Friday, February 22, 2013

Six Races Ahead on a Busy Weekend

by Brett Larner

Six noteworthy races are on the schedule for this weekend.  First among them is Saturday's Fukuoka International Cross-Country Meet, the second of two chances for Japanese athletes to pick up places on the national team for next month's World Cross-Country Championships.  Highlights of the main races will be shown on TBS beginning at 3:30 p.m., the only cross-country race in Japan with a TV broadcast.

All five Japanese men in the top ten in the senior race at the Chiba International Cross-Country Meet return, led by Keigo YanoTakumi Honda and Shota Hattori of 2013 Hakone Ekiden winners Nittai University.  Top competition for the additional places on the Worlds team includes #1-ranked Japanese collegiate Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.), 27:44.30 man Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Team Asahi Kasei), Ikuto Yufu and Kenta Murayama of 2012 National University Ekiden champion Komazawa University, Murayama's twin brother Kota Murayama (Josai Univ.), Yuta Shitara (Toyo Univ.) and many more. The international field consists of Chiba winner Charles Ndirangu (Kenya/ Team JFE Steel), Titus Kihara (Kenya/Nara Sangyo Univ.) and Ben St. Lawrence (Australia).

Already probable names for the senior women's team, Hanae Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei), Ayuko Suzuki (Nagoya Univ.) and Miho Ihara (Team Shikoku Denryoku) all return for Fukuoka to face defending champion and London Olympian Hitomi Niiya (Team Univ. Ent.), Chiba runner-up Susan Wairimu (Kenya/Team Denso) and Lara Tamsett (Australia).  Along with Niiya, Yuko Shimizu (Team Sekisui Kagaku) is a good bet for a Worlds spot, fresh off a 1:09:32 half marathon best in Marugame.

Junior men's winner Jeremiah Karemi (Kenya/Toyokawa H.S.) leads almost all of the Chiba ten back to Fukuoka along with large contingents from 2012 National High School Ekiden top two Toyokawa H.S. and Nishiwaki Kogyo H.S.  Likewise in the junior women's race virtually all the top ten Chiba finishers return, led by winner Miyuki Uehara (Kagoshima Joshi H.S.) looking to make it a double.

Across the water on Sunday, the Hong Kong Marathon hosts this year's Asian Marathon Championships.  Representing Japan are 2:13:40 man Kenzo Kawabata (Team Aisan Kogyo) and, in her marathon debut, 1:10:51 half marathoner Kumi Ogura (Team Shikoku Denryoku).  Yesterday Ogura was also announced for the Mar. 10 Nagoya Women's Marathon.  Whether she has switched to the Championships or whether it will be a full-length training run for Nagoya remains to be seen.

Back in Japan, the Fuji TV-broadcast Tokyo Marathon makes a relatively fanfare-free entry into the World Marathon Majors on Sunday. Nearly 48 hours out from the start there has been an almost total absence of English-language news about Tokyo this week, odd for an event of its nominal stature, but whatever the reason for that might be this year's race has a good international field including sub-2:05 men Dennis Kipruto (Kenya), James Kwambai (Kenya), Dino Sefir (Ethiopia) and Jonathan Maiyo (Kenya), and sub-2:23 women Irina Mikitenko (Germany), Bezunesh Bekele (Ethiopia), Aberu Kebede (Ethiopia) and Caroline Cheptonui Kilel (Kenya).

For Japanese men Tokyo counts toward World Championships team selection, and, following the withdrawal of 2:07:48 man Arata Fujiwara (Miki House), the best contenders include Koichi Morishita-coached former Hakone Ekiden mountain stage star Masato Imai (Team Toyota Kyushu) and recent Tokyo sub-2:10 runners Kazuhiro Maeda (Team Kyudenko), Takayuki Matsumiya (Team Konica Minolta) and Yoshinori Oda (Team Toyota).  Showing promise on the list of first-timers are 61-minute half marathoners Masato Kihara (Team Kanebo) and Ryotaro Nitta (Team Konica Minolta), with a high-profile but less-promising debut from 10000 m Olympian Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin).

Although the three domestic women-only marathons and the other five World Marathon Majors are on the list of women's selection races for the Worlds team, Tokyo is not considered for Japanese women, meaning that any Japanese women running Tokyo do so at the cost of a chance to run at the World Championships.  It seems strange that there is a situation in place at an IAAF gold label World Marathon Major which discourages the host country's own women from entering, and the result is pretty clear.  2009 World Championships silver medalist Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei) and London track Olympian Mika Yoshikawa (Team Panasonic) have both announced that they are retiring at Tokyo, and the only other sub-2:30 Japanese women in the field, Azusa Nojiri, Yoshiko Fujinaga and Noriko Matsuoka, are all athletes who retired or left the corporate leagues for the independent and club-team worlds.  Ozaki and Yoshikawa aside, Nojiri is probably the most interesting among them as she attempts to pursue a Fujiwara-style independent sponsor route.  First-time marathoner Hiroko Shoi (Team Nihon ChemiCon) may be the lone exception, but overall it's a peculiar state of affairs for a race seeking validation as a major international event.

Along with the cross-country and marathon action, three high-level half-marathons add to the mix.  Two of the three Japanese London Olympics men's marathoners, Fujiwara and Ryo Yamamoto (Team Sagawa Express), have won the Inuyama Half Marathon in the past. The main name on this year's entry list comes in the women's race, where 2011 World Championships marathon team member Mai Ito (Team Otsuka Seiyaku) is scheduled to run as a tune-up for April's London Marathon.  The Kashima Yutoku Road Race, including a half marathon and 10 km, and the relatively new Fukaya City Half Marathon both host solid fields of collegiate runners each year and should feature deep results.  Look for complete results from all six races as the weekend transpires.

(c) 2013 Brett Larner
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