by Brett Larner
There's a lot of negativity in Japanese men's marathoning these days. After the dismal Beijing Olympics, 2009 was one of the worst years in the country's history. Sure, Japanese men still took the team bronze at the Berlin World Championships and over the course of the year outperformed every non-African country in the world, but in absolute terms it was their worst since 1996 and relative to world standards their poorest showing ever. The venerable circuit of elite men's marathons has struggled to remain relevant in an era when richer overseas majors draw the best talent, and the rise of the Tokyo Marathon has only worsened their predicament. In this atmosphere comes the 59th running of the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon this Sunday, Feb. 7.
Beppu-Oita, or Betsudai as it is usually abbreviated in Japanese, is one of the oldest Japanese marathons but has long occupied a difficult position as the most minor of the four main elite men's races. It has been the home of a world record, four winning times in the 2:08's, and has a course record of 2:08:30 set by South African Gert Thys way back in 1996, but it has been a long time since Betsudai has been a first-choice stop for top-class athletes. The notorious winds along the seaside out-and-back that makes up most of the course don't help the situation. Recognizing the need to strengthen its position as world standards continue to recede into the distance Betusdai's organizers this year have made the first course change in 26 years, moving the starting point to midway along the out-and-back in an effort to break up the winds and facilitate faster times. They've also gone out of their way to bring in the best elite field they've had in the modern era. Barring a winter storm things look set for a new Betsudai record. But for all this, the country's attention will be fixed on one man: first-time marathoner Yu Mitsuya (Team Toyota Kyushu).
Mitsuya is one of the leaders of the 18-25 generation currently making its way up through the ranks. He ran 27:41.10 at age 20 and 13:18.32 at age 22, both all-time 3rd-best Japanese marks at the time. He is almost cockily self-confident in interviews and runs like it. He's coached by Barcelona Olympics marathon silver medalist Koichi Morishita, who won Beppu-Oita in 2:08:53 in his own debut in 1991, and he was a training partner of Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya) who Morishita coached to the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics marathon. You can see where this is going: everybody expects Mitsuya to go out there and rescue Japanese men's marathoning with a win in a smoking-fast time. Mitsuya says his focus is just on winning rather than going for a time as his main goal for the season is the Japanese 10000 m national record, but looking at the field Betsudai has brought in it looks as though he will need a big time to get there.
A few years ago the 2010 Betsudai field would have been considered top-notch, but even though it may lack the big names necessary to stifle the yawns overseas there's no getting around the fact that it is solid. All the overseas elites have fresh PBs, four of them under 2:09. At the top is Kenyan Jonathan Kipkorir, whose 2:07:31 was only good enough for 7th at last year's Paris Marathon. Ethiopian Tessema Abshero's 2:08:26 was likewise only good enough for 4th at the 2008 Hamburg Marathon but still fast enough to be a new Betsudai record. Kenyan Kenneth Mungara and Ethiopian Chala Lemi went 1-2 at last fall's Toronto Waterfront Marathon, both breaking the Canadian all-comers mark with 2:08 times. Veteran Daniel Njenga (Kenya/Team Yakult) has the fastest time in the field, 2:06:16, but even though his best days may be behind him his win at August's Hokkaido Marathon, complete with an early surge at world record pace, shows he is still a contender. Even 2:07 Olympian Toshinari Suwa (Team Nissin Shokuhin), who has not run well since the 2007 World Championships, could pull off one more big one.
Against a field like this it's pretty unlikely Mitsuya will be able to focus only on winning. Those time goals are surely there: Morishita's debut time of 2:08:53. The fastest time in Betsudai by a Japanese runner, Takayuki Nishida's 2:08:45. Gert Thys' Betsudai record of 2:08:30. The Japanese debut marathon national record, Masakazu Fujiwara's 2:08:12 from Biwako '03. Maybe in the back of his mind there is even that all-time Japanese #3 mark of 2:06:57 to set alongside his 5000 and 10000 times. It's natural that there are ups and downs in performance levels as one generation passes and another grows up, and as Mitsuya becomes the first of the talented young runners JRN recently profiled to take on the marathon the weight of public expectation that he will be the one to start the climb back up is immense. He knows it and welcomes it. "I don't hear the fastest young guys these days talking about moving up from the track to the marathon," Mitsuya said last week in an interview. "I'm going to run the kind of race that will make them say, 'I want to be a marathoner too.'"
Go get 'em, kid.
TBS will broadcast the race live and nationwide starting at 11:50 a.m. on Feb. 7. Overseas viewers should be able to watch online for free via Keyhole TV. JRN will once again provide live English commentary via Twitter on JRNLive. Live split info will also be available here. To help figure out who is who, the field listing below includes bib numbers.
2010 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon Elite Field
click here for complete field listings
11. Daniel Njenga (Kenya/Team Yakult) - 2:06:16 (Chicago '02)
1. Jonathan Kipkorir (Kenya) - 2:07:31 (Paris '09)
12. Toshinari Suwa (Team Nissin Shokuhin) - 2:07:55 (Fukuoka '03)
13. Tadayuki Ojima (Team Asahi Kasei) - 2:08:18 (Biwako '04)
2. Tessema Abshiro (Ethiopia) - 2:08:26 (Hamburg '08)
3. Kenneth Mungara (Kenya) - 2:08:32 (Toronto Waterfront '09)
4. Chala Lemi (Ethiopia) - 2:08:49 (Toronto Waterfront '09)
5. Mohamed El Hachimi (Morocco) - 2:10:24 (Vienna '09)
14. Kenichi Kita (Team Kyudenko) - 2:11:41 (Nobeoka '06)
15. Hiroyuki Horibata (Team Asahi Kasei) - 2:11:47 (Tokyo '08)
6. Henryk Szost (Poland) - 2:11:59 (Debno '08)
16. Masashi Hayashi (Team Yakult) - 2:12:39 (Beijing '09)
17. Teruto Ozaki (Team Chugoku Denryoku) - 2:13:28 (Beijng '06)
18. Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki) - 2:13:53 (Tokyo '09)
19. Satoru Sasaki (Team Asahi Kasei) - 2:14:00 (Biwako '09)
101. Koichi Sakai (Team Fujitsu) - 2:14:29 (Beijing '09)
102. Martin Dent (Australia) - 2:14:46 (Fukuoka '08)
103. Brett Cartwright (Australia) - 2:15:02 (Fukuoka '07)
20. Yu Mitsuya (Team Toyota Kyushu) - debut - 1:29:55 (Kumanichi 30 km '09)
113. Atsushi Ikawa (Team Otsuka Seiyaku) - debut - 28:14.75 (10000 m, Niigata '09)
187. Yoshihisa Hosaka (Natural Foods) - 2:34:23 (59+ WR, Fukuoka '08)
(c) 2010 Brett Larner
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