6:30 a.m., the half- and full-marathon teams had started their run. A short time after, the 10K, 5K and kids’ runs were on their way as well. Thousands of onlookers and supporters were cheering from the start line, which became the finish line. In the meantime, in the Skirts for SOLA tent, Rabbi Avraham Zajac, the Chabad SOLA rabbi, was giving a Tanya lesson to family members and friends who had come to cheer the runners.

“When people achieve a goal, it gives them a special power,” the rabbi said, while waiting for his own wife to cross the finish line, “The body is tired, but the spirit is full with energy, and not only for those who run, but those around them as well. This power is contagious. The power of finishing something is awesome.

“When the idea of starting an Orthodox women’s team first came up, I thought it was so important for Orthodox people,” Zajac said, “The Orthodox community is sometimes missing a healthy kosher outlet, so I thought this idea will be a great inspiration for the community. It showed you can do all this without breaking any rules.”

Zajac believes in a healthy balance in life and ends every morning’s minyan with a physical exercise class at Chabad SOLA. “The soul really needs the body. The spiritual aspect is important, but you shouldn’t neglect the physical. This concept is not promoted enough within the Jewish community, because people feel there is a contradiction between religion and exercise, but one complements the other.”

Skirts for SOLA fans encourage the runners.

At noon, all of the group’s members have passed the finish line after a long and hot run. The temperature outside is about 90 degrees, but the heat doesn’t seem to affect the general mood, and in the Skirts’ tent the party has just begun.

“It feels incredible,” said Dina Forer, who had just completed her first full marathon. “It was such a challenge and is such an accomplishment. I had my doubts, but I thought, ‘When am I going to get another chance to do it again?’ And I just knew I’m going to do it.”

“There were hard moments,” admits Yumi Abigail Levine, a half-marathoner, “but all these great women were doing it, and they inspired me to keep going.” Dina Shallman, a full marathoner, said, “The toughest moment for me was when we hit the 13-mile mark. What kept me going was talking to my team members. That and the coffee goo [gel] shots,” she said, laughing.

Hudy Lipskier said her toughest marathon moment also came at mile 13. “What got me through,” she said, “was knowing that I trained long and hard for this, and that it’s my will that will enable me to finish the marathon.”

“You really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” said Rebecca Green, who had just completed her first full marathon. “You think you can do it, and along the way you gradually see how difficult it gets, and then in a day like this, when it ends up 90 degrees, you find you have no choice. You’ve trained for it for so long, and you just have to do it.

“Training with this team was amazing. Seeing people who aren’t necessarily fit or into sports all coming together and joining forces to do this, I think it’s amazing. I have blisters, but it was totally worth it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

“This team is amazing,” said Stery Zajac, the rabbi’s wife. “Very strong, determined, amazing women. I’m so inspired. I feel like I can do anything with this community.” Asked whether there will be a SOLA team next year, she replied: “There is a chance it’ll become a trend; people are already talking about the next marathon. This community doesn’t stop.”

“Hot, sodium-deficient, exhausted, hungry and still, everyone just kept going,” team captain Chin said. She is already training for her next adventure race. “I did the ‘Tough Mudder’ last year, and it was a crazy-difficult adventure race. Running 10 miles on a mountain, jumping into an ice bath, swimming under tubes, climbing on 20-foot walls, crawling through tunnels when it’s pitch black following only the sound of the aluminum foil of the person in front of you. Just one more thing to check off my bucket list,” she said, laughing.

“My ultimate goal is Iron Man,” Chin added. “Who knows? Maybe this will become the Skirts’ next challenge.”