by Brett Larner
The 2008 Hokkaido Marathon saw suprise winners in both the men's and women's races, with retired professional runner turned high school teacher Masaru Takamizawa running a PB of 2:12:10 in the heat to take the men's win and tiny 19 year-old Yukari Sahaku, a disciple of Naoko Takahashi's former coach Yoshio Koide, running to victory with a 2:31:50 marathon debut.
Takamizawa, 27, is a former member of Team Nissin Shokuhin and a graduate of Yamanashi Gakuin University where he ran the Hakone Ekiden's second stage, its most competitive. In March this year he retired from the jitsugyodan world to take a job teaching information technology at Nagano's Saku Chosei High School, which he had attended as a student. Not coincidentally Saku Chosei is one of Japan's top running high schools, and Takamizawa also took on duties as an assistant coach for the school's ekiden team under his own high school-era head coach Hayashi Morozumi. Since taking the job he has done most of his training with the high school team, adding long runs on his own. At last year's Hokkaido Marathon, Takamizawa came from behind in his debut marathon, catching breakaway leader Tadashi Shitamori and Kenyan Ombeche Mokamba late in the race to finish 2nd behind his former Nissin teammate, Kenyan Julius Gitahi. Takamizawa began 2008 with a PB of 2:14:57 in perfect conditions at the Tokyo Marathon. Two months later he ran the Nagano Marathon, making Hokkaido his third marathon of the year.
Despite temperatures of 27 degrees at the start and over 30 degrees at the finish, Takamizawa ran assertively right from the gun, running at the front of a pack which included Gitahi, 2:08 Nissin ace Yuzo Onishi, two-time Kenyan Olympic marathon medalist Erick Wainaina, invited runner Richard Maiyo, a cohort of top younger Japanese marathoners, and, in his marathon debut, former Juntendo University Hakone Ekiden star runner Masato Imai. Wearing a Saku Chosei singlet which prompted announcers to repeatedly remind viewers that he was a teacher and not a student, Takamizawa made his first move at 15 km, opening a slight gap which strung out the leading pack. Maiyo responded with a 2:53 km which put him in the lead at 16 km, but it was clearly too much and he began to struggle. By 20 km Takamizawa was back in front, progressively widening his lead all the way to the finish. At 25 km he was nearly a minute ahead of the chase pack. Gitahi and 2008 Nobeoka Marathon winner Tomoya Shimizu of Team Asahi Kasei picked up their pace to pursue the runaway leader, but at the 28.7 km turnaround Takamizawa's lead had lengthened to 61 seconds. At 30 km he was 15 seconds ahead of course record pace, but with temperatures rising in the final 10 km it was all he could do to hold his pace and avoid a replay of Shitamori's run in last year's race.
Garnering announcers' comparisons to Olympic women's marathon gold medalist Constantina Tomescu, Takamizawa's gamble paid off as he finished with a PB of two and a half minutes and the third-fastest time ever run on the Hokkaido course, beating runner-up Kentaro Nakamoto by over three minutes with Shimizu close behind in third. For the latter two athletes it was a reversal of their results from this year's Nobeoka Marathon, which Shimizu won with Nakamoto 3rd in his marathon debut. Takamizawa said afterwards that he had hoped to run 2:11 but was satisfied with his performance and hoped that it would be a source of motivation for Saku Chosei's ekiden team in the upcoming fall season.
In the women's race, 19 year-old Yukari Sahaku defeated her training partner, 20 year-old Hitomi Niiya, in Sahaku's marathon debut. Both runners are coached by Yoshio Koide, who also coached Naoko Takahashi to the first sub-2:20 women's marathon and an Olympic marathon gold medal. In a televised interview Koide described Sahaku as an extremely strong athlete and one who loves to practice. He said he expected her to follow the leaders until 35 km and then take off. Just 143 cm tall and weighing 32 kg, Sahaku looked remarkably like a junior high school boy. Koide commented that during the peak of her training in July Sahaku's weight had fallen to 28 kg, but that he had intervened to make sure she ate more to be back to a healthier weight in time for Hokkaido.
Niiya debuted at age 18 at the 2007 Tokyo Marathon with a 2:31:01 win and hoped to make this year's Hokkaido a breakthrough in the leadup to the 2009 Berlin World Championships. After a reasonable 17:36 first 5 km split led by Kenyan Alice Chelangat, Niiya attacked with a 33:39 split for the 10 km from 5 to 15 km, just under 2:22 pace and well ahead of the course record despite the heat. 2006 Hokkaido winner Kaori Yoshida was the first to let go of the lead pack, followed in turn by Team Tenmaya's Mika Hikichi and then Chelangat. After the halfway mark the race was down to just Niiya and Sahaku, accompanied by a group of male runners. As in Niiya's Tokyo debut, these male runners included teammates who acted as pacemakers and handed her drinks and sponges.
In the second half of the race the pace began to slow, with Niiya beginning to show signs of stress after the 28 km. At 28.6 km Sahaku moved up next to Niiya for the first time, attacking as the two rounded the 28.7 km turnaround point and opening up a gap. Despite slowing 5 km splits Sahaku continued to pull away from her training partner as Niiya began to pay the price for her early high pace, clocking 3:52 for the 32nd km. Sahaku continued to appear relaxed and collected all the way to the finish, but she too slowed to nearly 4 min per km pace in the final 5 km of the race. Niiya in her turn rallied, making up nearly 30 seconds on Sahaku's lead but unable to fully bridge the gap. Sahaku won in 2:31:50 with Niiya 2nd in 2:32:18. Apparent early casualty Kaori Yoshida showed that experience counts too as by letting go of the lead pack early on she was able to pick up stragglers Hikichi and Chelangat later in the race to finish 3rd in 2:33:36.
For the IAAF's report on the Hokkaido Marathon, click here.
(c) 2008 Brett Larner
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