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Masato Kihara Aiming for Sub-28 in Pro Debut at Hyogo Relay Carnival

translated and edited by Brett Larner

The 57th Hyogo Relay Carnival takes place Apr. 25-26 at Kobe's Univer Stadium Track and Field Grounds. A selection race for this summer's World Championships national team, in the wake of the Beijing Olympics this year's Carnival features the debuts of a range of new aces. One of the most eagerly anticipated is Masato Kihara (Team Kanebo).

In his four years at Chuo Gakuin University, Hyogo native Kihara showed remarkable growth. From never once making the top eight in the National High School Championships to being one of the highest placers at last summer's Olympic Trials and likewise on the road in ekidens and half marathons, Kihara has become one of the brightest hopes for the future of Japanese distance running. Yet he still has regrets.

Of last season Kihara says, "I didn't meet even a single one of my goals." Entering his senior year as Chuo Gakuin's star runner, Kihara felt the burden of responsibility in trying to singlehandedly prop the team up. In his ultimate target race for the season, January's Hakone Ekiden, Kihara was the fastest Japanese runner and 3rd overall on Hakone's most competitive stage, but he was more than two minutes behind the new stage record set by his perennial Kenyan rival Mekubo Mogusu (then of Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.).

After graduating in March Kihara joined the famous Tokyo-based Team Kanebo. His mindset about the future is decidely healthy and positive. "I'm really glad to have the chance to keep developing. I want to have the kind of career that won't leave me with any regrets," he says. At Kanebo Kihara has found himself an ideal environment in which to continue his growth, one in which he can train with and learn from some of the best runners in the country. In addition to training under head coach Kunimitsu Ito and alongside Berlin World Championships marathon team member Satoshi Irifune, Kihara will now be supervised by 3000 m, 10000 m and marathon national record holder Toshinari Takaoka.

Takaoka, who retired from Team Kanebo following March's Tokyo Marathon to take a coaching position with the team, holds the Hyogo Relay Carnival in high esteem. "The first time I broke 28 minutes was at the 1994 Hyogo Relay Carnival," Takaoka says. "I ran with my Kanebo teammate Toshiyuki Hayata, alternating the lead every 1000 m on the way to my 27:59.72. What's special about this race is that you can take its title literally and run it like a relay with famous runners. Here you can learn to think, 'I can win over 10000 m too,' and the impact of such thinking on your later racing lasts." Kihara may have the chance for a run similar to Takaoka's breakthrough as Irifune will also be in the race.

Takaoka has high hopes for the young Kihara. "He's got very, very high ability and his strengths aren't limited to just one or two areas. The most important thing is that he isn't afraid of foreign runners and has the courage to attack them. That sets him apart from the rest of the crowd. I want to see him use it in Hyogo to run a truly spectacular race. In terms of the future, I think he's capable of an Olympic medal and I'll be happy to see it happen."

In last year's Hyogo Relay Carnival 10000 m Kihara was 5th, the top Japanese finisher. "This is the meet I've done the most often," he says. "I think I've learned even more here than I did in Hakone." In high school and his last three years of university Kihara ran the Carnival every year. "My goal for Hyogo this year is to break the World Championships A-standard [27:47.00]," he reveals. The time is more than 20 seconds better than his PB and shows just how much ambition he has. He won't be alone. Along with Irifune, also in the race are Mogusu (now of Team Aidem), Athens Olympian Terukazu Omori (Team Shikoku Denryoku), and Africans Gideon Ngatuny (Team Nissin Shokuhin), Yacob Jarso (Team Honda) and Josephat Ndambiri (Team Komori Corp.). Regardless of the outcome, Kihara's hometown fans will be lining up to cheer him on as he chases his goal in his first race in a professional uniform.


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