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Ethiopian immigrant is top Jewish finisher in Jerusalem Marathon

David Cherono Toniok of Kenya is the winner of the 2012 Jerusalem Marathon, which took place Mar. 16.  (Hillel Kuttler)

David Cherono Toniok of Kenya is the winner of the 2012 Jerusalem Marathon, which took place Mar. 16. (Hillel Kuttler)

Ashrat "Assaf" Mamo, a 27-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia, was the best-finishing Israeli in this year's Jerusalem Marathon, coming in 11th place. (Hillel Kuttler)

Ashrat “Assaf” Mamo, a 27-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia, was the best-finishing Israeli in this year’s Jerusalem Marathon, coming in 11th place. (Hillel Kuttler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Ashrat “Assaf” Mamo is such a common sight when he pounds the pavement in Jerusalem that he’s on a first-name basis with city bus drivers, who he says always “ask me about the marathon and encourage me.”

Mamo, a 27-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia, became the first Israeli to cross the finish line in this year’s Jerusalem Marathon, finishing 11th with a time of 2:33:12. David Cherono Toniok of Kenya won Friday’s race in 2:19:52, breaking the course record.

Ethiopian Mihiret Anamo Antonios was the female winner with a time of 2:48:38. Moran Shabtai was the top Israeli female finisher in 3:38:35.

In an interview at the finish line in Sacher Park, Mamo told JTA that he had expected to do better after completing a personal best time two months ago of 2:22:32 in the Tiberias Marathon in northern Israel. But Mamo, wrapped in warming foil, appeared happy to have been Israel’s top finisher even though the country’s best marathoners did not participate.

“Jerusalem is the holy city," Mamo said. "It is my home court.”

More than 14,000 runners from 52 countries competed in the event, which was launched last year. The route takes runners through the walled Old City, past the president’s residence and up to the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor, Hanoch Shahar, participated in shorter versions of the race’s 26-mile course.

In the lead-up to the race, runners had spoken about the capital’s notorious hills as the most likely impediment to posting good times. But weather conditions for the race — rain and hail fell through the morning, and the the sun only periodically poked through thick clouds — heaped on additional challenges.

Mamo, who was running his eighth marathon, said he blocked out the distractions of familiar neighborhoods and the kaleidoscopic lures of the Old City during the course’s brief foray there, staying focused on his running and continually checking the pace on his running wrist watch.

He lives in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood and is unmarried. Mamo left the northern Ethiopian city of Tigry for Israel in late 2000 along with his father, who has since passed away.

The slight Israeli with silver braces and a winning smile works as a contractor repairing car windshields. He described himself as a traditional Jew who attends synagogue only on the High Holidays.

Toniok said he was thrilled that as a religious Catholic, his first marathon victory came in Jerusalem. He expressed mild disappointment that the event did not start in the Old City, but said he hoped to visit the following day before returning to Kenya on Saturday night.  Toniok lives in Eldoret, which is where the country’s legendary long-distance runners also reside and with whom he trains.

“I’m very happy because most Christian people [back home] learn about Israel but don’t have the chance to visit," he said. "I know about King David. I am King David of Israel because I won the Jerusalem Marathon.”

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