by Brett Larner
The 30th and final edition of the Tokyo International Women's Marathon takes place this Sunday, Nov. 16, starting and finishing at Tokyo's National Stadium. TIWM was the world's first women-only elite marathon at the time of its inception in 1979, a time when Japan's male marathoners were among the most dominant in the world and there were no world-class Japanese women in the marathon scene. 30 years, two Olympic gold medals and a world record later, Japan's women are its most respected distance runners both domestically and worldwide. The list of TIWM winners contains many of the sport's great names, historical and modern. Joyce Smith, Katrin Doerre, Rosa Mota, Valentina Yegorova, Joyce Chepchumba, Derartu Tulu, Elfenesh Alemu, Naoko Takahashi, Reiko Tosa and Mizuki Noguchi all won. The birth of the Tokyo Marathon in 2007 brought the big city major marathon to Japan; with the addition of an elite women's field for the 2009 Tokyo Marathon, the Tokyo metropolitan government decided a separate women's race was no longer necessary and chose to bring an era to an end.
For the TIWM's final running, also doubling as a selection race for the 2009 Berlin World Championships women's marathon team, race organizers have assembled a small but competitive field. By far the biggest wildcard of the day is Yoko Shibui. At her best, Shibui is in a different class from her competitors in the TIWM, with achievements including the then-debut world record of 2:23:11 at Osaka in 2001 and the former Japanese national record of 2:19:41 at Berlin in 2004. Among TIWM entrants only Russian Svetlana Zakharova has run under 2:23, and that was in 2001.
The problem is that Shibui has a long history of performing badly in important races. After finishing 4th in the 2001 Edmonton World Championships marathon she failed to qualify for the marathon team in the 2004 Athens Olympics, 2005 and 2007 World Championships and 2008 Beijing Olympics. Her last good marathon was a 2:23:58 at Nagoya in 2006, and her attempt to make the Beijing Olympics team at last year's TIWM resulted in a personal worst 2:34:15. With a Berlin World Championships team spot on the line, her history is against her this time.
Why is Shibui at the top of the list? Since her failure in Tokyo last year Shibui has gone through a deep personal reevaluation, one which led her to a stellar spring and summer track season. Shibui recorded her 2nd, 3rd and 4th best-ever 10000 m times, the kind of times she has not run since setting the current 10000 m national record in 2002, and made her first-ever Olympic team in the 10000 m after winning the National Championships for the first time. Shibui has returned her track running to its peak and seems confident and focused on TIWM this fall. If she can translate this renaissance to the marathon she will be all but unbeatable. If her dark side returns it will be another story.
The good old Shibui leading the pack through a fast pace would mean that only three women in the field would have a realistic chance of staying with her, Kenyan Salina Kosgei, domestic rival Yuri Kano, and Russian veteran Svetlana Zakharova.
Salina Kosgei was runner up at last year's TIWM behind Mizuki Noguchi's course record run, running just 9 seconds off her PB of 2:23:22. Since then she has been very strong, running a half marathon PB of 1:09:57 in Lisbon in March, finishing 4th in London in 2:26:20 in April and 10th in the Olympic marathon with a time of 2:29:28. In Tokyo last year she soundly beat Shibui and was well ahead of 3rd place. A run like last year's duel against Noguchi would require an A-level performance from her rivals to defeat Kosgei, but in London she was beaten by Zakharova and in the Olympics by the U.K.'s Mara Yamauchi, so it can be done. Nevertheless, next to Shibui Kosgei remains the favorite for the win.
Yuri Kano is Shibui's major domestic competition. Kano debuted at Osaka last year, running 2:24:43 but just missing out on making the team for the 2007 World Championships, then followed up with a win in severe weather conditions at the Hokkaido Marathon just after the World Championships. An injury caused her to drop out of this year's Osaka after only a few kilometers and she was unable to carry through her training to Nagoya, where she ran only 2:26:39 and failed to make the Beijing Olympics team. Since then she has been dead set on winning the TIWM, running a PB of almost two minutes to win June's Sapporo International Half Marathon in 1:08:57, finishing 3rd in July's New York City Half Marathon, then winning October's Rock and Roll Half Marathon in San Jose, California. These performances suggest that Kano has taken her running up to the level necessary for a breakthrough win in the marathon. A 2:23 would not be surprising.
Russian Svetlana Zakharova holds the fastest time of the year among TIWM entrants with her 2:24:39 2nd place finish at London in April. At 38 Zakharova is a veteran, having beaten Shibui for the bronze at the 2001 Edmonton World Championships marathon and setting her PB of 2:21:31 the following year in Chicago. She was only 22nd in the Beijing Olympics marathon but no doubt takes confidence from her London run and inspiration from the successes of Constantina Tomescu-Dita, 38, and Ludmila Petrova, 40, this season.
A slower early pace brings Mara Yamauchi and Yoshimi Ozaki into the picture. Yamauchi, a Briton who lives and trains in Japan, has been a reliable 2:25 runner for the last three years. She was 9th in the 2007 World Championships after trying to stage a breakaway win, then came back at Osaka this year to win in a PB of 2:25:10 with a successful late-stage breakaway. She won March's Matsue Ladies' Half Marathon in 1:09:59, then finished 6th in the Beijing Olympics marathon, defeating numerous rivals with much faster best times. Yamauchi does not look likely to improve her times far beyond their current levels but she is an intelligent, tough racer with a mastery of the long spurt finishing strategy and will be dangerous if a pack is still together in the last third of the race.
Yoshimi Ozaki, the sister of Kano's teammate Akemi Ozaki, will be running only her 2nd marathon. Ozaki was on the Japanese national team at the 2007 World Road Running Championships and ran 1:09:30 at February's Marugame Half Marathon before her 2:26:19 debut in Nagoya in March. She finished 2nd in Nagoya just behind fellow debutante Yurika Nakamura, who was selected for the Beijing Olympics marathon team. Ozaki was graceful and strong in Nagoya and looked as though she has the potential to go much faster. TIWM offers an opportunity for her to significantly step up to the level of the top contenders.
Two relatively unknown runners, Ukrainian Tetyana Filonyuk and Kenyan Magdaline Chemjor, are also in the field. Filonyuk is a good pick to be the race's dark horse. She was only 31st in the Beijing Olympics but has been on an impressive development curve since debuting in 2006, running 2:39:57 in 2006, 2:34:58 in 2007, and 2:28:40 in Paris earlier this year. A rate of improvement such as this can't continue forever, but even a moderate jump in the TIWM would put her into a good position within the field. Chemjor was a race walker in the 90's before moving to distance running. She clocked a 1:09:39 half marathon in 2003 and debuted in the marathon at Amsterdam last year, running 2:28:16. At Boston this year she ran a dismal 2:46:25, raising questions about her viability in the TIWM.
Two other elite Japanese women will make up the rear of the pack. Yukiko Matsubara made an unremarkable 2:34:05 debut in Osaka this year, while Ayumi Hayashi ran an almost identical 2:34:08 in Nagoya. Hayashi holds a PB of 2:29:59 from Nagoya 2006 and, since this year's Nagoya, has run 5000 m and 10000 m PBs. She may be capable of setting a new PB this time but is unlikely to factor into the top positions.
Rounding out the elite field are two Ethiopian past champions, Derartu Tulu and Elfenesh Alemu. Tulu won TIWM in 2001. She was 4th in the 2005 Helsinki World Championships in a PB of 2:23:30 but did not race seriously in 2006 or 2007. Earlier this year she made a comeback, running 2:36:32 in Madrid in April. Alemu won TIWM in 2003 and went on to finish 4th in the Athens Olympics, but she has not raced seriously since 2005. Both Ethiopians are likely running only in the capacity of past champion, and it would be very surprising to see either contend for the lead.
Update: Elfenesh Alemu withdrew from the TIWM on Nov. 13 after injuring her left buttock.
The 30th Tokyo International Women's Marathon begins at 12:00 p.m. local time on Sunday, Nov. 16. It will be broadcast nationwide on TV Asahi.
Update: The IAAF's preview of the TIWM is located here.
(c) 2008 Brett Larner
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