Again this week, what a race.
Defending champion Eunice Kirwa (Bahrain) led the largest women-only marathon field in the world through a tense and thrilling race at today's Nagoya Women's Marathon, tailed closely by a large Japanese group that collectively broke through to new ground in the race for the last spot on the Rio Olympics team.
With some erratic pacing in the early kilometers the race soon settled down in the mid-to-high 2:23 range, slow of the JAAF's sub-2:22:30 Olympic standard but still uncharted territory for almost every Japanese woman in the field. National record holder and Athens gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex), trying one last time to return to the Olympics, was the first to fall off, losing touch with the lead group after 5 km. The trickle of stragglers continued as the pace held steady around 2:23:30-40 until a core group of 11 remained behind the pacers when they hit halfway in 1:11:45.
Kenyan Monica Jepkoech was the first to crack, abruptly stopping at 25 km without having shown much sign of distress. Ethiopians Betelhem Moges and Bekelech Daba and debuting Japanese runner Mao Kiyota (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) repeatedly faded off the back of the pack, but only Daba was gone for good when the pacers stepped off at 30 km and Kirwa shot ahead to get the race started for real.
From 30 to 31 km Kirwa, the 2014 Asian Games gold medalist, 2015 World Championships bronze medalist and Nagoya course record holder, dropped a 3:13 km. Only Japan's Tomomi Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei), controversially left off the Beijing team last year despite winning the Yokohama International Women's Marathon selection race, was able to cover it, with Rei Ohara (Team Tenmaya) a few strides back and the rest of the chase pack tumbling in the turbulence. Another 3:13 and Tanaka was still there. Sensing the challenge Kirwa ratcheted it up to 3:11 for the next km, but Tanaka still managed to deliver another 3:13 before the connection severed.
From there it was smooth sailing all the way to the end for Kirwa, who scored her second-straight Nagoya title in 2:22:40. Tanaka slowed to a more sustainable pace around 3:20/km, but when she did so Ohara began to regain ground. Ohara, the fastest Japanese woman over the half marathon distance in 2015, debuted in Nagoya last year but suffered a bad fall at an early water station and finished in 3:05:21. Like Tanaka, she had something to show. Gritting down, she closed the gap to Tanaka and went wide as she passed just before 37 km, taking Tanaka by surprise.
The Japanese Olympic team selection process has rarely been as criticized and scrutinized as this year. Going in to Nagoya Mai Ito (Team Otsuka Seiyaku) had one spot on the Rio team sealed up after her 7th-place finish in Beijing last summer. Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) was a virtual lock for the second spot with her 2:22:17 win in Osaka, although the JAAF's refusal to say so caused a firestorm of angry public opinion. That left one place, one place for the two women side-by-side on 2:23:30 pace with 5 km to go.
Tanaka latched on to Ohara, staying right behind her for the next 2 km before drawing up next to her at 39 km. Still side-by-side with 2 km to go. The pace getting faster. Still with 1 km to go. Faster. Still with 500 m to go. Ohara, last year's fall and the weight of four-straight Olympic team appearances by runners from her Tenmaya corporate team upon her, Tanaka, driven by the knowledge that she was left off the Beijing team in favor of another Tenmaya runner whose coach just happened to be a senior JAAF executive.
No. Freaking. Way. was Tanaka going to let someone from Tenmaya take it away again. The last turn into the stadium and finally, her kick! Ohara trying to cover but half a stride behind, into the dome for the last straight and the margin widening to a stride. Tanaka across the line in 2:23:19 in ecstasy, Ohara in 2:23:20 and flat onto the ground. Both crying. Validation and a probable place in Rio for Tanaka and her coach Sachiko Yamashita, the 1991 World Championships silver medalist. Devastation for Ohara and the end of the Tenmaya reign even with one of the best runs in its history. What more could you ask for in an Olympic qualifying race?
Tanaka over Ohara in last sprint! pic.twitter.com/lTIIEktPWk— Japan Running News (@JRNLive) March 13, 2016
And whether you asked for it or not, there was more. The debuting Kiyota held on for 4th, cracking the all-time Japanese top 25 as she finished in 2:24:32. Two other first-timers, Sayaka Kuwahara (Team Sekisui Kagaku) and Michi Numata (Team Toyota Jidoshokki) joined her in the top ten, Kuwahara 6th in 2:25:09 and Numata 9th in 2:27:27. Japanese under-20 record holder Reia Iwade (Team Noritz) returned to form with a nearly 3-minute PB of 2:24:38 for 5th, Shiho Takechi (Team Yamada Denki) running an even bigger best of 2:25:29 for 7th. Japan's best amateur runner, Hiroko Yoshitomi (First Dream AC) ran a strong and steady race in her sixth marathon in four months, running down Noguchi for 21st in 2:33:04. Noguchi, saying beforehand that this would be her last time trying for an Olympic team, 23rd in 2:33:54 and coming just short of saying she was retiring in a televised interview right after she finished.
All told it was one of the best women's marathons in Japan in recent memory. A fast winning time and a fast and furious battle between the best young Japanese women. All that could spoil it would be for the JAAF to find some rationale for putting Ohara on the Rio team in favor of Tanaka. Don't expect that to happen, though, not this time. Even JAAF senior director Mitsugi Ogata was smiling after the race. The women's and men's Olympic marathon team lineup announcement comes this Thursday. Let's hope there's just cause for more smiles then.
Nagoya Women's Marathon
click here for complete results
1. Eunice Kirwa (Bahrain) - 2:22:40
2. Tomomi Tanaka (Japan/Daiichi Seimei) - 2:23:19 - PB
3. Rei Ohara (Japan/Tenmaya) - 2:23:20 - PB
4. Mao Kiyota (Japan/Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:24:32 - debut
5. Reia Iwade (Japan/Noritz) - 2:24:38 - PB
6. Sayaka Kuwahara (Japan/Sekisui Kagaku) - 2:25:09 - debut
7. Shiho Takechi (Japan/Yamada Denki) - 2:25:29 - PB
8. Betelhem Moges (Ethiopia) - 2:26:36
9. Michi Numata (Japan/Toyota Jidoshokki) - 2:27:27 - debut
10. Ryoko Kizaki (Japan/Daihatsu) - 2:28:49
11. Asami Kato (Japan/Panasonic) - 2:29:33
12. Bekelech Daba (Ethiopia) - 2:29:50 - PB
13. Iwona Lewandowska (Poland) - 2:30:15
14. Kaoru Nagao (Japan/Univ. Ent.) - 2:30:54
15. Haruna Takada (Japan/Yamada Denki) - 2:31:17 - PB
16. Eri Hayakawa (Japan/Toto) - 2:31:47
17. Sakiko Matsumi (Japan/Daiichi Seimei) - 2:32:09 - PB
18. Yuka Takemoto (Japan/Canon AC Kyushu) - 2:32:21
19. Kikuyo Tsuzaki (Japan/Noritz) - 2:32:23 - PB
20. Rie Uchida (Japan/Otsuka Seiyaku) - 2:32:25 - PB
21. Hiroko Yoshitomi (Japan/First Dream AC) - 2:33:04
22. Yuko Mizuguchi (Japan/Denso) - 2:33:20
23. Mizuki Noguchi (Japan/Sysmex) - 2:33:54
24. Saki Tabata (Japan/Otsuka Seiyaku) - 2:34:20 - PB
25. Mei Matsuyama (Japan/Noritz) - 2:34:35 - PB
32. Jenna Challenor (South Africa) - 2:37:09 - PB
34. Yuko Watanabe (Japan/Edion) - 2:37:52
36. Lydia O'Donnell (New Zealand) - 2:39:38
121. Azusa Nojiri (Japan/Hiratsuka Lease) - 3:48:39
DNF - Marisa Barros (Portugal)
DNF - Monica Jepkoech (Kenya)
Nagoya Half Marathon
click here for complete results
1. Courtney Carter (Australia) - 1:05:51
2. Norio Kamijo (Japan) - 1:06:04
3. Masahiro Kinoshita (Japan) - 1:09:35
1. Lexy Gilmour (Australia) - 1:16:28
2. Satoko Uetani (Japan) - 1:23:42
3. Sayaka Kazaoka (Japan) - 1:26:19
Men's Quarter Marathon
1. Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Japan) - 32:53
2. Satoshi Kato (Japan) - 32:54
3. Yu Hiraoka (Japan) - 33:03
Women's Quarter Marathon
1. Mina Takahashi (Japan) - 42:09
2. Sachiko Tsutsumi (Japan) - 43:31
3. Mirai Jinno (Japan) - 45:04
© 2016 Brett Larner
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