Growing up in a Jewish family, there were really only two ambitions that were had for me. The first was that I would become a Doctor. Indeed, there is an old Jewish joke that goes something like:

Is there a Doctor in the house?

Yes madam, I am a Doctor

Oy vey, do I have a daughter for you!

I’m not sure what the basis is for the fascination that seemingly every Jewish mother has for her progeny studying medicine, but there you have it.

The other ambition is that the progeny of the house will grow up to become Menschen. Mensch is a Yiddish word that strictly translated means human being. However, as is often the case when the Children of Israel are involved, the word Mensch has been imbued with layer upon layer of extra meaning to the point that it means far more – a person of integrity and honour, someone to admire and emulate or someone of noble character.

I’m not sure if anyone ever really achieves true Mench status, it seems like some kind of illusory goal that Jewish parents introduce to young, unsuspecting children in order to frighten them into studying hard and possibly attaining the number one goal for said progeny, medical training. In my case, Mensch-hood is an impossible goal and my mother helpfully points out my multitudinous character flaws that make it so.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking of the Mensch concept lately and was reminded of it this weekend while I was running an ultramarathon race on the West Coast. One of the benefits of Covid lockdowns is the chance to mingle with some of New Zealand’s most successful exports – forced back to our shores due to the pandemic situation in other countries.

In this case, it was Ruth Croft, likely someone who is unknown to the vast majority of Kiwis. Ruth is perhaps New Zealand’s best athletic export of all times (and, not demeaning the huge impact that Stillwater on the West Coast has had on New Zealand, I would suggest the best thing to ever come out of that little village). She certainly is the most impressive athlete of our era. This woman has athletic performances that, were they to be in Rugby or Hockey, would have her at the front of magazines and newspapers. Athletics, however, being an edge sport in New Zealand, and distance running being even edgier, Ruth is relatively anonymous.

Suffice it to say that she is at the pinnacle of ultra running globally and hugely respected. A couple of data point to prove that contention:

  • At last year’s Old Ghost Ultra 85km race, Ruth beat every single competitor to win the event outright. Her winning time was in the top handful of times ever
  • Just last week at the 102km Tarawera Ultra, Ruth once again beat every single competitor, finishing 20 minutes in front of the next competitor and breaking the all-time record in the process
  • She doesn’t just race on trails, Ruth’s road marathon time qualified her for the World Championships

But what does all this athletic greatness have to do with Mensch-hood, you ask? In fact, Ruth’s popularity among fans of the sport have little to do with her results – ours is not a sport where sycophancy has much of a role to play – rather it is due to the fact that as well as being an incredible athlete, she’s actually a bloody good human being.

A case in point from this weekend: Ruth was understandably taking a rest after her success the weekend before but, rather than sitting at home relaxing, she was out on the course helping competitors with whatever they needed. Her partner was running the race so she decided to come along and support him. Her support, however, went beyond a singular focus: manning the aid stations, filling drink bottles, cheering people on and generally being a role model for others.

Around 8pm, and with 50 or so competitors to drift in over the next four hours, and having deposited her partner to bed for a well-earned sleep, Ruth pulls up at the finish line to do some more support duties. Cheering on every single competitor crossing the line, patiently putting up with questions from the fanboy running social media and, once all the competitors had crossed the line, sticking around for the totally unglamorous job of packing up the finish line. Ruth really is a class act.

This is a person who is more than likely going to become an Olympic athlete, and whose athletic achievements would make most peoples’ eyes water. But that evening, she was just another local pitching in and giving a hand. No fuss, no stress.

I’m early 50 and I still don’t really understand what it means to be a Mensch. I suspect I’ll never truly get it. But in my mind humility is one of the key requirements and this weekend I got a massive lesson in humility from a Kiwi champ.


Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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