ATLANTIC CITY – Four years ago, Berhanu Mekonen might not have chosen the Atlantic City Marathon for his first marathon since moving to the United States from Ethiopia.
But the once-struggling event is again among the nation's premier races.
Mekonen won the 54th Atlantic City Marathon and fellow Ethiopian Gedese Edeto was the women's champion Sunday. The event, which also included a half-marathon Sunday and a 10K (6.2 miles), 5K and kids 1-mile run Saturday, drew about 4,000 entrants.
The Ethiopian contingent, which included several runners besides Mekonen and Edeto, was evidence of the resurgence of the nation's third-longest-running marathon, which was taken over in 2009 by the Milton and Betty Katz Jewish Community Center in Margate.
"Our elite group is growing," director of race services Marg Mancuso said. "We had maybe four (elite runners) the first year, 10 the second year. We have about between 35 and 50 elite runners here.
"This is becoming a place to go."
Mekonen moved to Washington, D.C., two weeks ago to work with his coach, Ayela Belete. He won in 2 hours, 22 minutes, 15 seconds Sunday despite having run on boards for the first time last week. He finished more than a minute ahead of second-place Dereje Woldegiyorgis, another Ethiopian who now lives in New York.
"The course is a little bit hard and windy," Mekonen said with Belete as his translator.
Belete said the date and the challenging course, which ran through Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport, were the reasons why he selected this for Mekonen's first U.S. marathon.
Edeto, meanwhile, entered the race on the advice of her manager, New York resident Feven Alem, who brought several Ethiopians over to run. They planned to fly out of New York later Sunday.
"The course was nice," said Edeto, who was the top women's finisher in 2:55:54 despite also struggling on the boards.
Edeto finished well ahead of women's runner-up Ashley Zimmer, of Doylestown, Pa. (3:17:11).
The men's and women's winners the previous three years came from either New York or Pennsylvania, so having winners from Ethiopia, a country with a rich tradition of marathon runners, was a big step.
"It is unbelievable to have elite athletes from all over the world and all over the country," race director Genia Chapman said.
The race wasn't entirely competitive, though. There were runners with dyed hair, rainbow wigs and tutus. One man juggled balls for the entire race, while another dribbled a basketball in the half-marathon.
Thousands of spectators enjoyed the unseasonably warm day. Some held up humorous signs to take the runners' minds off the tedium of the race.
As she surveyed the crowd, Mancuso said she wasn't sure what the race record was for entries, but that Sunday's race was at least "pretty close." It was a huge improvement over the JCC's first year operating the race, when it drew fewer than 1,000 in 2009.
"To see 3,000, a stream of continuous people like that, is really exciting for us," Chapman said. "There are more people than we've ever seen up here on the Boardwalk."
Mancuso said there still is room for improvement. She and Chapman will sit down with the race committee in about a week to discuss ideas for next year. They also are preparing already for the second annual April Fools Half Marathon.
"What we did is just take a good event and made it great," Mancuso said. "People from Phoenix, San Francisco, Washington, obviously New York, up and down the East Coast, are loving this event today. And I think it's just a tip of the iceberg of something that can be unbelievably awesome for the city."
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