Hundreds of runners streamed through Yangon yesterday for Myanmar's first international marathon in decades, in another sign of the dramatic changes sweeping the former junta-ruled country.
Gathering before dawn in the shadow of the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, runners flashed victory signs as they pounded the streets of the former colonial capital, the scene of several bloody military crackdowns in the past.
Under a clear blue sky, they snaked past landmarks such as Yangon University - a symbol of the junta-era democratic struggle - and Inya Lake, overlooked by the mansion where Aung San Suu Kyi was locked up for years.
"I'm very excited," 25-year-old Saw Kyaw Soe Oo from eastern Karen State said, before the runners set off through the streets of Yangon, cheered on by supporters along the route.
"It was impossible to hold such an event in the past era. It wouldn't have been so easy to let many foreigners into the country," he said.
More than 1,000 participants were registered to take part in the event, which also included short-distance fun runs.
Kenyan runner Gitau Kariuki, 25, was first past the finishing line in the marathon category after two hours, 19 minutes and 10 seconds.
"It has been fantastic and especially [it's] my first time here in Myanmar. I promise to come here next year to defend my title," said Kariuki, who scooped the prize money of US$2,500.
The marathon aimed to showcase Myanmar's budding sporting credentials as it prepares to host its first Southeast Asian Games in 44 years in December.
"I want to take part in many races like this," said 20-year-old Thaung Aye, who was the first Myanmar runner to cross the finish line, coming third after two hours, 27 minutes and 10 seconds - a personal best.
"The more races I compete in, the more experience I gain," he added. "I expect to win the first prize in the Southeast Asian Games marathon in under two hours and 20 minutes."
Organisers said athletes from China and India as well as those from Britain, the United States, Ethiopia and Kenya were competing.
"This is [a] very significant event," Serge Pun, the executive chairman of co-organiser Yoma Strategic Holdings, said ahead of the race.
"For us to be able to showcase Yangon at this juncture of time when our country is undergoing monumental changes politically, economically and socially is a great honour."
Since taking power in early 2011, President Thein Sein's reformist government has overseen dramatic changes including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and Suu Kyi's election to parliament.
In response, the West has begun rolling back sanctions against the former pariah state and foreign tourists have begun flocking to the long-isolated country.