Uehara took 3rd in the 10000 m at June’s National Championships in 31:48.81, qualifying for the London World Championships where she was 24th in 32:31.58. In between she dropped her best 5000 m of the year, a 15:32.25 in Abashiri. During ekiden season she was only OK, finishing 5th on her stage at the National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Championships.
In her last race of the year, the Dec. 23 Sanyo Ladies Road Race half marathon, Uehara sat back behind frontrunning Japanese women Rei Ohara (Tenmaya) and Mao Ichiyama (Wacoal), craftily running them down in the final stages to finish in 1:09:13, the fastest time of the year by a Japanese woman and one that put her at all-time Japanese #14. For her efforts Uehara will lead the Japanese team at next year’s Valencia World Half Marathon Championships.
Sanyo was Uehara’s best run of the year, but there were other highlights from others. JRN readers rightfully picked the 2:21:36 marathon debut of Yuka Ando (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) in Nagoya as the Japanese women’s performance of the year, a time that ranked her at #4 in the Japanese history books. Riko Matsuzaki (Sekisui Kagaku) placed even higher, running 8:49.61 in a near-miss on the 3000 m national record in Kitami. 16-year-old Shuri Ogasawara (Yamanashi Gakuin Prep H.S.) ran 15:23.56 for 4th in the 5000 m at the National Championships, just missing the London team but breaking the U18 national record and just missing the high school national record. Another high schooler, Nozomi Tanaka (Nishiwaki Kogyo H.S.), ran the 2nd-fastest time ever by a Japanese high school girl over 3000 m, 8:54.27, while winning October’s National Sports Festival.
But like the men, when it really counted the Japanese women couldn’t run up to ability. In London Ayuko Suzuki (Japan Post) just cracked the top 10 in the 10000 m but in the marathon Ando was a non-factor, her teammate Mao Kiyota (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) taking the top Japanese spot at only 16th in 2:30:36. Compare them to American women. On average time of the ten fastest performances of the year Japan still leads the U.S. as #3 in the world, but the margin this year was the slimmest in modern history, 2:25:53 to 2:25:58. American women had a time inside the ten fastest worldwide for the year, a World Marathon Majors win and a World Championships medal, all by different athletes. Japanese women had none of that. It was clear this year that American women are passing them by as relevant on the world stage, that American women are becoming what Japan once was and what it fantasizes itself still to be: smart, competitive and fast. While they may be almost equal in ability Americans have the mental edge that Japan’s best of today simply don’t.
It’s not all grim. Young runners like Ando, Kiyota and others are stepping up to fill a gap left by the last two generations. Sanyo was a big race for Japanese women, whose performances at the half marathon distance have declined noticeably in the last ten years. Prior to Sanyo not a single Japanese woman had broken 70 minutes this year, but in Sanyo Uehara, Ichiyama, Ohara and the debuting Azusa Sumi (Univ. Ent.), all but Ohara under age 23, broke 1:09:30, a solid step back in the right direction. That’s a long way from the level of performance American women brought to the half this year, maybe not entirely a coincidence, but still a source of encouragement for Japan’s marathon prospects, late as they may be before Tokyo 2020.
text © 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved