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From Beijing to Brazil - Yukiko Akaba On Top of Japanese Women's Team at World Half Marathon

by Brett Larner
photo by Jason Lawrence

With the withdrawal of Mizuki Noguchi from the Oct. 12 World Half Marathon Championships in Rio de Janeiro following her pre-Olympic leg injury, the leadership of the Japanese women's contingent in the championships falls on Team Hokuren's Yukiko Akaba. Akaba earned her place on the team by breaking Noguchi's course record in windy conditions at March's National Jitsugyodan (Corporate) Half Marathon Championships with a 1:08:11, a mark which made her the all-time 3rd-fastest Japanese woman over the half marathon distance. It was just one in a string of remarkable performances over the last year since Akaba returned to competitive running after giving birth to a daughter two years ago. An earlier JRN review of Akaba's achievements up to her Jitsugyodan Half Marathon win can be found here.

Her Jitsugyodan Half Marathon victory, which she described as disappointing in light of missing a sub-68 minute record, was a key step in Akaba's two-year plan to transform herself into one of Japan's top marathon women. Following her win and subsequent selection to the Rio team, Akaba finished 2nd in both the 5000 m and 10000 m at June's National Track and Field Championships, running 15:13.95 and 31:15.34, the latter a massive PB in a thrilling race against national record holder Yoko Shibui and multiple national champion Kayoko Fukushi which set Akaba in the Japanese all-time #4 position at 10000 m. If you haven't seen this race it is well worth watching the video below. Akaba was named to the Olympic team in the 10000 m but had to run a 15:06.07 two weeks later in the Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet to meet her goal of doubling in the 5000 m and 10000 m at the Olympics. This mark put her into the Japanese all-time #3 position for 5000 m.

Yukiko Akaba, Yoko Shibui and Kayoko Fukushi hammer each other during the 2008 Japanese National Track and Field Championships 10000 m, a competition which doubled as the Japanese Olympic Trials.

Akaba was confident leading into the Olympics but came down with a fever in the days before the competition. She ran 32:00.37 to finish 20th in the 10000 m, then 15:38.30 for 12th in the 2nd heat of the 5000 m. Deeply disappointed with these performances on the world stage, she doubtlessly views the World Half Marathon Championships as a chance to make up for them and to make the world take notice. Her 1:08:11 is the 2nd fastest in the world this year behind only Philes Ongori's 1:07:57 win in Marugame, but Akaba beat Ongori in the Jitsugyodan Half Marathon while setting her mark. Only two women in the field, one of them the world record holder, have a faster PB, and if she has recovered from her Olympic setback and is anywhere near the fitness she showed in March then Akaba, a runner of stony discipline, should be in a position to rival Kenyan's Pamela Chepchumba for a silver or bronze behind world record holder Lornah Kiplagat of the Netherlands. Akaba reports being highly focused on Rio and having run her highest-ever mileage in preparation, so her chances look good.

Regardless of her final finishing position, the World Half Marathon Championships represent just the next step in Akaba's two year plan to move up to the marathon, a step designed to give her exposure to the international championship road racing environment. In an interview just prior to leaving for Rio Akaba said that in her limited international experience she has had trouble with nerves and getting enough sleep, and that Rio was a chance for her to work through this problem. Akaba also indicated that after Rio she will announce her marathon debut at either January's Osaka International Women's Marathon or March's Nagoya International Women's Marathon with her goal in either case to make the national team for next summer's World Championships marathon. With her Jitsugyodan Half Marathon time setting her at all-time #3 on the Japanese rankings behind only marathon national record holder Mizuki Noguchi and half marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi and ahead of sub-2:20 women Naoko Takahashi and Yoko Shibui, Akaba's two year plan has her poised to step into the world's spotlight as the possible next dominant woman in Japanese marathoning. With her ultimate goal being the 2012 London Olympics marathon the world should pay attention.

The Japanese Women's Team at the Rio World Half Marathon Championships
Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren): 1:08:11 (Jitsugyodan Half Marathon, 3/16/08)
Chisato Osaki (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo): 1:08:56 (Udine, Italy, 10/14/07)
Miki Ohira (Team Mistui Sumitomo Kaijo): 1:10:13 (Matsue, 3/21/04)
Yuko Machida (Team Nihon ChemiCon): 1:11:03 (Miyazaki, 1/6/05)

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
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