On Feb. 25, one day after Russia’s war on Ukraine began, Valentyna Veretska crossed the border from Ukraine to Poland with her 11-year-old daughter, leaving behind her husband who returned to their city of Mykolaiv to help defend their country from attack.
Last Friday, exactly one month later, Veretska, 31, won one of Israel’s biggest running events, the Jerusalem Marathon, after receiving a last-minute invitation. Veretska ran 2:45:54, more than 16 minutes faster than the second-placed woman.
Veretska says that she and her daughter have been taken in by a Polish family in the city of Krakaw and they do not know if, or when, they will be able to return home and reunite with their family and friends.
“When we crossed the border he [her husband, Pavlo Veretskyi] went back to our city to protect the land and fight. Before my marathon he moved to another place but didn’t tell me, to not worry me and make me nervous,” Veretska tells ESPN.
“Our house is destroyed, city is destroyed. Of course I want to go back to Ukraine and see my family, friends, but I don’t know … I don’t know what I do tomorrow, I just live today and we’ll see.”
She adds: “I hope the war will be finished soon and he can come and have normal life.”
Jerusalem Marathon organisers said about 40 Ukrainian immigrants and refugees competed among thousands of runners.
In the midst of a war, running a marathon would perhaps the last thing on a person’s mind. But in addition to staying physically active, runners of Ukraine have used exercise as a way to show family and friends they are still alive with apps like Strava.
And, for others it is a desperate mental escape, and a chance to process emotions and clear their minds.
For professional runners like Veretska and Pavlo, who is also her coach, it is much more.
Long before the war, Verestka had a dream of running the Jerusalem marathon; there was a lure about the land that seemed special, and she had never explored it.
In September 2021, she contacted organisers to help her secure a visa to compete, but they did not respond. In mid-March just two weeks before the race, her mind so far away from running and life torn apart by an invasion, she received an invitation.
“I just wanted to run on this land,” she said. “I have no training after the war started so no preparation. I just wanted to come and try and take the emotion away.
“Last month it was only stress and depression, and negative, so I just go and take some normal, positive emotion. But when I ran, something changed in me and it was very strong emotion.”
Verestka tried to channel the emotion into running. She speaks to her husband daily, but to others in her family only intermittently as they are underground.
“Inside me was so much aggression, a lot of aggression for these people who give [my country] war,” she said. “I hoped I could be in the top three (finishers in the race) — maybe, if it’s possible — because there was some prize money and I’m here with zero, with no things, shoes, just my daughter, so I was thinking I could get a lot of positive things, help me be alive.”
She recounted the details of the day she and her daughter fled their home as steadily as if describing what she had for breakfast. Her concern rests firmly with the people of Ukraine, and she wants to do as much as she can from Poland to help.
She mentions that she wants to auction the marathon trophy to send money to the people of her city.
Verestka left Ukraine with only her passport — no clothes or food or possessions. When she got the message that she would be eligible to race, she hadn’t run for weeks and didn’t even have any running shoes.
“We just woke up when we heard the first attacks and we went straight into the car,” she recalled. “I wake up my daughter, we took documents and go. When we drive we see (the invasion was affecting) all of Ukraine, so we drive to the border.”
Verestka said this is not the first time her home and city has been destroyed by Russian troops. Her husband is from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine which is a rebel-held region along with Luhansk.
The two regions were declared republics during the 2014 war when Russia annexed Crimea. They moved to Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine.
“Our home was destroyed, life was destroyed so we moved and started a new life,” she says. “Just this year, in January we finished building a new home and now again and again we go away from home in another country … it’s really difficult. It’s the second time we run away.”
They drove near the Polish border, and Verestka and her daughter had to make the rest of the crossing on foot. She describes the border as an unrelenting influx of people arriving constantly, and only one bus shuttling out.
“It was very difficult at the border,” she said. “Before, I see around from the car and it was horrible, but I was inside the car. And then at the border you see people, they cry, kids, I saw people died because they were frozen [to death].
“It was very cold, we stayed 15 hours just staying and not moving. We can’t go and walk across the border, it was just one bus, 25 places inside, after 45 minutes it came again but [there was so many people].
“People stayed without food and water and it was very cold. People lie down on the asphalt because they don’t want the bus to go without them, and it’s a big panic.”
Runners take on the marathon for many reasons. For Verestka, the Jerusalem race was about processing the events in Ukraine, contemplating the impact and both a mental and physical release.
“When I ran, it was very healing,” she says.
The race circuit is difficult — there is only down or uphill, no flat. Along with rain and wind, the temperature was a highly unusual 4 degrees Celsius (39F) for Israel in March, which usually expects an average of around 16C. People around her in Poland loaned her running kit and trainers to prepare, and her husband and coach encouraged her to race.
“Normal race, just do what you do normally, have fun and just run,” he said to her.
Into the first few kilometres, the cold seeped into Verestka, by 5km she said she wasn’t feeling strong. Then she found some unexpected help.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she recalls. “I feel this cold pain everywhere and from 5km I stayed with [one guy], I thought he could help me because of the wind, and I run behind him, so it was a big help and it was raining.”
By 18km, the pair reached the top of a hill, which looked over the city. Verestka says the pain she felt was deep all over her body and she didn’t think she could continue.
“This guy told me to ‘look around’ and I was like ‘what?’ And he said ‘just look around please, and open your eyes’.”
And what did she see? A literal ray of hope.
“I look around and this emotion,” she says, “It’s very dark and very rainy and the sun together … I have never seen so strong of a sun, even in summer — and a rainbow. I can’t explain the view, it was really special.
“And from this moment I feel no pain, I don’t know what happened, I just run and it’s looking like I don’t run, I fly.
“I could run faster, but I ran with him and spoke with him saying ‘you can do it,’ ‘just finish and run with me’. I wasn’t thinking about a finishing time, he helped me for the first 18km and opened my eyes.
“It’s so strange situation. And when we finish, I hugged him and said thank you. I said ‘who is he?’ I speak with a journalist [covering the race] for two minutes and look around and [he was gone].
“He was like a little angel, I met him on the fifth kilometre and I still don’t know who he is.”
Verestka started the race for her own personal victory, but it was her daughter who believed in her, drawing a picture of her mother on the top step of the podium a day prior to the race.
“I can’t explain to a little girl there’s 22,000 people,” she says, referencing the number of race participants. “So when I ran, it changed my mind.
“This moment when I saw the view, something broke me and after this I just run to give people from Ukraine a voice, so it’s not my victory, it is victory for Ukraine, for peace, forgiveness.
“I came with aggression and depression and stress but the people [of Israel] give me this warmth, this love. I love this land, the finish line for people here my voice, to give this love and I think love builds peace and we need to unite.”