By Chris Lotsbom
(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
NEW YORK (14-Mar) -- Running Sunday's NYC Half feels like the opportunity of a lifetime for Kenta Murayama and Kento Otsu. For the tandem from Japan, the 21.1 kilometer race through Manhattan represents much more than a typical competition; it is a chance for the student-athletes to gain experience against some of the sport's best, including their idol, Bernard Lagat.
Back home in Japan, Murayama and Otsu are rivals on the collegiate circuit, representing Komazawa University and Toyo University, respectively. Having finished first and second at the Ageo City Half-Marathon last November, the pair earned invitations into Sunday's race as part of a program between the New York Road Runners and the Ageo City organizers.
"As a university student, to be invited to run abroad is a very important chance for me," said Otsu, 21, through a translator. "I am very happy about that. In terms of furthering my training, I think it will be a really valuable experience to have the chance to run with top ranked runners from all across the world."
Competing outside of the Japanese domestic circuit is rare for collegiate competitors from the island nation, making their trip to America even more special. The program between the NYRR and Ageo aims to provide athletes the opportunity to learn from the best, hoping they will continue to develop as distance runners through world competition.
"The chance to run together with world class runners has definitely added to my confidence level," said Otsu.
For Murayama and Otsu, Sunday's race provides them the opportunity to rub elbows with their idol, American Bernard Lagat. A four-time Olympian and two-time Olympic medalist, Lagat will be making his half-marathon debut here.
"He is very much famous," said Murayama, 20, who has a personal best of 1:01:19 for the half-marathon distance.
In Japan, Lagat is known for his ferocious finishing speed, something Murayama hopes to learn a thing or two from on Sunday.
"For me to be able to run together with him, this is something I really wanted to do," he said. "I think it is an opportunity to learn a lot from him."
Competing with Lagat and the world's best does come with its challenges, though. Seen as celebrities back home in Japan --where collegiate running is an extremely popular sport-- the pair come into Sunday's race with a bit of pressure, knowing that the nation's attention will be on them.
"It does, it makes me feel like I have to produce good results, so that does add a little bit of pressure," said Murayama. "I don't want to have any regrets. It's OK if I fail, but I want to push ahead as much as possible."
To Brett Larner, publisher of the popular Japan Running News blog, the chance for Japanese collegians to compete in America is key for their development.
"It is really unique," Larner said, talking exclusively to Race Results Weekly. "Overseas experience generally doesn't come easy for Japanese athletes. You don't get many opportunities to race overseas because the domestic circuit is so well developed. It never happens for University guys.
"Getting into a top level world class race like this is very unique and getting a lot of attention in Japan," added Larner.
On Sunday, Murayama could very well challenge for a top-five spot. Coming into the race, he is tied with the seventh fastest personal best among entrants. Otsu, who finished 25th last year, looks to better his 1:02:43 time from Ageo City last year.
PHOTO: Kento Otsu, Bernard Lagat and Kenta Murayama before the 2013 NYC Half (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)