by Brett Larner
This weekend is a lull in the middle of Japan's seven-week elite marathon season, but there's still plenty going on. Both of its main 30 km road races, Kumamoto's Kumanichi 30 km and Tokyo's Ome 30 km, the world's two greatest races at the distance, happen Sunday.
Run in conjunction with the mass participation Kumamoto-jo Marathon, the Kumanichi 30 km is an elite-only event with small men's and women's fields and the home of Takayuki Matsumiya's 1:28:00 national record. Toyo University graduate Ryu Takaku (Team Yakult) leads the field with a 1:30:32 in Kumanichi three years ago. Current Toyo runner Shun Sakuraoka and past 1500 m and 5000 m national champion Yuichiro Ueno (DeNA RC) are his main competition. Mami Onuki (Team Sysmex) has the best 30 km time in the women's field, 1:46:37 for 2nd in last year's race, but the favorite may be the debuting Ayumi Kubo (Team Kagoshima Ginko), a 1:11:29 half marathoner.
The Ome 30 km is a longstanding mass participation event with over 15,000 participants and the women's national record, Mizuki Noguchi's stellar pre-Olympic gold 1:39:09 from 2004. Most fans will be focused on Ome this weekend to see the 30 km debut of ultra-popular former Hakone Ekiden star Daichi Kamino (Team Konica Minolta). Ome has a tough and hilly course that plays to Kamino's strengths, and with a bonus of over $25,000 USD on the line for beating Toshihiko Seko's 1:29:23 Ome time he has extra motivation to hit it hard. And it may be leading to something bigger.
Ome has a longstanding relationship with the Boston Marathon, the top Japanese man in Ome getting an invitation to run Boston and top Americans in Boston likewise getting invited to run Ome the following year. Back in the day this meant the big names, but it has been a long time since either country's best ran the other's race, the invitations usually ending up in the hands of 2nd or 3rd-tier runners. Kamino has been talking a marathon debut next season, but he has been building up nicely enough this one. In December he ran 46:38 for 2nd behind Kenyan Charles Ndirangu (Team JFE Steel) at the Kumamoto Kosa 10-Miler. After two good ekiden runs in January he ran a 1:01:04 half marathon PB for top Japanese man at the Feb. 5 Marugame Half. When Seko ran his 1:29:23 in the 1981 Ome he went on to win Boston two months later in 2:09:27. The hills of the Boston course are ideal for Kamino's abilities. His teammate Tomohiro Tanigawa debuted in Boston off a solid Ome run in 2013. If Kamino breaks Seko's time, could he we see him follow Seko to Boston?
The Ome women's race is always small, but this year it has a debut almost as exciting as Kamino's lined up. All-time Japanese junior #3 for 5000 m at 15:17.62, Azusa Sumi (Team Universal Entertainment), now age 20, is set to run her first-ever race longer than 12 km. Sumi ran well this ekiden season, running 32:38 for 10.0 km at January's National Women's Ekiden and 36:36 for 11.7 km a week later at the Kita-Kyushu Invitational Women's Ekiden, her longest-ever race up to now. It's a big jump from there to 30 km, especially on a hilly course, but Sumi wouldn't be taking it on if she wasn't ready.
Cross country is a minor part of the sport in Japan, with just two major races on the calendar. Rebranded to sound cooler, the X-Run Chiba 2017 also goes down Sunday. Serving as the Junior High School cross country championships, this year X-Run Chiba features distances all the way up to 20 km in the open division. Most elites will opt for the Fukuoka International Cross Country meet next week, rebranded last year as the National Cross Country Championships, but it'll be interesting to see how a 20 km cross country race goes over.
© 2017 Brett Larner
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