When you picture a hardcore, multiple Ironman-finishing triathlete, does a rabbi come to mind? Rabbi Leib Bolel has finished the full Ironman, a 140.6-mile triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, an 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon of 26.2 miles (in under 17 hours!!) five times. When he’s not training or participating, he runs MAKOR, a vibrant community shul in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he is raising his family, and works with jLIVE for Jewish Young Professionals.
Bolel was a pulpit rabbi in Des Moines, Iowa when he started to put his natural athleticism to the test. “I’ve been in sports all my life.” Growing up in the UK as the son of baalei teshuva, Bolel played Cricket as a child in Gateshead, and has worked out on a semi-regular basis since the age of 14. His family’s roots are from South Africa, where the family is known for their athletic skills. Bolel moved on to Israeli Tackle Football when he moved to Israel as a young adult. After studying there for years, he and his wife moved to the States, where Bolel found that keeping up with athletics while working full-time and pursuing an MBA was harder than he imagined. “I was caught off guard. I ended up putting on a substantial amount of weight and I wanted to get back to where I wanted to be.” Bolel knew that a tangible goal would motivate him. A triathlon was the logical fit. “I needed to get back into shape and combined it with partnering with a non-profit to raise money for the organization.”
For the uninitiated, there is a vast difference between the four types of triathlons in which one can participate. A sprint triathlon, consisting of a 500m swim, 16-mile bike ride and a 5K run is where Bolel began. But it is considered small potatoes to where he is now: past Sprint, Olympic and Half-Ironman triathlons, he has now completed five Full Ironman Triathlons. The mother of all triathlons, it must be completed with a strict time limit. Bolel partners with charities each time he does it and shares his training with his students, shul members and the wider community. “Scottsdale is a very health-minded community. There is a lot of training for endurance sports here.”
Bolel’s congregation hears the message loud and clear of how important it is to guard one’s health. “We say in [the] shema [prayer] that we have to look after ourselves in all ways possible.” Now Bolel spreads that message to other rabbis, as he advocates for them to be more health conscious. “I work with rabbis who signed up for different races so they can share that message with their communities…It’s just one of those things that I feel very strongly about. We want to grow as people and as Jews. We need to be able to do it in all different capacities.” Bolel is positive that if the rabbis set an example for their congregations, the children will follow in their footsteps. This could create a sea change of health awareness in the frum community. “Having a healthy body is part of having a healthy soul. It’s not going to happen overnight. Parents [have a] responsibility to encourage [kids to] do something outside of academics that can bring so much positivity out of them.” With his dedication to providing compelling programming for the families of his own shul, it is apparent that he is also an inspiration to others.
Finishing an Ironman may be the hardest part of the race, but more than the physical exhaustion, Bolel finds that the real battle is in the mind. “It’s all about perseverance and determination. It breaks down mental barriers that people may have… I don’t think anyone races without wanting to stop. Imagine biking for 5 hours and the cool down is a marathon. You just overcome it.” For anyone who is interested in becoming an Ironman triathlete, Bolel suggests that they first train for nine months to a year beforehand. “As long as you maintain fitness [between races,] then you don’t have to put as much work into the following one. Some people put in between 11-20 hours of working out a week!” This year Bolel will be competing in a half Ironman, all while building up his community and students. While Bolel’s schedule doesn’t allow for much training time, he admits, “I don’t sleep a lot. I used to get up at 4am and workout at 10pm for a couple of hours. You can fit it in somewhere.” If a person does attempt to achieve in athletics accordingly, they need to have a support system like Bolel is lucky to have. “Surround yourself with the right people that are pushing each other. I’ve got tremendous support. I wouldn’t be able to do this without my wife Devorah – she has done sprint triathlons as well. My kids have come to meet me at the finish line, my wider family. It’s an inspiring thing to be a part of – amidst an electrifying atmosphere.”