translated and edited by Brett Larner
The 58th Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon will be held Feb. 1 on Japan's southernmost main island of Kyushu. As a selection race for the 2009 Berlin World Championships marathon team, this year's Betsudai, as the race is abbreviated, has drawn a large number of domestic contenders along with several top foreign competitors. Chief among the runners vying for a spot on the the Berlin team are defending champion and Oita local Tomoya Adachi (23, Team Asahi Kasei), ekiden ace Takashi Ota (32, Team Konica Minolta) and first-time marathoner Keita Akiba (29, Team Komori Corp.).
Tomoya Adachi is coming home to win. Taking first last year in his debut marathon, Adachi brought new wind to the sails of Japanese marathoning. Running in the second pack until 36 km, he attacked over the final 6 km to overtake breakaway leader Elijah Mutai (Kenya). Adachi's coach Takeshi Soh reflected on the move and looked ahead to this year's race, saying, "Adachi ran a safe, comfortable race and was able to pick up the top spot after the leader started slowing down. This time he's going to be more attentive and run with the intention of winning."
In Betsudai's history only two people have ever defended their wins. Toru Terasawa (Team Kuraray) won four years straight from 1963 to 1966, while Kenji Kimihara (Team Nippon Steel) won twice in 1970 and 1971. "I'm feeling confident about winning again," said Adachi. "I plan to run 2:09." At age 23 the scent of the next Olympics is strong, and Adachi wants to add his name to the list of contenders.
In the interim since his last Betsudai win Adachi set a new 10000 m PB last spring. Extending his summer intensive training camp from 10 to 25 days and working through the ups and downs, he took the stage best title on all four legs he ran in the autumn's Kyushu Isshu Ekiden. The flipside of Adachi's rapid growth is the existence of new competitive rivals on his own team. 2008 National Track and Field Championships 10000 m 7th place finisher Tomoaki Bungo (Komazawa Univ.) and 2009 New Year Ekiden 5th stage winner Satoru Sasaki (Daito Bunka Univ.) both joined Team Asahi Kasei after graduation. Both are 23, the same age as Adachi who is in his fifth year as a corporate runner after going pro straight out of high school. The pair give Adachi extra motivation, as he says simply "I don't want to lose to them."
Adachi is known for his discipline, but he has a tendency to be too serious and too focused. At last fall's Kyushu Jitsugyodan Ekiden he came down with a cold before the race but didn't tell his coach and ran anyway. He fell off pace dramatically and was bedridden afterwards. At the New Year Ekiden he ran the anchor stage and was told to wait until the last sprint to attack. However, he pushed the pace earlier on in the stage and ended up losing. Coach Soh showed his frustration with Adachi, saying, "He's still weak when he needs to be strong. He's good enough to be great, but he needs to relax more to have a chance."
In October Adachi married his long-time girlfriend Yumi (24), a former sprinter he met while on the Oita High School track team. There is tremendous local support for him when he runs in Oita. As Oita's bayfront road is transformed into the battleground for his title defense, there are a million reasons for him not to lose.
When he remembers his fourth marathon, Takashi Ota's face darkens. He ran with the hope of erasing the memory of his two DNFs at the Biwako Mainichi Marathon. "It's still like an itch I can't scratch," he says. Ota is one of the driving forces on one of the fastest, most powerful ekiden teams, but he has not yet conquered the 42.195 km distance.
His best attempt so far was at last February's Tokyo Marathon, where he ran his PB of 2:12:10 to finish 10th after losing speed past the 30 km point. Having examined his flaws in this race, this season Ota increased his work load by adding morning 30 km jogs before breakfast. "These runs are for improving my stamina while running with low energy," he explains. Team Konica Minolta head coach Katsumi Sakai agreed, saying, "This time we want him to overcome the flaws in his second-half stamina."
Ota was born in Shiraoi, Hokkaido. As a boy he was deeply impressed by watching the running of the great Soh brothers. "There was an Asahi Kasei Group factory nearby," he recalls, "and I thought, 'Oh wow, the Sohs work here!' It gave me a lot of inspiration." He began running in junior high school and continued on in high school. Running in the snow he often fell face-first. Ota attended Sapporo Gakuin University, but unable to earn a recruited spot on the team he ran as a walk-on. After graduating he joined Team NEC to further develop his abilities.
At NEC Ota soon became team captain, but the smooth flow of his jitsugyodan career was interrupted in June, 2003 when NEC made budget cutbacks and eliminated its running team. As captain Ota worked hard to console the younger runners. Now, at Konica Minolta, he understands the potential problems both the team and company face in the current economic recession. "Our main responsibility here is to inspire our company's workers through our running," he says. "Coach Sakai told us, 'Let's take it to the world,' and I agree."
At 32 Ota is the oldest member of the team. "I don't have that many chances left," he acknowledges. "I want to make my dream of running in the national uniform come true." His goal in Betsudai is to win in a time of 2:09. He has spent his free time recently watching videos of the last three or four years' Betsudai Marathons in his room in the company's dorms, finding therein the motivation he will need to make the World Championships team.
In high school Keita Akiba ran 4:17 for 1500 m and 15:38 for 5000 m. "There are so many guys out there who can run at that level," he says. "I want my running now to inspire high school runners and show them that everybody has a chance to go to the top." When he was in elementary school Akiba was not a natural athlete. He was a very slow runner and it took him five years to learn to swim the butterfly. In junior high school he didn't belong to any of his school's sports teams. He started running at Ayase Nishi High School in Kanagawa Prefecture, but, as he admits, "I didn't know very much, not even that there was a National Ekiden Championship beyond the local one." When he was a fourth-year at Kanto Gakuin University he ran the Hakone Ekiden, but he was a complete no-name at the national level.
At 178 cm an unusually tall man, he began to improve dramatically after becoming a professional jitsugyodan runner. In his first year of pro running, 2002, he was ranked 83rd nationally for 10000 m. In 2004 he improved to 55th, and in 2006 he was 14th. At the 2007 New Year Ekiden he took the stage best title on the 2nd leg, at that time the New Year Ekiden's longest. Team Komori Corp. head coach Kazuya Wakakura says, "Akiba got where he is through steady, hard work every day. He understands how to set goals, work toward them, and then adjust his future plans accordingly." Coach Wakakura relies on him more than ever before.
Akiba is the type of person who has to understand and agree before acting. When Wakakura told him to do a 30 km run in training before the 2007 New Year Ekiden Akiba negotiated with him, telling the coach, "I don't think I need to do such long training." He went on to follow his own ideas.
However, after the 2007 New Year Ekiden, he hit a slump. His training stopped producing improvement, and he began to worry about the effects of aging. To change the situation he decided to try a marathon. After doing many 30 km runs, he took nearly 10 seconds off his 5000 m PB in 2008. "I thought long runs were a waste of time, but they actually benefitted my speed," he admits. He became more flexible in his outlook, and this year he took the stage best time on the New Year Ekiden's most competitive stage, the 4th leg. His return to form was a success.
As a late bloomer, Akiba now has strong ambitions. "When I look at the other runners in my generation and see them running on the national team it makes me realize that I haven't really accomplished anything. I want something. Something that everyone will think is great."
Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon Video
Click here for video highlights of Tomoya Adachi's win at the 2008 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon. The 2009 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon will be broadcast live nationwide on TBS beginning at 11:50 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 1. International viewers should be able to watch online for free through one of the sites listed here.