A record 900 athletes will compete in the 30th Tiberias Marathon on Thursday morning with organizers predicting that the expected good weather conditions could help at least one participant break the 2:12 barrier and claim a $40,000 prize.
Last year's winner, Kenyan John Rotich, is back in the country to defend his crown, and will be joined in the race, which runs along the edge of Lake Kinneret, by 20 other fellow countrymen, including 2002 winner Simon Bor. They will be among the 850 runners and 50 wheelchair racers to participate in the the only full marathon held in Israel.
Israeli Nili Abramski, who has won the women's event six out of the last seven years, will be the favorite to regain her title and will again be up against Orna Blau, last year's runner-up.
"I feel good coming back to Tiberias," said Bor at the pre-race press conference Wednesday evening. "Last time I was here, I won and went on to post my personal best of 2:07. I think this place has a lot of blessing."
Bor added that he believed that the inclusion of significantly more international-level runners will make Thursday's race much tougher to win than when he competed four years ago. "Whoever will win tomorrow will have to put in a good time," he said.
Israeli Athletics Association general secretary Jack Cohen announced that for the first time in the history of the Tiberias event one runner, Kenyan Joseph Kirwabirgen, has been appointed as a pacemaker, in an effort to speed up the times. The closest any runner has come to breaking the 2:12 barrier was in 2003 when Ethiopian Moges Taya ran a time of 2:12:45, the course record.
Kirwabirgen told The Jerusalem Post that he was "very excited" to be in Israel and is hoping to come back next year to compete again.
Mike Kosky, the former Kenya national team coach, organized the group of Kenyans to participate. "When you tell someone in Kenya you are going to Israel, they can't believe it because it is a country that everyone wants to come to," he said at the press conference.
Kosky announced that he is hoping to increase ties between the Israeli and Kenyan athletics communities and is planning to bring some Israeli athletes to Kenya to train and bring Kenyan trainers to Israel.
Although the Israeli men are extremely unlikely to challenge their international counterparts, Asaf Bimro is hoping to regain the Israeli crown which he lost to Haile Satayin last year as Satayin is injured and will not compete.
Abramski, who will represent her club, Hapoel Holon, said she is hoping that there will be much calmer conditions compared to last year's wind-affected race.
Last year, Abramski ran the 42.195-kilometer course, from the Tiberias boardwalk to Kibbutz Ein Gev and back, in 2:54:49. "If it won't be windy like it was last year, then I will try and post a very good time," Abramski said at the press conference.
Abramski admitted that she finds it a little difficult running in the Tiberias race compared with other international events due to the lack of real competition, but is still aiming to achieve a time of at least 2:37, which will qualify her for the 2008 Beijing Olympics with more than a year to spare.
The Israeli champ said she is not planning to run another marathon until the World Athletics Championships in Osaka in September.
As in most marathons, amateurs join the professional and semi-professionals, with most of them raising money for charities.
Former Londoner Avigdor Book, who ran his first marathon in Tiberias last year, is expecting to raise more than NIS 10,000 for the Emunah children's charity.
"I'm really excited to be here," Book said. "Last year, I ran it in just over four hours and this year I hope to run at least 3:50."
In addition to the full marathon, there will also be a 10km race as well as a 4km race for children.
Expressing his excitement at the 30th anniversary race, Israel Athletics Association chairman Shlomo Ben-Gal said: "This is a historic race and there will be a festival atmosphere. This is the most international sports event in Israel."