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Rafael Shachar Weissberg ran a marathon every day without moving a foot – literally.

Even more than a test of fitness and stamina, running a 26.2-mile marathon pushes you beyond your comfort zone. That’s the essence of the event.

The human body can only withstand a maximum output of about 20 consecutive miles before it begins to breakdown. The runners’ quasi technical term for it is bonking, otherwise known as hitting the wall. The energy supply to your muscles is exhausted (as are you) and therefore they start to break down muscle protein to keep you going, increasing cramping and decreasing performance.

With optimal training, distance runners condition their bodies to most efficiently burn fuel and therefore mitigate the bonking process as much as possible. But it still takes place, it’s inevitable. And it’s really uncomfortable – to say the least.

But we keep going – hopefully – and push ourselves beyond our comfort zone to the finish line.

Friday, March 9, I’ll be scaling the hills and navigating the streets toward the finish line of the Jerusalem Marathon in memory of, and motivated by Rafael Shachar.

Why? Because he ran a marathon every day.

At age 8, Shachar was diagnosed with a debilitating neurological illness, which forced him to undergo multiple surgeries over the course of several years. At one point his doctors decided that a risky, yet necessary operation had to be performed, which tragically led to his paralysis soon after.

For the remainder of his life, the minimal ability to move his arms and legs continued to decrease as his constant pain and discomfort increased. But you would never know it.

For five years, I had the merit of being neighbors and becoming friends with Shachar and his family in Baltimore. Soon after moving into the neighborhood, I was told of a nearby home with a wonderful family taking care of a wheelchair-bound boy.

Not sure what to expect, I found a young man whose significant physical disabilities were outshined by his warmth and wisdom. And the smile. It was genuine, inviting and constant, only to be pushed aside by the rare grimace. And I mean rare.

How could that be? His condition caused him continual agony, despite the cadre of pain meds he took. He was extremely sharp and erudite, with a normal, welcoming demeanor enveloped in a body that continued to lose function. When I met him, the extent of his physical autonomy had already deteriorated to slight movement of his left hand. Nothing more.

His pushed himself to learn as much as he could because his mind and soul thirsted for knowledge. But he never drowned himself in sorrow, even though he could barely take a few sips from the straw in his drink.

Shachar ran a marathon every day without moving a foot. He pushed himself miles beyond his comfort zone just by waking up in the morning. Because in reality, Shachar didn’t really have a comfort zone – not a physical one anyway. Multiple tumors developed over the years causing constant pressure and pain on his nerves. Extreme discomfort was his starting point.

His comfort zone was connecting with people, learning and being a sibling, neighbor and friend. That’s where he derived his other worldly energy, because it certainly wasn’t from the few morsels of food he could barely manage to consume each day.

That was the incredible dichotomy of Rafael Shachar Weissberg, of blessed memory, who succumbed to his illness this past Dec. 5, at the age of 37.

And this is the incredible obligation for all of us who had the privilege and pleasure to know Shachar – to be willing to push ourselves past our relatively cozy comfort zones as a memory and merit for his holy soul.

Changing our eating habits and relationship with food is challenging – it’s not a piece of cake to not take the piece of cake. It’s much easier and more comfortable to act on instinct, or feed our immediate gratifications.

Adhering to boundaries, holding ourselves back, or pushing ourselves forward, requires intellectual, emotional and physical effort that our bodies usually don’t want to exert. Change is difficult. Inertia is inviting.

But we all have a choice – to either endure the discomfort of discipline or the comfort of complacency. To break out of our own personal comfort zones to achieve genuine growth and fulfillment, or continue feeding on the bitter dessert of regret and remorse.

We can call it the Rafael Shachar Project. We can commit to identifying that one particular behavior in our daily activity that we know can be improved but are intimidated to initiate because of lethargy and habit.  Let’s do it even though we don’t feel like it.

My brother Shachar passed away recently. He was in tremendous pain but gave 110% to life,” his sister, Sara (Weissberg) Lieberman wrote on Twitter. “In your life, whatever you’re doing, do more. In honor of my brother. #BeMoreShachar.”

At around 10:30 on Friday morning, I’ll be approaching mile marker 20. I’m pretty certain that my body will not feel like running another 10 kilometers to the finish line. My leg muscles will most likely be barking – real loud – like they have in my previous marathons, and I pray that the bunion on my left big toe doesn’t swell to the size of a walnut.

But I’m planning on pushing thru, G-d willing. I’ll have a picture of Shachar on my left wrist and will look at it to reinforce my commitment and clarity. If he could endure full days of unimaginable anguish and still keep smiling, I can certainly deal with six miles of discomfort. And I can certainly benefit from all the encouragement and support I can get. So if you just happen to be wandering the streets of Jerusalem Friday morning with nothing better to do, find the marathon course and give a cheer or “way to go!” to me and 30,000 of my newest friends.

In the grand scheme of things, running a full marathon may be a noteworthy physical accomplishment, but it’s no indication of refined character development or spiritual growth – which are the true goals to which we all should aspire.  But it can serve as an important lesson in self-awareness – that we can exceed our self-imposed limitations if we’re willing to break out of our comfort zones.

We all have our personal marathons and obstacle course of life’s challenges thru which we need to traverse. Let’s try to tackle them for the merit and memory of Shachar. And let’s do it for ourselves, even if we don’t feel like it.   

POST SCRIPT. The most amazingly insane thing I’ve ever done – is how I’d best describe it. Definitely one of the most difficult marathon courses in the world. The majority of the 26.2-mile route is on what they call “hills.” I think a more accurate term would be “small mountains.” I finished in 5 hours, 45 minutes and 52 seconds, and having the picture of Shachar looking up at me every time I wiped the sweat off my face really made a big difference.


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