by Brett Larner
It's another big weekend of elite racing in Japan as everyone from junior high school students through the pros gets ready for the mid-December through mid-January national championship ekiden season. The only serious women's racing to be found comes at the last full Nittai University Time Trials track meet of the year, where small contingents from top high school, university and corporate teams tune up for the roads over 3000 m and 5000 m. Two weeks after winning silver at the 100 km World Championships in Doha, Qatar, Chiyuki Mochizuki (Canon AC Kyushu) features in the 3000 m along with Kenyan Ann Ngatuny (Sendai Ikuei H.S.). Bigger names in the 5000 m include Doricah Obare (Team Hitachi), Monica Margaret (Aomori Yamada H.S.) and Yuka Hakoyama (Team Wacoal).
Coming just a week after 11 men broke 28 minutes at the Hachioji Long Distance 10000 m time trial meet, the all-Kenyan men's 5000 m Heat 26 is the main event at Nittai, with World XC junior silver medalist Leonard Barsoton (Team Nissin Shokuhin) leading fifteen of the best Japan-based Kenyans. Others including high schoolers John Kariuki (Aomori Yamada H.S.) and Simon Mwangi (Toyokawa H.S.) will line up in the regular A-heat, Heat 41, against former collegiate 1500 m champion Ikuto Yufu (Team Fujitsu) and sub-13:30 men Yuki Sato and Kazuya Watanabe (both Team Nissin Shokuhin). Sato is also entered in Heat 40. The men's 10000 m is thinner, but the A-heat does feature past collegiate 10000 m champion Daniel Muiva Kitonyi (Nihon Univ.), a number of upper-echelon Hakone Ekiden runners, and steeplechase specialists Jun Shinoto (Team Sanyo Tokushu) and Hiroyoshi Umegae (Team NTN).
On the roads, the world's deepest 10-miler and one of its fastest, the Kumamoto Kosa Road Race, leads the way as the main New Year Ekiden national championships tuneup for corporate league men. Coached by Samuel Wanjiru's former coach, Barcelona Olympics marathon silver medalist Koichi Morishita, Kenyans Jeremiah Karemi and Titus Waroru (both Team Toyota Kyushu) lead a small Japan-based international contingent against one of the best domestic fields Kosa has seen in its 39-year history including marathon National Team members and sub-2:10 marathoners Kazuhiro Maeda (2:08:00, Team Kyudenko), Kohei Matsumura (2:08:09, Team Mitsubishi Juko Nagasaki), Hiroyuki Horibata (2:08:24, Team Asahi Kasei), Koji Kobayashi (2:08:51, Team Subaru), Masato Imai (2:09:30, Team Toyota Kyushu) and Satoru Sasaki (2:09:47, Team Asahi Kasei), and sub-28/sub-62 runners Takuya Fukatsu (Team Asahi Kasei), Yuya Konishi (Team Toyota Kyushu), Akinobu Murasawa (Team Nissin Shokuhin), Tomoya Onishi (Team Asahi Kasei), Kensuke Takezawa (Team Sumitomo Denko), and Yuki Yagi (Team Asahi Kasei).
By comparison, only one member of the twelve-man National Team, a project launched this spring by the Federation to increase Japan's chances of a home-soil medal at Tokyo 2020 through maximization of hot-weather capabilities, nationalism and centralized oversight over training, will line up at the Fukuoka International Marathon, the first domestic selection race for the 2015 Beijing World Championships team. National Team member Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) has opted to give Fukuoka, a race he has done every year of his marathon career to date, a miss in favor of going for the hilly Naha Marathon's 2:23:05 course record as a tuneup for a shot at 2:07 "or at least better than whatever the top Japanese guy in Fukuoka runs" later this month, leaving Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki), arguably Japan's best marathoner, to carry the Federation's hopes.
Nakamoto was 6th at the London Olympics and a memorable 5th at the Moscow World Championships, has never finished outside the top ten in a marathon, and until this year has PBed every year since he started marathoning, running his current best of 2:08:35 while finishing 2nd behind Kawauchi at the 2013 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon in what is bound to become one of the classic head-to-head marathon battles. With an utterly failure-free marathon record the pressure builds every time Nakamoto is on the starting line, and at this year's Tokyo Marathon he pulled out before a race where he was to shoot for 2:07. Fukuoka will be his first marathon of 2014, and while there is not much reason to think he will hit the Federation's fantasy land sub-2:06:30 standard for automatic Beijing selection he has been running well this fall and has to be viewed as the Japanese favorite.
His main rivals are collegiate and debut marathon national record holder Masakazu Fujiwara (Team Honda) and, in his Japanese soil marathon debut, former Komazawa University star Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta). Fujiwara ran his 2:08:12 PB as a senior at Chuo University in 2003 and, apart from a win in truly terrible conditions at the 2010 Tokyo Marathon, never came close to that level again until setting a world record for the longest time ever between consecutive sub-2:09 marathons with a 2:08:51 at last year's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon. He has been largely invisible this year but is coming into the race talking about a PB, which should mean 2:07. Ugachi, with all-time Japanese top ten 27:40.69 and 1:00:58 bests, debuted in Dubai this year in a lukewarm 2:13:41, improving that marginally to 2:12:18 in Sydney in late September. Considering that he was out most of the spring with injuries following Dubai you have to question whether it's a good idea for him to be doing a third marathon in his first year at the distance, but his huge fan following will be holding their breaths in hopes of seeing him live up to his 10000 m and half marathon credentials. If anyone were going to run 2:06 it would be him.
Like other small elite Japanese marathons, Fukuoka follows something of a boutique or craft beer approach to its international field, forgoing trying to compete with the Majors for quantity of quality in favor of a carefully rounded small-batch recipe of one marquee athlete supported by a cast of athletes from as wide a range of countries as possible to provide fodder for the top Japanese. It may not be doing much to keep the real prestige Fukuoka had in its glory days but it's a formula that works with the fans, who tune in by the millions, and it's hard to argue with that. This year's front man is former world record Patrick Makau (Kenya). Since running 2:03:38 in 2011 Makau has fallen on harder times, a 2:06:08 best for 2012 leading to just a 2:14:10 at the 2013 London Marathon. A sub-28 road 10 km in August was a promising sign, his first time hitting that level since 2009, but despite hopes that he'll give Fukuoka's 2:05:18 course record a go it's not that easy to get back on it and he may just as likely fall victim to either of the last two Fukuoka winners.
Defending champion Martin Mathathi (Kenya/Suzuki Hamamatsu AC), a World Championships medalist on the track, had a failed marathon debut in Fukuoka in 2012 before running a controlled and leisurely 2:07:16 for the win last year. After a solid win at the Marugame Half in February Mathathi was set to go to the London Marathon as a darkhorse force against the powers on display in that race before injuries forced him to stay home. Joseph Gitau (Kenya/Team JFE Steel), a graduate of Hiroshima's Sera H.S., was a surprise in Fukuoka 2012, impressive over the last 10 km as he won in 2:06:58. Neither has been in sight much this season, but if they are fit Makau will need to be ready. Likewise for the other 2:06 man in the race, Raji Assefa (Ethiopia), who has just a 1:02:20 half marathon to show for recent fitness.
A pack of four 2:07 men led by Polish national record holder Henryk Szost and last year's 2:09:00 Hofu Yomiuri Marathon winner Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (Mongolia/Team NTN) make up the front of the next group, where Yoshinori Oda (Team Toyota) will hope to live up to his 2:09:03 debut and a solid crew of 2:10-2:11 men including Tomoya Adachi (Team Asahi Kasei), Chiharu Takada (Team JR Higashi Nihon), Jeffrey Eggleston (U.S.A,), Mekubo Mogusu (Kenya/Team Nissin Shokuhin) and others including debuting 1500 m and 5000 m national champion Yuichiro Ueno (DeNA RC) and former Nihon University ringer Benjamin Ngandu (Team Monteroza) will be looking to join the sub-2:10 club. Apart from Japan only Kenya and Ethiopia have ever had ten or more sub-2:10 marathons in one year, and Japan needs just two more to score its third-straight year at that level.
International broadcasts are available in some locations, with a paid premium key on Keyhole TV providing a decent option for those in other areas. JRN will have limited live coverage of Fukuoka on Twitter @JRNLive and @JRNHeadlines. Check back throughout the weekend for more on all four of these big events.
68th Fukuoka International Marathon
Elite Field and Open Division Highlights
Fukuoka, Dec. 7, 2014
click here for complete field listing
Patrick Makau (Kenya) - 2:03:38 (Berlin 2011)
Raji Assefa (Ethiopia) - 2:06:24 (Paris 2012)
Joseph Gitau (Kenya/Team JFE Steel) - 2:06:58 (Fukuoka 2012)
Dmytro Baranovskyy (Ukraine) - 2:07:15 (Fukuoka 2006)
Martin Mathathi (Kenya/Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:07:16 (Fukuoka 2013)
Isaac Macharia (Kenya) - 2:07:16 (Dubai 2008)
Yared Asmerom (Eritrea) - 2:07:27 (Chuncheon 2011)
Henryk Szost (Poland) - 2:07:39 (Lake Biwa 2012)
Masakazu Fujiwara (Team Honda) - 2:08:12 (Lake Biwa 2003)
Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki) - 2:08:35 (Beppu-Oita 2013)
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (Mongolia/Team NTN) - 2:09:00 (Hofu Yomiuri 2013)
Yoshinori Oda (Team Toyota) - 2:09:03 (Tokyo 2011)
Cuthbert Nyasango (Zimbabwe) - 2:09:52 (Prague 2014)
Tomoya Adachi (Team Asahi Kasei) - 2:10:22 (Lake Biwa 2013)
Chiharu Takada (Team JR Higashi Nihon) - 2:10:39 (Fukuoka 2013)
Jeffrey Eggleston (U.S.A,) - 2:10:52 (Gold Coast 2014)
Mekubo Mogusu (Kenya/Team Nissin Shokuhin) - 2:11:02 (Tokyo 2013)
Takaaki Koda (Team Asahi Kasei) - 2:11:08 (Tokyo 2011)
Taiga Ito (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:11:15 (Tokyo 2013)
Noriaki Takahashi (DeNA RC) - 2:12:04 (Lake Biwa 2014)
Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta) - 2:12:18 (Sydney 2014)
Makoto Fukui (Team Fujitsu) - 2:13:57 (Muenster 2012)
Benjamin Ngandu (Kenya/Team Monteroza) - 1:01:06 (Marugame 2012)
Hideyuki Ikegami (Kyoto Kyoiku Univ.) - debut - 1:03:09 (Tanigawa Mari 2014)
Yuichiro Ueno (DeNA RC) - debut - 28:01.71 for 10000 m (Kobe 2014)
(c) 2014 Brett Larner
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