Malta Marathon

2000 Flora Malta Marathon

15th Malta Marathon - February 27, 2000

Superb treble for Malta

The 15th Malta Marathon will be registered in letters of gold in the annals of Maltese sport. John Buhagiar pulverised all opposition to become the first Maltese to win this event. Kevin Zammit left the rest of the field puffing in his trail while Carol Galea again produced a first class performance to chalk her ninth win in a row in the half marathon.

These achievements grow in stature considering the record number of entries in both categories from 15 countries. A great day indeed for Malta !

Two hundred and seventy runners in a riot of coloured vests started off from near Mdina gate on a magnificent Mediterranean winter morning leaving behind the green rolling fields and the sweeping panorama as they made their way to St Dominic's Priory and then onto Dingli past manicured fields in typical Maltese countryside.

The favourites soon made their presence felt and after the first five kilometres, they pulled away from the pack. Two Maltese, John Buhiagiar and Peter Azzopardi, were among the pacesetters who also included the Germans Stefan Wohlebe, Hubert Heinrichs, Roland Elsmer and Martin Kuchenmeister as well as Fabrizio Bernabei (Italy) and Ian Carson (Britain). The much-quoted Moroccan Imsaadane soon faded away while his compatriot Sadik did not take part because he felt sick.

Completing the Dingli loop and tackling the terrain below Mtarfa in the shadows of the Mdina bastions, the leading group split up with Buhiagiar, Heinrichs, Azzopardi and Wolilebe forming a strong quartet up front following some 500 metres behind by Bernabei.

At this stage, the leading women were Astrid Benolir, Kathrin Schmidt-Sins, both from Germany and the British girl Yvonne Stainer while the first Maltese was Astrid Fleri Soler.

The position up front remained the same up till the half-way mark as the leaders ran past Targa Gap, then through Mosta and were on the way to the Ta' Qali plain. Luckily for them, this year they were not bothered by a strong wind, the gentle breeze being more than welcome as they passed the half-way stage. Past the national stadium, Buhagiar opened a 50-metre gap on Wohlebe, his closest rival and when they came out of the Ta' Qali area, it became evident that the race was going to be decided between these two as Heinrichs, Azzopardi and Bernabei fell successively some 500 metres behind. It was downhill all the way from here on except for the awkward Marsa/Blata l-Balda hill and Buhagiar kept up his excellent work with Wolilebe somewhat tiring out as the Maltese runner pounded on without respite. Four kilometres from home, at the Pieta' / Msida boundary, Buhiagiar had the race practically all wrapped up barring accident as he mercilessly increased his lead with every step leaving the German way behind.

Excitement gripped the bigger than-usual crowd a the commentator ably aided by Charles Borg and Charles Tedesco and their radio amateur colleagues along the route, picked the leader near the Manoel Island bridge.

A deafening all-round applause accompanied the brave Maltese runner right up to the finish at the Sliema Strand punctuating this exhilarating win which has gone down in the record books. Buhiagiar's time of 2:30.45 was just slightly slower than when he finished third last year.

Wolilebe stayed on to take the runner-up berth finishing just under four minutes behind Buhiagiar (2:34.41) which continues to pronounce the Maltese victor's emphatic triumph. Third was the other German Heinrichs (2:37.03). Peter Azzopardi (2:40.55), too, richly deserved the cheers that greeted him home, finishing fifth overall, behind Bernabei. Third Maltese was Mario Vella (2:46.23).

In the women's section the two Germans, Benolir and Schmidt-Sins and the British Stainer kept going at a steady pace to finish in that order, Benolir stopped the watches at 3:09.50. The first Maltese woman was Fleri Soler (3:45.21) followed by Catherine Bonnici (3:46.39). Third was Doris Montebello (4:24.23).

"I never dreamt of winning this race!"

For John Buhagiar, Sunday, February 27,2000 will he a date he will cherish in his memory for the rest of his career after he came first in the Malta Marathon. His feat is all the more remarkable as he set a new milestone by becoming the first ever Maltese to win the race.

Exhausted, but delighted, the unassuming, Buhagiar said he never thought he could achieve such feat.

"I have been preparing for the past four months and I have never thought that I would be able to finish the race among the leading runners. To win the race is something out of this world for me."

Buhagiar's chief objective ahead of this year's event was to lower the marathon record but because the athletes started off on a relative slow pace, his ambitions faded away.

"For most of the race I ran alone and in these conditions it is very difficult to clock a good time," Buhagiar commented. Buhagiar has now set himself higher goals and is planning to participate in more important marathons such as the London and the New York marathons.

"But first I have to discuss the matter with my coach and I might well compete in a marathon where I can lower the national marathon record of 2:27.35."

On a day when Maltese athletes stole the limelight, another remarkable achievement was accomplished by Malta's queen of sport, Carol Galea who clinched her ninth consecutive half marathon title.

"I'm very satisfied with the result because, frankly, I didn't fancy my chances of winning this year's race because among the participants was one particular runner whose personal best was six minutes better than mine."

Galea also admitted that she felt like carrying the hopes of a nation on her shoulders

"The great support I received from the general public during my training sessions and also during the race spurs me on and it made me more determined not to let them down," Galea said.

Galea is now aiming to take part in more marathons abroad, with the first one scheduled for May.

Another local athlete who made Malta proud yesterday morning was young Kevin Zammit who triumphed in the men's half marathon in the most convincing of manners.

This success gave Zammit something to cheer about after his career was interrupted by a back injury over the past 12 months. But yesterday he was at his very best as he led the pack right from the start.

"This year I had a few goals in my mind - I wanted to finish first out of the Maltese and the foreigners and establish a new record. Unfortunately, I failed to reach the last goal because at the beginning of the race I couldn't perform to the best of my abilities because I was hampered by some pain in my shins. But thank God after a few miles, I felt better and started to run well."

A word of praise goes also to Astrid Fleri Soler who finished first among the local runners in the women's marathon. She was delighted with her performance as she clocked a personal best. The Berlin Marathon heads Fleri Soler's list of future commitments.

Promoting Tourism

Dr Michael Refalo, Minister of Tourism, reiterated the ministry's intent to continue their support of events such as the Malta Marathon for they believe that these sporting activities promote tourism.

"The Ministry for Tourism has been supporting the marathon since the 1980s and we are striving to lure to Malta not only high-profile runners but also high-class trainers who can attract more attention to our shores," Dr Refalo said that for this year's marathon, 18 trainers of athletes who participate in high-prestige marathons such as the ones organised in New York, London and Boston, were brought to Malta to see the event in a bid to encourage their athletes to participate in the Malta Marathon in the near future. This year's marathon received very positive comments from foreign runners who were so impressed with the organisation that many of them are planning a return in future.

Hubert Heinrichs, who placed third in the men's marathon, said he was impressed by the level of organisation. He added that the course was very good and it compares favourably with other marathon. organised in Germany. "I enjoyed it so much that in the near future I will surely come back to participate again," Heinrichs said.

Zammit, Galea sweep the honours

If ever there was a runner trimmed to peak form, determined to produce his verybest against all comers then this can be none other than the amiable Kevin Zammit. This very young athlete who truly enjoys long distance running left us with no story to tell as he took the lead from start to finish just as he did two years ago when he again stood on the top rung of the victory podium.

In the early stages he was challenged by Charles Cilia, Joe Pace, Hans-Joerg Mueller and Herbert Steffny (both Germans) but as the race progressed, Zammit increased his lead to storm past the finishing line in a time of 1:08.28 to better his 1998 timing by .04 secs.

Steffiny, third in the European Marathon Championships of 1986 behind Bordin and Pizzolato, had to be content with the second placing (1.09.25)just ahead of Cilia (1:09.50). The third Maltese was veteran Pace (1.12.26).

Reporting on this same race last year I admitted that I had run out of superlatives for Carol Galea. She has done it again and yes for the astounding ninth consecutive time. What can I say?

I really admired her cool when she told me that she had prepared a macaroni dish for her family's Sunday lunch before proceeding to Mdina for the start of the race.

Galea's truly magnificent performances outshine all others and I honestly cannot see any other long distance runner getting anywhere near this monumental record.

She cruised to the finish (1.17.09) ahead of Austrian Ulrike Puchner (1.18.04) and the German Heike Saeger (1.21.57).

Another marathon veteran, Cecilia Fenech, and Charmaine Sciberras obtained the second and third placings for Malta - 1:24.30 and 1:29.50 respectively.

The ever present Joe Cardona again gave a lesson in sheer guts and resolve as he fought to the bitter end in his wheelchair while a word of praise must also go to the trio Charles Darmanin, Carmel Herd and Konrad Ciappara who have set up another record in competing in the Malta Marathon and half marathon since their inception in 1985.

Articles were taken from "The Times" - February 28, 2000