Nader al-Masri, a Palestinian athlete who trained on pot-holed roads and past bombed-out buildings, won the Gaza Strip’s first-ever marathon on Thursday.
Mr. al-Masri ran the entire length of the tiny coastal enclave beating six other Palestinians and two foreigners who signed up for the full 42-kilometer (26-mile) race.
About 1,400 other Palestinians, most of them schoolchildren, took part in the jaunt but ran short stretches in a relay format, each running between one and four kilometers.
The race kicked off at sunrise in the northern town of Beit Hanun and ended in the southern coastal city of Rafah.
As the sun rose, the nine runners along with around 50 teenage boys wearing purple T-shirts and baseball caps of the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA gathered at the start line, bouncing nervously until the whistle blew and they sped off.
Under a blazing sun, they pounded along the largely flat route running down the Mediterranean coast, passing battered towns and ramshackle villages and the shells of buildings hit in Israeli air strikes on the Hamas-run territory.
It was a Palestinian event par excellence—none of the runners had numbers and the road was not cordoned off, with passing donkey carts and taxi drivers peering curiously at the rare sight of people running for recreation.
Many of the children were dressed in jeans and some were even running barefoot, seemingly oblivious to the hot surface of the crudely tracked road underfoot.
“The people find it strange—if they see someone running, they think they are crazy,” remarked one of the spectators.
“Usually Palestinians only run when there are air strikes or when they are frightened.”
Halfway through, another six runners began the 21-kilometre (13-mile) half marathon and eight kilometers before the end, 150 runners from the Gaza Athletics Federation joined them.
Organized by UNRWA, the event has raised more than $1 million (672,000 euros) in sponsorship, which will go toward its Summer Games program, the agency's spokesman Chris Gunness told AFP.
There were no surprises when it came to the winner, the 31-year-old Mr. al-Masri, an Olympic runner who lives in Beit Hanun and who completed the race in 2:42:47, despite the fact it was his first-ever marathon.
“I'm very happy, this is the first time we've had a marathon here—it has never happened before in Palestine,” he told AFP at the finish line, where more than a thousand people, most of them children, had gathered to celebrate.
“It is a great joy for the kids. We need the culture of running for kids here in Gaza because it gives individuals a sense of power,” said Mr. Masri, who ran the 5,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics and is hoping to enter the 2012 Games in London.
“I ran one kilometer,” said 12-year-old Samiya Abu Shaab, wearing jeans and a pink T-shirt, admitting she did stop “a little bit.” Next to her, a tiny barefoot 14-year-old called Mohammed boasted about how easy it was.
“I ran four kilometers—it was easy,” he said. “It's much easier to run with no shoes on.”
For the older entrants, there was also a great sense of pride in having run in the first marathon ever staged in the Palestinian territories.
Bilal Abu Saman, a 19-year-old sports student at Al-Aqsa University who ran the half marathon in 1:20, said the race was tough but that he had been determined to win.
“It was very difficult but we know how to be heroes in difficult times,” he told AFP, saying he wanted to have a career in sports to encourage other Palestinians “to be heroes.”
Just two international participants were to run the full stretch: Frenchman Sebastien Trives, who is deputy director of UNRWA's Gaza operations, and his colleague Gemma Connell, an Australian who organized the event.
(Mustapha Ajbaili of Al Arabiya can be reached at: Mustapha.Ajbaili@mbc.net