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2009 Japanese Women's Review - Holding Pattern

by Brett Larner

2009 had its ups and downs for Japanese women, but in sum it was a positive year. As Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex) fades into memory no one has really stepped up to take her place at the top, but the trend was not limited to Japan alone. Worldwide it was a down year. The average of the top ten fastest times of the year, 2:24:09, was the slowest since 1997 and German Irina Mikitenko's 2:22:11 in London was the slowest world-leader since 1996. The average of the top ten Japanese performances, 2:26:02 this year, has not changed much in the last four years, meaning that relative to world standards 2009 was Japan's best since 1996. Top woman Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) ran 2:23:42 to win January's Osaka International Women's Marathon and was ranked 3rd worldwide. Last year the top Japanese woman, Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei) ran 2:23:30 and was only ranked 9th.

Ozaki gets the best-of-the-year honors for her silver medal in the marathon at the Berlin World Championships. After her impressive 2:23:30 Tokyo International Women's Marathon win Ozaki got injured in the spring and was completely out of the public eye. Berlin was her first race of the year and she came through, using the same buildup strategy she used to win Tokyo and only outdone by Chinese gold medalist Xue Bai's stunning finishing speed. Since Berlin Ozaki has been having injury trouble again but is targeting April's London Marathon and has mentioned the number 2:18.

Shibui's Osaka win was a return to form for the former national record holder and raised hopes of a World Championships win, but her spring season was wiped out by injury. She returned in time to win July's San Francisco Marathon as a training run but then suffered a stress fracture which kept her out of Berlin. Osaka runner-up Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren) had a good marathon debut there, running 2:25:40 after a great 2008 on the track, but despite winning the 10000 m national title in June she was ineffectual in both the World Championships marathon and the World Half Marathon. Akaba will run Osaka again in January, then plans to join Ozaki in London.

10000 m junior national record holder Megumi Kinukawa (Team Mizuno) tried to make another comeback from another round of injuries but was a DNF at Nationals. 3000 m, 5000 m and half marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) hasn't been herself since her failed marathon debut in 2008 and could not even qualify for the World Championships 5000 m squad. After losing her road 15 km world record in the fall, she finally got back into gear with stage record runs at November's Fukui Super Ladies' Ekiden and December's National Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden. A fully operational Fukushi will be worth a watch in 2010.

One of the few women to be solid virtually all year was Beijing Olympics marathoner Yurika Nakamura (Team Tenmaya). Nakamura won the 5000 m at Nationals in June, the Sapporo International Half Marathon in July, then ran three PBs in three starts at the World Championships. In all three Berlin races, the 5000 m heats and final and the 10000 m, Nakamura was up front from the start, refusing to sit back in the pack and insistently running her own race. She may not have enough ability to win but unlike the Japanese men and most of the other women on the Japanese team in Berlin she showed up in shape, mentally ready to race, and gave it what she had. After a year away from the marathon focusing on the track Nakamura may tackle the marathon again this spring.

Expectations for Yuri Kano (Second Wind AC) were high this year, but her three marathons, all overseas, were disappointments. Not so for her teammate Kiyoko Shimahara. A formerly reliable 2:26 marathoner, after not breaking 2:30 since 2006 Shimahara's career had seemed to be on the wane. A near-PB performance at the Sapporo half in July signalled Shimahara was back in better shape, then in the heat and humidity of August she ran a course record and PB of 2:25:10 at the Hokkaido Marathon, the 2nd-fastest of the year for a Japanese woman and 11th-fastest worldwide. Not content to sit back, Shimahara then ran under 2:30 twice more in the same season, 2nd at November's inaugural Yokohama International Women's Marathon in 2:28:51 and 2nd again at December's Honolulu Marathon in 2:29:53.

Looking beyond the pros, university women's running was also strong. For the second straight year Kazue Kojima (Ritsumeikan Univ.) and Kasumi Nishihara (Bukkyo Univ.) pushed each other to their limits all year long. Nishihara arguably had the better year, breaking Kojima's PBs on the track, winning the final Kyoto City Half Marathon and the World University Games 10000 m, and beating Kojima for the 5000 m national university title. Kojima did take the national university 10000 m, but she remained unbeaten by Nishihara or anyone else in the ekiden, her main specialty. Kojima graduates in March and will head to 2008 national champions Team Toyota Jidoshoki, where she will be a teammate of 1500 m national record holder Yuriko Kobayashi. Nishihara still has one year left, and into the void created by Kojima's graduation steps Nishihara's 1st-year teammate Hikari Yoshimoto. Yoshimoto has been edging up toward the top throughout her first year at Bukkyo and broke through at November's International Chiba Ekiden where, running for the University Select Team, she beat Japanese national team anchor Yurika Nakamura and every other woman on the road to take the stage best title. At this month's National University Women's Invitational Ekiden she won the most competitive stage, finishing just 3 seconds off Kojima's stage record. Yoshimoto is still young but looks very strong and smooth and is someone to watch over the next few years.

Finally, on the same topic of young runners whose names you may be hearing again and again in years to come, January's National Interprefectural Women's Ekiden introduced identical twin junior high school runners Haruka and Moe Kyuma. Haruka had the better PBs at the time and turned in a strong performance to bring the sisters' home team of Hyogo Prefecture within a second of the lead, but when Moe took off on the uphill 3 km 8th Stage her fame was born. Despite struggling to put the tasuki on, Moe went all out, going through the first km in 2:58. Naoko Takahashi and other race commentators laughed, but when Moe finished in 9:41, breaking the stage record by 12 seconds, they were stunned. "She's going to be big!" was all Takahashi could say. Now in high school, Moe has surpassed Haruka's times. It's way too early to tell if they will continue to develop, but in 5 or 10 years the Kyuma sisters may indeed be big.

(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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