by Brett Larner
Just a week after the busiest ekiden weekend of the year comes another big weekend of racing in Japan. The Yokohama International Women's Marathon is the most important of them, the first of the three domestic selection races for the Japanese women's Olympic marathon team. Despite a bad race at August's Daegu World Championships, defending champ, course record holder and 2009 World Championships silver medalist Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei) is the domestic favorite. It's not a one-woman race, though, as Ryoko Kizaki (Team Daihatsu) comes in fresh from a solid 15:22.87 5000 m PB at the end of September and may be ready for something big. Kaoru Nagao and her teammate Chika Horie (Team Univ. Ent.) should also be in contention for the top Japanese woman position. If she's fast enough the top Japanese woman will secure an Olympic spot. The Japanese women face competition from the likes of Robe Guta (Ethiopia), Alevtina Ivanova (Russia), Salina Kosgei (Kenya) and Mara Yamaguchi (Great Britain). The race will be broadcast live on TV Asahi beginning at noon Japan time on Nov. 20. Overseas viewers should be able to watch online for free via Keyhole TV.
With multiple national record holder Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) having completed her move up to the marathon this fall Yokohama may end being the weakest of the three selection races thanks to the almost-there return of marathon national record holder Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex). Absent for years with injury after injury, Noguchi rocked a stage win at her regional corporate ekiden championships earlier this fall and promptly announced that she plans to run January's Osaka International Women's Marathon. She takes the next step toward that goal in Sunday's Zevenheuvelenloop 15 km road race in the Netherlands. If she starts and runs well it will be another step toward completing one of the most welcome and inspiring comebacks in recent memory.
Another of Japan's marathon favorites, 2:08:37 man Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref.) is the invited star for Sunday's Ageo City Half Marathon, the world's deepest half. Most of the Kanto region men's university teams use Ageo as an intramural trial to determine contenders for their Hakone Ekiden entry lists, and the result is hundreds of young guys going all-out. 2011 Hakone winner Waseda University has had Ageo winners the last two years, with first-year Suguru Osako setting the Asian junior record of 1:01:47 last year. This year Waseda fields two of its best men, seniors Yusuke Mita and, newly announced as a recruit to the Nissin Shokuhin team next spring, Yo Yazawa, along with nearly a dozen other team members. Look for them to be among the top contenders for the win. Kawauchi will run Ageo as his final tuneup for December's Olympic selection Fukuoka International Marathon.
The universities from western Japan, which do not compete in Hakone, have a big ekiden of their own on Saturday, the Biwako University Ekiden. Kyoto Sangyo University is the favorite, but expect challenges from Ritsumeikan University and Daiichi Kogyo University.
The Nittai University Time Trials leads track action for the weekend, but look also for large time trial meets in Shizuoka and the Chugoku region. Nittai features top-ranked Kenyans Bitan Karoki (Team S&B), Paul Kuira (Team Konica Minolta), Clement Langat (Team Subaru) and Gideon Ngatuny (Team Nissin Shokuhin), Japanese track stars Megumi Kinukawa (Team Mizuno), Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) and Yuta Takahashi (Team S&B) along with marathoners Arata Fujiwara (Tokyo T&F Assoc.), Atsushi Ikawa (Team Otsuka Seiyaku) and Ryo Yamamoto (Team Sagawa Express), while Shizuoka has dominant Kenyan high schoolers Jeremiah Karemi (Toyokawa H.S.) and Beatrice Wainaina Murugi (Toyokawa H.S.) along with most of 2011 national women's champion Ritsumeikan University's squad.
There is a minor ekiden in Shikoku in which Daegu World Championships marathoner Mai Ito will run with Team Otsuka Seiyaku, but the last noteworthy events of the weekend are the first runnings of the 20,000-strong Kobe Marathon and the new Nagasaki International Marathon. The elite field in Kobe is somewhat second-tier, featuring mostly retired athletes and talented amateurs, but among them are marathon greats Stefano Baldini (Italy) and Douglas Wakiihuri (Kenya) along with Japanese notables Tadayuki Ojima, Mari Ozaki and Chihiro Tanaka. JRN will be on-site at Kobe for the debut of one of Japan's biggest marathons.
Look for coverage of all these events as they unfold over the weekend.
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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