by Brett Larner
This weekend marks the real beginning of the fall marathon season. With no major domestic women's marathon on the fall calendar and a relatively wide window in which to qualify for next summer's World Championships, a larger than usual number of Japanese marathoners are lining up overseas.
First and foremost, 2010 Tokyo Marathon winner Masakazu Fujiwara (Team Honda) will be running tomorrow's Berlin Marathon as he aims to fulfill his post-Tokyo promise of delivering Japan its fourth 2:06. Fujiwara holds the Japanese collegiate and debut marathon records thanks to his 2:08:12 run at the 2003 Biwako Mainichi Marathon. For the next six years he suffered a continuous series of overtraining-induced injuries, but his Tokyo win signals that he is back to full capactiy. Fujiwara's coaches Kiyoshi Akimoto and Yosuke Osawa told JRN that he plans to go through halfway in 1:03:15 and then if all goes well to take a shot at the Japanese national record of 2:06:16. Also in Berlin are 2009 Hofu Yomiuri Marathon winner Akinori Shibutani (Team Kurosaki Harima) and, in the women's race, 2006 Vienna Marathon winner Tomo Morimoto (Team Tenmaya). Morimoto, holder of the third-fastest PB in the field, is an exception to the rule on Tenmaya, a team notorious for its runners having an exceptional debut and then never approaching the same level. Morimoto has been free of both elements, relatively stable in the 2:24-2:26 range. She has not had the greatest year so far but a modest improvement in Berlin could be enough to put her up front.
Minoru Okuda, Ayumi Nakayama and Maki Suzawa in Toronto.
The same day as Berlin, three Japanese athletes will compete in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Fujiwara's junior teammate both at Chuo University and at Honda, Minoru Okuda, will run his marathon debut in Toronto. A solid half-marathoner in the mid-62 range and former Hakone Ekiden stage winner, Okuda is aiming for a 2:12. The Yamada Denki women's team has sent its two best runners to join Okuda, 2:28 woman Ayumi Nakayama and, in her marathon debut, 2009 Miyazaki Women's Half Marathon winner Maki Suzawa. Nakayama, in her fifth marathon, will be shooting for a PB while Suzawa, whose half marathon PB is two minutes faster than Nakayama's, hopes for a solid sub-2:30 debut. Meeting these goals gives either athete a shot for top five.
A few weeks later Morimoto's teammate Naoko Sakamoto (Team Tenmaya) will be taking on the Chicago Marathon. Sakamoto is perhaps the most extreme example of the Tenmaya curse. With a 2:21:51 debut at the 2003 Osaka International Women's Marathon and her 4th-place finish later the same year at the Paris World Championships she was hailed as one of the top hopes for the next generation. Since then, with each passing year her times have slowed to the point of a 2:40:43 being her best mark in 2009. It's hard to see her lining up in a high-level race like Chicago if she is not ready for a major return to form, but history is against her.
Also in October, expect to see a number of Japanese elites at the Amsterdam Marathon. Rikuren officials have told JRN that this year officials will shift their federation program to send marathoners to compete abroad from the Beijing Marathon to Amsterdam in hopes of producing higher-quality times on a faster course with better conditions.
Following Amsterdam, the next Japanese athlete to the take the stage is Ottawa Marathon course record holder and two-time Tokyo Marathon runner-up Arata Fujiwara in November's New York City Marathon. A rare independent runner in Japan's corporate team-centered distance running world, Fujiwara hopes to become one of the few men to have broken 2:09 on the difficult New York course. His 2:09:34 course record on the equally challenging Ottawa course in May, Fujiwara's first time attempting a hilly marathon and the fastest of the year by a Japanese man thus far, has given him the confidence to go for something big in New York. A 2:08 seems realistic, but whether it will be enough for the win over a field which includes world record holder Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) and 2009 World Championships gold medalist Abel Kirui (Kenya) remains to be seen. Strong showings by both Fujiwaras in Berlin and New York will no doubt cause confusion abroad.
Later in November four Japanese marathoners will represent the nation at the Asian Games in Guanzhou, China. Teammates Yuri Kano and Kiyoko Shimahara (Second Wind AC) should be favorites in the women's marathon, where Shimahara is the defending silver medalist. Kano's lackluster performance in last week's Philadelphia Half Marathon and Shimahara's withdrawal from the same race due to fatigue raise questions about their fitness at this stage, but both have demonstrated the ability to return to form in short order. Second Wind runners typically dominate the Honolulu Marathon in December, so it would not be a tremendous surprise to see one of the pair resurface in Hawaii a few weeks after the Asian Games. In the men's race, the second- and third-fastest men of the year, Tomoyuki Sato (Team Asahi Kasei) and Yukihiro Kitaoka (Team NTN), should be in the hunt for medals. Sato is a remarkably consistent 2:09-2:10 man while Kitaoka had a good 2:10:51 debut at March's Biwako Mainichi Marathon.
The Japanese season wraps up with the Fukuoka International Marathon and Hofu Yomiuri Marathon in December. Look for details on the elite fields for these two races to surface in mid-November.
(c) 2010 Brett Larner