special thanks to Ken Young at ARRS, the IAAF and All-Time Athletics for their database assistance in preparing this article
Last month I published a comparison of the results from the American NCAA Pre-Nationals XC Meet and the Hakone Ekiden Qualifier Road Race which showed that more Japanese university runners were running as fast or faster for a hilly 20 km on the roads than American university runners were running for a hilly 8 km XC. I received a fair amount of response to this comparison, much of it negative and much of it from American university runners, in the comment section, on message boards such as letsrun.com, and in my email inbox. One such letsrun poster asked what was apparently supposed to be a rhetorical question:
So how many of these "Rising Sons" have run sub-13:30 at age 18?The poster was referring to Americans German Fernandez and Chris Derrick, both of whom achieved this impressive feat in late spring this year, clocking times of 13:25.46 and 13:29.98 to become the first American 18 year-olds to break this barrier. At the time I didn't know the answer, but it struck me as a good question. I recently had the time to look into it and found, unsurprisingly, perhaps, that the answer is 'zero.' Japan's best current track runner, 22 year-old Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) came the closest, clocking 13:31.72 at age 18. Very close, but no cigar. Were Sato an American this time would put him at all-time #3 well behind Fernandez, just behind Derrick, and far ahead of star Galen Rupp's 13:37.91 mark, but the letsrun poster is correct, the U.S. has two men with such times while Japan doesn't.
Thinking some more about this, I wondered how the numbers would look if you expanded the question out from its original one-dimensional form to include data for 19 year olds, 20 year olds and other comparable ages and distances. I compared runners from the U.S.A. and Japan at five ages from 18-22 and looked at results for 5000 m, 10000 m, half-marathon and marathon, even though the latter is rarely raced at such ages in either country. Setting the letsrun poster's arbitrary criterion of sub-13:30 as a benchmark, I used the popular McMillan calculator to find comparable marks for these longer distances. The McMillan calculator gives times of sub-28:03 for 10000 m, sub-1:02:24 for half-marathon, and sub-2:11:36 for the marathon as equivalent to a sub-13:30 5000 m. The results are quite interesting and seem to show clear trends in where the emphasis in coaching, racing, ability or some combination of all three lie.
The table below shows the complete all-time listings by age and distance for runners from the States and Japan who have achieved these times. With the exception of the marathon, in cases where no runners of a given age have achieved the mark, such as Sato at age 18 in the 5000 m, the fastest mark is listed. Click image for a full-sized version. You might need to enlarge it a bit.
At age 19 Japanese runners surpass their American counterparts at every distance. Each country has produced two sub-13:30 athletes, but Japan's Kensuke Takezawa and Yuki Sato each recorded times around 5 seconds better than America's Dathan Ritzenhein and Hassan Mead. In the 10000 m two Japanese runners are under the 28:03 mark, with Ryuji Ono's 27:59.32 nearly 25 seconds ahead of top American Galen Rupp. The half-marathon is similar, two Japanese 19 year-olds coming close to breaking 1:02 while the best U.S. runner clocked 1:04:32.
Age 20 is where things start to diverge and thereby become more interesting. American runners show notable development in the 5000 m, with five men going sub-13:30. Only one Japanese 20 year-old, Kensuke Takezawa, has achieved the same mark. His time of 13:19.00 is considerably better than top American Bob Kennedy's 13:22.17 but there is no question that the U.S. excels in depth at this age. Looking at the longer distances the States begins to show development in the 10000 m, with two runners under 28:03 led by Galen Rupp's sensational 27:33.48. Japan likewise shows progress in the 10000 m, five men going under 28:03 topped by Yu Mitsuya's 27:41.10. Japan's progress in the half-marathon is identical, again five men going under 1:02:24 with top 20 year-old Masato Kihara's 1:01:50 over two minutes ahead of top American Herb Wills' 1:03:58.
The trends of rapidly-growing depth in the 5000 m and gradual progress in distance for Americans and of a shift in emphasis to the half-marathon and beyond for Japanese runners continue unabated at age 21. While there is roughly equal quantity and, with the exception of Dathan Ritzenhein's 27:38.50, quality in the 10000 m, the U.S. dominates Japan in the 5000 m, ten men to three and Bill McChesney's 13:18.6 leading Toshinari Takaoka's 13:20.43. The converse is true in the half-marathon, ten Japanese men led by Hidemori Noguchi's 1:01:55 against lone American Scott Bauhs' 1:03:04. Japanese 21 year-olds even take the occasional swing at the marathon. Masakazu Fujiwara's 2:08:12 list-topper would be a noteworthy result at any age, but two more Japanese men have broken 2:10 at age 21, well below the 2:11:36 cutoff.
The trends again continue at age 22. Seventeen American men have broken 13:30 at this age including Galen Rupp's 13:18.12 indoor mark, and Alan Webb's 13:10.86 is the fastest on the chart. While the U.S. numbers in the 10000 m do not improve in quality, the depth shows progression with six athletes cracking 28:03. The gradual move toward longer distances continues as one American 22 year-old, Todd Williams, has broken 1:02:24 in the half-marathon. Japan's numbers in the 5000 m and 10000 m remain relatively constant with the exception of Yuki Sato's 27:38.25 just over a second shy of top American Rupp. The Japanese depth in the half-marathon likewise remains constant at ten runners under 1:02:24, but there is a noticeable improvement in quality as four 22 year-olds have broken 1:02. The reverse is true in the marathon where the quality tops out with another 2:08, this one from Muneyuki Ojima, but the depth has improved to eight men under 2:11:36.
So, in summary, prior to Fernandez and Derrick Japanese teenagers consistently performed at a higher level than their American counterparts from 5000 m up, shifting in focus to longer distances as they entered their 20's while Americans continued to improve their speed at shorter distances and exceeded the achievements of Japanese men at such distances. Not exactly a secret, but those are the numbers. Fernandez and Derrick are clearly talented athletes who may well rewrite the lists. In a follow-up article later this weekend I will look at some of the reasons for these trends and what they might mean for both countries' young runners.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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