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Shibui Returns - Tokyo Marathon Women's Preview

by Brett Larner

It's Tokyo Marathon week. This is the first of JRN's two-part preview of this year's fifth edition, to be held this Sunday, Feb. 27. Click here for part two, our men's preview. Look for additional articles and info as the week goes along. This year's race will be broadcast live on Fuji TV beginning at 9 a.m. Japan time. Overseas viewers should be able to watch online via Keyhole TV. Some viewers experienced trouble with Keyhole for last week's Yokohama International Women's Marathon but it appears to be working fine as of this writing, so make sure you have downloaded the current version of the player to increase your chances. In any case, JRN will be doing live race commentary via Twitter. Click here to follow.

The Tokyo Marathon's elite women's race occupies a peculiar position in its third edition, with world-class prize money at stake and quality overseas competition but excluded from the selection races for this year's World Championships women's marathon team. Although the former men's and women's elite-only Tokyo International Marathons shared the same course, they had different fates with the advent of the new mass-participation Tokyo Marathon in 2007-2008. The men's race was incorporated into the new event, or rather grafted onto it, as the organizers and application process remained separate from the mass-participation race, sharing only the same name, start, start time and course. The men's race in its new format maintained its status as a primary selection race for World Championships and Olympic marathon teams and has pulled in the best domestic men's fields each year.

The organizers of the women's Tokyo International, a separate group from the men's race, relocated their efforts to Yokohama. As a consequence, for its first two years Tokyo had no elite women's field, but in order to bring the race up to standard for an IAAF gold label elite women were added in 2009. Yokohama remained in place and continued to fulfill the selection race role. This has led to the current situation in which the new Tokyo Marathon's efforts to become a first-rate, world-class event are seemingly hamstrung by the requirement that the best Japanese women must run elsewhere if they want to make a national team. This is particularly true this year as last fall's APEC conference in Yokohama bumped that race from the traditional Nov. 23 date to one week before Tokyo.

That being the case, the Japanese women's field is thin considering the money and prestige on the line. The lion's share of the domestic interest will go to the return of former marathon national record holder Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) to the distance. Shibui won the 2009 Osaka International Women's Marathon to earn a spot as the leader of that year's World Championships marathon team. Injury troubles hampered her throughout that spring, and following a training run-effort win at the San Francisco Marathon she suffered a stress fracture which knocked her out of the World Championships. Since then she has been all but invisible, but late last year she returned to the ekiden circuit and has worked her way back into fitness, winning her stage at last month's Kita-Kyushu Women's Invitational Ekiden. Shibui has downplayed her Tokyo run, saying she only entered to accompany teammate Reiko Tosa in her return from childbirth, but with Tosa out with injury Shibui should be in for the win.

Her main domestic competition comes from Hokkaido Marathon course record holder Kiyoko Shimahara (Second Wind AC). After breaking 2:30 three times in the fall of 2009 Shimahara was not in peak form throughout 2010, her year culminating in a 2:32:11 5th-place finish at November's Asian Games marathon. If she is back together and the race plays out in the 2:26-2:27 range she may factor among the leaders. Her former teammate Yumi Hirata (Team Shiseido) is the only other Japanese elite in the field with marathon experience, holding a 2:29:23 PB from the 2008 Nagoya International Women's Marathon. Hirata had a good win at January's Chiba Marine Half Marathon and looks fit.

The other two invited Japanese athletes suggest a niche Tokyo could exploit to expand its domestic women's field. Sub-71 half marathoners Misaki Katsumata (Team Daiichi Seimei), a teammate of 2011 Yokohama winner Yoshimi Ozaki and coached by 1991 World Championships marathon silver medalist Sachiko Yamashita, and Noriko Higuchi (Team Wacoal), a teammate of multiple national record holder Kayoko Fukushi, will both run Tokyo as their marathon debuts. It seems an ideal environment in which for both talented athletes to get their first marathon experience. If it became the norm for top domestic talent to debut at Tokyo and gain experience in a fast, competitive race before going on to compete for national team selection it could help to bolster the strength of Japanese women's marathoning, which has struggled since 2008.

The domestic field is evenly matched by an overseas field of five. Next to Shibui, Romania's Nuta Olaru holds the fastest PB in the field. At age 39 Olaru was 3rd in the misery that was last year's race. Now 40, it remains to be seen whether she can still be competitive if the race is at the 2:25-2:26 level suggested by many of the athletes' PBs. Russians Tatiana Petrova and Tatiana Aryasova both bring recent wins to the table, Petrova with the 2009 Los Angeles title and Aryasova with last year's Dublin Marathon. In their prime, each is likely to be among those pushing the pace should Shibui not opt for the kind of fast race promised by Tokyo's excellent course.

Moroccan Asmae Leghzaoui, holder of the course records at both 10 km and marathon in Ottawa, will be making her Tokyo debut, meaning that along with men's entrant Arata Fujiwara (Remo System) this year's Tokyo features both the men's and women's Ottawa course record holders. The Ukraine's Olena Burkovska, 2nd at last year's Nagano Marathon, rounds out the foreign elites.

With exactly ten invited elites competing for the ten-deep prize purse it is entirely likely that someone from the general division will break into the money. Shibui's teammate Miki Ohira (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) is on the entry list, but having run the Osaka International Women's Marathon just four weeks ago it does not seem likely that she would start. Last year's 4th place finisher and top Japanese woman Maki Inami (AC Kita) is scheduled to return and with a good run could once again place. Four other women hold recent PBs under 2:35, the best of them 2010 Hofu Yomiuri Marathon winner Hiroko Yoshitomi (Saga T&F Assoc.), and on a good day any of them could also surprise.

2011 Tokyo Marathon Elite Field
click here for complete elite field listing
Women
21. Nuta Olaru (Romania) - 2:24:33 (Chicago 2004)
22. Tatiana Petrova (Russia) - 2:25:53 (Dubai 2009)
23. Tatiana Aryasova (Russia) - 2:26:13 (Dublin 2010)
24. Asmae Leghzaoui (Morocco) - 2:27:41 (Ottawa 2009)
25. Olena Burkovska (Ukraine) - 2:28:31 (Berlin 2010)
31. Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 2:19:41 (Berlin 2004)
32. Kiyoko Shimahara (Second Wind AC) - 2:25:41 (Hokkaido 2009)
33. Yumi Hirata (Team Shiseido) - 2:29:23 (Nagoya Int'l 2008)
34. Misaki Katsumata (Team Daiichi Seimei) - debut - 1:10:27 (Miyaki Women's Half 2010)
35. Noriko Higuchi (Team Wacoal) - debut - 1:10:57 (Marugame Half 2010)

202. Miki Ohira (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 2:26:09 (Osaka 2008)
203. Aya Manome (Yushikai AC) - 2:33:18 (Nagoya 2009)
204. Satoko Uetani (Kobe Gakuin AC) - 2:33:55 (Hokkaido 2009)
205. Shoko Miyazaki (Team Toyota Jidoshoki) - 2:34:34 (Nagoya 2010)
206. Sumiko Suzuki (Team Hokuren) - 2:35:51 (Nagoya 2009)
207. Hiroko Yoshitomi (Saga T&F Assoc.) - 2:33:01 (Hofu Yomiuri 2010)
208. Maki Inami (AC Kita) - 2:38:51 (Nagoya 2008)

(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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