by Brett Larner
The 19th edition of the Sendai International Half Marathon takes place May 10. The second of Japan's three selection races for its World Half Marathon national team, Sendai features some of the country's top pro and university runners on both the women's and men's side along with a good number of Japan-resident Kenyan aces. Setting Sendai apart from the other Japanese half marathons with the 'international' title is its policy of inviting groups of three amateur runners from Sendai's sister cities around the world rather than professionals.
Unquestionably the main attraction at this year's race is the season debut of Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren). Akaba's spectacular 2008 began with her running 1:08:11 to win the Jitsugyodan Half Marathon and break the course record set by Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex). Her time made Akaba the third-fastest Japanese woman ever, and she went on to duplicate the feat over 5000 m and 10000 m. She ran in both the Beijing Olympics and World Half Marathon, then capped off the season with a 2:25:40 marathon debut at the Osaka International Women's Marathon to secure a place at on the team for the Berlin World Championships. Many, including Akaba herself, consider her a prospective medalist in Berlin. Her performance in Sendai, her first since Osaka, will be under heavy scrutiny. If she breaks Noguchi's 2008 Sendai winning time of 1:08:25 Akaba will face a new level of attention in Berlin.
Although Akaba is the favorite, the race is not simply set up as a time trial for her. Last year's runner-up Julia Mombi (Team Aruze) returns and will probably be Akaba's main competition. Mombi's time in Sendai last year, 1:08:31, makes her a threat, but it remains to be seen how fresh she is after running the Paris Marathon last month. 2008 Honolulu Marathon and 2009 Osaka Half Marathon winner Kiyoko Shimahara (Second Wind AC) will also be in contention, as will last year's 3rd place finisher Yuko Machida (Team Nihon ChemiCon), Akaba's teammate at last year's World Half Marathon.
In the men's race, Athens Olympian Toshinari Suwa (Team Nissin Shokuhin) is the featured invited athlete, but he is not known as a half marathoner and, relatively late in his career, he is unlikely to feature in the main action. The withdrawal of the talented James Mwangi (Team NTN) with injury means that defending champion Harun Njoroge (Team Komori Corp.) is very likely to repeat. Half marathon specialist Kazuo Ietani (Team Sanyo Tokushu Seiko) was only 10 seconds behind Njoroge last year, qualifying for the World Half team, and will probably again be the Kenyan's main rival.
Others returning from last year's top ten include Joseph Mwaniki (Team Konica Minolta), Kiyokatsu Hasegawa (Team JR Higashi Nihon) and Yuki Abe (Team Mitsubishi Juko Nagasaki). Of special interest is Abe's Mitsubishi teammate Seiji Kobayashi. The veteran Kobayashi ran a PB to finish 2nd at February's Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon and made the shortlist of candidates for the Berlin World Championships team. Having spent part of the spring in New Zealand with the other World Championships marathon team members as they began their preparations, Kobayashi just learned on Thursday that he is the unlucky seventh man on the team of six and will not be going. He is fit and is sure to be motivated to make the half marathon national team in Sendai after coming so close.
Complete details on the 2009 Sendai International Half Marathon elite and invited fields are available here.