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2011 Japanese Distance Running in Review

by Brett Larner

This is part one of JRN's year in review.  Check back for our profiles of the top ten Japanese men and women of the year and for our readers' picks and editors' picks for performances of the year.  Click here for JRN's 2011 top ten rankings for men's and women's 5000 m, 10000 m, half-marathon and marathon.  For our review of the top ten overall men of 2011, click here.  For the top ten women, click here.

Despite the setback March's disasters represented for Japan, by many standards 2011 ended up being the best year since before the Beijing Olympics for its distance runners.

In the marathon, although the Japanese women's streak of World Championships medals ended and the fastest women's time of the year, Yoshimi Ozaki's 2:23:56 CR at February's Yokohama International Women's Marathon, for the first time would not have made the top ten among either Kenyan or Ethiopian women, overall depth was at its best since 2005 with the tenth-fastest Japanese of the year being Noriko Matsuoka's 2:26:54 debut in London.  Although the average of the Japanese top ten, 2:25:30, is still at a low point relative to the world average of 2:20:57, it was a slight improvement over last year's mark, the weakest year since 1991.  Similarly for the men it was a relatively good year in the marathon, with the first sub-2:09 since before Beijing thanks to Yuki Kawauchi's 2:08:37 in Tokyo and the tenth-fastest mark standing at 2:11:08 via Takaki Koda, also in Tokyo.  Although the men's results are still a far cry from the 1999-2008 period when a 2:06 or 2:07 year-leader and/or ten or more sub-2:10 performances were a virtual given, both by average of the top ten performances of the year, 2:10:01, and relative to the worldwide top ten Japanese marked their second-straight year of improvement since bottoming out post-Beijing in 2009.

Despite a good start to the year in the half-marathon with Tsuyoshi Ugachi and Kayoko Fukushi running what would end up as the fastest times of the year at February's Marugame International Half-Marathon, March's disasters had a strong impact on the year's half-marathon performances, causing the cancellation of major races including the men's and women's National Corporate Half-Marathon Championships and National University Half-Marathon Championships and the Sendai International Half-Marathon.  The absence of a World Half-Marathon Championships further reduced the depth of the year's results.  Fukushi's 1:09:00 Marugame mark remained the best mark of the year, but a fast race at the late-season Sanyo Women's Half-Marathon brought quality times from Daegu World Championships marathon 5th-placer Yukiko Akaba, last year's year-leader Yoko Miyauchi and others.  Ugachi's 1:00:58 in Marugame was the third-best ever by a Japanese man on an unaided course, with Komazawa University sophomore Hiromitsu Kakuage's 1:02:34 lasting as the second-best time of the year.  Marugame made up the totality of the year's best until November's celebrated Ageo City Half-Marathon, where Toyo University sophomores Yuta Shitara and Kento Otsu went 2-3 in 1:02:35 and 102:43 to break into the top ten.

Turning to the track, 2011 was one of the best years in Japan's history for the 10000 m.  Fukushi led the women again with a career-second-best 30:54.29 in Stanford, the third-fastest ever by a Japanese woman, while junior national record holder Megumi Kinukawa returned from a long layoff to become the all-time fourth-best Japanese woman with a mark of 31:10.02.  More women broke 32 minutes than in 2010, with two others, 2011 national champion Kayo Sugihara and Yuko Shimizu, also cleared the Olympic A-standard of 31:45.00 to put Japan in good stead for London.  On the men's side, Ugachi, 20-year-old Chihiro Miyawaki and Meiji University senior Tetsuya Yoroizaka all broke into the all-time Japanese top ten list and the 27:45.00 London Olympics A-standard, Ugachi setting another historic mark as his time of 27:40.69 became the fastest-ever by a Japanese man on Japanese soil.  Miyawaki just missed also cracking the old mark, while Yoroizaka's 27:44.30 was the fastest-ever by a Japanese collegiate.  Kakuage, his sophomore teammate Ikuto Yufu and Tokai University junior Akinobu Murasawa all narrowly missed joining the sub-28 club, each of them running under 28:04 to make four men this year joining the all-time collegiate top ten.  Although only five men broke 28 minutes this year compared to seven last year, the upper end was faster and overall depth was better, with this year's tenth-best mark of 28:03.46 surpassing last year's 28:07.99.

The 5000 m was also solid, with Kinukawa placing sixth on the all-time lists with an impressive 15:09.96 win at the National Championships over 2007 Tokyo Marathon winner Hitomi Niiya, who returned two weeks later to likewise make the all-time top ten in 15:13.12.  Five-time 1500 m national champion Mika Yoshikawa joined Kinukawa and Niiya in securing an Olympic A-qualifier in 15:15.33, but while the upper end was fast depth was down somewhat as only six women cleared 15:30 compared to at least ten last year.  Men's performances were far superior to last year's, with ten men clearing 13:35, four of them from the S&B corporate team, and year-leader Kazuya Watanabe placing eighth on the all-time lists in 13:23.15 with a win at May's Golden Games in Nobeoka.  Yoroizaka was also strong over 5000 m, running 13:29.11 to become the first collegiate in years to break 13:30, while Waseda University sophomore Suguru Osako's 13:31.27 in Nobeoka was the second-fastest ever by a Japanese 20-year-old.

Despite the lack of any new national records in distance events, the number of people under age 25 making Japan's all-time top ten lists at distances from 5000 m to half-marathon and the modest turnaround in marathon performances are very encouraging signs for the future.  Less encouraging was the Japanese performance at the Daegu World Championships.  Marathon performances were not bad, with a 5th place finish from Akaba in the women's race and a 7th place from Hiroyuki Horibata and team silver medal in the men's marathon, but the track events were an embarrassment.  Despite fielding many of the names above, including Kinukawa, Sugihara, Niiya and Watanabe along with men's 10000 m national champion Yuki Sato, women's 3000 mSC national chamion Minori Hayakari and collegiate women's 10000 m national record holder Hikari Yoshimoto, not one Japanese runner finished out of the last four in their event, heat or final, with most in the bottom three despite all being ranked higher in their fields.  Times were significantly worse than the athletes' pre-Daegu season bests, up to 10% slower and averaging 4%.  No other major country had such a consistent pattern of underperformance in Daegu.  It's not always the case that Japanese athletes show up at a major championships with the suck dialed all the way up; in the 2009 Berlin World Championships, Olympic marathoner Yurika Nakamura was a credit to the team as she PB'd in all three races she started, the 10000 m final, the 5000 m heats and the 5000 m final.  But in Daegu the world watched as all three women in the 10000 m, Kinukawa, Sugihara and Yoshimoto, jointly let go of the rest of the field in the opening stages of the race and instead stuck together to run a three-way time trial, taking three of the last four places.

To be fair, some like Kinukawa had problems, but when every single member of the team follows the same pattern it's indicative of something more systematic.  What could explain it?  Not jet lag.  Not a lack of acclimation to the local summer weather.  Maybe it's a lack of a competitive edge in the athletes, an inability to view themselves as actual competitors against foreign runners, exacerbated by the insularity and controlled nature of the Japanese running world and society at large.  Maybe it is the coaches and administrators, a failure to master peaking or an issue of piling on too much before the championships.  It's even worth entertaining the possibility that it may be a symptom of systematic drug use.  I certainly don't think that's the case and I'm sure most readers would feel the same, but at the same time if you've read this far then you're probably someone who could think of three or four countries off the top of your head where the same circumstances, an entire team running excellently in primarily domestic races and then showing up at a World Championships which for the first time announced mandatory drug testing for all competitors and dramatically underperforming, would be viewed as a very large, screaming red flag.  Again, all of my experience here says this could not really be the case, but as the Sumo match rigging, Olympus scandal and Fukushima situation showed this year, behind the placid exterior the powers that be in Japan can be just as corrupt and dishonest as anywhere else, and it is hard to see any reason that this should not be at least considered as a possibility.

Whatever the reason, the problems that were on display for all to see in Daegu are a major issue that Japan's federation, corporate league, coaches and athletes must deal with if they are to realize the potential shown in all the outstanding performances in 2011.

(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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