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Japanese Runners to Watch in 2009

by Brett Larner

Japanese distance running in 2008 had a large share of disappointments and failures, but there were also memorable breakthroughs from Arata Fujiwara, Yukiko Akaba, Yusei Nakao and, of course, Japan-based Samuel Wanjiru. Here is a brief guide to some of the people to watch in 2009.

Women

Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren)
Akaba had a spectacular 2008, entering the Japanese women's all-time top three or four at 5000 m, 10000 m and half-marathon and making the World Half Marathon and Beijing Olympics teams, but it was all just part of her two-year plan to move up to the marathon in time for the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. She's debuting at this month's Osaka International Women's Marathon where she will have to take down former national record holder Yoko Shibui to make the Berlin team. Food poisoning may have spoiled her Olympics, but so far Akaba has shown complete focus and made no mistakes; her 2008 half-marathon time of 1:08:11 was the 2nd fastest in the world and suggests she could run a very, very fast debut. After that it is Berlin.

Megumi Kinukawa (Team Mizuno)
Kinukawa set the women's 10000 m junior national record and ran the 2007 World Championships 10000 m while still a student at Sendai Ikuei High School, going pro after graduating and saying that she would run the marathon in the Berlin World Championships. A serious illness took her out of commission for the first nine months of 2008, but in the early fall she made a titanic comeback with a new 10000 m junior national record of 31:23.21, beating 3000 m, 5000 m and half-marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi in a one-on-one match race in Niigata. Sendai Ikuei head coach Takao Watanabe, who coached Samuel Wanjiru and other Sendai Ikuei greats, promptly resigned from the school to become Kinukawa's personal coach. Her choice of Team Mizuno means she will not spend her time on the ekiden circuit but will be able to focus on marathon training in the leadup to the London Olympics. Kinukawa's 2009 plans include becoming the third Japanese woman to break 31 minutes for 10000 m and running the 10000 m in Berlin, with a marathon debut in 2010.

Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex)
Noguchi's injury right before the Beijing Olympics was one of the biggest disappointments of 2008, but in retrospect not completely surprising given her earlier withdrawals from February's Kumanichi 30 km and March's Jitsugyodan Half Marathon. Noguchi's record since 2005 has been one of successful half marathons and injuries, but as her 2:21:37 course-record victory at the 2007 Tokyo International Women's Marathon showed, she has the drive to come back from long absences and deliver winning runs. At 30 she's still in her prime, and recent reports say she is back to training at better than 3:30/km pace. Noguchi won't try to make the Berlin World Championships, but interviews throughout the fall had the consistent theme that if her spring training is solid she will make a comeback at either the Berlin or Chicago Marathons with a national record attempt. Considering that her current national record is 2:19:12, a new record could potentially make her the first woman since Paula Radcliffe and Catherine Ndereba to break 2:19.

Azusa Nojiri (Team Daiichi Seimei)
Nojiri has had a very unusual career, beginning to run professionally last August at age 26 after being a member of Japan's national cross country ski team and competing at the international level. In her ekiden debut, November's East Japan Women's Ekiden, she was impressively powerful and aggressive, outrunning the Niigata Prefecture team's Tomoko Watanabe by 54 seconds over the 5.0875 km 5th leg to give the Tokyo team an insurmountable lead. In Team Daiichi Seimei Nojiri has found a good place to cultivate her running abilities, with 1991 World Championships marathon silver medalist Sachiko Yamashita as her coach and teammates like 2008 Tokyo International Women's Marathon winner Yoshimi Ozaki to learn from. It's uncertain how far she can go, but if her ekiden debut was any indication then Nojiri has the potential to become a major player in 2009.

Michi Numata (1st yr., Ritsumeikan Univ.)
Numata had an outstanding first year at Ritsumeikan, most notably winning the National University Track and Field Championships 10000 m. She set a new stage record on the 4th leg of October's National University Women's Ekiden, and although she was only 2nd on the stage she successfully anchored Ritsumeikan's team to its 6th-straight National University Women's Invitational Ekiden victory last month in an overall course record time. Her times are not yet especially impressive, but Numata gives the impression of intense focus and motivation and may be on track for dramatic improvement in 2009. She will next run in the Jan. 11 National Interprefectural Women's Ekiden on the Kyoto Prefecture team.

Men

Keita Akiba (Team Komori Corp.)
Akiba is a relatively anonymous mid-career corporate team runner. At the 2009 New Year Ekiden he grabbed attention with a 1:03:04 victory on the 22.3 km 2nd stage, beating 2008 World Half Marathon 5th place finisher Yusei Nakao by 12 seconds. Akiba said afterwards that he has never really trained at high mileage before, but after deciding to make his debut at the 2009 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon and beginning marathon training he has made dramatic improvements, among other marks clocking a 9-second 5000 m PB of 13:45.30 in June, 2008. Judging from his New Year Ekiden run his debut in Beppu-Oita on Feb. 1 may be the Japanese men's debut of the year.

Ryuji Kashiwabara (1st yr., Toyo Univ.)
The 19 year old Kashiwabara has already run what will be one of the world's best performances of 2009 with a 1:17:18 stage record on the 874 m climb 23.4 km Hakone Ekiden 5th stage on Jan. 2. Kashiwabara suffered from anemia throughout high school and never achieved notable results until the very end of his last year. He came to national attention with a stage victory at last January's National Interprefectural Ekiden and has since delivered noteworthy performances almost every time he has raced as a university first-year. Everyone knew he was good coming into Hakone, but possibly nobody including Kashiwabara knew how good before his 5th stage run. He's running the Jan. 18 National Interprefectural Ekiden again and no matter where else he is racing this year all eyes are going to be on him. At the rate Kashiwabara is going we'll probably be seeing him in Berlin this summer.

Masato Kihara (4th yr., Chuo Gakuin Univ.)
The three best graduating university runners will all be making the transition to professional running in 2009. Kihara, the half marathon national university record holder, ran the 2008 World Half Marathon Championships and is a good bet to break Masakazu Fujiwara's student marathon record of 2:08:12 if he runs Biwako or Tokyo before his graduation at the end of March. Barring injury or burnout he will be one of the most dominant Japanese men on the roads in the years to come.

Yuki Sato (4th yr., Tokai Univ. / Team Nissin Shokuhin)
Sato is the 5000 m national junior record holder and set three Hakone Ekiden stage records in four attempts. Injuries kept him out of the Beijing Olympics and have continued since, but Sato is a tough and talented runner with a bright future at Team Nissin Shokuhin. Samuel Wanjiru picked Sato as someone with a great marathon career ahead in a December, 2008 interview. Should he be back to full strength in time, Sato will be a main contender for the Berlin World Championships team.

Kensuke Takezawa (4th yr., Waseda Univ. / Team S&B)
Takezawa is the 5000 m national university record holder and ran in the 2007 World Championships and the Beijing Olympics. He is the best of the three graduating aces but is extremely fragile and injury-prone, and his choice of Team S&B for his professional career is somewhat questionable as the team does not have a good history of developing its strongest recruits. Injuries aside, Takezawa should be on the Berlin World Championships team.

Wataru Ueno (3rd yr., Sendai Ikuei High School)
Ueno, another runner to go through Sendai Ikuei, has become the top runner in this year's national high school senior class. His wins in November's Nittai Kirokukai 5000 m and the December National High School Ekiden's 10 km 1st stage were marked by a mature sense of pacing and strategy which suggests that he will be the runner to watch when he makes his university debut in 2009.

Japan-based Africans

Yacob Jarso (Ethiopia / Team Honda)
Jarso only came to Japan in March, 2008, but in his first year of professional running he has shown dramatic improvement, most notably placing 4th in the Beijing Olympics 3000 m steeplechase in an Ethiopian national record of 8:13.47. On Jan. 1, 2009 he ran a stunning 22:02 for 8.3 km to tie Gideon Ngatuny (Team Nissin Shokuhin) for 2nd on the second stage of the New Year Ekiden behind Josephat Ndambiri (Team Komori Corp.). In the spring of 2009 Jarso will focus on the longer track distances in an attempt to make the 10000 m at the Berlin World Championships. This is no small matter in Ethiopia, but on Jarso's current career trajectory it looks like he has a chance of achieving this goal.

Mekubo Mogusu (Kenya / 4th yr., Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. / Team Aidem)
Mogusu has been the number one African in the Japanese university and international half-marathon circuit for the last four years, with three sub-hour half marathons, two stage records on the Hakone Ekiden's 2nd stage, and a legion of other titles and records to his name. His international debuts at last year's Ras Al Kaimah Half Marathon and the World Half Marathon Championships were both failures, but with another try at Ras Al Kaimah scheduled for next month and Mogusu's graduation imminent he is sure to become more visible on the international scene in 2009. Like Kinukawa, after graduation he is joining a team which does not run ekidens to give him the time to focus on making the transition to the marathon as he looks toward the London Olympics. He hasn't mentioned plans for a marathon debut yet but it would be nice to see a pre-graduation debut at March's Tokyo Marathon.

Gideon Ngatuny (Kenya / Team Nissin Shokuhin)
Ngatuny turned a lot of heads when he first came to Japan in 2006, a rare Masai runner. He has utterly controlled the pro ekiden circuit ever since, clocking a 26:33 road 10 km split in his 2007 New Year Ekiden debut and beating Ndambiri, Samuel Wanjiru and 2007 World Championships 10000 m bronze medalist Martin Mathathi (Team Suzuki) by a margin of 16 seconds at the 2008 New Year Ekiden. Ngatuny also finished 4th in the 2007 World Cross-Country Championships, but his track and XC results for the most part have not lived up to the potential he shows on the road. Apparently recognizing this, Ngatuny moved up to longer road distances for the first time at the very end of 2008, winning November's Nagoya Half Marathon in a course record 1:00:11, his half marathon debut, and December's Kumamoto Kosa 10 Miler in 45:15. Both victories were by a wide margin. Ngatuny's performance at the 2009 New Year Ekiden, where he was only tied for 2nd on his stage, 8 seconds behind Ndambiri, combined with these longer road races suggest that he may be planning a marathon debut in 2009. Tokyo-based Team Nissin Shokuhin sent many of its big guns to the 2008 Tokyo Marathon, and with a new prize purse on offer at the 2009 Tokyo Marathon it would not be a surprise to see Ngatuny on the starting line.

Other Names to Watch
Many of the people who had strong 2007 and 2008 seasons will be on tap for potential big results in 2009. Watch for Minori Hayakari (Kyoto Koka AC), Yuriko Kobayashi (Team Toyota Boshoku), Kazue Kojima (3rd yr., Ritsumeikan Univ.), Arata Fujiwara (Team JR East Japan), Takayuki Matsumiya (Team Konica Minolta), Yusei Nakao (Team Toyota Boshoku), Philes Ongori (Team Hokuren), and Samuel Wanjiru (Team Sam).

(c) 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Comments

Anonymous said…
I think Yumiko Hara is the one to watch. She made 2 world championship teams and she ran 2:23:48. I think she'll win osaka marathon this year.
Brett Larner said…
True, she had strong achievements a few years ago, but she hasn't run well since winning Osaka Int'l in Jan. '07 and even that was a comeback race. She looked pretty weak this fall, so while she certainly has the potential to run well it would be pretty surprising to see any kind of breakthrough.
Humphrey Motende said…
On my side Mekubo mogusu is the best to watch.He can do well in that sector.Good work Mekubo,continue with the same spirit.

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