Friday, February 20, 2015

Fukuoka XC, Osako on the Track, Three Half Marathons, A New Mass-Participation Marathon and Tokyo - Weekend Preview (updated)

by Brett Larner

It's another busy weekend in Japan, with at least six big races across the country and one important one overseas.  Saturday kicks off with the second of the two-meet Japanese cross country season as the Fukuoka International Cross Country Meet plays host to Japanese athletes hoping to join the National Team for this year's World Cross Country Championships.  With a total of four foreign athletes led by the Japan-based Jonathan Ndiku (Team Hitachi Butsuryu) in the senior men's 10 km there isn't much of an international component, but bigger Japanese names on the entry lists include #1-ranked collegiate runner Kenta Murayama making his last appearance in the Komazawa University uniform before his graduation next month and United Airlines NYC Half-bound Koki Takada (Waseda University) and Takashi Ichida (Daito Bunka University) in the senior men's 10 km, Chiba International XC runner-up Maki Izumida (Rikkyo Univ.) in the senior women's 6 km, Chiba junior women's winner Wakana Kabasawa (Tokiwa H.S.) and top-level junior track runner Azusa Sumi (Toyokawa H.S.) in the junior women's 6 km, and Fuminori Shimo (Iga Hakuoh H.S.), Shota Onizuka (Omuta H.S.), Shiki Shinsako (Sera H.S.) and many of the other best current high school boys in the junior men's 8 km.

Also Saturday, 3 weeks after setting an indoor 2 mile national record and a week after adding the indoor 5000 m NR to his resume, unofficial Nike Oregon Project member Suguru Osako (Team Nissin Shokuhin) will line up with the NOP's Mo Farah (Great Britain) in the 2 mile at the U.K.'s Sainsbury Indoor Grand Prix.  Osako's time 3 weeks ago was 8:16.47, beating the outdoor NR by more than 8 seconds.  Let's see if he can take that down a little further.

Back in Japan, Sunday features at least three elite-level half marathons across the country.  Far in the west, the Kashima Yutoku Half Marathon holds its 64th running, with the centrally-located Yomiuri Inuyama Half Marathon staging its 37th edition with a field including many good university athletes.  Two of the three men on the London Olympics marathon team were Inuyama winners while in university, marking the race as a good proving ground for future talent.  Further north, the Fukuya City Half Marathon, at just 9 runnings a relative newcomer on the scene, also hosts a good number of collegiates, but its main attraction is local Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't).  Kawauchi runs just a week after completing his first back-to-back marathon experiment with a 2:15:06 win at the Kochi Ryoma Marathon.

Sunday also features at least two noteworthy mass-participation marathons.  The 10000-runner Himeji Castle World Heritage Site Marathon in Hyogo goes off for the first time this year, replacing the Himeji Castle Road Race, an elite 10-miler with more than 50 years of history.  And of course there is the Tokyo Marathon.

At the elite men's level it's the best field ever assembled in Japan, with depth equaling last month's Dubai Marathon and far surpassing fellow spring World Marathon Majors London and Boston.  Up front are five sub-2:05 men led by aging greats last year's winner Dickson Chumba (Kenya) and Geoffrey Mutai (Kenya) and Tsegaye Kebede (Ethiopia).  In the middle, past winner Michael Kipyego (Kenya), London Olympics gold medalist Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda) and 8 Japanese men with current sub-2:10 times.  A question mark, the debut of Tariku Bekele (Ethiopia), the younger brother of 5000 m and 10000 m world record holder Kenenisa Bekele.  The record for Japanese sub-2:10 times in a single race is 6 at the legendary 2003 Fukuoka International Marathon, but there is a decent chance that will fall Sunday.

Most exciting among the Japanese men is Takehiro Deki (Team Chugoku Denryoku), returning to the marathon for the first time since his 2:10:02 debut without specific marathon training as a junior at Aoyama Gakuin University 3 years ago.  This time Deki is lean, showing he has been putting in the training, fast, with wins over two of Japan's greatest 10000 m runners on shorter ekiden stages last month in the midst of marathon training, and confident, saying he is in perfect condition.  Look for him to take it to the likes of 2014 Asian Games silver medalist Kohei Matsumura (Team Mitsubishi Juko Nagasaki) and London Olympians Arata Fujiwara (Miki House) and Ryo Matsumoto (Team SGH) as all go for the Beijing World Championships team.

Looking at the history and structure of the Tokyo marathon it's not much of a secret that its women's field is only there to meet the minimum necessary requirements for international accolades like an IAAF gold label and World Marathon Major membership.  As a selection race only for men's national teams, stemming from the elite component's legacy as a continuation of the Tokyo International Men's Marathon, Tokyo in its current form discourages elite Japanese women from running, even when they pull in the best international competition to be found on Japanese soil.  This year there is not a single top-level Japanese woman in the field, and at only 8 entrants even the international field is tiny.  London Olympics gold medalist Tiki Gelana (Ethiopia), out of shape in her appearance at November's Yokohama International Women's Marathon, 2014 Tokyo runner-up Birhane Dibaba (Ethiopia) and formerly Japan-based Flomena Cheyech Daniel (Kenya) top the list, but the most exciting entrant is 2014 World Half Marathon bronze medalist Sally Chepyego (Kenya/Team Kyudenko), making her debut off an easy sub-70 win at the Osaka Half Marathon in January.

At the mass-participation level, Tokyo leads the World Marathon Majors in bringing a futuristic dystopian security experience to its 36,000 amateur runners, citing fears of terrorism after ISIS' recent kidnapping and murder of 2 Japanese citizens in banning sports drink bottles, bringing in dozens of metal detectors to the start area, and having armed riot police running in the field along with the police department's utilization of the opportunity to increase its use of surveillance cameras.  The Yomiuri Newspaper's graphic of what the security restrictions mean for Tokyo participants, showing a runner being followed by police and surveillance cameras, is well worth a look.  All in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a bid won in part on Tokyo's status as already being the safest city in the world.  You can only wonder what the future holds.  The key take home for international visitors for the race: expect heavy scrutiny, and if you are running Tokyo do not try to bring any kind of personal hydration to use during the race.

Update: DNS include Geoffrey Mutai (Kenya), Josphat Boit (U.S.A.), Koji Kobayashi (Japan/Team Subaru), Masanori Sakai (Japan/Team Kyudenko), Yuma Hattori (Japan/Toyo Univ.), Chiharu Takada (Japan/Team JR Higashi Nihon) and Risa Suzuki (Japan/Art Sports).

(c) 2015 Brett Larner
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