Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Olympic Berth at Stake in Osaka International Women's Marathon (updated)

by Brett Larner

For the Japanese entrants in Sunday's Osaka International Women's Marathon far more is at stake than the race itself.

Osaka is the 2nd of Japan's qualification races for the Beijing Olympics. One slot on the three-member Olympic marathon team has already been assigned to Reiko Tosa for her bronze medal performance at the Osaka World Championships last summer. Defending Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi is an almost certain choice for the team thanks to her resounding course record victory at the first of the selection races, last November's Tokyo International Women's Marathon. One slot remains to be decided between the winners of the Osaka and Nagoya International Women's Marathons. Nagoya competitors, including Sydney Olympic marathon gold medalist Naoko Takahashi, will have the advantage of knowing the Osaka winner's time, the mark they must beat to make the team. Osaka contestants cannot afford any kind of slow, tactical race or a finish behind foreign runners but must instead target a fast time and the overall victory right from the start. For every Japanese runner in the field, a sizeable PB along with the overall win will be necessary to have any possibility of being considered for the Olympic team.

The marathoner with the strongest credentials in the domestic field is defending winner Yumiko Hara. Hara set her PB of 2:23:48 when she won last year's Osaka, the fastest Japanese run of the year until Noguchi's win in Tokyo. Hara ran both the Helsinki and Osaka World Championships marathons. In Helsinki Hara memorably tried to run down world record holder Paula Radcliffe in the early stages of the race before fading and missing her PB by only seconds. In last summer's World Championships she again aggressively frontran the race before withering in the heat and finishing far back in the field. Hara has been invisible since the World Championships. She was scheduled to run in December's All-Japan Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden for Team Kyocera but did not start the race, raising the possibility that, like Tosa, she is suffering lingering effects from the heat and humidity in the Osaka World Championships. In pre-race interviews Hara said she is ready for this Sunday's race but uncomfortable about the strength of the field, in particular naming marathon debutante Kayoko Fukushi.

Fukushi is the Japanese national record holder at both 5000 m and half marathon. In her debut half marathon in 2006 she authoritatively defeated then-record holder Mizuki Noguchi. Her marathon debut is long-awaited and the subject of intense speculation; Fukushi for years avoided questions about her plans for the marathon and gave the strong impression that she does not want to run such long distances despite her immense potential to be Japan's next sub-2:20 woman. Her announcement in December that she would run Osaka was tempered by the fact that she is not entered as an invited elite but rather as an individual entrant. Since confirming that she will run Osaka, Fukushi has continued to avoid the media and, when cornered, has consistently downplayed her participation in the race, claiming to not be training seriously. In her most recent interview she claims to have only done pace runs up to 22 km rather than the Japanese standard 40 km. Some in Japan's professional running world have speculated that Fukushi is running Osaka only to make people stop asking her about the marathon rather than as a serious Olympic bid, but it is hard to see a deadly competitor like Fukushi make such a move. Regardless of outcome, Fukushi is the single biggest wildcard in the Beijing Olympic selection process.

Other strong domestic contenders include Tomo Morimoto and Yuri Kano. Both runners have PBs in the 2:24 range, are relatively inexperienced in the marathon, and show potential for further improvement. Morimoto set her PB of 2:24:33 in winning the 2006 Vienna Marathon. Kano's PB of 2:24:43 came in her debut at last year's Osaka International Women's Marathon. Kano finished 3rd and missed making the Osaka World Championships team by only seconds. She instead ran the Hokkaido Marathon, executing a gutsy performance to win in hot and humid conditions nearly identical to those at the World Championships. Since then she has been training at altitude in Albuquerque, New Mexico, logging over 1000 km in 34 days with a target of running 2:22 in Osaka.

Rounding out the Japanese field are veterans Kayoko Obata and Haruko Okamoto along with younger runners Mika Okunaga, Kazue Ogoshi and Yuka Ezaki. Competitive individual entrants include Aki Fujikawa and Miki Ohira and debutantes Yoshiko Fujinaga, Madoka Ogi and Kei Terada.

Among the overseas competition, with the fastest PBs in the field only the veteran Romanian duo of Constantina Tomescu and Lidia Simon may represent a challenge to the top Japanese runners. Tomescu had a checkered 2007 with two strong and two weak performances, while Simon, whose PB of 2:22:54 was set in winning Osaka in 2000, had a surprisingly strong showing at the Osaka World Championships and reports being in excellent shape. The U.K.'s Mara Yamauchi and Kenya's Julia Mumbi will be running for PBs but are unlikely to be in contention for the overall win. Other foreign runners in the field include Christelle Daunay of France, Olesya Nurgalieva of Russia in a rare appearance without her identical twin sister, and Nina Rillstone of New Zealand.

Complete details on the elite field are available here. The Osaka International Women's Marathon begins at 12:10 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 27 and will be broadcast on Fuji Television.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner

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