Thursday, February 14, 2013

The 25-and-Under Set Ready for Showdown at Kumanichi 30 km

translated and edited by Brett Larner

The 57th Kanaguri Memorial Kumanichi 30 km Road Race takes place this Sunday, Feb. 17 on a federation-certified course in Kumamoto.  An historic event that has been the site of countless classic races including a 1:28:00 world record by Takayuki Matsumiya, last year Kumanichi got with the times and joined forces with the new mass-participation Kumamoto Castle Marathon, forging the start of a new era in its history.  With high-profile civil servant runner Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref.) among the combined 62 men and women entered in the 30 km distance, this year promises to be a gripping and unforgettable race.  Below we profile some of the favorites for the win in the men's and women's races.

1. Yuki Kawauchi (25, Saitama Pref.) - The strongest amateur runner, packed with explosive power.
There's no doubt that the main attraction of this year's race is "the strongest amateur runner."  At the Feb. 3 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon he was the highlight of the day as he won in a new course record and all but guaranteed himself a place in Moscow on his second-straight World Championships team.  Kawauchi planned to use the Kumanichi 30 km as a tuneup race for another shot at the World Championships team at the Mar. 3 Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, but with his Beppu-Oita win behind him he looks free to focus on Kumanichi as a race.  Fans can hope to see him bring his explosive power to Kumamoto's streets for the first time.

Kawauchi's 10000 m best is only a commonplace 29:02.33, but in the marathon his fortitude and willpower are exceptional.  In Beppu-Oita he also showed a hard-edged new competitive side as he took down London Olympics 6th-place finisher Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki) in a one-on-one match race.  His winning time of 2:08:15 tied him with former national record holder Takeyuki Nakayama at 16th on the all-time Japanese lists.  Kawauchi failed to make last year's Olympic team, but at the World Half Marathon Championships in Bulgaria he was the top Japanese finisher, 21st overall. After finishing 6th at the first domestic selection race for the Moscow team, December's Fukuoka International Marathon, he was severe as he said, "My own weakness got in the way."  Beppu-Oita was a product of that outcome.

Kawauchi first qualified for a World Championships team at the 2011 Tokyo Marathon, where he ran 2:08:37.  His 30 km split in that race was 1:30:07, barely off the 1:30:01 winning time of Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta) at last year's Kumanichi 30 km. "I'm aiming for about 1:29:30," he says.  "I want to get into a good rhythm and just nip away at the heels of the fast athletes."

2. Chihiro Miyawaki (21, Team Toyota) - The fastest man in the race.
Sitting at #6 on the all-time Japanese 10000 m list and #3 on the half-marathon list with bests of 27:41.57 and 1:00:53 at age 20, Miyawaki boasts the best speed of any man in the race.  Targeting the marathon at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics three years from now, he is approaching Kumanichi as "an important step up" in his long-term plan.

As a student at Chukyo H.S. in Gifu Miyawaki didn't achieve anything noteworthy at the national level, but after entering the corporate league three years ago he suddenly grew and blossomed.  "I'm always focused on becoming a world-class competitor," he says, and possessing a smooth and efficient form he has made rapid progress.  At the Jan. 1 New Year Ekiden he won the opening stage by an enormous margin over 2nd place.

Up until now his longest race has been the half marathon, but his debut at that distance was where he ran 1:00:53 to win the National Corporate Championships.  No fear of the 30 km distance escapes his mouth as he confidently says, "at this stage I can't wait to get out there and see how fast I can go."

Last year Miyawaki missed his goal of making the London Olympics 10000 m team by a stride, a bitter memory.  This year he is looking to make up for it at the World Championships.  "I want to use the Kumanichi 30 km as a springboard to get my season off to a good start.  I plan to go for the 10000 m national record."

3. Kazuki Tomaru (25, Team Toyota) - A test drive for the marathon.
As a student at Tokyo Nogyo University, Tomaru twice ran the Hakone Ekiden's most competitive leg, the Second Stage.  "Road running suits me best," he says.  With a marathon debut planned for next year, Kumanichi will be a test of his strength and a chance to see how he handles the longer distances.

After graduation from university, Tomaru quit running for a half year.  "I was tired from the stress, and part of me needed to get away from it all," he recalls.  Getting a push in the backside from those around him, he joined the Toyota corporate team and returned to competition.  "That blank period in my life made me grow up a bit and get more serious. Now it's do or die, and that has made me stronger."  His ultimate goal is "to run the marathon at the Olympics."  Of his 30 km debut Tomaru says, "I'm excited to see how long I can hang on."

4. Daniel Gitau (25, Kenya/Team Fujitsu) - "I am racing against my own goals."
As a junior at Nihon University, Gitau showed what he was made of when he passed a record-setting twenty people on the Second Stage at the 2009 Hakone Ekiden.  This year marks seven years since he first came to Japan.  With his long-hoped-for first marathon in sight beyond his 30 km debut in Kumanichi, Gitau says, "if I run well here it is going to carry over to the marathon.  It's a very important race."  Gitau has a long competitive relationship at Hakone and elsewhere with last year's winner Ugachi.  He looks happy as he says, "Ugachi told me, 'Hey, make sure you break my time.'"

Gitau is fully prepared for the step up in distance, having done practice runs as far as 40 km.  "My training for this included getting ready to run under 3 min/km on a hilly course, and I will be shooting to go 1:27."  The 30 km world record is 1:27:38, and only eight men have ever broken Matsumiya's 1:28:00 30 km road race world record set in Kumanichi in 2005, all in marathons.  Kawauchi and other tough competition are also lining up this year, but Gitau exudes confidence as he says, "I am not racing against anybody.  I am racing against my own goals."

5. Ryota Matoba (23, Team Komori Corp.) - An inherent sense of stability and perseverance.
Having joined the Komori team after graduating from Juntendo University last spring, Matoba is a rookie.  Running his first 30 km race in preparation for a planned marathon debut next year, he says, "I want to find out how strong I am right now."  Matoba hopes to follow in the footsteps last year's Kumanichi winner Ugachi, a fellow native of Tochigi prefecture and two years his elder.  "I've been chasing after him ever since high school," Matoba says.  With Ugachi having prevailed over the tough Kumanchi course, Matoba vows to "scale myself up" in his own race.

Like others in this year's field, Matoba ran the Hakone Ekiden's Second Stage in university, always showing an inherent sense of stability and perseverence.  "I want to use this race as a chance to spar against some of the stronger athletes and ride along with them."

6. Fumihiro Maruyama (22, Team Asahi Kasei) - With good progress behind him, victory is in sight.
Maruyama went straight to the fabled Asahi Kasei team in Miyazaki after graduating from neighboring Oita Tomei H.S.  Already in his fourth year as a corporate runner at age 22, he shows that the fighting spirit is burning within him as he says, "This year's field has a lot of young guys in it.  There is absolutely no way I am going to lose to them.  I'm going for the win."

This time last year Fumihiro suffered a prolonged hip injury that made him miss out on the spring track season.  He returned to racing in July, and with decent runs at December's Kosa 10-Miler and January's National Men's Ekiden he showed that he had made progress. Kumanichi will be his first 30 km, but having set an ambitious goal of 1:30 he says, "I'm ready to get the results and then to go on to the spring season."

7. Kentaro Masuda (24, Team NTT Nishi Nihon) - A great leap forward to the marathon.
"My dream was to run the Hakone Ekiden," Masuda says of his years at Hosei Unviersity, but after serial injuries he never made it happen.  The disappointment lingering within him has given him a new path forward toward a career as a marathoner, and now he stands poised to take the leap.

Masuda is in his second year as a corporate runner.  Last year he broke his 5000 m best with a new mark of 13:55.20.  Since then his essential competitiveness has gradually come out each time he has stepped onto the starting line to race.  His half marathon best is 1:04:12, and this will be his second time running 30 km.  "This time I'm setting up for the move to the marathon," he says, appearing resolved to bring his best.  "It looks like it's going to be a fast race, but I'm going to do my own thing no matter what."

9. Keita Shitara (21, Toyo University) - The king of calmity.
The Shitara twins have grown into Toyo University's aces at the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden. Keita has run against the best on the Second Stage all three years so far, and this year he showed incredible toughness as he took the top Japanese position on the stage in 3rd overall.  He is the prime mover among the university men in this year's Kumanichi race.

"I like to exert a constant pressure in my pacing," he says of the characteristic that has led to his reputation as the calmest, most cool-headed racer on the circuit.  Spurred on by a rivalry with his teammate and twin Yuta, last year Keita set a 10000 m best of 28:15.90 and a half marathon best of 1:01:45.  Aiming for the Olympic marathon three years from now, he is steadily gaining a foothold and experience.

Keita is the same age as the favorite for the win this year, Miyawaki.  Betraying his competitive edge he says, "This is my first time running 30 km, but although I'm a bit nervous about the distance I am really excited to race him.  I don't want to lose."

11. Kensuke Gotoda (22, Komazawa University) - Putting a cap on his college career.
Gotoda ran the anchor stage at the Hakone Ekiden every year since he was a freshman, and this year as a senior he finally scored the win.  His individual stage win helped Komazawa take the Day Two title from overall winner Nittai University.  "It was crushing not to get the overall win," he reflects, "but this time was the most I've ever been to run like who I really am."

Last September Gotoda suffered a stress fracture in his left shin, an injury that kept him out of training for a month.  Undeterred, he took his time with his recovery and just made the cut for Komazawa's Hakone A-team.  The experience "helped me grow as a person," he says.  After graduating this spring he will join a corporate team.  In his 30 km debut his goal is to "face up to the pressure of the main event.  I want to put a cap on my entire college career."

12. Yudai Yamakawa (22, Teikyo University) - Examining endurance.
As Teikyo University's captain Yamakawa led his team to win last October's Hakone Ekiden Qualifier 20 km road race and on to a 4th-place team finish at Hakone.  "5th on my stage didn't really represent what I can do as a runner, but I'm happy to have helped next year's team get a start in the seeded bracket," he says with his characteristic kindness.

Yamakawa has signed with the Otsuka Seiyaku team for his post-graduation career.  "I intend to become a marathoner, so I need to examine the state of my endurance over longer distances," he says.  Originally from Oita, he will face his longtime rival Maruyama again in Kumamoto.  "I pretty much never beat him in high school," he says.  "If I can run tough in the second half and pass Maruyama before the finish it would be the best."

13. Shun Suzuki (22, Kanagawa Univ.) - Swelling with spirit in his last college race.
This spring Suzuki will begin work at Shunan City Hall in Yamagata following his graduation, running for the City Hall track and ekiden team.  In his final race as a university student he will stand next to his greatest role model on the starting line, civil servant runner Kawauchi.  "If we can run together then I will understand how much of a difference there is between us," he says.  Even in the face of a tough battle he is swelling with competitive spirit.

As a junior Suzuki made headlines when he was reduced to staggering down the home straight of his stage at Hakone, barely able to hand the tasuki off.  "That's what people know me for, and that fact has been a motivation for me to become a stronger runner," he reflects.  His 10000 m best is 29:36.  In his first 30 km, he says, "I want to get my feet under me for the marathon."

301. Yuko Mizuguchi (27, Team Denso) - Back from injury and ready to rock the second half.
It has been four years since Mizuguchi joined Denso from Mie University.  She has turned out results on the track over 5000 m and 10000 m but is looking ahead to the marathon. "If I can run under 1:45 then I'll know I'm ready for the marathon," she says.

The year before last Mizuguchi suffered a stress fracture that took a long time to heal. Countless times she thought she had recovered only for the pain to return.  "I was really afraid it was never going to heal," she admits.  But, never giving up and every day telling herself, "Don't let it end like this," she finally made a full comeback last March.

Kumanichi will be her 30 km debut.  "I think my peaking is off a little, but I'm still looking forward to it.  I'm going for a negative split."

302. Risa Takemura (25, Team Kyudenko) - The first time's a charm.
Born in Fukuoka, Takemura joined her local Kyudenko corporate team seven years ago after graduating from Tobata Shogyo H.S.  At age 25 already the second-oldest on her team, Takemura says, "This is my first time for 30 km, but I'm still going for the win."

After becoming a corporate runner she was tormented by a series of injuries including stress fractures in both shins, but after careful form analysis and modification and scrupulous attention to detail in her physical therapy, she says, "I've run an entire year now without injury."  To cope with the ups and downs of the Kumanichi course she has been training on the roads in the nearby mountains.  Her goal time is 1:45.  "I hope to use some men running about the same speed as me as pacers," she says.

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