Col. (res.) Uri Levi will lead Team Shalva's 130-member squad competing in the New York City Marathon. Photo by Or Gefen/TPS.
Col. (res.) Uri Levi will lead Team Shalva's 130-member squad competing in the New York City Marathon. Photo by Or Gefen/TPS.

Uri Levi runs a marathon of redemption

The retired IDF colonel, short a lobe of his lungs, will lead 130 Israelis running in New York to raise funds to help the disabled.

In the world of long-distance running, every step is a testament to determination and perseverance. That’s what makes Israeli Defense Forces Col. (res.) Uri Levi’s decision to participate in the upcoming New York City Marathon all the more bold.

In 2020, doctors were compelled to remove a lobe of his lungs after he collapsed during the Tiberias Marathon.

Three years later, Levi is getting ready to lead a team of 130 Israelis competing in the NYC Marathon on Nov. 5 to raise money for Shalva—The Israel Association for Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities.

But his journey to becoming a marathon runner was not smooth and straight. It was filled with challenges, setbacks, and ultimately, redemption.

Levi’s story begins in 2020, when he and his brothers Noam and Neria made a family pact to quit smoking and get into shape. After participating in several local races, Uri convinced his brothers to join him in his goal of completing the full 42.195-km. (26-mile, 385-yard) Tiberias Marathon. It took a bit of persuasion, but he got them on board.

The trio spent the next months training intensively for the big day, with Uri serving as their coach.

But during a run days before the marathon, Uri suffered severe shortness of breath. Uri, who’d recovered several months earlier from the coronavirus, chalked up his weakness to mild aftereffects.

“My weakness persisted, and I experienced occasional bouts of shortness of breath, but I wasn’t about to back out of the marathon. My brothers and I had trained for months. We’d all quit smoking and we were really proud of ourselves and committed to making it to the finish line,” he recalled.

The long-awaited day dawned. The weather was perfect for running and Uri laced up his running shoes.

The run started out fine for Uri but things swiftly deteriorated.

Never back down

He didn’t feel well; every yard felt like a mile, every mile like an eternity. But military life taught him to never back down, so he continued on despite feeling like his lungs were exploding.

Slightly past the halfway mark, Levi collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with spontaneous pneumothorax, a condition in which gas builds up in the space between the lungs and the chest wall.

Risk factors include smoking and activities such as scuba diving, being at high altitudes and flying. Untreated, the condition can lead to dangerously low oxygen levels in the blood.

As a result, doctors removed an entire lobe of Levi’s lungs in an emergency procedure.

Recovery took time, but he eventually returned to his work as a career IDF officer. Later on, he began working out and then running short distances.

“It bothered me that after all I’d invested, I’d never completed the marathon, and I was pretty sure that my marathon days were over,” Levi said.

Fast forward to 2023. After 25 years of service, Levi retired from the army, determined to devote his talents to the nonprofit sector. He settled on Shalva, a Jerusalem-based organization that provides therapies, educational frameworks, social activities, employment training and more for thousands of people with disabilities and their families.

In 2022, 65 Israeli runners—the first time a team ran the race in support of Shalva—crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon.

“When I came to Shalva, I asked the staff what I could do help. As a retired career officer who had fought in Gaza, in Shomron [Samaria] and Lebanon, they asked me if I’d be willing to talk to the members of Team Shalva who will be running in this year’s upcoming marathon and inspire them,” Levi said.

“Getting to know the group and their goals, I was the one who was inspired.”

Levi was impressed to learn that Team Shalva has doubled its group of runners in just one year. On Nov. 5, a team of 130 Israelis from all walks of life will run in the race through New York City’s five boroughs. Levi recruited his two brothers to collectively raise 100,000 shekels ($26,000) and run with Team Shalva.

“Every day is a marathon for our Shalva families,” said Itamar Shevach, Shalva’s deputy director and chief financial officer, who led the Shalva team and ran in last year’s NYC marathon. “With dedication and determination, Shalva’s kids and adults navigate enormous challenges day in and day out, and they’re an inspiration to us all.”

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