leonard mucheru 248.88.
(photo credit: )
A record 1,500 athletes will join Tiberias Marathon favorite Leonard Mucheru at the start line on Thursday morning as the Kenyan aims for his third title in four years.
The number of participants in the 33rd edition of Israel's leading marathon - which includes 65 wheelchair competitors in addition to some 1,420 runners - bests last year's figure by 300.
Israeli Athletics Association Chairman Shlomo Ben-Gal described the large field as being "a dream of ours a number of years ago."
"Next year I hope we reach 2,000," he added.
There will be no repeat champion at the 2010 event as last year's winner and course record holder (2:08:07) Jackson Kipkoech Kotut of Kenya will not compete due to injury.
Instead, Mucheru, the 2007 and 2008 champion, is the bookie's choice to cross the finish line first.
"I'm happy to be here today in Tiberias for the fourth time," Mucheru said at the pre-race press conference on Wednesday.
"I think that Tiberias should be a major marathon, as opposed to just a stop along the way to [bigger] marathons."
Mucheru finished second to Kotut last year with a time of 2:09:37.
Few analysts expect Kotut's record to fall this year, as conditions are forecasted to be warm along the Kinneret on Thursday.
Marathon director David Saidi said the city could not allow the start time of 9 a.m. to be moved up to allow participants to run in cooler conditions, but they ordered 35 percent more water in preparation for the heat.
An increased budget from the city of Tiberias and the Israeli Athletics Association in recent years and the addition of a pacemaker in 2007 have allowed the marathon's size to grow by over 50 percent in only three years.
"I'm very happy to see this marathon grow," said 2002 champion Simon Bor of Kenya, who will not be running on Thursday.
"Back when I started in 2001, the group was small and the pace was slow. But last year the results were very good, and I'm sure that Tiberias is going to set a very high standard in the future."
Kenya and Ethiopa will be represented by 26 runners on Thursday, reflecting the growing international status of Israel's oldest marathon.
"We're going to work as a team," Kenyan national coach Mike Kosky told The Jerusalem Post.
"We don't care who's going to win tomorrow. If we focus on each person individually, then people fight along the way. If there's teamwork, then everyone feels good about themselves. If possible, I want all the Kenyans to finish at the top."
The African runners overshadowed the Israeli contingent, with not a single Israeli runner attending the pre-race press conference on Wednesday.
"I believe there is a bright future for running in Israel," said Uri Shefer, head of the Sports Authority.
"But we have to think about how to involve young Israeli children. And I think that we need to turn to the global experts in the sport.
"The Tiberias Marathon, and what it's becoming, will lead to [Israelis] one day being global leaders in the sport of running."
Asaf Bimro is the top Israeli in this year's field. The Hapoel Holon runner finished with a time of 2:20:06 last year.
Kenya's Emily Chepkemoi Samoei is expected to be the top female runner. Samoei holds a personal best of 2:35:25, although she never broke the 2:50 mark last year.
An opening ceremony was held on Wednesday afternoon for the first time in the history of the marathon where New York Marathon director Alan Steinfeld, who is in Israel for the race, was on hand.
Tiberias mayor Zohar Oved commented on the changing nature of his city's annual race.
"The marathon has turned into a festival," he said. "It's a wide-ranging event that lasts until the weekend now."
Oved added that while he was a little concerned about the new Tel Aviv marathon's influence on the Tiberias race, the size of this year's competition allowed him to be "much less nervous."