Malta Marathon

2009 Land Rover Malta Marathon

24th Malta Marathon - March 1, 2009

Cuelemans braves rocky conditions to claim victory
By Paul Grech

On a grey and uninspiring day, it was left to Rik Cuelemans to light up the Land Rover Malta Marathon as he won the main event in 2:25:59.

The Belgian may be an athlete but he sports the look of a rock star and it is of little wonder that back in his country, he's known as Rikske Punk: Ricky the Punk.

His looks certainly got him some attention as people queued up afterwards to take photos with him. Indeed, local long distance running could do with characters like him.

Yet, Ceulemans is primarily a very good athlete, one with an international reputation, a number of Belgian national titles and even his own Wikipedia entry.

In Malta, he certainly showed that he has the talent to impose himself on races. "The route was more difficult than I expected it to be," he said. "I thought it was going to be flat but instead there were a number of hills that weren't easy."

Even so, there was very little reason for complaints from his side. "The main difficulty was that I was in front on my own and on such days, it is easy to lose concentration to take in the scenery rather than focus on your time.

"Other than that, the wind played a huge part. When I saw yesterday's weather (Saturday) I thought it was going to be perfect for running but instead today it was a bit windy which definitely had an impact on my time. I could have easily taken five minutes off my time if it hadn't been so windy."

The wind featured heavily in most post-race replies but some athletes found a rather clever way of getting away from its ferocity by using friends on bicycles as a shield. This led to complaints from other participants who saw it as an unfair advantage.

It is something the organisers will have to look into just as they revised the marathon's route after a number of complaints last year. The new-look route got a mixed reaction peppered with the usual comments about the quality of race marshalls along the route.

All of that didn't matter much to second-placed Jason Martin who ran home in a personal best marathon time of 2:33:30.

"I'm overjoyed," Martin said. "I've got to thank my sponsors at Diadora as well as all those who helped me, particularly my wife and my mother who looked over me from heaven," he said before the emotions of the moment took over.

"My target was to do the marathon in 2:34, so this is actually better than I thought," he continued once he'd regained his composure.

An athlete who clearly isn't taking his running too slowly is Martin's Mellieha AC team-mate Richard Chetcuti. His finishing time last year was 2:44:30, so this year's result, 2:35:25, was a huge improvement.

"It was a very good result and I wasn't expecting to do so well," Chetcuti said. "I'm at a good club in Mellieha AC and I want to thank them as well as the coach for their support."

That coach, Dutchman Has Kesra, was at the finish line in Sliema and he was clearly delighted to see two of his club's athletes do so well.

"We've been working hard for a number of years now, slowly trying to improve the overall level of our athletes so this is a great result as it shows that progress is being made," Kesra said.

"I'm very happy for Martin. I knew that he had it in him to improve. He has been running for a long time.

"Richard is different. He has loads of potential and, to be honest, I'm still gauging him to determine how much he can develop. Yet today he did very well and it is proof that through hard work, you can get what you aim for."

Hili wins again

There were few, if any, doubts that favourite and holder Carmen Hili was going to win again, so her chief enemy yesterday was the clock. Her main target was to go below the three-hour mark.

Sadly, it was a target that she just missed out on. Indeed, her finishing time was an excruciatingly 12 seconds over three hours.

Yet, the St Patrick's AC athlete was in good spirits. "I did my best and it is slightly frustrating to come so close, yet I'm happy with the way I ran," Hili said.

"It is good to win and it will help me for the future. A lot of my results are down to the help of my family and friends as well as my coach Ivan Rozhnov."

Second place went to Angele Heike in 3:19:09 while St Patrick's Marisa Muscat finished third in 3:23:15.

Malta Half Marathon
Last-gasp win for Balzan

With a host of top-level athletes scheduled to take part, the Land Rover Malta Half Marathon was expected to unfold into a memorable race. And so it was.

The regular updates being relayed from the lead car to the finish line had Frenchman Cyril Merle in the lead ahead of Briton James Douglas.

So it was something of a surprise when Jonathan Balzan emerged in front at the final straight, winning in 1:08:39. Merle was second in 1:08:46, 39 seconds ahead of the third-placed Douglas.

Not that anyone should be surprised by Balzan's achievements any more, seeing his track record in local long distance running.

"A Malta Half Marathon win was the only result missing from my CV," Balzan remarked at the finish line. "I've been the first Maltese runner in all of the other main races locally apart from this one, so it is a great feeling to win it."

Last year, Balzan set a new national record over the longer distance but, with qualification for the Games of the Small States of Europe his no.1 priority this time round, he opted for the shorter race.

Tactically, Balzan played his cards extremely well. After a slow first half of the race, he had the power to overhaul Douglas and Merle, even if he left it till very late - it was only in the final 300 metres that he went ahead.

"I paced myself well and my experience helped a lot," Balzan explained. "That said, there were a bit of unknowns. I know Douglas's potential but I knew nothing about Merle.

"However, from the way he ran, you could see that he is a very good athlete. My plan was to increase the pace considerably in the second half of the race. There was a moment when I was unsure if I could close the gap on the leading duo but I eventually caught up with them.

"When I went past Merle, he tapped me on the shoulder. I think it was his way of congratulating me, also acknowledging that he didn't have the strength to reply to my attack."

The Frenchman, on the other hand, was visibly disappointed to see victory snatched away from him at the end. Although his speciality is on the track, Merle had been seen as one of the potential winners and a very good start confirmed those expectations. Indeed, he looked like being the winner until Balzan's late assault.

"I'm happy because this was a personal best for me," Merle said. "I thought I ran well, even though the wind hindered me and long distance running isn't really my speciality. Well done to Jonathan for his race but I have to admit that I'm a bit disappointed to finish second after leading for so long."

Third place went to Douglas, winner of the previous two editions. "I simply didn't have the lung capacity today," he said afterwards.

"I've been hampered by health problems this year and was sick last week. So, overall it is pleasing to have come in third and I have to say that Jonathan ran a very good race."

If Douglas failed to retain the Half Marathon title, British running was still represented among the winners after Johanna Fletcher won the women's race in 1:23:42 with compatriot Lucie Woodyatt (1:24:38) second.

Third place went to Joelle Cortis who finished in 1:25:42.

Having been away from local competition for quite some time, this was a very good result for the young Pembroke Athleta runner.

"It is an improvement of over two minutes on my previous result so obviously I'm very pleased," Cortis said.