by Brett Larner
The last competitive marathon of the year takes place this Sunday, Dec. 20 in Hofu, Yamaguchi at the 40th anniversary Hofu Yomiuri Marathon. Long one of Japan's second-tier elite marathons, Hofu is a place where younger pros come to debut and older veterans go for one more win. The occasional first-rate race results, as in Ethiopian Hailu Negussie's course record 2:08:16 battle against future Olympic team member Satoshi Osaki (Team NTT Nishi Nihon) in 2002.
Like other elite marathons on the Japanese circuit Hofu has struggled to adapt to changes in the marathoning environment, particularly those brought on by the rise of the Tokyo Marathon. Where venerable races like the Biwako Mainichi Marathon and Beppu-Oita Marathon have redesigned their courses in the last year to improve their appeal as fast races and taken other steps to improve their image, Hofu has embraced the amateur. Beginning with this year's 40th anniversary race Hofu has relaxed its qualification standard and cutoff times to accept runners taking up to four hours. While the move takes Hofu out of strictly elite circles the higher numbers which should result will help it to continue to pull in the 2:10 to 2:20 men who make up its main core.
Headlining this year's race is Athens Olympian Tomoaki Kunichika (Team S&B). Kunichika, coached by the great Toshihiko Seko, won the 2003 Fukuoka International Marathon in 2:07:52. He is far beyond the rest of this year's elite field in quality, but at age 36 he is in the final moments of his career and has not raced well in years. Hofu may well be the end of the road, and if so he is hopefully going in with the intent to leave with the win.
Beyond Kunichika is a solid pack of eleven men in the 2:12-2:17 range, almost any of whom could step up if he falters. Among these contenders, defending champion Kentaro Ito (Team Kyowa Hakko Bio) is the most dangerous despite a weak run in September's Berlin Marathon. Overseas invitees Kachi-Tsu Chao (Taiwan), Yongjian Ou (China) and Serod Bat-Ochir (Mongolia) went 3-4-6 at last year's race and return this year, Bat-Ochir with 2009 World Championships marathon experience under his belt. The most intriguing contender is amateur Toyokazu Yoshimura (Osaka T&F Assoc.), last year's 5th placer. Since last year's race Yoshimura clocked a PB of 2:16:58 at March's Biwako Mainichi Marathon and then won May's Copenhagen Marathon in a course record of 2:18:04. Yoshimura told JRN he hopes to break 2:15 in Hofu, a time which would have won the last two years' races. Whether it's one of the six men above or another from the elite field, the winner will pick up an invitation to the 2010 Berlin Marathon as part of his prize.
2009 Hofu Yomiuri Marathon Elite Field
click here for complete elite field listing with photos
Tomoaki Kunichika (Team S&B) - 2:07:52 (Fukuoka '03)
Takehisa Okino (Team Chugoku Denryoku) - 2:12:24 (Beijing '06)
Kentaro Ito (Team Kyowa Hakko Bio) - 2:13:44 (Hofu '01)
Akinori Shibutani (Team Yanagawa Seiki) - 2:13:51 (Beppu-Oita '00)
Serod Bat-Ochir (Mongolia) - 2:14:15 (Beijing Pre-Olympic '08)
Manabu Nishida (Team NTT Nishi Nihon) - 2:15:22 (Biwako '06)
Kiyotaka Shimamura (Team S&B) - 2:15:34 (Tokyo '08)
Yuji Iwakuma (Team NTT Nishi Nihon) - 2:15:46 (Beppu-Oita '05)
Tomohiro Minami (Team Aisan Kogyo) - 2:15:55 (Nobeoka '07)
Yongjian Ou (China) - 2:16:47 (Beijing '07)
Toyokazu Yoshimura (Osaka T&F Assoc.) - 2:16:58 (Biwako '09)
Kachi-Tsu Chao (Taiwan) - 2:17:12 (Hofu '08)
Nao Kazami (Team Aisan Kogyo) - 2:18:58 (Hokkaido '08)
Yoshihiro Yamamoto (Team Tokuyama) - 2:19:29 (Beppu-Oita '07)
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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