Walkathon nets cash for Israel, sunburn for reporter

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I'm a person who understands why "take a hike" is such a horrible insult.

As someone who has never been particularly fond of the outdoors (but feels guilty about it), hiking has always felt like torture, an unfortunate combination of wilderness, exercise and forced fun.

So when my editor says he wants me to cover the Walk for Water, a 5-kilometer walkathon to raise money for the Jewish National Fund, I don't exactly glow at the prospect of rising early Sunday morning for an urban hike from the Jerusalem 3000 celebration at Yerba Buena Gardens down to the waterfront and back.

I pray for rain.

Instead, I wake up to a scorching hot day and can only predict heat stroke as I light a cigarette and prepare to cruise down Mission Street with about 145 other Jews in Comfortable Shoes.

Across the street from the starting point, I notice a small band of protesters convened by a group called the International Jewish Peace Union. They're carrying signs like "First you took the land, now the water," and "Whose water is it anyway?" I whip out my notebook, squinting into the sun, and ask about their platform.

"Two-thirds of the water in Israel is coming from the occupied territories," says East Bay resident Michael Stein. After giving me a spiel and a flier, he looks at me and says, "You better put on some sunscreen. You look like you're getting burned."

And I haven't even walked my first "k" yet. I'm not even sure how long a kilometer is. I just know I have to traverse five of them.

When community leader John Rothmann gives a pre-walk pep talk to the crowd, I take a seat on the curb and cradle my sweaty forehead in my hands.

"You're showing that you give a damn — or a reservoir, whatever the case may be!" Rothmann bellows. Ha-ha, I think. Leave the jokes to the professionals and let's get this walk on the road so I can get out of the sun and into a sports bar for the NBA playoffs before halftime.

Heading down Mission, I meet a San Francisco couple walking together. Physician Richard Cohen tells me he came out to "show a sense of spirit, to show the community how crucial water is to Israel." JNF cleans up polluted rivers, builds dams to redirect winter floodwaters and develops technologies to maximize conservation in the Holy Land.

His cheerleading for Israel makes me feel good about what I'm doing — even if I am showing my support under duress. What's more, I begin hitting my stride, power-walking into the middle of the pack. Heat stroke be damned.

Flush with self-righteousness, I encounter a group from the Young Adults Division of the Jewish Community Federation. Matt Sosnick, a Burlingame distribution manager, tells me, "We're trying to rally people. We want Jews to come out and identify themselves."

Then he and friend Adam Rinde, 26, admit that they, too, will be rushing off to catch the game after the walk. A few blocks of kibitzing about hoops and I almost forget how tired, hot and under-caffeinated I am.

But I start to fall behind.

I see one of those shiny red tourist rickshaws and fantasize about hijacking it. I become filled with pathos at the sight of two DeSoto cabs whizzing by me along the Embarcadero. I look longingly at a hot-dog stand — and I'm a vegetarian.

A teen group from Congregation Emanu-El, the Mitzvah Corps, passes me, laughing and skipping with a flourish of junior-high enthusiasm. I straggle alongside several parents pushing baby strollers.

In the distance, I see Emanu-El Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan. I go to him for spiritual guidance.

"Do you have anything rabbinical to say?"

"Thank God we're at the halfway point," he says, before entering into a heated debate with a protester that lasts all the way back to Yerba Buena.

The slower I get, the lonelier I get. By the third kilometer, it's just me and a dog named Scamp who looks like a Brillo pad on four legs. Or maybe I'm hallucinating.

Scamp and I bring up the rear with a guy in a pink T-shirt holding up a sign that reads "Jerusalem, 3000 prisoners." He walks most of the way with his arm up over his head. Protesting isn't for wimps, I guess.

Nearing the final stretch, I scuttle along, convincing a nice young man (sucker) to carry my backpack for me the rest of the way. The Bulletin, co-sponsor of the walk, is calling it "Bay to Bagels." There's a bay to my left, so I figure there has to be a bagel down the road. There just has to be. And skip the fat-free cream cheese — I've got to remind my arteries who's boss.

Sure enough, bagels are waiting and the day's other festivities are exploding across the grassy Yerba Buena Gardens. When all is whined and done, I do have a sunburn, the JNF says it wins $10,000 in pledges for Israel and the Bulls tell the Sonics to take a hike.