MUMBAI (Reuters) - Thousands of runners, many with messages for peace scrawled on their T-shirts, participated in Mumbai's annual marathon, its first international sporting event and the biggest public gathering since the attacks in November.
Even before the first light of dawn lit up the CST train station, the starting point and one of the sites attacked by Islamist gunmen, runners posed for pictures against its imposing Gothic facade, their fingers parted in the victory sign.
With cries of "Jai Maharashtra" (Hail Maharashtra!) and "Bharat Mata ki jai" (Victory to Mother India!), the runners, including many foreigners and out-of-towners, surged forward in an annual ritual that this year had a special poignance.
"I always look forward to the Mumbai marathon and this year was very special for me because of the things that happened," said Patricia Joudrey, a Canadian teacher who lives in the southern India city of Chennai.
"I didn't think of not coming. In fact, I thought there was even more support, more people cheering today," said Joudrey, who ran the half-marathon for the fifth successive year.
More than 35,000 had registered this year, the sixth edition of the Mumbai Marathon, more than any in past years, said Bruno Goveas, a spokesman for Procam International, the organizer.
The event also had tighter security, with metal detectors and scanners, more than 1,500 policemen, about 750 private security personnel and about 1,000 volunteers, Goveas said.
Even policemen joined the enthusiastic cheering, tucking their lathi sticks under their arms to clap as runners including business chiefs and Bollywood celebrities, swung past the Trident hotel, another of the sites that was attacked.
Some hotel staff stood outside and waved to participants, while guests looked on from its lobby. The hotel was reopened about three weeks after the attack. The adjacent Oberoi hotel, parts of it boarded up, is being renovated.
This year, as in past years, the Trident-Oberoi had a team of about 50 staff and executives participating, a spokeswoman said.
"They are running in memory of their colleagues and guests who were affected by the attacks," she said.
The Mumbai marathon is the third leg of a quartet that includes Nairobi, Singapore and Hong Kong. It concludes in Hong Kong on Feb 8.
All along the route that also went past Chowpatty beach, where the lone surviving gunman was apprehended after a fierce encounter with police, bands played and residents cheered and held posters hailing the spirit of Mumbai.
"The sheer enthusiasm of the people in Mumbai is very special ... I haven't felt that in other places," Joudrey said.
Editing by Valerie Lee