(photo credit: )
Kenya's Maina Leonard Mucheru emerged victorious in the 31st Tiberias Marathon Thursday morning in more ways than one as he usurped the crown from 2007's winner, evaded massive rioting in Kenya and cashed in a $40,000 prize for breaking the course record in a stunning 2 hours 10 minutes and 32 seconds, shaving 42 seconds off his 2007 time.
Mucheru's victory was, in effect, shared by fellow countrymen Mugo Kenneth Mburu (2:10:37), Jackson Kipkoech Kotut (2:10:57) and last year's champion Mugo Samuel Muturi (2:11:15). The four Kenyans were neck and neck throughout the race and all broke the course record of 2:11:45 set in 1993. Kotut led at the 10km and 24km mark as the designated pacer. Mburu, Kotut and Muturi won $24,000, $16,000 and $8,000 respectively for breaking the previous course record.
Wodage Zvyda was the leading Israeli, finishing in 2:18:45.
Despite coming in fourth place instead of the lead he had been hoping for, Muturi's race was a joyous occasion, particularly after the backlash following his 2007 win. Last year the 21-year-old Kenyan native lost his Bahrainian citizenship a mere two days after the race for having competed in Israel, a country which does not have diplomatic relations with Bahrain.
"It was not a mistake for me to come to Israel [last year], because they never told me [not to]," Muturi said after Thursday's finish. "I don't understand why anyone should be punished for coming to Israel."
Undeterred by Bahrain's harsh consequences, Muturi, who was known as Mushir Salem Jawher last year, came back strong this year to break his own personal record as well as the course's.
In efforts to reach out to the international running community as well as Israel's Arab neighbors, Tiberias mayor Zohar Oved successfully urged the rest of the Marathon's organizing committee to invite Jordanian athletes to compete.
"Sport is one way to start and keep peace," Oved told The Jerusalem Post. "We hope to see more next year and continue to set an international bar."
Keeping in line with the global competition philosophy, Oved was influential in Israel's aid to Kenyan runners, many of whom struggled to get to Israel for the marathon on account of recent rioting and embassy closings in Nairobi. Only 15 of the 25 registered Kenyans competed, despite Israel's help in flying those living outside of Nairobi to the capital when it was unsafe or impossible for them to drive.
Perennial female champion Nili Abramski held on to her title for the 10th time in 11 attempts, though her 2:39:15 time was not enough to qualify her for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as she had hoped.
Still optimistic, however, she told The Jerusalem Post she will run in the Paris Marathon in April and praised the Tiberias Municipality for "making the course grow and staying dedicated."
Abramski led the other females by a large margin, with Wavuwa Kitonga (2:47:43) and Ruth Kalunba (2:52:31) coming in closest behind her.
Some familiar faces were absent from the finish line, including 2002 winner Kenyan Simon Bor, who was unable to attend due to the rioting in Kenya, and former Israeli champion Haile Satayin.
Satayin had not competed in 2007 due to injury and was slated to return this year to reclaim his title from last year's national champion Asaf Bimro, which he did, though in unusual fashion.
After missing his flight from Ethiopia, where he has been training since qualifying for the Beijing Olympics at the World Athletics Championship in Osaka last year, he arrived in Israel at 5am and was quickly shuttled to Tiberias from Tel Aviv. Satayin had a slim 10 minutes to warm up before the race began.
A little beyond halfway through the 42km course, Satayin pulled himself from the race, saying that he did not want to risk injury by continuing to run with leg pains and after having insufficient time to warm up.
After the marathon, he admitted that his late arrival and inadequate training prior the Thursday's race was due to his having spent the last five days in an Ethiopian jail on charges of stealing a significant amount of money from a friend. He was released Thursday morning and hopes to stay in Israel to train for the Beijing Olympics.
Nonetheless, Oved and the organizing committee were "very excited" about this year's race, with a record 1,100 runners in the full marathon, a record 4,000 participants in the 10km race and a record 53 wheelchair competitors.