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2009 Japanese Men's Review - Days Have Gone By

by Brett Larner

There’s no getting around the hard facts: 2009 was one of the worst years in the modern history of Japanese men’s marathoning. In a time when the world standard has undergone remarkable improvement with the ten fastest times of the year under 2:06 for the first time, Japanese men took a large step backwards. Only one Japanese man, Atsushi Sato (Team Chugoku Denryoku), broke 2:10 this year, the first time this has happened since 1996. The average of the top ten Japanese times of the year, 2:11:21, was also the slowest since 1996. Relative to the world top ten average, 2:05:13, the year was Japan’s worst-ever.

To be fair, Japan did manage to take the team bronze medal at the Berlin World Championships, and all three of this year’s major Japanese spring marathons suffered windy conditions, in the case of March’s Tokyo Marathon verging on the extreme. There have also been troughs in the record before when the aging stars of one generation pass their prime before the next has stepped up. 1996 may have been the bottom of the dark years but by 1999 Japan had a 2:06 which ushered in six years of relative competitive prosperity. There is reason to believe that within three years we may again be seeing Japanese men clocking 2:06 or even 2:05, but it’s hard not to feel that this year’s Fukuoka International Marathon, which had the first-ever 2:05 on Japanese soil thanks to Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede but also saw only one elite Japanese man even bother to start the race, was symbolic of larger trends. One of the few positives of the year was the Japanese federation Rikuren’s decision to consider results from overseas marathons in selecting the World Championships team, a move which resulted in Sato making the team with a 2:09:16 in London.

It may seem paradoxical that at such a low point university men’s distance running would be at a peak. The 2009 Hakone Ekiden was arguably the best in its history, while October’s qualifying race for the 2010 Hakone, the Yosenkai 20 km road race, was the deepest and toughest ever run. 18 year-old Tokai University first-year Akinobu Murasawa won in 59:08, a time equivalent to 13:30 for 5 km, and 163 men breaking 1:02:30. Hakone has never been more popular and performances have never been better, but some in the Japanese running world have begun to speak out that it is becoming too big and too fast, that it has become more important to Japan’s young men than the marathon, the World Championships or the Olympics, that the intense training and monomaniacal focus necessary to be a contender in today’s Hakone Ekiden is sucking Japan’s men dry before they reach their prime years.

There is some truth in these claims, which will be examined in more detail in the next in JRN’s series of articles comparing young Japanese and American distance runners, but it’s equally true that the Japanese men’s performance of the year goes to the man who defined the 2009 Hakone Ekiden: Toyo University first-year Ryuji Kashiwabara. During the summer of 2008 the plain-spoken Kashiwabara said in a television interview that his goal for his first Hakone was to break the stage record on Hakone’s legendary 874 m elevation gain Fifth Stage, give Toyo the lead at the end of the first day, and thereby help lead the team to its first-ever Hakone win. He was matter-of-fact and come race day he delivered on each promise. Starting in 9th place 4:58 behind leader Masayuki Miwa of Waseda University, Kashiwabara won by 22 seconds and broke Masato Imai’s revered stage record by 47 seconds. It was the kind of run you never forget, one of resonance and inspiration, and it energized his teammates on to the first Toyo win in Hakone’s 85 year history. Miwa deserves a large amount of credit for coming back on the extremely steep downhill from 20 to 21.5 km to give Kashiwabara a race to the end. Kashiwabara went on to win his debut half marathon in Kyoto and set a 10000 m PB of 28:20.99 showing that unlike Imai he is more than simply an uphill specialist. Komazawa University ekiden captain Tsuyoshi Ugachi also gets a mention for ekiden sensationalism, running down and then breaking apart Yosenkai winner Murasawa at November’s National University Ekiden in a fantastic battle of surges that was the year’s grittiest.

As in the marathon, on the track it was a discouraging year. Most of the most promising men could not put together World Championships-standard performances, and those who did didn’t bring their best to Berlin. Yuichiro Ueno (Team S&B) provided the highlight of June’s National Track and Field Championships by stealing the 1500 m from a field of lazy middle distance runners after already having won the 5000 m, but in Berlin he was forgettable at best. A close runner-up to Kashiwabara’s Hakone run for Japanese men’s performance of the year was the 27:38.25 PB run by Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) in April in California, the third-fastest ever by a Japanese man and just weeks after the retirement of national record holder Toshinari Takaoka. Sato is a runner of great potential and in the first month of his pro career this was a solid comeback from a year of injury, just 3 seconds off Takaoka's national record. Still unsteady as he made his way back, Sato was only so-so at the National Championships, but in overseas meets following Nationals his performances showed him on the way back to peak condition in time for Berlin.

Incredibly, although he held the A-standard and there were spots available on the Japanese team Rikuren left him off and send only B-standard man Yuki Iwai (Team Asahi Kasei), who finished at the bottom of the field with post-Nationals Achilles tendon problems. If Nationals were a hard and fast trials race like in the U.S. the decision would be fair enough, but the previous year Rikuren sent Sato’s rival Kensuke Takezawa (Team S&B), likewise recovering from injury, to Beijing in the 10000 m without him even running in Nationals. Takezawa may well have benefitted from his Waseda University – Team S&B old boys’ network connections, but the omission of the 22 year old Sato, Japan’s current and potentially all-time best 10000 m man, was a foolhardy squandering of the opportunity to develop a young man who is one of its best prospects.

Speaking of old boys, the other great Japanese performance of the year came in February at the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon. Just a month after turning 60, Yoshihisa Hosaka set a world record for the marathon in the 60+ age bracket. Impressive enough in itself, but his time of 2:36:30 was one most amateur marathoners even in their 20’s would be ecstatic to run and age grades out to the very elite. Hosaka himself was glad to have gotten the record but disappointed with his time; two months earlier, just a few weeks before his 60th birthday, he set the 59 year old world record of 2:34:23 at the 2008 Fukuoka International Marathon in a practice run for Beppu-Oita. Falling two minutes short of his Fukuoka time in Beppu-Oita may have put a little tarnish on his record’s shine, but who’s counting? A world record is a world record.

Alongside Hosaka, another amateur deserves mention here for a remarkable 2009. Something clicked this year for 34 year old Toyokazu Yoshimura, an off-and-on sub-2:20 man with a wife, two children, a house and full-time job who drinks beer every night including before races and whose training consists primarily of running to and from work wearing a backpack. In March Yoshimura ran a PB of 2:16:58 at the Biwako Mainichi Marathon, finishing 12th behind the likes of former world record holder Paul Tergat of Kenya and beating 2:08 man Yuzo Onishi (Team Nissin Shokuhin). In May he won the Copenhagen Marathon in a course record time of 2:18:04. In late December just after turning 35 he again ran a PB, this time finishing 3rd at the Hofu Yomiuri Marathon in 2:15:05. With no coach, no training logs, and almost nothing you would normally think of as 2:15 marathon training, Yoshimura gave hope for all of us.

As next year approaches, what is there to look forward to? Well, the Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2-3 for one. Always unpredictable and never disappointing. Look for JRN’s preview tomorrow. Samuel Wanjiru’s former Japanese training partner Yu Mitsuya (Team Toyota Kyushu), alongside Takezawa, Sato and Ryuji Ono (Team Asahi Kasei) one of the best young track runners the country has ever produced, is debuting in the marathon at Beppu-Oita in February. Don’t expect fireworks yet, but he stands a good chance of being one of the men to turn things around on the Japanese men’s marathon front. Ono is also planning a marathon debut this spring, but while he is also someone to watch his injured status throughout much of 2009 leaves him as a question mark at this stage. Takezawa is in graduate school for another year and may not be hitting his running with full intensity for a while, but also watch for him and Sato on the track. Takayuki Matsumiya (Team Konica Minolta), who lost his 30 km world record this fall to marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, is running London along with his twin brother Yuko and the ambitious Yusei Nakao (Team Toyota Boshoku) and, despite being out of form since Beijing, has shown he has the ability to be a contender over the longer distances. Don’t count Atsushi Sato out, and don’t forget this name: Masato Kihara (Team Kanebo).

© 2009 Brett Larner
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