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Akaba Breaks Noguchi's Course Record at Jitsugyodan Half Marathon

by Brett Larner

The last major race of the Japanese running year, the 36th Jitsugyodan Half Marathon championships, took place Mar. 16 in Yamaguchi. Warm, somewhat windy weather made for more difficult conditions than usual and the absence of entered big names such as course record holders Mizuki Noguchi and Toshinari Takaoka marginally reduced the excitement of this year's event, but both women's and men's races nevertheless featured impressive performances.

The Men's Race
Coming at the end of the professional Japanese marathon season in an Olympic selection year, the Jitsugyodan Half Marathon was absent many of the top runners. Advertised entrants including Takaoka, Yu Mitsuya and Masato Imai did not appear, leaving the field dominated by recent recruits. Among these, Team Toyota's Tomohiko Sumi took the lead from the gun, running 2:45 for the 1st km with a substantial gap over the rest of the field. It was a replay of his three runs as a Nittai University student on the 1st stage of the Hakone Ekiden. By 5 km the pack had reabsorbed Sumi, passing the marker in 14:45, 5 seconds ahead of Takaoka's course record pace. Team Asahi Kasei's Ryuji Ono led the way, followed closely by two-time Ageo City Half Marathon winner Gebretsadik Bekele of Team Honda.

The large lead pack hit 10 km in 29:25, now behind Takaoka's course record. Makoto Harada, a JR East Japan teammate of Tokyo Marathon 2nd place finisher Arata Fujiwara, had taken over the lead with Ono and Bekele right behind. Ono accelerated at 14 km, pulling away from the pack and looking strong. Shortly before the 15 km mark he pulled off the course without warning, holding his left foot in the air and grimacing in pain. Bekele took over, rapidly opening a margin on a chase pack of three Japanese runners and Kenyan Steven Njenga after passing 15 km in 44:05.

Well before 20 km Bekele was alone, chasing his PB of 1:01:26 from the 2006 Ageo City Half Marathon. His split of 58:29 meant that a PB was out of reach, but Bekele hung on for a strong 1:01:40 win. Race commentators noted that Bekele has not yet run the New Year Ekiden with Team Honda, relegated to B-team status due to the presence of other, stronger runners. Team Mazda's Njenga was 2nd, with the rest of the top 10, all Japanese, breaking 1:03.

The Women's Race
With Noguchi out of the race due to health concerns, the women's race was billed as a duel between 10000 m national record holder Yoko Shibui of Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo, and Team Hokuren's Yukiko Akaba, who has had a very impressive string of performances in the last six months after returning from childbirth and was running her first half marathon in four years.

Akaba and her teammate Philes Ongori, who holds the fastest half marathon time in the world so far this year, 1:07:57, went out together, followed only by Team Suzuki's Birha Kamau, Team Uniqlo's Filomena Cheyech Danielle, and Shibui. Akaba was clearly in control, hitting the 1st km in 3:12. Hitting the course's first hill, a 30 m uphill at the 4 km point, Akaba attacked, dropping first Kamau, then Shibui, and finally opening a gap over the remaining two runners. She clocked 16:06 for 5 km, 24 seconds ahead of Noguchi's course record pace and well on track to break her own 5 year-old PB of 1:11:23. The four trailing runners also went under Noguchi's mark.

Akaba continued to run wild. 8 km came in 25:33, a 9:27 split between 5 and 8 km, followed soon enough by 31:57 for 10 km, 15:51 for the 2nd 5 km and now 23 seconds ahead of Noguchi's pace. Ongori and Danielle were also still under Noguchi's pace, 32:17 and 32:18 respectively, while Shibui, now in 4th, had slowed somewhat to 32:49. Around the 10 km point Akaba began passing men who had started 5 minutes before her race.

Running into increasing headwinds, Akaba widened her margin over Noguchi's record pace to 31 seconds by the 15 km point, clocking a 16:08 split for 5 km to record a time of 48:05. By 18 km the high pace was clearly taking its toll as Akaba's impeccable form started to break down and she began to cry out loud with each breath. She reached 18 km in 57:57, 9:52 for the intervening 3 km. 20 km came in 1:04:42, a slow 16:37 split from 15 to 20 km and only 21 seconds ahead of Noguchi's record. This margin was enough, as Akaba reached the line in 1:08:11, breaking Noguchi's course record by 18 seconds and becoming the all-time 3rd-fastest Japanese woman in the half-marathon behind national record holder Kayoko Fukushi and Noguchi.*

While holding her daughter during post-race interviews, Akaba said that she had been targeting a 1:07 and so was somewhat disappointed with her result. Commentators mentioned that after the Beijing Olympics, where Akaba plans to run the 10000 m, she will begin preparations for her debut marathon sometime during next winter's marathon season.

Men's Top Ten Finishers
1. Gebretsadik Bekele (Team Honda): 1:01:40
2. Steven Njenga (Team Mazda): 1:02:28
3. Tetsuo Nishimura (Team YKK): 1:02:35
4. Yukihiro Kitaoka (Team NTN): 1:02:40
5. Michinori Takano (Team Sanyo Special Steel): 1:02:48
6. Ryosuke Fukuyama (Team JAL Ground Service): 1:02:49
7. Kazuyuki Maeda (Team Konica Minolta): 1:02:50
8. Takaaki Koda (Team Asahi Kasei): 1:02:52
9. Koichi Mitsuyuki (Team Honda): 1:02:55
10. Makoto Harada (Team JR East Japan): 1:02:57

Women's Top Ten Finishers
1. Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren): 1:08:11 - CR, PB
2. Filomena Cheyech Danielle (Team Uniqlo): 1:09:06
3. Philes Ongori (Team Hokuren): 1:09:43
4. Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo): 1:10:27
5. Mayumi Fujita (Team Juhachi Ginko): 1:11:38
6. Mai Ito (Team Denso): 1:11:48
7. Megumi Terada (Team Tenmaya): 1:12:11
8. Yuko Masai (Team Nihon ChemiCon): 1:12:22
9. Megumi Seike (Team Sysmex): 1:12:25
10. Birha Kamau (Team Suzuki): 1:12:26

Men's Team Winners
1. Honda
2. Konica Minolta
3. Mazda

Women's Team Winners
1. Hokuren
2. Kyudenko
3. Nihon ChemiCon

*Masako Chiba ran the fastest half marathon time ever by a Japanese woman, 1:06:43 at the 1997 Tokyo City Half Marathon, but the mark is not counted due to that course's excessive downhill.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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