by Brett Larner
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Although the Japanese men's medal haul in the World Championships marathon has been slim, with only Hiromi Taniguchi's gold in 1991, Nobuyuki Sato's bronze in 1999 and Tsuyoshi Ogata's bronze in 2005 to show in the last two decades, they've had one and often two runners finish in the top five almost as far back as the eye can see. This year brings the country's best current marathoner saying he's ready for "top five at worst," and two talented younger runners talking medals. Below is a quick guide to the members of the Japanese team in the Aug. 22 men's marathon, the highs and lows of their seasons, and some predictions. Athletes are listed in order of estimated chance of success. Click the names for photos and more detailed profiles.
Atsushi Sato - SB: 2:09:16 (London '09) - PB: 2:07:13 (Fukuoka '07)
Sato is the top Japanese marathoner on the roads right now, a potential 2:05 runner with a career which makes him overall the best non-African marathoner in the world. A mental breakdown before the Beijing Olympics led to his last-place finish and the tarnishing of his reputation, but he has been on the comeback throughout the spring and summer and seems like a different person. A controlled practice effort in London led to a solid 2:09:16. Sato says 5th is his minimum goal, and although his PB is only the 10th-fastest in the field it looks as sure as things can be in the marathon that he'll be up there.
-2:09:16, London Marathon 4/26/09 - controlled effort
-1:01:29, Jitsugyodan Half Marathon, 3/15/09 - 2nd place
-Olympics, World Championships and World Half Marathon experience
-2:41:08, Beijing Olympics Marathon '08 - last place
-lingering psychological damage from Beijing?
-no wins this year
Last three races:
-1:02:54, Sapporo Int'l Half Marathon, 7/5/09
-29:08.30, National Championships 10000 m, 6/28/09
-2:09:16, London Marathon, 4/26/09
He's going to have a good one. Top five.
Kazuhiro Maeda - SB/PB: 2:11:01 (Tokyo '09 - debut)
There's not much to go on with Maeda, his only marathon to date being this year's Tokyo where he was 2nd in 2:11:01. An unremarkable time, but the headwind over the second half of the race cost the leaders at least 3 minutes and Maeda had the fastest finish in the field. A sub-28 10000 m runner, he's got the speed, he's put in the mileage, and he seems to have the mindset to be tough and competitive. Watching Maeda train earlier this summer, retired national record holder Toshinari Takaoka gave him an official thumbs-up. Maeda's targeting a medal, but while that may be a longshot he's going to get noticed.
-2:11:01, Tokyo Marathon 3/22/09 - 2nd in strongly adverse conditions
-27:55.17 10000m PB, 12/2/07
-World Championships and World Half Marathon experience
-only one marathon
Last Three Races:
-13:49.81, Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet 5000m, 7/15/09
-13:49.94, Golden Games in Nobeoka 5000m, 5/30/09
-28:35.59, Kyushu Jitsugyodan T&F Championships 10000m, 5/18/09 - winner
The darkhorse of this year's World Championships men's marathon. He's going to surprise a lot of people.
Satoshi Irifune - SB/PB: 2:09:23 (Fukuoka '08)
Irifune has never quite been as good as he should be. A former teammate of and now coached by national record holder Toshinari Takaoka, Irifune has only been able to translate his considerable track speed into the 2:09 level in the marathon. Early in the year he was talking about 2:06 for Berlin, but it's unlikely he will improve beyond the 2:08 level. Apart from a handful of decent track performances he has been quiet and invisible in the media, something which usually indicates the runner is in less than optimum condition.
-both marathons in 2008 were PBs (2:09:40, Tokyo and 2:09:23, Fukuoka)
-27:53.92 10000 m PB, 5/4/01
-coached by national record holder Toshinari Takaoka and the great Kunimitsu Ito
-World Championships experience
-has been invisible the last few months
-1:34:17 for 30 km in February after talking about running it as practice for 2:06 in Berlin
-2:17:22 in last World Championships marathon appearance
Last three races:
-28:38.44, Hokuren Distance Challenge Kushiro Meet 10000m, 7/11/09
-13:42.19, Golden Games in Nobeoka 5000m, 5/30/09
-28:41.23, Hyogo Relay Carnival 10000m, 4/26/09
If he is uninjured Irifune will be solid but unspectacular. Assuming the rest of the field runs a decent pace with cooperative weather Irifune will run high 2:08 to low 2:09.
Arata Fujiwara - SB: 2:09:47 (Fukuoka '08) - PB: 2:08:40 (Tokyo '08)
Arata Fujiwara is the most unpredictable man on the team. He gained worldwide attention with a fantastic, dramatic 30-minute PB performance last year in Tokyo. After getting shafted by Japan's Olympic selection process he followed up with a stunningly bad international debut in Chicago, running 2:23:10. Two months later he made the Berlin team with a 2:09:47 in Fukuoka. He clocked a 12-second 10000 m PB in June, then ran 1:07:00 for a half marathon a month later. He seems to be on when he needs to be, but when he is off he is really, really off. He's talking about 2:06 and a medal in Berlin, but he was talking about the national record of 2:06:16 before he ran Chicago.
-2:08:40, Tokyo Marathon '08
-28:41.05 10000 m PB, 6/10/09
-guts and motivation
-2:23:10, Chicago Marathon '08
-1:07:00, Sapporo Int'l Half Marathon, 7/5/09
Last Three Races:
-1:07:00, Sapporo Int'l Half Marathon, 7/5/09 - 98th
-28:41.05 - PB, Hokuren Distance Challenge Fukagawa Meet 10000m, 6/10/09 - winner
-1:08:15, Kagawa Marugame Half Marathon, 2/1/09 - 112th
Impossible to predict. Either challenging Sato and Maeda for top five or last man on the team.
Masaya Shimizu - SB/PB: 2:10:50 (Biwako '09)
Shimizu doesn't command much respect in Japan, the general perception being that he was lucky to make the Berlin team. His comments after finishing 4th in Biwako (Lake Biwa for those overseas) in March solidified this perception, as he said that more than making the World Championships he was happy to have beaten his identical twin brother Tomoya who had a PB 3 minutes faster than Masaya going into the race. To be fair, Shimizu showed a lot of bravery trying to frontrun Biwako against the likes of Paul Tergat and Yared Asmerom and finished only 28 seconds off eventual winner Tergat.
-2:10:50 - PB, Biwako Mainichi Marathon 3/1/09 in adverse conditions
-winner, Nobeoka Nishi Nihon Marathon '08
-after making Berlin team said his primary motivation had been to beat his brother
-14:30.36 5000 m, 5/30/09
-no international experience
Last Three Races:
-14:30.36, Golden Games in Nobeoka 5000m, 5/30/09
-29:47.30, Kyushu Jitsugyodan T&F Championships 10000m, 5/16/09
-14:39.76, Nobeoka Spring Time Trials 5000m, 4/29/09
Back in the field in mid-teens.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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