Malta Marathon

2011 Land Rover Malta Marathon

26th Malta Marathon - February 27, 2011

Hajji, Taranowski claim honours
Maltese leave their mark as Balzan, Cortis and Grech make podium
Valhmor Camilleri

Moroccan Mohammed Hajji and Helen Taranowski, of England, were the first runners home at yesterday's 26th Land Rover Malta Marathon.

In the half marathon the accolades went to Briton James Douglas, his third success in the race, and Ireland's Lorraine Manning.

From a local perspective, Jonathan Balzan cemented his place as Malta's leading long-distance runner after finishing third in the marathon while Joelle Cortis was second in her first ever participation in the 42km race.

Gerald Grech was a creditable second in the half marathon, his best result ever over the distance.

A record field of 2,200 in the marathon, half marathon and walkathon made it to the starting line at the Mdina Gate yesterday.

A common factor for the participants were the tricky conditions they had to deal with following Saturday's heavy rainfall which left some areas, particularly Ta' Qali, flooded.

At the Sliema finish line, Hajji entered the gantry first in 2:19.35, almost four minutes faster than his compatriot Abdelekrim Kabbouri who placed second in 2:23.33.

"I'm delighted to have won the Malta Marathon," Hajji, who resides in Varese, told The Times.

"It was a very difficult challenge though as this is a varied circuit with some uphills and sharp downhills that take a lot of energy from us runners. I can only compare this race to the Sao Paolo marathon where the conditions are similar.

"My main objective here was to try and better my personal best of 2:13 but having to run alone for long stretches made it impossible to achieve a better time."

Balzan was visibly emotional after running home behind Kabbouri in 2:31.51.

"I can't find the right words to describe my joy," Balzan said.

"This year I worked really hard for this race even though an Achilles injury almost shattered my plans. Fortunately, I recovered in time."

Balzan's hopes last year were foiled when the lead car veered off route while in front. This time he was fully focused on the race.

"It was very windy and that makes it more difficult," Balzan said.

"The route was okay but when we reached Ta' Qali, some parts were flooded and some of us had to climb over a boundary wall to move on. The marathon is always tough but you have to stay focused," added Balzan who is now eyeing qualification to the 2011 GSSE in May.

Taranowski completed the women's race in 2:54.53 and Cortis was second in 3:09.29 ahead of Britain's Ashley Coppinger, 3:14.50.

"This was only my second marathon outside the UK and it's always great to finish first in a marathon," Taranowski said.

"The conditions were not ideal but I'm used to wet weather anyway so it was not a big deal for me. I hoped for warmer weather but on the whole it was a memorable experience and a good launchpad for my season where I hope to get good results in the Commonwealth Ultra Trail race which will be held over the summer."

Cortis had to contend with some injury problems but was happy to have done so well on her debut in the marathon.

"It's a great feeling to have done so well in my first Malta marathon," she said.

"At first, I felt unsure whether to make the full or the half marathon because I wasn't 100 per cent fit. But in the past few weeks I was feeling much better and I thought why not have a go at the longer distance... my gamble paid off.

"Now, I want to qualify for the GSSE. It's not going to be easy on track as I'm starting somewhat late. However, I still hope to achieve the MQS for the 5,000m or 10,000m."

Douglas, who raced for Birkirkara SJ when staying in Malta earlier in his career, topped the 21.1km race in 1:10.21.

"I'm satisfied that all the hard work I put in training pays off," the 2007 and 2008 half-marathon winner said.

"I'm a 10K runner and it showed in the first part of the race as I was literally flying. However, in the last few miles I started to tire out but in days like these the most important thing is to win."

A most positive surprise yesterday was Grech's second-placing. He achieved his best ever result in the race when clocking 1:13.52, just four seconds ahead of another local runner, Brian Magri.

"This is my best ever performance in the half marathon," an elated Grech said.

"In the last few months I was struggling for pace but my coach, Ivan Rozhnov, backed me up with a different training regime that certainly bore fruit.

"Now my goal is to keep the momentum going and try to achieve the MQS for the GSSE."

The top three positions in the women's half marathon went to foreign runners with Ireland's Manning taking first place in 1:15.33 ahead of Emma Dalton, of England, in 1:17.24, and Estonia's Arima Rickard in 1:20.21.

Lisa Marie Bezzina, the 2009 winner, was fourth and first Maltese athlete home in 1:24.22.

"Given the strong entry field I should be satisfied to place first among the local runners," she said.

"I would like to thank my coach John Walsh and Metalphone Company. They always give me a lot of support."