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Weekend Preview: National University Half, and Rio Spots On the Line in Lake Biwa

by Brett Larner

Japan's winter road season is winding down, but two of the biggest races are still on for this Sunday.  Last year the National University Men's Half Marathon Championships in Tokyo's Showa Kinen Park was like no other race ever seen: 265 men under 1:06:00, 27 under 1:03:00, the top 12 all under 1:02:30.  Hakone Ekiden champion Aoyama Gakuin University dominated with the overall win by second-year Tadashi Isshiki and three in the top ten.  AGU will again send in a big squad, thin this year on its upper-level men but with such depth and rapid improvement in its ranks that it won't be a surprise to see AGU runners no one has heard of running under 1:03:00.  Last year's depth was fueled in part by the chance to score places on the Japanese team for the World University Games and without a Universiade this year the numbers may be down somewhat, but it's safe to say that with the possible exception of the Cardiff World Half Marathon Championships later this month the National University Half is likely to still be the deepest half marathon in the world this season.  JRN will be onhand to cover the race live.

There may be no World University Games this year, but there are the Rio Olympic Games.  The needlessly complex Japanese marathon selection criteria, complete with gaping holes that their architects at the JAAF either overlooked or inserted to increase the opacity of how they operate, has become a major topic in the sphere of public opinion thanks to Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) and Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't).  This editorial describes very well the situation facing Kawauchi at the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, the final Rio men's qualifier, this weekend: there is no way the JAAF will pick him for the Rio team unless he breaks 2:06:30.  2:06:31 and he stays home even if, like in Tokyo last week, no other Japanese men break 2:10.

Given what happened in Tokyo that seems like a real possibility.  Despite a few withdrawals there is still tremendous depth, with eight Japanese men who have broken 2:10 in the last three years, dozens more on the cusp of doing it, and a stack of solid debuts.  But the very best recent men were all in Tokyo, and all of them flopped.  What if they do in Lake Biwa too?  Just two years ago things were looking great, Japan coming off three-straight years with at least ten sub-2:10 marathons.  Now suddenly people are entertaining the possibility that nobody will do it this year, something that hasn't happened for over 20 years.  What has happened?  Well, it can't be denied that the kneecapping of the encouraging progress of the last few years happened to coincide with the Marathon National Team and other policies put in place when Katsumi Sakai, Takeshi Soh and crew came to power at the JAAF, but that's a story for another day.

More to the point for this weekend, what is going to happen?  History is on Lake Biwa's side.  Two of the four greatest marathons in Japanese history happened there in Olympic selection years.  There are encouraging signs in the present too to be sure.  2:08 man Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki), arguably Japan's best contemporary marathoner, returned from the first divot in his career with a solid run just a few seconds off his PB at last month's Marugame Half, and likewise for 2:09 man Suehiro Ishikawa (Team Honda) from Japan's most successful marathon group in recent years.  They both look like they are on their game.  Like the editorial linked above says, if they or anyone else go under 2:09, probably even under 2:10, the Olympic selection will wrap up cleanly.  But if Kawauchi pulls off a miracle and gets into the top Japanese position, fast or slow, it is going to create even more self-inflicted, and well-deserved, headaches and embarrassment for the geniuses at the JAAF.  They are praying it doesn't happen.  One man can make it so.

Oh yeah, and there are some internationals in the race.  Top two seeds Tadese Tola (Ethiopia) and Shumi Dechasa (Bahrain) are out, leaving pacing fodder for the Japanese: Lucas Rotich (Kenya), Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (Mongolia), Shura Kitata (Ethiopia) and Henryk Szost (Poland).  It's a more realistic international field than Tokyo's for ensuring the Japanese men keep it in gear.  Catch it all live and commercial-free on NHK at 12:30 Sunday, with English-language coverage on @JRNLive.

71st Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon
Elite Field Highlights
Otsu, Shiga, 3/6/16
click here for complete field listing
times listed are 2013-2015 bests except where noted

Lucas Rotich (Kenya) - 2:07:17 (Hamburg 2015)
Kazuhiro Maeda (Japan/Kyudenko) - 2:08:00 (Tokyo 2013)
Yuki Kawauchi (Japan/Saitama Pref. Gov't) - 2:08:14 (Seoul 2013)
Kentaro Nakamoto (Japan/Yasukawa Denki) - 2:08:35 (Beppu-Oita 2013)
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (Mongolia/NTN) - 2:08:50 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Shura Kitata (Ethiopia) - 2:08:53 (Shanghai 2015)
Henryk Szost (Poland) - 2:08:55 (Warsaw 2014)
Hirokatsu Kurosaki (Japan/Konica Minolta) - 2:09:07 (Tokyo 2014)
Masanori Sakai (Japan/Kyudenko) - 2:09:10 (Tokyo 2014)
Suehiro Ishikawa (Japan/Honda) - 2:09:10 (Lake Biwa 2013)
Takayuki Matsumiya (Japan/Aichi Seiko) - 2:09:14 (Tokyo 2013)
Tomoya Adachi (Japan/Asahi Kasei) - 2:09:59 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Munyo Solomon Mutai (Uganda) - 2:10:42 (Hannover 2015)
Hideaki Tamura (Japan/JR Higashi Nihon) - 2:10:54 (Lake Biwa 2013)
Soji Ikeda (Japan/Yakult) - 2:10:59 (Tokyo 2014)
Ryosuke Fukuyama (Japan/Honda) - 2:10:59 (Lake Biwa 2013)
Kazuki Tomaru (Japan/Toyoa) - 2:11:25 (Berlin 2014)
Noritaka Fujiyama (Japan/Sumitomo Denko) - 2:11:34 (Lake Biwa 2013)
Tomohiro Tanigawa (Japan/Konica Minolta) - 2:11:39 (Nagano 2015)
Tomoyuki Morita (Japan/Kanebo) - 2:11:41 (Tokyo 2015)
Kohei Ogino (Japan/Fujitsu) - 2:11:42 (Nagano 2015)
Takuya Fukatsu (Japan/Asahi Kasei) - 2:11:48 (Nagano 2015)
Rui Yonezawa (Japan/Chugoku Denryoku) - 2:11:59 (Lake Biwa 2014)
Noriaki Takahashi (Japan/DeNA) - 2:12:00 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Alphonce Felix Simbu (Tanzania) - 2:12:01 (Gold Coast 2015)
Hisanori Kitajima (Japan/Yasukawa Denki) - 2:12:28 (Nobeoka 2015)
Takuya Noguchi (Japan/Konica Minolta) - 2:12:29 (Lake Biwa 2015)
Ryo Kiname (Japan/Mitsubishi HPS Nagasaki) - 2:12:48 (Lake Biwa 2014)
Naoki Okamoto (Japan/Chugoku Denryoku) - 2:12:55 (Beppu-Oita 2015)
Tadashi Suzuki (Japan/Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:13:10 (Hofu 2015)
Yu Chiba (Japan/Honda) - 2:13:19 (Beppu-Oita 2013)
Yusei Nakao (Japan/Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:13:23 (Beppu-Oita 2015)
Masahiro Kawaguchi (Japan/Yakult) - 2:13:27 (Beppu-Oita 2015)
Norikazu Kato (Japan/Yakult) - 2:13:34 (Nobeoka 2015)
Dishon Karukuwa Maina (Kenya/Omokawa Zaimoku) - 2:13:38 (Lake Biwa 2013)
Sho Matsumoto (Japan/Nikkei Business) - 2:13:38 (Nobeoka 2013)
Shigeki Tsuji (Japan/Otsuka Seiyaku) - 2:13:41 (Lake Biwa 2014)
Tomonori Sakamoto (Japan/Press Kogyo) - 2:13:49 (Nagano 2015)
Liam Adams (Australia) - 2:13:49 (Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014)
Ryo Ishita (Japan/SDF Academy) - 2:13:52 (Nobeoka 2014)
Bunta Kuroki (Japan/Yasukawa Denki) - 2:14:27 (Warsaw 2014)

Second Marathon
Kassa Mekashaw (Ethiopia/Yachiyo Kogyo) - 2:16:38 (Hofu 2015)
Kazuya Deguchi (Japan/Asahi Kasei) - 2:17:59 (Nobeoka 2013)
Ryuji Kashiwabara (Japan/Fujitsu) - 2:20:44 (Sydney 2015)
Daisuke Matsufuji (Japan/Kanebo) - 2:21:08 (Beppu-Oita 2013)
Yusuke Takabayashi (Japan/Toyota) - 2:21:27 (Beppu-Oita 2015)
Yuichiro Ueno (Japan/DeNA) - 2:22:34 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Kenta Murozuka (Japan/DeNA) - 2:30:38 (Lake Biwa 2015)

Debut
Fumihiro Maruyama (Japan/Asahi Kasei) - 1:01:15 (Nat'l Corp. Half 2013)
Sota Hoshi (Japan/Fujitsu) - 1:01:18 (Nat'l Corp. Half 2014)
Hiroto Inoue (Japan/Mitsubishi HPS Nagasaki) - 1:01:39 (Marugame Half 2014)
Kenta Kitazawa (Japan/Yachiyo Kogyo) - 1:02:32 (Nat'l Corp. Half 2015)
Shohei Otsuka (Japan/Komazawa Univ.) - 1:02:32 (Ageo Half 2014)
Koki Ido (Japan/Waseda Univ.) - 1:02:33 (Nat'l Univ. Half 2014)
Hiroyuki Sasaki (Japan/Nissin Shokuhin) - 1:02:36 (Marugame Half 2012)
Shin Kimura (Japan/Meiji Univ.) - 1:02:45 (Marugame Half 2015)
Jun Sato (Japan/Waseda Univ.) - 1:02:49 (Ageo Half 2014)
Yuta Takahashi (Japan/DeNA) - 59:23 (Yosenkai 20 km 2009)
Yuki Matsuoka (Japan/Otsuka Seiyaku) - 27:59.78 (Fukuoka 10000 m, 2012)

© 2016 Brett Larner
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