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Japan's Marathon Women Begin Lining Up for World Championships Selection Races

by Brett Larner

In the wake of the retirement of Olympic marathoner Reiko Tosa (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) from the marathon distance and the announcement that injured Athens Olympics marathon champion Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex) would not run another marathon before next fall at the earliest, Japan’s top marathon women have begun to declare their intentions to compete in the three selection races for next summer’s Berlin World Championships marathon team. The selection races to choose the five-member team take place this November at the final Tokyo International Women’s Marathon, in January, 2009 at the Osaka International Women’s Marathon, and in March at the Nagoya International Women’s Marathon.

The only Japanese woman to complete the Beijing Olympics marathon, Yurika Nakamura (Team Tenmaya) announced that she will not run any of the selection races, thereby giving up her chance for a World Championships berth. Nakamura’s coach Yutaka Taketomi said that she will spend the spring focusing on improving her speed on the track and over the half marathon distance before tackling another marathon next fall.

Former marathon national record holder Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) will run the Tokyo International Women’s Marathon. Shibui, the national record holder at 10000 m, had early-career success at the marathon but experienced a slump over the last few years, hitting bottom with a personal worst at last year’s Tokyo Int’l while running against Mizuki Noguchi for a slot on the Beijing Olympics team. Following that race she experienced a rebirth on the track, a newfound positivity carrying her all the way to the Olympic 10000 m, her first time making the Olympics. She says she is ready to apply her new state of mind to the marathon and will be training in Kunming, China throughout October in preparation.

Although she has not formally declared her intent, the word in the Tokyo running community is that 2007 Hokkaido Marathon champion Yuri Kano (Second Wind AC) is also running Tokyo. Kano has improved dramatically this year, with a 1:08:57 PB victory at June’s Sapporo International Half Marathon and a 3rd-place finish at August’s New York City Half Marathon and is likely to be Shibui’s main competition.

Former marathon world record holder and current Olympic marathon world record holder Naoko Takahashi (Team Phiten) will run Tokyo as the first of a series which will see her take part in all three selection races. Takahashi generated tremendous publicity when she made what she claimed at the time to be a serious attempt to make the Beijing Olympics team at this past March’s Nagoya Int’l. She finished in 2:44:18, a dismal result which fueled speculation that her run was little more than a fundraiser for her sponsors. Her announcement soon afterwards that she would run all three World Championships selection races was viewed by many as another publicity stunt, or possibly as a last gesture before her retirement.

Yumiko Hara (Team Kyocera) will seek to make her third straight World Championships marathon team at January’s Osaka International Women’s Marathon. Hara was hailed as a future star when she entered the marathon scene in 2005, gaining great attention in Japan for trying to run with world record holder Paula Radcliffe at the Helsinki World Championships in only her second marathon. She has struggled with injury since then, performing poorly in the heat of the Osaka World Championships, pulling out of this year’s Osaka Int’l with injury, then having a lackluster run in Nagoya and missing her last chance for a spot on the Beijing Olympics team.

Hiromi Ominami (Team Toyota Shattai), one of Japan’s track greats and a strong marathoner, will also run Osaka Int’l. Although her performances are gradually tapering off with age, Ominami was the top Japanese finisher at last weekend’s National Corporate Track and Field Championships 10000 m with a time of 32:14.10, her first time in eight years finishing in the top Japanese position. She said that while she has run track races at the World Championships before, being a Japanese woman she wants to run the marathon this time.

Hiromi Ominami’s identical but slightly less talented twin sister Takami, also of Team Toyota Shattai, plans to run March’s Nagoya International Women’s Marathon. At this point her only announced competition will be Takahashi, but many other contenders including those who fail to make the team in Tokyo or Osaka, will likely be on board.

Kano's teammate Kiyoko Shimahara won silver at the 2006 Asian Games and finished just out of the medals in the 2007 Osaka World Championships. She is running the Chicago Marathon this fall and thus will most likely run in Osaka or Nagoya.

Over the next weeks Japan’s other top marathon women are expected to announce which selection race they plan to enter, so the picture will soon become clearer. Question marks hang over three of the biggest hopes for the next generation of Japanese marathon women. Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren), who in the last year has emerged as one of Japan’s greatest long distance runners after making the all-time Japanese top four list at 5000 m, 10000 m and half marathon, announced in the spring that she will seek to run the marathon in the Berlin World Championships and will debut at one of the three selection races. Akaba will lead the Japanese team at the October 12 World Half Marathon Championships in Rio de Janiero, Brazil; at a press conference in mid-September she confirmed that she still plans to go for the marathon at the Berlin World Championships and will make a decision on whether to run Osaka or Nagoya after the World Half.

Teenaged track and road star Megumi Kinukawa (Team Mizuno) likewise indicated in the spring that she would run the marathon at the World Championships, but she has since been sidelined with a potentially career-ending viral infection which her coaching staff has declined to publically name. On Sept. 27 Kinukawa ran her first race since falling ill last year, the National Corporate Track and Field Championships women's 5000 m, finishing in 10th just behind Yurika Nakamura. Hopefully this means she is on the way to recovery, but it is hard to see her being ready for a serious marathon debut even by March.

Lastly, Japan’s arguably greatest female distance runner, Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) has made no mention of any intent to try for the World Championships marathon. Fukushi, the national record holder at 3000 m, 5000 m and half marathon, has long been under intense pressure to move up the marathon, but her reluctant debut at this year’s Osaka Int’l showed that in her current mindset she is unlikely to ever seriously make the move. Still missing the national 10000 m record but coming close in the Olympics 10000 m, Fukushi will probably continue to make a career on the track in the forseeable future.

With five spaces on the team, almost any of Japan’s women in the 2:25 range could make the third through fifth spots. More information on potential contenders’ plans will be added as it becomes available.

© 2008 Brett Larner
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Roberto said…
Wow, great overview from seven sources!

Shame about Fukushi ... but that's the way in the developed world, isn't it? Take the comfortable, low-risk route, be the best in your own country, live well.

Fukushi has zero chance to be competitive on the track with the Ethiopians ... while at the marathon distance she could be a world beater. She should have moved up four years ago ...
Brett Larner said…

I agree that it's too bad for the sport that Fukushi doesn't look like she's going to become a marathoner, but I wouldn't go so far as to criticize her for it. I've never seen the slightest evidence that she has any interest in the marathon. If the fire's not there, it's not there. I would respect her more if she just honestly said she doesn't want to do it than if she again gave in to pressure from the public, her sponsors, coaches, and whoever else was responsible for Osaka.

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