By JACOB KANTER
Simon Kariuki Njoroge celebrated his second trip to Israel by winning the 33rd Tiberias marathon on one of the hottest days in the event's history.
The Kenyan finished in a time of 2h:11m:10s, only six seconds before fellow countryman Lawrence Kiptoo Saina.
Njoroge was far behind favorite Leonard Mucheru at the midway point, but the 25-degree heat wilted away Mucheru and others, while Njoroge, Saina and third-place finisher John Kipkorir Mutai (2:11:23) took advantage.
"It's special for me, because I've never won a marathon before," said Njoroge, who won $10,000. "Last year was my first Tiberias marathon. But this country is very beautiful, the sights especially. It was very special for me to win my first one here."
Coach Omar Bekkali implored his two runners Njoroge and Mutai to pace themselves for the first half, while Kenyan national coach Mike Kosgei allowed his racers to run up ahead.
"I felt that the winner would be around 2:10 or so," said Bekkali. "But with the weather, I told them to go let other people get in front. The pace at the beginning was about 2:06, and I knew they would get tired."
"Next time we'll control ourselves," said Kosgei. "[My runners] learned today that if you run fast, you might not finish the race."
Mucheru set an Israeli record for the fastest half-marathon with a time of 1:01:42, but finished in a disappointing 11th place with a final time of 2:18:55.
"There was no pacemaker for the second half," said Mucheru, who had won in Tiberias in 2007 and 2008. "And I got sick at 35 kilometers, when I drank some cold water and started feeling dizzy. I'm OK, but I'm kind of disappointed."
Kenya's Emily Chepkemoi Samoei overcame the heat to register the fourth best women's time in Tiberias history with a time of 2:36:41. She was followed by two Israelis, Loris Mendelovich (2:58:50) and Orna Blau (3:04:59).
"I expected to achieve a personal record, but the weather didn't allow that to happen," Mendelovich said at the post-race press conference. "Finishing this high felt really good though."
The Israeli men didn't fare quite as well in the heat, however.
Zohar Zmiro finished first among the natives for the first time in his career, and in 18th overall with a time of 2:28:55. His time was nearly 11 minutes slower than the requirement for European Championships qualification.
"I worked hard to reach that criterion, but I didn't expect the weather to be this hot," said Zmiro.
"I really hope to reach the criterion at the Paris Marathon [on April 11]. It's impossible to work as a gym trainer for 10-12 hours a week and reach those kind of heights though. You have to dedicate all of your time."
The next two runners behind Zmiro were also Israelis. Chai Noam Frachi and Asaf Bimro finished with times of 2:30:38 and 2:31:33 respectively.
Frachi, an IDF lieutenant, was smiling broadly on the podium, while Bimro, who won in 2007, wore a look of disappointment.
The heat, however, was the major story of the day, as it seemed to affect all runners except for Samoei, who took home a $4,000 prize for her efforts.
Chairman of both the Athletic Union and the organizational committee Shlomo Ben-Gal said that Thursday's race was one of the "hottest marathons ever" in Tiberias.
With finish times drastically slower than the last two years - a period when a total of six racers broke the course record - and with several participants having to be carried off on stretchers, Ben-Gal said that they would seriously consider starting two hours earlier, but that many factors came into play with that decision.
Israeli sailing bronze medalist Shahar Zubari also took part in the festivities, finishing the 10-kilometer race with a time of 44 minutes.
"It was a good race, I felt great," said Zubari, who plans on participating in Tiberias's first-ever Golden Ring bicycle race on Friday. "I still have enough strength left over for tomorrow."
"I devote everything to sailing, because it's my sport," said the 23year-old Eilat native. "But I love all sports, it doesn't matter if it's running or cycling. This is what I love to do."
Nearly 1,500 people took part in either the marathon or one of its smaller races, easily eclipsing last year's record of 1,200.
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