by Brett Larner
It's yet another busy weekend in Japan with at least four quality events on the calendar. It's not every day that an international championships takes place on Japanese soil, and Saturday's Asian Cross-Country Championships, held in conjunction with the annual Fukuoka International Cross-Country Meet, tops the list in that respect. Fresh off a bronze medal between two Qataris in the 3000 m at last weekend's Asian Indoor Championships, Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Team Asahi Kasei) leads the Japanese senior men's team alongside 2013 5000 m national champion Sota Hoshi (Team Fujitsu), who ran a PB 1:01:18 just last weekend at the National Corporate Half Marathon Championships, and 13:28.79 junior Genki Yagisawa (Meiji Univ.). No Qataris are on the entry list, but Bahrain is sending a squad of five Kenyan and Ethiopian-born athletes led by Olympian Bilisuma Shugi who should provide the main competition. Also noteworthy is 2013 Southeast Asian Games marathon gold medalist Mok Ying Ren (Singapore), back in Japan for the first time since setting the Singaporean half marathon national record at November's Ageo City Half Marathon.
With the cancellation of the Chiba International Cross-Country Meet two weeks ago due to some snow on the course, the open men's 10 km accompanying the Asian championships race has been named the selection race for the Japanese team for next month's World University Cross-Country Championships in Uganda. Defending World University XC silver medalist Yuta Shitara of 2014 Hakone Ekiden champion Toyo University leads the contenders for places on that team.
The Bahrainis have a stacked team in the senior women's race as well, with Ethiopian-born Olympians Mimi Belete and Tejitu Daba leading a team of four. Japanese hopes rest with Sairi Maeda (Bukkyo Univ.) in her first race since setting a Japanese collegiate national record of 2:26:46 last month in Osaka, track specialist Ayumi Hagiwara (Team Uniqlo) and, just off a strong ekiden season, Risa Kikuchi (Team Hitachi).
The Qataris did send a junior men's team, where they face sub-14 high schooler Kenta Ueda of 2013 National High School Ekiden champion Yamanashi Gakuin Prep H.S. and more. Competition is thinner in the junior women's race, where Japan's Maki Izumida (Hakuho Joshi H.S.) and Yuka Kobayashi (Tokiwa H.S.) look to be the favorites. Click here for complete entry lists for all races. The meet will be broadcast on TBS starting at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday the 22nd. Overseas viewers should be able to watch via Keyhole TV, for which it is worth paying for a premium key.
The cancellation of the competitive Fukaya City Half Marathon due to last week's heavy snowfall in the north half of Japan has thinned the weekend's road racing a little, but two good half marathons still remain. Collegiate 5000 m national record holder Kensuke Takezawa (Team Sumitomo Denko), 13:19.00 and 27:45.59 at age 20, was set to make his 30 km debut at last weekend's Ome Road Race, which like Fukaya fell victim to the elements. Instead, Takezawa has now jumped into this weekend's 63rd running of the Kashima Yutoku Half Marathon for what may be his first half marathon since winning his debut at the 2005 Ageo City Half Marathon in 1:02:27. Considering that he has run as fast as 1:01:40 for the Hakone Ekiden's 21.5 km Third Stage, equivalent to a 1:00:31 half marathon, the chances that the Yutoku Half's 1:03:52 course record will fall look pretty good. Takezawa's performance there will be one of the most eagerly-anticipated of the weekend for Japanese fans.
Besides having a cool website, the Inuyama Yomiuri Half Marathon has long been the place where future stars have their first real success. Past winners have included London Olympians Arata Fujiwara (Miki House, 2003) and Ryo Yamamoto (Team SGH Group Sagawa, 2006), last year's 5000 m national champions Misaki Onishi (Team Sekisui Kagaku, 2006) and Sota Hoshi (Team Fujitsu, 2008), Rio World Half Marathon Championships 5th placer Yusei Nakao (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC, 2009) and 2013 World University Games half marathon bronze medalist Shogo Nakamura (Komazawa University, 2012), so the names that come out on top of Sunday's 36th running will likely be worth remembering. Team Aichi Seiko rookie Hiroto Naito, a 2013 graduate of Tokyo Nogyo University, is the #1 seed with a best of 1:02:56, but close behind are university rivals Kenya Sonota (Komazawa Univ., 1:03:19) and Masato Terauchi (Toyo Univ., 1:03:23). With favorable weather a shot at the 1:03:07 course record set seven years ago by Hidehito Takamine (Hosei Univ.) should be in reach. The women's course record of 1:10:00 will be harder to crack, but if anyone is capable it will be Ai Migita (Team Wacoal), making her half marathon debut off a 33:19 road 10 km best at last weekend's National Corporate Championships. Click here for complete Inuyama entry lists.
Lastly is Sunday's Tokyo Marathon. With an international field befitting its status as the minor Major, Tokyo looks sure to see at least its men split into two separate races. 2009 and 2011 World Champion Abel Kirui (Kenya) is Tokyo's flagship athlete, returning after a DNF in 2008 to try to get back on track after a long time off with injury. It won't be easy, with no less than five other athletes in field holding bests under 2:06. Tadesse Tola (Ethiopia) is the favorite with a 2:04:49 best for 3rd Dubai followed by a 2:06:33 for 2nd in Paris and a 2:07:16 win in Beijing last year. The man who beat him in Paris, Peter Some (Kenya), will also be there, along with Chicago Marathon 3rd-placer Sammy Kitwara (Kenya), Toronto Waterfront Marathon winner Deressa Chimsa (Ethiopia) and 2:05:46 man Dickson Chumba (Kenya). Forecast temperatures are on the cold side of ideal but with a field like this Chicago winner Dennis Kimetto's year-old course record of 2:06:50 should fall even if the 2:05:18 Japanese all-comers' record is iffy. 2011 World XC junior champion Geoffrey Kipsang (Kenya), 2012 Tokyo winner Michael Kipyego (Kenya), Eritrean national record holder Yared Asmerom and others add to the international component of the race.
The Japanese men's roster was decimated of most of its most interesting athletes yesterday, with Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki), 5th in Moscow and 6th in the London Olympics, pulling out with the flu, 2013 10000 m national champion Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) out with injury, and the popular Takehiro Deki (Team Chugoku Denryoku), scheduled to make his follow-up to the 2:10:02 he ran without marathon-specific training his junior year at Aoyama Gakuin University in 2012, likewise out. Who is left? Mostly a 2:09-2:12 field comparable to that at the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon three weeks ago. London Olympian Arata Fujiwara (Team Miki House), roommates with Nakamoto while at Takushoku University, is the top draw, but after catching the flu just before the Marugame Half earlier this month he has lost valuable training time and admits he is not at 100%. 2nd in Tokyo in 2008, 2010 and 2012, if he is able to do the same a fourth time it will be something very special. 2:09 men Suehiro Ishikawa and Takashi Horiguchi of the Honda team, Japan's most successful at the marathon and featuring 2010 Tokyo winner Masakazu Fujiwara on its roster, are next on the list, followed by a raft of 2:10 athletes led by the talented Koji Kobayashi (Team Subaru).
But outside Arata Fujiwara the main draw in the Japanese men's race is the marathon debut of 22-year-old Chihiro Miyawaki (Team Toyota). All-time Japanese #4 over the half marathon in 1:00:53 and #7 for 10000 m in 27:41.57, Miyawaki's rivalry with top corporate man Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta) over the last few years has been very entertaining, Miyawaki constantly following in Ugachi's footsteps and bettering his times. Ugachi made a slightly disappointing 2:13:41 marathon debut last month, and there is no mistaking that Miyawaki will be looking to go much better than that. He had a mediocre run in Marugame three weeks ago, 67th in just 1:04:43, but if all goes well he may have a chance of taking away Masakazu Fujiwara's 2:08:12 marathon debut national record.
If only one record falls in Tokyo it will be the 2:25:28 women's record set two years ago by Atsede Habtamu (Ethiopia). Eleven of the twelve women on the elite entry list have run faster than that within the last two years, even former national record holder Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo), so it would take a pretty lazy race indeed for there not to be a major improvement in the record. Japanese fans will be glad to see Aomori Yamada H.S. graduate and former Suzuki corporate team runner Lucy Wangui Kabuu (Kenya) back as the favorite with a 2:19:34 best. With a chase pack of four Ethiopians and compatriot Caroline Rotich (Kenya) not far behind it's conceivable that Kabuu could give the great Mizuki Noguchi's Japanese all-comers' record of 2:21:18 a go.
Although Tokyo counts in national team selection for men, for women it does not, meaning that despite the world-class field it is all but out of bounds for the country's best, a place for indies and those whose careers have come to Tokyo to die. Alongside former Daiichi Seimei member Azusa Nojiri (Team Hiratsuka Lease) this year are the aging Shibui and Daegu World Championships team member Mai Ito (Team Otsuka Seiyaku), who is the likely choice for top Japanese woman. Nojiri left Daiichi Seimei two years ago to follow an independent road in the model of Arata Fujiwara but has yet to find success comparable to her 2:24:57 best under Daiichi Seimei coach Sachiko Yamashita. A decent run in Tokyo would do wonders for her name value. No specific word at this stage that Shibui or Ito plan to retire after Tokyo, but if they follow the pattern of Berlin World Championships silver medalist Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei) and 2012 10000 m national champion Mika Yoshikawa (Team Panasonic) last year, don't be too surprised.
Click here for detailed Tokyo Marathon field listings.
(c) 2014 Brett Larner
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