by Yoshimichi Nakao
translated and edited by Brett Larner
The finale has come and gone for the series of domestic selection races for the Japanese men's marathon team for August's Moscow World Championships. At the last of the domestic races, the Mar. 3 Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, general division entrant Masakazu Fujiwara (Team Honda) ran 2:08:51 to finish 4th overall as the top Japanese man, ten years and one day since his last 2:08, the longest any man has ever gone between successive sub-2:10 marathons. Although he missed hitting the Federation's 2:07:59 standard for automatic Worlds team selection Fujiwara's performance still went a long way toward getting his name on the shortlist. 2012 London Olympian Ryo Yamamoto (Team Sagawa Express) was 5th in 2:09:06, with Fujiwara's teammate Suehiro Ishikawa (Team Honda) achieving his first sub-2:10, 6th in 2:09:10. 2011 Daegu World Championships silver medalist Vincent Kipruto (Kenya) won in 2:08:34, only 17 seconds ahead of Fujiwara.
Struggling with the cold and wind, the pacemakers could not hit the target 5 km splits of 15:00, reaching 20 km in 1:00:39. At halfway there was still a chance that they might hit 2:07 if they went for it, but from 25 to 30 km the lead pack took 15:45, signalling that they had given up any hope of going for a fast time. The focus shifted to competition for the win. At 34 km Fujiwara went to the front of the lead pack of four Japanese runners and three foreigners. The aggressive, determined move didn't break the pack up, but, said the 31-year-old Fujiwara, "In terms of my age I knew this was my last chance to make a world-level team. If I blew it this time, that would be the punctuation at the end of my marathon career." After 37 km he lost strides to Kipruto step by step, but even so he held on to the top Japanese position.
In 2003 as a senior at Chuo University Fujiwara made his marathon debut at Lake Biwa, setting the still-standing collegiate and debut marathon national record of 2:08:12. He was named to the 2003 Paris World Championships marathon team, but, suffering from injuries, he pulled out of the race after arriving in Paris. With a long series of injuries following that he spent many years away from the marathon. He had some success in winning the 2010 Tokyo Marathon, but for almost ten years following his debut he was unable to break 2:12.
The first sign of hope came at last September's Berlin Marathon, where Fujiwara ran 2:11:31 to finish 10th, the first non-Kenyan in the race. In January he suffered from anemia problems, but, he said, "I was able to recover thanks to my wife's wonderful cooking." His beloved baby daughter's name was embroidered on his pink racing shoes, his family's love and support inside and underfoot giving him the drive to make it back to the World Championships. Awakening from what seemed like a ten-year slumber, Fujiwara said, "You can't hope to compete against the rest of the world just by aiming to be the best Japanese man. I kept trying to pick off the next foreign athlete ahead of me. 2:08 was my minimum goal. I think I'm at least on the table for the national team."
His chances of being on the Worlds team again after ten years look good. The results of the harvest from the four domestic selection races, December's Fukuoka International Marathon, February's Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon and Tokyo Marathon, and this month's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, are pretty clear. With five spots available, five men achieved the 2:08 level. In Fukuoka, 2011 World Championships 7th-place Hiroyuki Horibata (Team Asahi Kasei) redeemed his unhappy position as the alternate for the London Olympics team by running a personal best 2:08:24 for 2nd after making a move near 30 km that knocked former world record holder Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) out of the race. In Beppu-Oita, the civil servant runner on a mission to overthrow the old-school marathon establishment, Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't), ran a course record and PB 2:08:15 to beat London Olympics 6th-place Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki), who himself ran a PB of 2:08:35 for 2nd. In Tokyo Kazuhiro Maeda (Team Kyudenko) split a superb 14:39 from 30 to 35 km on his way to a 2:08:00 PB for 4th, using his head to beat 2:04-level Africans. In Lake Biwa where his marathon career began Fujiwara got things back on track with a 2:08:51. In reaching out for the national team, in saying to each other, "This is for the World Championships," the country's best runners made manifest their burning drive, and the results speak for themselves.
On the other hand, not one of them met the sub-2:08 time goal for team selection, and with all five having been on World Championships teams before the lack of any new blood could be raised as a problem. For the 2011 World Championships the time standard for the domestic selection races was set at sub-2:09:30, meaning that this time there was an abrupt jump of 1:30 in the Federation's expectations. At last year's Tokyo Marathon Arata Fujiwara (Miki House) ran 2:07:48, but in the history of Japanese men's marathoning only twelve men have ever run 2:07:59 or better. In that respect "sub-2:08" is not such a simple matter.
At Lake Biwa Masakazu Fujiwara said, "This 2:08:51 came while I was aiming for 2:07:59." There is no doubt that the publishing of the 2:07 time standard, each athlete and each training group's modification of their training and preparations to seriously go after that goal and their aggressive racing in its pursuit form the backdrop to the five men's 2:08 performances. At the 2011 Tokyo Marathon Kawauchi's 2:08:37 made news as Japan's first 2:08 in three years. Think about that, and then look at Maeda missing 2:07 by only one second; Horibata, Kawauchi and Nakamoto all running PBs faster than 2:08:37, and Fujiwara running 2:08 for the first time in ten years. Compared to the situation two years ago, there is nothing to lose sleep over. By targeting 2:07, Japanese men's marathoning has moved toward the next level. But that level is not yet one where they compete at the world standard dictated by the Africans. If you say, "I want to compete with the best in the world," you have to keep aiming higher and higher.
Still remaining in the selection process are April's London and Boston marathons. Many eyes are on Arata Fujiwara, who was kept out of Tokyo by an injury to his left thigh, as well as on Nakamoto's teammate Bunta Kuroki (Team Yasukawa Denki), who ran a strong 2:10:08 PB in Fukuoka and is planning to run London. Will the team be set with the current five 2:08 men or will the plot grow thicker with a contender arising overseas? With top-eight finishes at both the 2011 World Championships and 2012 Olympics the next task for Japanese men's marathoning will be to again produce athletes who can compete for the medals. As part of that process, the string of 2:08s this season is a sign that for the first time in years a wave of hope and positive thinking is taking shape.