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More Than Just the Marathon - February and March on the Roads in Japan

by Brett Larner

Last weekend's Osaka International Women's Marathon and this weekend's Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon and Meigi Ekiden mark the transition from ekiden season to Japan's short but dense late-winter marathon season. Six elite marathons are crammed into a seven-week span, but there is more. In February and March Japan hosts an array of competitive 10 milers, half marathons and 30 km road races both as marathon tune-ups and target races for those focusing on the intermediate distances. While the pointy ends of these races may often be somewhat blunted relative to smaller but wealthier races in Europe and the Arabian peninsula, many of the Japanese races top the worldwide lists in overall quality and depth. The conclusion of the Kyoto City Half Marathon last year as Kyoto prepares to host a large-scale full marathon means other races stand to benefit, as was clear at last weekend's Osaka Half Marathon where six men broke the course record.

Feb. 7 sees two competitive half marathons, the Kanagawa Half Marathon and the Marugame International Half Marathon. Kanagawa is a relatively local event pitting runners from several of the top Hakone Ekiden schools against each other. Marugame is a much bigger deal, televised nationwide and featuring the most competitive field of the month. Defending champs Mara Yamauchi (U.K.) and Mekubo Mogusu (Kenya/Team Aidem) return. Yamauchi is the clear favorite after a season off due to injury, with potential challenges from Hiroko Miyauchi (Team Kyocera), Akane Wakita (Team Toyota Jidoshoki), and Australian Nicole Chapple, who had a great run at November's International Chiba Ekiden. Mogusu is also the clear favorite in the men's race as a two-time winner, course record holder, and only man in the field with a best under the hour mark. As with Yamauchi the only question is whether he is at 100% in light of his abortive marathon debut at December's Fukuoka International Marathon. Kenyans Joseph Mwaniki (Team Konica Minolta) and Daniel Gitau (Nihon Univ.) are his most likely competition, and if any Japanese runner is near the front it should be Kensuke Takahashi (Team Toyota) in his last tune-up for the Tokyo Marathon.

The 50th edition of the Himejijo 10 Miler takes place on Feb. 11, a national holiday. A relatively small race, it nevertheless traditionally has a top field of jitsugyodan corporate runners. This year's field includes nine invited athletes headlined by 22 year old Kensuke Takezawa (Team S&B), a 13:19.00 man, in his debut at the distance. Another, even tougher, 10 miler, the Karatsu 10 Mile Road Race, celebrates its own 50th anniversary three days later on Feb. 14 alongside the Nobeoka Nishi Nippon Marathon and Chiba International XC Meet.

Feb. 21 sees only major race, but it is a big one: the Ome 30 km. Mara Yamauchi (U.K.) has dominated the women's 10 km event at Ome for the last few years but this year steps up to the 30 km just two weeks after the Marugame half. Can London be far behind? Yamauchi's chief competitor is Kiyoko Shimahara (Second Wind AC), tuning up for an overseas spring marathon of her own. Shimahara suffered a minor back injury in mid-January but her under-control 1:14 at the Osaka Half Marathon showed she is operational once again. The men's race includes 24 year old former university star Hideaki Date (Team Chugoku Denryoku), whose half marathon PB of 1:02:08 at age 19 pointed to potential he has yet to realize as a pro. Kodai Matsumoto (Meiji Univ.) was one of the best university runners of 2009 but missed the late fall season and last month's Hakone Ekiden due to compartment syndrome. Also among the five invited elites is American Patrick Rizzo.

Not on the roads but still in the news is the Fukuoka International XC Meet on Feb. 27. The Tokyo Marathon dominates the headlines on Feb. 28, but the world's #1 30 km race, the Kumanichi 30 km, falls on the same day. Until last September's Berlin Marathon the world record for 30 km was the 1:28:00 mark set by Takayuki Matsumiya (Team Konica Minolta) at the 2005 Kumanichi. The competitive Kashima Yutoka Half Marathon and Inuyama Half Marathon round out the action on the last day of the month.

Looking ahead to March, the Biwako Mainichi Marathon and Nagoya International Women's Marathon dominate the calendar, but four major half marathons also span the month. The Tamana Half Marathon, a race in memory of Japan's first great marathoner Shizo Kanaguri, takes place Mar. 7. A week later on Mar. 14 is the Tachikawa Akishima Half Marathon, which doubles as the National University Men's Half Marathon Championships. Although Tachikawa Akishima was the world's deepest elite half marathon of 2009 with 141 men under 66 minutes, many of the best university men traditionally ran Kyoto instead of Tachikawa. With no Kyoto this year's race could be bigger and faster than ever. The season wraps up with two half marathons on Mar. 21, the men's and women's National Jitsugyodan Half Marathon Championships and the Matsue Ladies' Half Marathon, the latter of which is also the National University Women's Half Marathon Championships.

Watch JRN for more detailed previews and results of all these races and more as the season progresses.

(c) 2010 Brett Larner
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