More than 1,400 Palestinians were up before dawn on Thursday to take part in the first-ever UNRWA Gaza Marathon, which runs the entire length of the coastal enclave.
As the sun rose, around 50 runners gathered at the start line at the entrance to Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, bouncing nervously as they waited for the starting whistle.
Just nine people signed up to run the full 42-kilometre stretch that ends at the southern city of Rafah on the Egyptian border.
Most of the other competitors were schoolchildren in brightly coloured T-shirts, who ran short stretches of the race in a relay format, with more than 1,200 taking part through the morning, each one covering between one and four kilometres.
Halfway through, another six Palestinians began the 13.1 km half marathon and towards the end, 150 runners from the Gaza Athletics Federation joined in for the last eight kilometre stretch.
UNRWA Commissioner-Genera Filippo Grandi offered his congratulations to the winner Nader al Masri, UNRWA staffers, Gemma Connell and Sebastien Trives and all those who took part. “I hope that we have started a trend and that the Gaza Marathon will continue in future years. I would like to pay tribute to all in Gaza who made it such a memorable day and to UNRWA staff who made it all happen, particularly Gemma who had a dream and the commitment to make it come true.”
Organised by UNRWA, the runners have collectively raised more than US$ 1 million in sponsorship which will go towards the Palestinian refugee agency's Summer Games programme held every year in the territory, spokesman Chris Gunness told AFP.
There were no surprises when it came to the race's winner, 31-year-old Nader al-Masri, a Gazan from Beit Hanoun, who entered the 5,000 metres at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and who is hoping to enter the 2012 Games in London.
"This is a very happy day for me because it is the first-ever marathon in Gaza," Masri told AFP before the race.
Masri had hoped to complete the course in two hours 30 minutes, and came in just a little over his target, at two hours, 42 minutes and 47 seconds, he said.
There were just two international participants – Frenchman Sebastien Trives, who is deputy director of UNRWA's Gaza operations, and his colleague Gemma Connell, an Australian who organised the event.
Both are first-time marathon runners.
"This is a very important day for Gaza. It's a message for freedom," Trives told AFP.
"The marathon is the maximum length you can run in Gaza but they hope one day to be able to run further," he said of the territory which is exactly 42 kilometres in length and has been under an Israeli blockade since 2006.
"I'm incredibly excited and buoyed by the enthusiasm of all the Palestinians who have been involved," said Connell, 28. "It is very exciting to be here for it. I just hope I can make it to the end."