by Brett Larner
The day Japanese marathon fans have been waiting for for years finally arrived as half-marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) finally stepped up to inherit the legacy of Olympic gold medalists Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex) with a bronze medal in the women's marathon on the hot opening day of the 2013 Moscow World Championships, tough in the heat as the favorites faded. Noguchi, making a long-awaited comeback to world-level competition, was a DNF in the rough conditions, but third team member Ryoko Kizaki (Team Daihatsu) ran a solid and steady race to take 4th.
Both Fukushi and Noguchi went with the fast early pace set by Italy's Valeria Straneo, but by 10 km Noguchi, running her first world-level marathon since her 2004 gold in Athens, could not keep up. Fukushi stayed at the back of the lead pack as the numbers dwindled from eight to seven to four. Kizaki stayed in the second pack for the first quarter of the race before making a move with defending gold medalist Edna Kiplagat (Kenya) to join the lead group. The pair passed Noguchi just past 12 km, but while Kiplagat went on to the front Kizaki stalled and was stuck running most of the race alone. By 30 km Noguchi had slowed to a walk, alternating brief periods of running before stopping again, and ultimately dropping out near 33 km. Kizaki continued to push on, picking up the casualties one by one and moving up to 5th place.
Back in the lead pack Fukushi was biding her time against Straneo, Kiplagat and Ethiopian Meselech Melkamu, but after 25 km she began to show the faintest signs of strain, at times falling a meter or two behind the rest of the group. Just before 30 km a true gap suddenly appeared, and very quickly Fukushi was out of the lead trio and medal contention.
But, marathons are long and much can change. As Straneo continued to apply pressure Melkamu dropped off at 33 km, making it a two-woman race for gold up front. Fukushi could see Melkamu starting to come back and refocused, picking up the pace and catching her just past 35 km. Melkamu tried to go with her, but after catching her breath a brief surge from Fukushi was all it took to put the Ethiopian away. Seconds later, a defeated Melkamu dropped out of the race, leaving Fukushi free to run in alone for bronze and moving Kizaki up to 4th.
Fukushi ran strong over the final 5 km, losing some ground to Kiplagat and Straneo but continuing to wave to supporters and smile. Kiplagat predictably had the finish she needed to become the first woman to defend a World Championships title, dropping Straneo to win by 14 seconds in a Russian all-comers' record 2:25:44. Straneo and Fukushi, who came onto the track nearly two minutes back, also cleared the all-comers' record, Fukushi crossing the line in 2:27:45.
Fukushi earned Japan's first World Championships medal since Yoshimi Ozaki's silver in Berlin in 2009, showing strength over the final stages of the marathon for the first time in her five races to date. In seventeen starts on Japanese national teams at the Olympics, World Championships, World XC Championships and World Road Running Championships it was also the first individual medal of her career. It would have been hard to imagine her reaching this stage just after her now-legendary debut in 2008. In a hilarious post-race interview she was all smiles and laughs, saying, "This was the first time in a long time that I felt like my old self. I thought I had a shot at gold, but forget about it. That's it for me and the marathon. I'm done running them." Combined with Kizaki's 4th the race hearkened back to the Japanese women's era of strength after five years of relative decline, and with Noguchi falling short of her dream of a successful comeback it feels like the transition from that era is complete. It's now up to the Japanese men, with five sub-2:09 runners making up their marathon team, to follow Fukushi and Kizaki's examples next weekend.
Moscow World Championships Women's Marathon Top Results
click here for complete results
1. Edna Kiplagat (Kenya) - 2:25:44 - ACR
2. Valeria Straneo (Italy) - 2:25:58 (ACR)
3. Kayoko Fukushi (Japan) - 2:27:45 (ACR)
4. Ryoko Kizaki (Japan) - 2:31:28
5. Alessandra Aguilar (Spain) - 2:32:38
6. Emma Quaglia (Italy) - 2:34:16
7. Madai Perez (Mexico) - 2:34:23
8. Hye-Gyong Kim (North Korea) - 2:35:49
9. Deena Kastor (U.S.A.) - 2:36:12
10. Susan Partridge (GBR) - 2:36:24
DNF - Mizuki Noguchi (Japan)