10000 m junior national record holder Megumi Kinukawa (Team Mizuno) has made a resounding comeback from over three years of injury and illness, running a nearly 20-second PB of 15:09.96 to win the Japanese National Track & Field Championships women's 5000 m and clear the World Championships A-standard. Coached by Takao Watanabe, the Sendai Ikuei H.S. head coach who took Samuel Wanjiru from being an average Kenyan teen to a half marathon and junior 10000 m world record holder and who left Sendai Ikuei to become her personal coach, Kinukawa has been quietly working her way back up this season and seemed as surprised as anybody in post-race interviews. "I thought that today if everything went OK I'd go for my PB [15:27.98], but the A-standard...." Written off by many as a casualty before her inspirational performance, Kinukawa's time makes her all-time #6 on the Japanese 5000 m lists and earned her a place on the Daegu team.
Kenyan Bitan Karoki (Team S&B) took the men's 5000 m with the same race strategy he used to win May's Cardinal Invitational 10000 m, jogging in the pack through 2000 m before dropping a 2:33 km to sail away to the win in 13:15.76. The two leading Japanese men of 2011, Kazuya Watanabe (Team Shikoku Denryoku) and 10000 m national champion Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) were left to battle it out for the domestic championship title, with Watanabe winning the sprint finish over Sato for the second time this season.
Hitomi Niiya (Chiba Pref.), 2011's leading Japanese woman prior to the race, took the race out fast, going from 75 seconds for the first lap to 70 seconds for the next. Not even her Kenyan former teammate Ann Karindi (Team Toyota Jidoshokki) could follow at that speed, but as Niiya pulled away Kinukawa likewise accelerated away from the pack. Slowing from national record to PB pace, Niiya's lead over Kinukawa stabilized at roughly 4 seconds. In the second half Niiya continued to slow as Kinukawa held steady, eating up the ground before surging past into the lead on the back straight before 4000 m. Finishing just three seconds off her PB in 15:20.35, Niiya was devastated post-race. Nevertheless, with a B-standard time she has a good chance of being put on the Daegu team alongside Kinukawa thanks to the younger runner's A-standard performance. Her coach Yoshio Koide commented via Twitter, "Niiya was great. She's gotten a lot stronger."
2008 national champion and 1500 m national record holder Yuriko Kobayashi, another former teammate of Niiya's at Toyota Jidoshokki, was almost an afterthought in 3rd, running a season-best 15:42.85 as she continues her own comeback from injury. Most of the best university runners were flat, with the top performance coming from Mai Ishibashi (Bukkyo Univ.) in 6th with a 15:49.18 just behind her former teammate Kasumi Nishihara (Team Yamada Denki). With Kinukawa only 21, Niiya just turned 23 and Kobayashi 22, Japan could be looking at the next generation of women ready to step into the current vacuum among its top talent. Interestingly, all three have challenged the corporate ekiden team system, with Kinukawa getting independent sponsorship from Mizuno after graduating high school and saying she didn't want to spend her time running ekidens, Niiya leaving her team following their move in April to stay with coach Koide and run as an independent, and Kobayashi simultaneously studying in university and running for the Toyota Jidoshokki team, an arrangement which resulted in her being banned from corporate league competition. The next five years should be dramatic as all three move into their prime. As evidenced by the small number of women in this year's Nationals 1500 m, 5000 m and 10000 m, they are needed, none more so maybe than Kinukawa. It seems unlikely that she will follow through on earlier plans to shoot for the marathon in the London Olympics, but with her first national title behind her at age 21 there is still plenty of time ahead.
Naoki Okamoto (Team Chugoku Denryoku) duly led the men through 2000 m until Karoki's big play. Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Meiji Univ.) and Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.) were the only ones to try to follow, with a group of pro men including Watanabe and Sato taking their time working their way back up to the two university men. After they regained contact by 3000 m the Japanese pack's pace slackened and allowed others to catch up, leaving ten in contention at the bell. With the pace too slow for anyone to break the World Championships B-standard of 13:27.00 it came down to a matchup between Watanabe and Sato, the only two Japanese men in the field already holding World Championships-qualifying marks.
Yoroizaka held on for 4th in 13:39.88, just a fraction of a second off his PB. Yusuke Takabayashi (Team Toyota), who ran well in Friday's 10000 m, was 5th in 13:40.54, less than two seconds off his PB after leading the pack in the last part of the race. Defending national champion Yuki Matsuoka (Team Otsuka Seiyaku) finished far down the field in 12th, running 13:49.70. Watanabe's defeat of Sato means that Japan may field athletes in all four World Championships track distance events, something that doesn't happen every time. A former middle distance specialist, in his first year seriously racing the 5000 m Watanabe has shown rapid improvement and superior finishing speed. With further improvement and better conditions he may well have a chance of going after the national record of 13:13.20 held by Takayuki Matsumiya (Team Konica Minolta) since 2007.
2011 Japanese National Track & Field Championships
Kumagaya Dome, Kumagaya, Saitama, 6/12/11
Women's 5000 m
1. Megumi Kinukawa (Team Mizuno) - 15:09.96 - PB
2. Hitomi Niiya (Chiba Pref.) - 15:20.35
3. Yuriko Kobayashi (Team Toyota Jidoshokki) - 15:42.85
4. Rei Ohara (Team Tenmaya) - 15:44.28
5. Kasumi Nishihara (Team Yamada Denki) - 15:46.57
6. Mai Ishibashi (Bukkyo Univ.) - 15:49.18
7. Mika Yoshikawa (Team Panasonic) - 15:53.19
8. Risa Takenaka (Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 16:01.24
9. Hanae Tanaka (Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 16:19.65
10. Yuko Shimizu (Team Sekisui Kagaku) - 16:20.01
Men's 5000 m
1. Bitan Karoki (Kenya/Team S&B) - 13:15.76 - PB
2. Kazuya Watanabe (Team Shikoku Denryoku) - 13:37.41
3. Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) - 13:38.19
4. Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Meiji Univ.) - 13:39.88
5. Yusuke Takabayashi (Team Toyota) - 13:40.54
6. Yusei Nakao (Team Toyota Boshoku) - 13:41.99
7. Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.) - 13:43.15
8. Takuya Ishikawa (Team Chugoku Denryoku) - 13:44.87
9. Daisuke Shimizu (Team Kanebo) - 13:45.09
10. Takaya Iwasaki (Team Shikoku Denryoku) - 13:46.12 - PB
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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