Friday, December 2, 2016

Feeling the Weight of 70 Years - Fukuoka International Marathon Preview

by Brett Larner

This Sunday the Fukuoka International Marathon celebrates its 70th running.  Once upon a time playing the role of the men's marathon world championships in a day before there were World Championships, Fukuoka has seen its importance worldwide dwindle in the face of modernity and the changes it has brought in the sport.  It still manages to put together good-quality, interesting fields from a spectrum of nationalities, but it has been a while since Fukuoka could really pull in the type of talent who now head to the World Marathon Majors.  On the home front too, despite serving as the first of three main selection races for Japanese national teams at the major international championships, its timing a bit less than four weeks before the increasingly important New Year Ekiden corporate men's national championships means that more and more top level Japanese man now pass it over in favor of February's Tokyo Marathon or March's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon. Fukuoka has looked at moving to a February date, and with additional pressure from the new mass-participation Fukuoka Marathon held just three weeks earlier its historical position is increasingly precarious.  But change doesn't come easy, especially with the inertia of 70 years of history behind it.

The field up front reflects these issues.  The marquee athlete this year is 2015 World Championships silver medalist Yemane Tsegay (Ethiopia), who along with 2014-15 Fukuoka winner Patrick Makau (Kenya) and James Kwambai (Kenya) has run under 2:05 in the past but nowhere near that in the last few years. Makau has the best recent time with his 2:08:18 Fukuoka win last year, but has DNFd in two of his last three marathons.  Another win would make him just the third man to win Fukuoka three years in a row after legends Frank Shorter and Toshihiko Seko.  Barring a spectacular debut from last year's sub-60 Marugame Half winner Paul Kuira (Kenya/Team Konica Minolta) or an equally spectacular second marathon from Tariku Bekele (Ethiopia) it looks likely to be a 2:08 race, maybe 2:07 if all goes well.  There's no shortage of other people like Amanuel Mesel (Eritrea) around the 2:08 level, but even a 2:07 falls short of the JAAF's sub-2:07 requirement for the London World Championships team.

The JAAF is saying that it might not send complete three-runner teams to London if people don't run fast enough, but who in the domestic field has the potential to run that kind of time?  Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) is the fastest Japanese man this year with a 2:09:01 at July's Gold Coast Airport Marathon, but a calf injury three weeks ago has seriously eaten into his preparations and it would take a miracle for him to be competitive.  Tomoya Adachi (Team Asahi Kasei) is the only other Japanese man in the field to have broken 2:10 in the last three years, barely, with a 2:09:59 in Fukuoka two years ago.  Chiharu Takada (Team JR Higashi Nihon) was the next Japanese man behind Kawauchi at Gold Coast in 2:10:43 and has run 2:10 marathons four times without being able to break through.  Kazuhiro Maeda (Team Kyudenko) has the best PB among the Japanese men, 2:08:00, but his fastest marathon in the last three years is only a 2:11:46 last year at Lake Biwa and a terrible performance at September's Great North Run was not encouraging.

The depth of Japanese distance running means that people can and often do unexpectedly drop breakthrough performances, so there is a good chance the top Japanese man could be a relative unknown.  But without at least a 2:08 there's an equally good chance the JAAF may play hardball and leave him home next summer.  Not having its top man on the team could only hurt Fukuoka's position.  Regardless of how fast it goes Fukuoka almost always delivers an interesting race, and this year looks more unpredictable than usual. Conditions are looking good right now so let's hope for the best.  Follow @JRNLive for English-language coverage during the live TV broadcast starting at 12:10 p.m. Japan time.

70th Fukuoka International Marathon Elite Field
Fukuoka, 12/4/16
click here for complete field listing
times listed are best within last 3 years except where noted
last-minute withdrawal announcements pending

Yemane Tsegay (Ethiopia) - 2:06:51 (Daegu 2014)
James Kwambai (Kenya) - 2:07:38 (Seoul 2014)
Patrick Makau (Kenya) - 2:08:18 (Fukuoka Int'l 2015)
Amanuel Mesel (Eritrea) - 2:08:18 (Warsaw 2015)
Henryk Szost (Poland) - 2:08:55 (Warsaw 2014)
Joseph Gitau (Kenya/JFE Steel) - 2:09:00 (Fukuoka Int'l 2013)
Yuki Kawauchi (Japan/Saitama Pref. Gov't) - 2:09:01 (Gold Coast 2016)
Benjamin Ngandu (Kenya/Monteroza) - 2:09:18 (Tokyo 2015)
Melaku Abera (Ethiopia/Kurosaki Harima) - 2:09:27 (Beppu-Oita 2016)
Yared Asmerom (Eritrea/SEISA) - 2:09:41 (Tokyo 2015)
Cuthbert Nyasango (Zimbabwe) - 2:09:52 (Prague 2014)
Tomoya Adachi (Japan/Asahi Kasei) - 2:09:59 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Chiharu Takada (Japan/JR Higashi Nihon) - 2:10:03 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Reid Coolsaet (Canada) - 2:10:28 (Berlin 2015)
Yoshiki Otsuka (Japan/Aichi Seiko) - 2:11:40 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Kazuhiro Maeda (Japan/Kyudenko) - 2:11:46 (Biwako 2015)
Noriaki Takahashi (Japan/DeNA) - 2:12:00 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Hiroki Yamagishi (Japan/GMO Athletes) - 2:12:27 (Tokyo 2016)
Dmytro Baranovskyy (Ukraine) - 2:12:40 (Warsaw 2014)
Ryo Ishita (Japan/SDF Academy) - 2:13:52 (Nobeoka 2014)
Bunta Kuroki (Japan/Yasukawa Denki) - 2:14:27 (Warsaw 2014)
Michael Githae (Kenya/Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:14:29 (Shizuoka 2016)
Sho Matsumoto (Japan/Nikkei Business Service) - 2:14:54 (Osaka 2014)
Kenta Iinuma (Japan/SGH Group) - 2:15:05 (Biwako 2014)
Saeki Makino (Japan/DNP Logistics) - 2:15:22 (Seoul 2015)
Tomoya Shirayanagi (Japan/Toyota Boshoku) - 2:15:56 (Shizuoka 2016)

Trying Again
Tariku Bekele (Ethiopia) - 1:01:39 (Great North Run Half Marathon 2014)
Aritaka Kajiwara (Japan/Atsugi T&F Assoc) - 1:02:45 (Takanezawa Half Marathon 2016)

Debut
Paul Kuira (Kenya/Konica Minolta) - 59:47 (Marugame Half Marathon 2015)
John Kariuki (Kenya/Hiramatsu Byoin) - 28:38.16 for 10000 m, Hokuren DC Abashiri 2016)

© 2016 Brett Larner
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