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Tokyo Marathon Men's Preview - Turning to the New (updated)

by Brett Larner

Update 2/26: Hideaki Date (Team Chugoku Denryoku) is also out. Quite a shame.

Update 2/25: Along with Gebrselassie, defending champion Masakazu Fujiwara (Team Honda) is out of Tokyo after coming down with a fever. 2007 Tokyo runner-up Tomoyuki Sato (Team Asahi Kasei) is injured and will also DNS.

It's Tokyo Marathon week. This is the second of JRN's two-part preview of this year's fifth edition, to be held this Sunday, Feb. 27. Click here for part one, our women's preview, and 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 withdrawal of world record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia from this year's Tokyo Marathon after a fall injured both of his knees changes the storyline at this year's race. Envisioned as an all but guaranteed breaking of the 2:07:23 course record, the race is now open to at least four potential winners. With extremely bad weather in three of its four runnings to date Tokyo has not yet seen the kind of times promised by its fast course, but with ideal weather of 9 degrees and cloud cover forecast for Sunday the course record is still well within reach of all four.

The probable favorite is Ethiopian Yemane Tsegay, holder of a 2:06:30 PB from the 2009 Paris Marathon, 4th placer at the 2009 World Championships, winner of last March's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, and, two months later, clocking 2:07:11 at the Prague Marathon. After Prague Tsegay said he would not be satisfied until he ran 2:04, and this may be his chance for something approaching that quality of a performance.

Having definite potential to compete at that level is Tokyo-based sub-hour half marathoner Gideon Ngatuny (Team Nissin Shokuhin), making his marathon debut. There is great anticipation for Ngatuny's debut, a runner at his best on the roads, and it would not be a surprise if he had a 2:06 day. At the same time, Ngatuny, a former Kenyan national cross-country champion, had only a mediocre performance at last week's Kenyan XC championships. Was his weak run indicative of the extra mileage in his legs from marathon training and a focus on Tokyo or of poor condition? We'll find out on Sunday.

Another Ethiopian, formerly Japan-based Hailu Mekonnen, and Kenyan Paul Biwott both hold recent 2:07 best marks and should be running with Tsegay and Ngatuny at the head of the pack. Either could step up and be in contention for the win. Biwott's 2:07:02 PB from the 2009 Amsterdam Marathon means he is in range of Tsegay on a good day, while Mekonnen has continued to improve in each of his marathons to date and could step up with another leap in quality.

2009 Tokyo winner Salim Kipsang of Kenya also holds a 2:07 PB and will be looking for another win in his third time over the Tokyo course. Japan-based Cyrus Njui (Team Hitachi Cable), winner of last summer's hot and humid Hokkaido Marathon in his marathon debut, will be running his first cold-weather marathon. He recently told JRN that he hopes to run 2:06 for the win, something that would surprise many if it came to pass.

The former great Felix Limo of Kenya, struggling in recent years, sub-2:10 Eritrean Abraham Tadesse, and Japan-based sub-hour half marathon Kenyan Mekubo Mogusu (Team Aidem), unsuccessful thus far in converting to the marathon, round out the foreign field.

For the Japanese men in the field, up to two spots on the Japanese national marathon team for this summer's World Championships are at stake along with the prize money and the BMW on offer to the top Japanese male finisher. 2:09:30 is the mark the top Japanese man must clear to be guaranteed a place on the team, with anything slower or a finish as the second Japanese man relegating him to purgatory until the mid-March announcement of the team's lineup. That 2:09:30 should even be viewed as a major hurdle is a baffling issue for the Japanese industry; as recently as 2007 Japanese men were regularly breaking 2:08 and in 2008 there were ten sub-2:10 performances. No Japanese man has broken 2:09:30 since the 2:09:16 clocking by Atsushi Sato (Team Chugoku Denryoku) at the 2009 London Marathon, the fastest time last year being the 2:09:34 course record set by Arata Fujiwara (Remo System) at the Ottawa Marathon. What has happened? Nobody is sure.

There is always some degree of ebb and flow as one generation transitions to the next and the current trough has been accentuated by the simultaneous jump in the quality and quantity of African performances since 2008, but the drop from ten sub-2:10's to one per year remains difficult to explain. Most of the main Japanese contenders are vowing to have at the 2:09:30 "barrier," but that could well mean that they end up ignoring the faster pack up front and run their own more modest domestic competition in the B-pack. Nobody wants to see that happen.

With the withdrawal of defending champion Masakazu Fujiwara due to a fever, the theme of this year's domestic race has shifted to the new, with three first or second-time marathoners having the potential to take a position on the World Championships team. The most talented Japanese runner in Tokyo is debuting. Sub-62 half marathoner Yoshinori Oda of 2011 New Year Ekiden winner Team Toyota broke 28 for the first time late last year at the head of his marathon training. With these credentials he is the best current Japanese runner in the field and if he handles the transition to the marathon well a sub-2:10 should be a virtual given.

Second-time marathoners Keita Akiba (Team Komori Corp.) and Naoki Okamoto (Team Chugoku Denryoku) look more promising. Akiba, who broke 2:11 in his debut at the 2009 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon, won his stage at January's New Year Ekiden and has the potential to be much faster this time out. Okamoto, a teammate of Date, has been outstanding in his first two years of pro running but had a failed debut at last year's Tokyo after injuring his right Achilles in the lead-up to the race. Look for a significant improvement this time.

Prior to the withdrawal of defending champion Masakazu Fujiwara all of last year's top four were scheduled to return except Sato, who has disappeared from racing since finishing 3rd in the freezing hell of Tokyo 2010. 2010 runner-up Arata Fujiwara, no relation, is the top domestic seed. He earned great attention immediately after last year's race when he announced he was leaving the JR Higashi Nihon corporate team to go independent, and even more when he followed up with a course record 2:09:34 win at May's Ottawa Marathon and a joint press conference with Gebrselassie in New York to announce the pair's participation in the 2010 New York City Marathon. Like Gebrselassie, he dropped out partway through the race. Tokyo will be Fujiwara's ninth marathon. In his four good marathons he has not finished outside the top 3. The other four were disasters. Despite his pre-race press conference talk of a 2:07, with New York as his only serious race since his Ottawa win it's impossible to know which persona Fujiwara will bring to his third Tokyo.

Like Arata Fujiwara, last year's 4th placer Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) is trying to do things his own way. Eschewing both the elite Hakone Ekiden universities and the jitsugyodan corporate team system Kawauchi took a job as a civil servant after graduating in 2009 and fits his training around his working schedule. His 4th place finish just two seconds behind runner-up Arata Fujiwara and one second behind half marathon national record holder Atsushi Sato was the biggest shock of last year's Tokyo. Since then he has worked on improving his PBs, breaking 63 for the first time with a 1:02:40 clocking earlier this month at the Marugame Half Marathon. It's questionable whether that time puts 2:09:30 in range, but Kawauchi has proven himself to bring an iron will and guts to his running and it would not be a surprise to see him in serious contention for a World Championships spot.

Veteran Satoshi Irifune (Team Kanebo) a reliable sub-2:10 man at his peak, faltered in 2010. He has run well in Tokyo but comes to this year's race without good tune-up results indicative of current fitness. Takaaki Koda (Team Asahi Kasei), last year's 8th-place finisher, returns to round out the invited field. At the top of the general division is 2008 Hokkaido Marathon winner Masaru Takamizawa, the new head coach of 2009 national champion Saku Chosei High School, is also among the best of the Japanese men in Tokyo, but as a new crop of top men get their marathon careers underway it is unlikely any of these three will factor among those competing for a World Championships placement.

2011 Tokyo Marathon Elite Field
click here for complete elite field listing
Men
2. Felix Limo (Kenya) - 2:06:14 (Rotterdam 2004)
3. Yemane Tsegay (Ethiopia) - 2:06:30 (Paris 2009)
4. Paul Biwott (Kenya) - 2:07:02 (Amsterdam 2009)
5. Salim Kipsang (Kenya) - 2:07:29 (Berlin 2007)
6. Hailu Mekonnen (Ethiopia) - 2:07:37 (Amsterdam 2010)
7. Abraham Tadesse (Eritrea) - 2:09:24 (Berlin 2010)
8. Cyrus Njui (Kenya/Team Hitachi Cable) - 2:11:22 (Hokkaido 2010)
9. Gideon Ngatuny (Kenya/Team Nissin Shokuhin) - debut - 59:50 (Nagoya Half 2009)
12. Arata Fujiwara (Remo System RC) - 2:08:40 (Tokyo 2008)
13. Satoshi Irifune (Team Kanebo) - 2:09:23 (Fukuoka 2008)
15. Keita Akiba (Team Komori Corp.) - 2:10:53 (Beppu-Oita 2009)
16. Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) - 2:12:35 (Tokyo 2010)
17. Takaaki Koda (Team Asahi Kasei) - 2:13:04 (Tokyo 2010)
18. Naoki Okamoto (Team Chugoku Denryoku) - 2:23:06 (Tokyo 2010)
19. Yoshinori Oda (Team Toyota) - debut - 1:01:41 (Jitsugyodan Half 2009)

101. Masaru Takamizawa (Saku Chosei H.S.) - 2:12:10 (Hokkaido 2008)
106. Mekubo Mogusu (Kenya/Team Aidem) - 2:16:38 (Hokkaido 2010)

(c) 2011 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Comments

Scott Brown said…
Outstanding review Brett!

Wishing the best Fujiwara turns up tomorrow!

Have a great day everyone.

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