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World Championships Long Distance Preview

by Brett Larner

Japan's medal chances in the long distance events at the Daegu World Championships may be very slim at best, but the country is nevertheless sending a strong contingent including three national record holders and some of the best young talent to have emerged in recent years.  Chief among them are Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin), on the cusp of a national record in the last two years, and the resurgent Megumi Kinukawa (Team Mizuno), the women's 10000 m junior national record holder coached by Samuel Wanjiru's high school-era coach Takao Watanabe.

2011 World Championships Japanese Long Distance Team

Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) - Men's 10000 m
2011 national champion, 10000 m
Born: Nov. 26, 1986 (24 yrs.)
PB: 27:38.25 (2009; all-time Japanese #3)
3000 m: 7:44.63 (2010; all-time Japanese #2)
5000 m: 13:23.57 (2006)

In university Sato was described by his competitors as a monster, breaking Hakone Ekiden stage records his first three years and just missing a fourth as an injured senior.  Along with 2011 World University Games 10000 m champion Suguru Osako a graduate of Nagano's Saku Chosei H.S., Sato has come very close to setting national records in the 3000 m and 10000 m since joining the corporate ranks in 2009 but has shown peaking problems both years.  This year he has shown a more gradual approach, focusing on 1500 m early in the season, running a perfunctory sub-28 at the Cardinal Invitational, then winning his first national title with a superb kick.  Everything points to him peaking for Worlds, and if that is the case then it may be time for Sato to claim his first national record.


Kazuya Watanabe (Team Shikoku Denryoku) - Men's 5000 m
2011 national champion, 5000 m
Born: July 7, 1987 (24 yrs.)
PB: 13:23.15 (2011; all-time Japanese #8)
1500 m: 3:38.11 (2008/2011; all-time Japanese #2)
10000 m: 27:47.79 (2011)

Prior to this spring Watanabe was best-known for this.  This year, having changed corporate teams, he has come on very strong, making the all-time Japanese top ten for 5000 m with a win at the Golden Games in Nobeoka meet, winning the 5000 m national title, breaking 27:50 for 10000 m and exactly tying his all-time Japanese #2 1500 m PB.  Watanabe's biggest strength is his last kick, a trait that may serve him well in picking up places in the carnage of the last lap at Worlds.


Minori Hayakari (Kyoto Koka AC) - Women's 3000 mSC
2011 national champion & national record holder, 3000 mSC
Born: Nov. 29, 1972 (38 yrs.)
PB: 9:33.93 (2008; national record)
5000 m: 15:11.42 (2005; all-time Japanese #7)

The only member of the Daegu long distance squad over age 30, the veteran Hayakari's accomplishments on the track outside her steeplechase national record are under-appreciated but impressive.  The pioneer of the Japanese women's steeplechase, Hayakari has started to see competition from younger runners but still maintains enough of an edge to take the national title this year.


Megumi Kinukawa (Team Mizuno) - Women's 5000 m, 10000 m
2011 national champion, 5000 m; junior national record holder, 10000 m
Born: Aug. 7, 1989 (22 yrs.)
PBs: 5000 m: 15:09.96 (2011; all-time Japanese #6)
10000 m: 31:10.02 (2011; all-time Japanese #4)

Kinukawa is the story of this year's team, a high school prodigy and schoolmate of Samuel Wanjiru who lost most of the last three years to illness and injury.  With a tentative comeback underway this spring, Kinukawa suddenly took off following Wanjiru's death with a series of sensational runs that earned her the 5000 m national title and put her on the Japanese all-time lists for both 5000 m and 10000 m, runs she dedicated to Wanjiru and to the coach they shared, Takao Watanabe.  If anyone on the Japanese team has a chance of a medal it is Kinukawa, more likely in the 10000 m where, should she choose to double, she is a good bet to become the third Japanese woman to break 31 minutes.  Her characteristic racing style is to negative split, so if all goes well look for her to be moving up late in the race.


Hitomi Niiya (Team Universal Entertainment) - Women's 5000 m
Born: Feb. 26, 1988 (23 yrs.)
PB: 15:13.12 (2011; all-time Japanese #10)


Niiya has had one of the more interesting careers in recent years, a high school star who won the first Tokyo Marathon in her debut at age 18 and has struggled with ups and downs ever since and who was fired from her corporate team this spring when she wanted to remain with legendary coach Yoshio Koide rather than move to the team's new base hundreds of km to the south.  Running a big 5000 m PB as an independent she looked to be the favorite for the Japanese 5000 m national title but despite going out at national record pace she fell victim to Kinukawa's surprise return and finished 2nd.  Returning a few weeks later she broke the 5000 m World Championships A-standard and cracked the all-time Japanese top ten list to earn a spot alongside Kinukawa in Daegu.


Kayo Sugihara (Team Denso) - Women's 10000 m
2011 national champion, 10000 m
Born: Feb. 24, 1983 (28 yrs.)
PB: 31:34.35 (2011)
5000 m: 15:15.34 (2007)

The least-known member of the Japanese team, Sugihara has had a steady progression in her times over the last few years but has constantly remained below the radar.  She led the second pack in the 10000 m at this year's Cardinal Invitational on her way to a PB and then won the national title in a well-paced strategic effort.  Sugihara has an unusual, mechanical running form that should stand out at the World Championships.


Hikari Yoshimoto (Bukkyo University) - Women's 10000 m
collegiate national record holder, 10000 m
Born: Jan. 14, 1990 (21 yrs.)
PB: 31:30.92 (2010; collegiate national record)
5000 m: 15:26.72 (2010)

The youngest member of the Japanese long distance crew, Yoshimoto is the #1-ranked university runner in Japan.  After a brilliant 2010 she has struggled this season, her best performance being Nationals where she led the 10000 m the entire race before being outkicked by Sugihara and marathon team member Remi Nakazato (Team Daihatsu).  Picked for the Worlds team over all-time Japanese #2 Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal), if Yoshimoto is healthy she should be capable of improving on her collegiate record, but based on her season to date Daegu looks more likely to end up an experiential run.

(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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