Calm amid the storm: Dennis Mbelenzi savours Half-Marathon Derby win
Dennis Mbelenzi says it was a dream come true to cross the line first in the Bermuda Half-Marathon Derby, despite some of the “disappointing” backlash since.
Breaking the tape first in a time of 1hr 12min 41sec, a non-resident ruling prevented the 41-year-old from being recognised as the official race winner or receiving prize money, with that honour instead going to Bermudian Lamont Marshall.
What followed was a furore among the community, with many calling for a change to existing regulations, while others, including Marshall, have hit out at Mbelenzi with some even demanding a ban on non-resident runners.
Mbelenzi, who lived on the island from 2007 to 2019 before moving to Nova Scotia, Canada, became a firm favourite among the island’s running community after taking up the sport in 2016 and has moved to cool any controversy, confirming he entered in the knowledge he was not eligible to win any prize money but instead with the ambition of fulfilling a burning desire.
“Going into the race and before I even registered, I was fully aware of the rules, I knew as a non-resident I was not eligible to officially win” said Mbelenzi, who finished second behind Chris Estwanik in last year’s race.
“People spoke of it being controversial, but that is not the case at all; we all knew the rules.
“What I want to make clear is that I don’t do it for money or accolades; that goes against the reasons why I run. I got into running for fitness, to inspire others and mostly to try to challenge myself.
“When I started competing more consistently, I always just wanted to do the best I could. The race gives me an opportunity to compete against people I always looked up to when I started running in 2016.
“It’s special for me to race against people like Lamont and Sean Trott and although I was well aware I was not eligible to officially win, I had an ambition to be the first across the line. I believed this year I could achieve that, that was a clear aim in my mind.
“Both Sean and Lamont are excellent runners so I knew I would have to push extra hard and, it gave me more motivation to push myself.
“I know I’m not recognised as the official winner, but nothing can take away the joy I felt crossing that line first. It still felt incredibly special because it was a moment I had looked forward to.
“I’m extremely proud because I had dreamt of that exact moment for years.”
While cherishing his personal achievement, Mbelenzi has been left highly disappointed by the criticism he has faced and a lack of recognition from race organisers.
“I have seen comments from people saying my inclusion was a problem and they wished I hadn’t crossed the line first or even been allowed to compete, and that’s a real shame to see and hear,” he said.
“I’ve even seen people calling for me to be banned for bringing shame to the race, and that’s what is really disappointing.
“Thankfully, on the whole, that has been from a minority and most people have been really supportive. I’m proud to have been able to be part of a really competitive race and giving the spectators some excitement on what is a really special day.
“I still believe Lamont is a better athlete than I am and even though there have been some comments from him, I would like to say that it always a privilege for me to race alongside him.
“The real sad thing for me is that in years to come if you look back at race records, there will be no mention at all that I was even part of that race and there’s no recognition that I even competed.
“That special moment for me will all but disappear because the race record does not recognise that someone finished first, even if they are not eligible to officially win.”
While Mbelenzi is keen to preserve the tradition of the race itself, he believes adjustments could be made to the rules to avoid any controversy or misunderstanding in the future.
“I would hate to see anything taken away from the nature of the race, because it is such a special event for the island and holds important connections for people from Bermuda.,” added Mbelenzi, who is adamant any criticism has not deterred him from wanting to compete in the future if he is allowed to do so.
“That tradition needs protecting, but I do believe there is opportunity to change the rules slightly.
“If the organisers want to increase participation in the race they could broaden the categories to recognise those who won, while still having a separate category for local winners to win prize money.
“Bermuda Tourism Authority are one of the sponsors so surely they would welcome other runners from overseas to come here and compete in what is always a really special environment, but I understand it is a hard position to try to keep those traditions in place.
“I have heard they may be some discussions about a possible rule change and that the organisers are possibly welcoming comment. I’m hopeful that they do not block participation because, if I’m still eligible, I would love to come back and compete but not if me doing so causes more pain.”