by Brett Larner
The official 2009 Osaka International Women's Marathon preview video.
The third official selection race for Japan's women's marathon team at the 2009 Berlin World Championships takes place this Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Osaka International Women's Marathon. Last year's Olympic selection race edition of Osaka saw the memorable marathon debut of half marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal), a spectacular failure in which Fukushi ran near 2:20 pace in the first half only to finish in the 2:40's with a bloody face and bruised pride. This year's Osaka promises even more drama: a duel between Fukushi's fellow Beijing 10000 m Olympians, former marathon national record holder and current 10000 m national record holder Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) and, in her marathon debut, Japan's popular 'mama-san' runner Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren).
With the complete failure of Japanese marathoning at the Beijing Olympics, Japan is hungry for new names to step up and retake the country's position on the world stage. Few athletes' marathon debuts have been as highly-anticipated as Yukiko Akaba's. Akaba was a decent runner in university and as a pro before taking time off to have a baby in late 2006. She returned in the fall of 2007 with a two-year development plan to become a marathoner in time for the 2009 Berlin World Championships and in 2008 had a spectacular year. She ran the all-time 3rd-fastest Japanese women's 5000 m and half marathon, the 4th-fastest 10000 m, broke marathon national record holder Mizuki Noguchi's course record in winning the National Professional Half Marathon, finished 2nd in the National Track and Field Championships 5000 m and 10000 m, made the Beijing Olympics in both 5000 m and 10000 m, and was the top Japanese finisher at the World Half Marathon Championships in Rio. All of which was impressive, but for Akaba it was just a series of steps along the way to her main goal, the marathon. You never know how someone will do in the marathon until it's done, but Akaba has shown utter focus and there is every reason to think her debut will be a success. In interviews in the week leading up to Osaka Akaba was determined. "I would like to focus on winning, not the time," she said. An admirably mature sentiment, but considering her main competitor something possibly easier said than done.
Yoko Shibui is the class runner of the field, holding the Japanese 10000 m national record and both the former marathon national record and former debut marathon world record. She also has a taste for the epic and a penchant for taking on unnecessary challenges, potentially critical flaws which have hurt her career in recent years. With three races to choose from to make the Beijing Olympic team she went up against the woman who broke her marathon national record, Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex), at the 2007 Tokyo International Women's Marathon and lost, missing out on making the Olympic marathon team. With no true challengers at the 2008 Tokyo International, instead of running a conservative race to make the Berlin World Championships team Shibui tried to run sub-2:20. She failed again, finishing 4th and having to try for Berlin once more. She initially said she would run Nagoya in March, but after Akaba committed to Osaka Shibui switched her plans against her coach's recommendations and signed on for Osaka as well. Returning to Japan from her training camp in Kunming, China on Jan. 18, Shibui said that this time she will "run like an adult" and that her biggest concern is recovering in time from the fatigue of her training. These comments suggest that Shibui plans a tactical race, but whether the immediate goal of taking down Akaba will get in the way of the larger goal of running the World Championships remains to be seen.
At the same time, the race will not be simply a two-woman battle. Three others in the field present danger to Akaba and Shibui's chances of a win. Of these, the biggest domestic threat is Yumiko Hara (Team Kyocera), the 2007 Osaka winner. Hara debuted at Nagoya in 2005 with a 2:24:19 win to qualify for the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, where she tried to run with world record holder Paula Radcliffe (U.K.) and ultimately ended up 1 second off her debut time in 2:24:20. Hailed as a new hope for Japanese marathoning, she was sidelined with injury throughout 2006 but returned in 2007 to win Osaka in a PB of 2:23:48. Since then her promise has faded, with a weak showing at the 2007 World Championships and a mediocre 2:27:14 at last year's Nagoya, where she lost out to debutantes Yurika Nakamura (Team Tenmaya) and Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei) to miss the Beijing Olympic team. Her running in the fall was unremarkable, making the chances of a breakthrough in Osaka look slim. There is no question that Hara has the potential for a win, but to do so she will have to bring her best performance yet.
Two foreign runners will be a bigger challenge: Ethiopia's Workenesh Tola and Kenya's Peninah Arusei. Tola is a veteran, running a PB of 2:25:37 at last year's Paris Marathon and holding a handful of other times in the 2:25-2:26 range. It doesn't look likely that she could improve significantly beyond this mark at this stage of her career, but in a more tactical race like last year's Osaka she would be hard to beat. Arusei, running her marathon debut, is more of a wildcard. She has improved steadily over the half marathon distance during the last four years, culminating in a 5th place finish at October's World Half Marathon Championships in Rio and a 1:08:20 PB in New Delhi in November. She beat Akaba in both Beijing and Rio, but Akaba's half marathon PB last year was 9 seconds faster than Arusei's New Delhi mark, and Shibui was likewise faster than Arusei in Beijing. Like Akaba, Arusei is surely capable of a very strong debut and she will be the other big contender for the win.
With so many variables this year's Osaka has deep tension between opposing polarities like a great work of art, and Shibui is the one holding the focus point in her hand. Given her recent success rate it's hard to see her trying to burn off the other runners with yet another speed race, but it's equally hard to see her running an uncharacteristic tactical race. Likewise, it seems unlikely that Akaba, with larger goals than a fast debut, will try to run a pure speed race, but she is going to Osaka to win and will not just let Shibui run away from her. How will Shibui and Akaba react to challenges from Arusei or others, and exactly how far will Arusei go in her debut?
Given the depth of Japanese distance running, there is of course always the chance that someone unexpected will step up to take down the bigger names. Yurika Nakamura and Arata Fujiwara (Team JR Higashi Nihon) did it last spring in Nagoya and Tokyo, and it could happen again. Akane Wakita (Team Toyota Jidoshokki) and Madoka Ogi (Team Juhachi Ginko) are the best bets for a surprise. Wakita is making her marathon debut after running the 10000 m at the 2007 World Championships. Injuries kept her out of the action throughout most of 2008, but in the late fall ekiden season she looked to be back to form. With coaching support from Yoshio Koide it would not be surprising to see her debut in the 2:25 range, a time which has the potential to win if the race evolves along the lines of last year's. Ogi debuted at last year's Osaka, running 2:26:55, and has been running well in ekidens this season. Yoshimi Ozaki debuted at last year's Nagoya in 2:26 and then went on to win Tokyo in 2:23, so it is not unreasonable to think Ogi has a chance of a similar improvement. Beyond Wakita and Ogi, almost any of the five other more experienced Japanese women with recent times 2:27 or better or even veteran past champion Lidia Simon of Romania could be up front on a good day. Nobody in the field is a sure bet.
The 2009 Osaka International Women's Marathon will be broadcast live nationwide on Fuji T.V. on Jan. 25 beginning at 12:00 noon Japan time. International viewers should be able to watch online for free through this site.
For an earlier JRN preview of the Osaka elite field, click here.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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