by Brett Larner
2010 National Corporate Half Marathon champion Flomena Cheyech Daniel (Kenya) negative split her way to the win in the second edition of the Saitama International Marathon. The four invited Africans and two pacemakers in the race went out on track to go under 2:22:30, but without even a single top-level Japanese woman in the race the leading Japanese contenders were out of it within the first km. A familiar face in Japan, Amane Gobena (Ethiopia) ground down compatriot Atsede Habtamu and Monica Jepkoech (Kenya) over the first 20 km before Daniel in turn said goodbye after the 24.6 km turnaround. From there on in it was a race against the clock, Daniel on track to go close to her 2:22:46 PB at 35 km but unable to keep it up alone. Her time of 2:23:18 was a sizable new course record and one of the better times in her career. Gobena, Jepkoech and Habtamu trundled in over the next 6 1/2 minutes, the top four the only ones to clear 2:30.
Saitama counts as a selection race for the 2017 London World Championships team, but with the National Corporate Women's Ekiden scheduled just two weeks later this year there was no chance any Japanese woman with a realistic chance of making the team would be in Saitama. Last year Kaori Yoshida (Team RxL) returned from an EPO suspension to take top Japanese honors in a PB 2:28:43, and as the only Japanese woman in the field to have cleared 2:30 in the last three years everyone expected her to do the heavy lifting. Yoshida obliged, a pack including 36-year-old Mizuho Nasukawa (Team Univ. Ent.), indy Akane Sekino (Imabari Zosen) and Japan-based Kenyan Winfrida Kebaso (Team Nittori) forming around her for the first stretch of the race. Kebaso went ahead and was replaced by Cassie Fien (Australia), only for Yoshida to unexpectedly drop. Sekino was next, leaving only Nasukawa and Fien in pursuit of Kebaso.
Joined by a straggling lead group pacer, Nasukawa surged after 25 km to drop Fien and began to focus on those ahead. But Fien wasn't done, catching back up before 40 km and running side-by-side until just before the final righthand corner. Just before the corner Nasukawa pointed to the left, Fien seeming to take this as an indication that they were going to turn left and starting to move in that direction. Before Fien realized it Nasukawa gunned it at the righthand corner and got a short lead that she managed to keep over the last few hundred m. Nasukawa took 5th in 2:33:16 as the top Japanese finisher, Fien a step behind in a PB of 2:33:17.
In terms of its status as a national team selection race, there is close to no chance at all that Nasukawa will be picked for the London team off a performance that saw her finish 10 minutes behind the leader. And that's no criticism of her. With a long career behind her Nasukawa ran a tough race with an exciting finish for her best time in many a year. Saitama was set up in a way that it was an inevitable outcome that she would finish so far behind the winner. Four strong Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes up front running the kind of pace that international-level Japanese women can run, but not a single woman that caliber in the field because the event conflicts with the ekiden national championships. What was the point, really?
The JAAF needs to maintain this event, the far lesser descendant of the Tokyo and Yokohama International Women's Marathons, for the money it generates from broadcaster NTV and other sponsors, but with a race like this how much value did it bring to the broadcaster? Again, no criticism implied of Nasukawa or the other Japanese women; Nasukawa's race against Fien was great, but at ten minutes behind the winner it couldn't have been that much fun of a watch for the home crowd, and it created a false impression that the top Japanese women are bound to get destroyed by that kind of margin. Olympian Tomomi Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei) ran 2:23:19, one second slower than Daniel's time, in Nagoya in March, and her Rio teammate Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) was even faster in Osaka in January. Athletes that level could have been in it to win in Saitama, but they never will be thanks to its timing relative to the ekiden. So, a national team selection race set up as though national team quality runners were there but timed such that none could be, almost a parody of what this event used to be. Not much question about where the JAAF's priorities are.
2nd Saitama International Marathon
1. Flomena Cheyech Daniel (Kenya) - 2:23:18 - CR
2. Amane Gobena (Ethiopia) - 2:25:58
3. Monica Jepkoech (Kenya) - 2:28:56
4. Atsede Habtamu (Ethiopia) - 2:29:44
5. Mizuho Nasukawa (Japan/Univ. Ent.) - 2:33:16
6. Cassie Fien (Australia) - 2:33:17 - PB
7. Maryna Damantsevich (Belarus) - 2:34:50
8. Winfrieda Kebaso (Kenya/Nitori) - 2:35:53
9. Kaori Yoshida (Japan/RxL) - 2:38:37
10. Deborah Toniolo (Italy) - 2:41:39
11. Aki Odagiri (Japan/Tenmaya) - 2:45:56
© 2016 Brett Larner
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