(photo credit: Frankie Sachs)
A record 800 athletes are scheduled to take part in the 29th International Tiberias Marathon on Thursday, with two-time defending champion Habtamu Bekele of Ethiopia among the favorites.
Marathon organizers, who are out to raise the standing of the race abroad ahead of next year's 30th edition, have offered a $40,000 prize to the runner that breaks the course record. That offer has drawn a dozen serious runners - mostly from Kenya and Ethiopia - to the town by Lake Kinneret. The current record stands at two hours, 12 minutes and 45 seconds, set by Ethiopia's Moges Taya in 2003.
The top Israelis will also be in action, with Nili Abramski the clear favorite among the women and eight-time Israeli champ, Asaf Bimro, expected to go head-to-head against Haile Satayin, who finished 20th at the Olympic Marathon last year in Athens, for the Israeli title.
At the pre-race press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Israel Athletics Association chairman Shlomo Ben-Gal expressed hope that the next generation of Israeli runners would break through and close in on the 2:20:00 barrier, so that they could join the top runners, Bimro, Satayin and Wodage Zvyda, to create a team for the European Championships this August in Sweden. Zvyda will not race in Tiberias due to injury.
Uncertain weather conditions will play a big part in the athletes' times. According to Bimro, "cold with no wind" are the preferred conditions. The original forecasts called for a clear sunny day, but an evening drizzle may bring just what the runners were hoping for.
Bimro is excited to run in Tiberias, not just because he's defending his Israeli title, but because it's the only time he gets to run at home. The Tiberias Marathon is the only full marathon in Israel.
But he refused to speculate regarding his ability - or anyone else's - to win. "You can never be certain before a marathon," he said.
Abramski spent a few minutes with some of the African runners giving them tips on how to excel on the 42.195 kilometer course, which starts near the Tiberias boardwalk, continues south around the southern tip of Lake Kinneret, up to Ein Gev and then back again.
Abramski, who has been suffering from an injury and is not expecting to record a fast time, said that the course is harder than newcomers might expect. "It may look easy, but it's not... The course is straight and the lack of turns makes it difficult on the muscles," she explained. "When there are more turns, you use different muscles, which helps break down the stress on certain areas."
The six-time winner plans to race again in Europe in April, with a target time of 2:42:00 to qualify for the European Championships.
The race has also several other notable participants, including 10 Polish soldiers from the UN; Beza Nebaba, a blind runner from Jerusalem; and Moroccan Rattal Abdelhay, although organizers said that they could not confirm his participation until shortly before the race when he comes to pick up his bib number. In all, athletes from 20 countries have registered for the race.