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Japanese Distance Running in 2008

by Brett Larner

With 2008 at an end JRN takes a look back at some of its the highs and lows.

January
The new year began with Samuel Wanjiru's final major ekiden appearance in the aptly-named New Year Ekiden, but he passed almost unnoticed behind a legion of Kenyan stars shoehorned into one of the shortest legs of the Japanese professional men's ekiden championships. Rikuren officials justified this trend in the major ekidens by saying that Japanese fans don't like seeing foreign runners dominating home-grown athletes and that Africans are just physically superior, then later in the year attacked Japanese marathoners for their inability to keep up with exceptional performances by Africans in the Olympics and at the Fukuoka International Marathon. Wanjiru was 4th on the 11.8 km 3rd stage in 31:17, with Team Nissin Shokuhin's Masai Kenyan Gideon Ngatuny winning the stage in 30:59.

Team Konica Minolta returned to the winner's circle thanks in large part to a half marathon national record-level stage best performance on the 2nd stage by ace Takayuki Matsumiya. Wanjiru's teammate Yu Mitsuya likewise ran near the half marathon national record. Whether the two runners benefited by the absence of superior African competition and how this might affect their ability to face such competition in high-pressure marathons is a question best posed to Rikuren Long Distance Director Keisuke Sawaki. But more on him later.

Overshadowing the New Year Ekiden was the Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2 and 3. The most thrilling, dramatic and emotional race of the year, Hakone is a cultural phenomenon. Komazawa Univ. won after a three-year drought, tiny Chuo Gakuin Univ. placed 3rd, and there was the usual share of stellar individual performances. Kenyan Mekubo Mogusu of Yamanashi Gakuin Univ., who passed up four years of professional running and the concomitant financial rewards for the chance to reap Hakone glory, final set a stage record on the 2nd leg, Hakone's most competitive. Tokai Univ.'s incredible Yuki Sato set his third consecutive stage record, Chuo Gakuin's steeplechase national champion Jun Shinoto set an unexpected stage record on the 9th leg, and unknown Ryuta Komano of Waseda brushed the 'untouchable' stage record of Juntendo's legendary Masato Imai on Hakone's famous uphill 5th leg. But the defining image of the 2008 Hakone is that of Imai's successor Hiroyuki Ono less than 500 m from the end of the 23.4 km 5th stage, falling down over and over but each time getting back on his feet to try to reach the finish until finally being stopped by race officials out of fear for his health. The powers that be have unfortunately removed videos of Ono's run from Youtube, but nobody who saw it can forget what was one of the greatest performances in the world this year. Along with Ono's disqualification, two other schools had runners collapse, making for the first time in the ekiden's 84 year history that three schools failed to finish and raising questions about whether Hakone is becoming too big and too much pressure upon the university student runners.

A few weeks after Ono, another Japanese runner made waves for falling when 3000 m, 5000 m and half marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi reluctantly made her marathon debut at the Osaka International Marathon. Fukushi admitted she had not trained sufficiently but went out fearlessly at sub-2:20 pace, slowly slightly before hitting halfway in 1:10:32 nearly two minutes ahead of eventual winner Mara Yamauchi. The marathon exacted its toll for Fukushi's early cavalier attitude, and the result was an epic. By the end she was down to more than 6 minutes per km, falling at least three times in the final 400 m of the race, bleeding from her knees, arms and nose as she finished in 2:40:54. She was injured throughout much of the rest of the year and only delivered one performance up to her usual standard.

Lastly for January, Rikuren ended a nearly year-long saga by banning women's 1500 m national record holder Yuriko Kobayashi from competing in professional races. Kobayashi set the national record while in high school, then joined the professional Team Toyota Jidoshoki in April, 2007. Shortly afterwards she decided to simultaneously enroll in university, a violation of Rikuren regulations. The administrative body put her career on hold while it reviewed the case, ultimately ruling in January that she was not elligible to compete professionally out of fears that it would encourage corporate teams to recruit top talent by promising to pay for their university educations. In other words, in the lead-up to the Olympics the officials in Rikuren saw fit to limit one of their most promising young women's opportunities to race to time trials and the odd overseas meet or international ekiden.

February
February began with one of the biggest race weekends of the year, but a freak snowstorm wiped out most events in central and northern Japan. Local boy Tomoya Adachi won the elite Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon and first-year pro Masaki Shimoju won the Kumanichi 30 km Road Race, both on the southern island of Kyushu, but women's marathon national record holder and defending Olympic marathon gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi showed the first glimmer of what was to come in the summer, cancelling a planned 30 km world record attempt in the Kumanichi race.

The biggest news of February was the second running of the Tokyo Marathon. Unlike the previous year's inaugural running, which saw freezing rain, complaints about lost income from taxi drivers and local businesses, and a general anxiety about the logistics of pulling off a 30,000-person event from zero, the second running had gorgeous, sunny weather, an improvement in the few problems from the previous year, and a sense of community and civic pride about the event unusual in Japanese society. In a land which embraces superficial surface change, this felt like something deeper. The race itself included a symbol of this change, as unknown 2:38 marathoner Arata Fujiwara ran a spectacular race against 2007 World Championships bronze medalist Viktor Rothlin of Switerland and Kenyan Olympic track runner Julius Gitahi, finishing 2nd in 2:08:40 despite severe leg cramps which almost caused him to fall. It was an incredible, dreamlike performance which put the no-name Fujiwara onto the shortlist for the Beijing Olympics and won him fans worldwide.

March
Unfortunately for Fujiwara, his Olympic came to an end two weeks later when Satoshi Osaki ran 2:08:36 at the Biwako Mainichi Marathon, the final men's selection race for the Beijing Olympic team, beating Fujiwara's time by a hairsbreadth and eliminating him from consideration for the team. Rikuren favored, with much justification, Atsushi Sato's 2:07:13 performance from the previous December's Fukuoka International Marathon, and, with far, far less justification, veteran Tsuyoshi Ogata's merely decent 5th place finish at the 2007 World Championships. Fujiwara was named alternate, but as events transpired, this was in name only.

A week after Biwako was the final women's selection race, the Nagoya International Women's Marathon. After a media frenzy around her preparations for Nagoya, 2000 Sydney Olympics marathon gold medalist and former world record holder Naoko Takahashi ran an amateur-quality 2:44:18. She afterwards admitted that she had had surgery late the previous summer and that her training had not been what she hoped. First-time marathoner Yurika Nakamura of Team Tenmaya won and was selected for Beijing over her teammate Tomo Morimoto, who had run a faster time in Osaka in January but had finished 2nd overall.

In the last major race of the Japanese 2007-2008 fiscal year, Mizuki Noguchi again withdrew, this time from the National Corporate Ekiden Championships. Yukiko Akaba stepped up to fill the gap, breaking Noguchi's course record with a 1:08:11 win in her first half marathon since giving birth in Aug., 2006.

April
Japan sent four teams to the World XC Championships. The senior teams had undistinguished showings, the women's team 1oth of 12 and the men 13th of 15, but the junior teams fared better, with the men's team 4th and the women 3rd.

Back in Japan, an amateur-level half marathon in Saga Prefecture was the site of a freak bee attack. 30 people were hospitalized after a swarm of bees from a nearby illicit beekeeping operation began agitated and attacked the passing runners.

While many other countries' Olympic marathoners lineup up in London, Boston or other major races, most of Japan's team ran the Beijing Pre-Olympic Test Marathon to get a feel for the course. Women's team alternate Tomo Morimoto was an exception, placing 2nd in the Vienna Marathon. Aging men's national record holder Toshinari Takaoka also turned up in Europe, placing 16th in the Paris Marathon. Samuel Wanjiru finished 2nd in London in a stellar 2:05:24 and was named to the Kenyan Olympic team.

May
The month began with Mizuki Noguchi's return to action after dropping out of two other Olympic tune-up races. Noguchi won the Sendai International Half Marathon in a strong 1:08:25, seemingly back on top of her Olympic preparations. Later in the month she ran the final race of her 20's, anchoring a 4x400 m relay for her corporate team Sysmex at a track meet in Kansai.

Sumie Inagaki, the reigning world record holder in the women's 48-hour ultramarathon, broke her own record at the Surgeres Ultramarathon in France. Running on a 300 m loop course, Inagaki ran 382.718 km to set the new world record. Ryoichi Sekiya won the men's race with a distance of 401.416 km.

Mekubo Mogusu of Yamanashi Gakuin University dominated the Kanto University Track and Field Championships, winning the 1500 m, 10000 m and half marathon. Mogusu ran an Olympic A-standard 27:27.64 in the 10000 m and hoped to be selected for the Kenyan Olympic team.

The Tokyo Marathon announced that it would be adding world-class prize money and an elite women's field to the 2009 edition of the race. The changes came about in response to the IAAF awarding the event only a silver label rather than the gold label accorded to top-level international events.

June
Teenaged prodigy Megumi Kinukawa, who ran the women's 10000 m at the 2007 World Championships after setting the junior national record, revealed that she had been suffering from a series of illnesses and injuries since December and was unable to train. Doctors said that Kinukawa's condition stemmed from a mystery virus she had undoubtedly contracted while out of Japan.

Fellow young hopeful Masato Kihara of Chuo Gakuin University showed the glimmer of possible greatness at the Sapporo International Half Marathon when he tried to run against sub-hour half marathoner Mekubo Mogusu without regard for the consequences. The two went through 5 km at world record pace before Kihara gave up and backed off, going on to finish just off his PB of 1:01:50 but beating many of the professional Kenyans and every Japanese runner in the field, including national record holder Atsushi Sato. Mogusu won, and both runners were selected for their national teams for October's World Half Marathon. All three of Japan's Olympic marathon men were in the field, but of them only Tsuyoshi Ogata ran well, Satoshi Osaki and Atsushi Sato finishing well down in the field. Yuri Kano won the women's race in a large PB of 1:08:57 but declined to join Noguchi and Akaba on the women's World Half team as she intended to run November's Tokyo International Women's Marathon.

The biggest event of the month was June's National Track and Field Championships, which doubled this year as the Japanese Olympic Trials. 5000 m national record holder Takayuki Matsumiya won the men's 5000 m and 10000 m to make the Olympic team, joined by Waseda University's talented Kensuke Takezawa, who made a surprise appearance in the 5000 m after 6 months off with injury. Women's 1500 m national record holder Yuriko Kobayashi gave up on trying to qualify in the 1500 m, instead winning the 5000 m to make the team alongside national record holder Kayoko Fukushi and Yuriko Kobayashi.

The women's 10000 m was the highlight of the meet, and possibly the greatest race of the year by a Japanese runner. Akaba and Fukushi faced off with national record holder Yoko Shibui, who had failed to qualify in the marathon after losing to Mizuki Noguchi at last November's Tokyo International Women's Marathon. Akaba set the early pace, but Shibui soon took over and led until the final 2000 m when Fukushi dashed ahead. From then until the finish the lead changed repeatedly, the three runners hammering each other until Akaba broke away with 300 m to go. Shibui followed but Fukushi was left behind. Coming around the last corner Shibui drew even with Akaba and inched barely ahead, winning her first national title in the 10000 m in 31:15.07, the 2nd-fastest time of her career after her national record of 30:48.89. Akaba was 2nd in a PB of 31:15.43, with Fukushi a short distance behind in 31:18.79. All three broke the previous National Championships record and all were selected for Beijing.

July
Rikuren began the month by announcing that it was adding women's 100 m national champion Chisato Fukushima to the Beijing Olympic team, making her the first Japanese woman to make the Olympic team in an individual sprint event in 56 years. Women's 3000 m steeplechase national champion Minori Hayakari, already on the Beijing team, made further headlines when she broke her own national record with a 9:33.93 performance in Heusden, Belgium.

Coaching staff for Fukushima and Hayakari's Olympic teammate Atsushi Sato announced that Sato, the fastest man on the Japanese marathon team, had cancelled a planned altitude training camp in St. Moritz, Switzerland out of overtraining fears. Sato qualified for Beijing after running 2:07:13 at December's Fukuoka International Marathon while racing Fukuoka-based Samuel Wanjiru. Wanjiru had news of his own, sending lawyers to tell his corporate sponsor team Toyota Kyushu that he was quitting and would not be back after his Olympic preparations in Kenya. Wanjiru thanked the team and coach Koichi Morishita but said he wished to focus on the marathon rather than having to spend his time running ekidens.

On July 22 the Tokyo Marathon opened entries for its 3rd running on Mar. 22, 2009. The number of entries exceeded the field size of 30,000 within less than 48 hours.

August
Following the Tokyo Marathon's announcements concerning its new prize money structure, field size, and the addition of an elite women's field came the news that a new Yokohama International Women's Marathon would be inaugurated in 2009 following the final running of the Tokyo International Women's Marathon. The good news was tempered by the additional news that Yokohama would no longer host the Yokohama International Women's Ekiden as a consequence of the new event.

But it goes without saying that the big news of the month was the Beijing Olympics, and most of the news was bad. The details are all familiar; Mizuki Noguchi, Satoshi Osaki and Reiko Tosa dropping out with injuries, Atsushi Sato breaking down from stress and finishing last, Yurika Nakamura and Tsuyoshi Ogata running mediocre 13th place finishes, and Rikuren and the JOC failing to have any contingency planning in place and not even having designated alternates Tomo Morimoto and Arata Fujiwara registered as such. It was Japan's worst Olympic marathon showing of modern times and was perhaps indicative of deep problems with the country's previously-successful system. Japanese-coached foreigners had much better results, with China's Chunxiu Zhou winning bronze in the women's marathon and Kenya's Samuel Wanjiru scoring the country's first-ever men's marathon gold medal.

Japan's track runners did not fare much better than its native marathoners even though none of the track team was ever considered in serious contention for a medal. Only Kayoko Fukushi had something approaching a good performance, looking as though she would challenge Yoko Shibui's national record but fading to a finish 10 seconds off her PB with 31:01.14.

The sole bright moment for Japanese track and field fans came when the Japanese men's 4 x 100 m team won the bronze medal, the first-ever track medal for Japanese men and the country's first medal in a track event in 80 years. It was deeply touching to watch 36 year-old anchor Nobuharu Asahara run against guys close to half his age and finally bring his team home to success after years of near-misses.

September
Unsurprisingly, following the Olympics Mizuki Noguchi announced that she was withdrawing from Japan's World Half Marathon team. Nobuharu Asahara, also unsurprisingly, announced his retirement, running a final race in front of a sold-out crowd at the Seiko Super Meet in Kawasaki. 100 m world record holder and Beijing gold medalist Usain Bolt made a surprise appearance to pay tribute to Asahara. Sellout crowds continued as the application window for the 2009 Tokyo Marathon closed with 260,000 applying for the 30,000 available spots.

The month of September did include a few surprises. Saku Chosei High School teacher and assistant ekiden coach Masaru Takamizawa won the men's race at the hot and humid Hokkaido Marathon, while the tiny 19 year-old Yukari Sahaku, coached by Yoshio Koide, won the women's race. Also still a teenager, Megumi Kinukawa resurfaced from her health problems with a solid run at the National Corporate Track and Field Championships.

October
October saw three members of Tokyo-based Second Wind AC, a group of defectors from Team Shiseido, race well overseas. Kaori Yoshida won the first Casablanca Marathon, Yuri Kano won the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in San Jose, California, and Kiyoko Shimahara finished 3rd in a hot Chicago Marathon ahead of Beijing Olympics gold medalist Constantina Tomescu-Dita of Romania. Men's Beijing team alternate Arata Fujiwara also ran Chicago in an attempt to make an international debut, but finished in 2:23:10.

The same day as Chicago, Mekubo Mogusu and Masato Kihara also had terrible showings at the World Half Marathon Championships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Mogusu dropping out and Kihara finishing 83rd out of 86. Women's team leader Yukiko Akaba had a merely decent 10th place finish. The best Japanese performance came from newcomer Yusei Nakao, the son of Japan's first man to break 2:20 in the marathon. Nakao ran just seconds off his PB of 1:02:00, finishing 5th overall.

Also the same weekend, Megumi Kinukawa showed she was back to her full powers, breaking her own junior national record and defeating Kayoko Fukushi in 31:23.21. Sendai Ikuei High School head coach Takao Watanabe, who discovered and developed Kenya's Samuel Wanjiru and made Sendai Ikuei into the top distance running high school in Japan shortly announced that he was quitting in order to become Kinukawa's personal coach. Kinukawa, who graduated from Sendai Ikuei last year, intends to move up to the marathon in 2010 and clearly hopes to become Japan's next marathon great. The pair's announcement came shortly before former marathon great Naoko Takahashi, who won the 2000 Beijing Olympics marathon gold medal and became the first woman to break 2:20 in the marathon, announced her retirement from professional running.

The university ekiden season entered full swing as Nihon University won the prestigious Izumo Ekiden thanks to a stage-record anchor run by Kenyan Daniel Gitau and Ritsumeikan University won its third straight National University Women's Ekiden championship. Waseda Univeristy, expected to challenge Komazawa University's Hakone Ekiden supremacy, looked shaky as its star Kensuke Takezawa was clearly still suffering from injuries and its four star first-years were unremarkable. Toyo University's first-year Ryuji Kashiwabara dominated the first stage in Izumo.

In only its fifth year of existence as a team, Jobu University shocked ekiden fans across the nation by placing 5th in the Hakone Ekiden Qualifying 20 km Road Race, its top ten runners finishing between 1:01:10 and 1:01:50 with two more team members just seconds behind. The school's performance makes it one of the most eagerly anticipated features of January's Hakone Ekiden. Tokai University's Yuki Sato, who suffered from injuries throughout the summer, ran well in Izumo but was reduced to a walk in the Hakone Qualifier, raising questions about his condition.

November
Following Yukari Sahaku's performance in Hokkaido in September, another Koide-coached athlete, Mai Tagami, had marathon success, winning the Athens Classic Marathon, while Megumi Seike, a teammate of Mizuki Noguchi, won the Shanghai Half Marathon. Beijing Olympics men's marathon winner Samuel Wanjiru capitalized on his success with a $3 million sponsorship deal with sports supplement maker Savas.

Sponsorship was also in the news with regards to one of Japan's most prestigious elite marathons, March's Biwako Mainichi Marathon. Biwako's main sponsor Rohm announced that it would end its patronage following next year's edition of the race, meaning that unless Biwako can secure another major sponsor it will come to an end. The Tokyo International Women's Marathon did come to an end this month following the Tokyo government's shift in support to the Tokyo Marathon. In only her second marathon, Yoshimi Ozaki became the final champion of the original women-only elite marathon, running a race of genius to come from behind and pass Yuri Kano, Mara Yamauchi and Yoko Shibui in the final kilometers. Both Kano and Yamauchi ran PB performances but were no match for Ozaki's finish.

In ekiden news, Ethiopia set a new course record in the mixed-format International Chiba Ekiden. Komazawa won its third-straight National University Ekiden, looking utterly dominant and very much the favorite to win Hakone. Toyo's Ryuji Kashiwabara again drew major attention, running one second off the stage record on the 2nd leg and tying World Half Marathon team member Masato Kihara of Chuo Gakuin University for the stage best time. Both runners beat Waseda's Kensuke Takezawa by one second, but it was revealed that Takezawa was running with a stress fracture in one of his legs. While his condition for Hakone looks doubtful, Waseda's first-years stepped up with solid performances which make the school's chances for at least a top-three finish in Hakone look good.

The teams which will compete in Hakone sent their complete squads minus aces to the Ageo City Half Marathon to battle for places on their schools' Hakone teams. The 100th place finisher ran 1:05:28, and 408 runners broke 70 minutes. Chuo University's Yuichi Tokuichi won in 1:02:50. A week later, Team Nissin Shokuhin's Masai Kenyan Gideon Ngatuny made his first move up to longer distances, winning the Nagoya Half Marathon in a course record 1:00:11, following up 2 weeks later with a 45:15 win in the Kumamoto Kosa 10 Miler. The Tokyo-based Ngatuny may be preparing to step up to the marathon in March's Tokyo Marathon.

December
The month began with a series of events not directly related to racing. Shinji Kawashima, a member of the Sydney Olympics men's marathon team and head coach of Toyo University's ekiden team, resigned after a steeplechase runner on the school's track team allegedly sexually assaulted a high school girl on a morning commuter train. Kawashima blamed his lack of leadership for the incident and took full personal responsibility. The Kanto University Track and Field Association debated barring Toyo from January's Hakone Ekiden but chose to allow the school to participate with financial penalties.

Rikuren announced a series of changes designed to try to modernize and improve the Japanese distance running system following the debacle in Beijing. One of the foremost changes was the appointment of former 5000 m and 10000 m national record holder Keisuke Sawaki as the head of a new Long Distance and Road Racing Special Committee. Sawaki's first public act was to attack the performances of the Japanese men at the Dec. 7 Fukuoka International Marathon. Fukuoka winner Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia, the Beijing bronze medalist, set a course and Japanese-soil record of 2:06:10 after running a 14:17 5 km split from 30 to 35 km to leave his Japanese competitors far behind. 2nd place finisher Satoshi Irifune finished in a PB of 2:09:23 after having run a PB of 2:09:40 in February's Tokyo Marathon, but was a major target of Sawaki's tirade.

Escaping Sawaki's wrath were marathoners Kiyoko Shimahara and Kaori Yoshida, who continued their strong overseas showings from October with a 1-2 finish in the Honolulu Marathon. Yoshida ran as Shimahara's pacemaker after a 4th place run in the first Great Australian Run. The pair's performances solidified Second Wind AC's standing as the only Japanese team to consistently send its athletes out of the hothouse to face overseas competition.

In the final major ekidens of the year, Yoshio Koide-coached Team Toyota Jidoshoki staged a shock victory over the dominant Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo at the National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championship, breaking Mitsui Sumitomo's lead on the very final stage. Bukkyo University came 3 seconds from doing the same after finishing 2nd last year at the National University Women's Invitational Ekiden. Bukkyo anchor Kasumi Nishihara started well back from five-time defending champion Ritsumeikan University and came close to catching Ritsumeikan anchor Michi Numata but ran out of time, settling for another 2nd place team finish as Ritsumeikan took its sixth title.

2009
The 2009 season begins right away with the Jan. 1 New Year Ekiden, the national corporate men's ekiden championship. Team Nissin Shokuhin looks prepared to take the national title away from perpetual winners Team Konica Minolta and Team Chugoku Denryoku. Following the New Year Ekiden is the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden, the de facto university men's ekiden championship and the most exciting Japanese race of the year.

Beyond these races, Japan's focus will shift to the remaining selection races for the 2009 Berlin World Championships marathons. Many questions about the current system in Japan arose in 2008, questions which must at least be addressed in 2009 if Japan is to reverse the slide in its standing as a worldwide marathon power. The continuing development of the Tokyo Marathon also promises to have repercussions though the Japanese marathon world and potentially worldwide as it seeks to become a recognized and accepted major event.

In the next week I will publish a preview of the 2009 Hakone Ekiden along with a series of profiles of Japanese runners to watch in 2009.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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