After an almost two-year qualification period that made it the most difficult marathon in history to get into, Japan's Marathon Grand Championship 2020 Tokyo Olympics marathon trials went off perfectly Sunday in warm and sunny conditions. Shogo Nakamura (Fujitsu), 4th in Berlin last year, and 2018 Fukuoka winner Yuma Hattori (Toyota) went 1-2 in a 3-way sprint finish against national record holder Suguru Osako (Nike Oregon Project) to score places on the Olympic team, with 2017 Hokkaido Marathon winner Honami Maeda (Tenmaya) taking the women's race and 2018 Hokkaido winner Ayuko Suzuki (Japan Post) holding off Rei Ohara (Tenmaya) to join Maeda in the Tokyo lineup.
It was a sign of the level of commitment that this generation brought, of what next summer's Olympics are going to be like, that both the women's and men's races went out at national record pace, but the two couldn't have been more different. In the women's race, 9 of the 10 starters went out faster than the national record. In the men's race, only one, previous national record holder Yuta Shitara (Honda).
True to his pre-race words, Shitara was fearless to a fault, literally. Maybe he should have had more fear. Or maybe not. He wasn't afraid to fail, and definitely wasn't afraid of being called a fool. From the gun he was out on 2:05 pace, putting the rest of the lead pack out of sight within the first kilometer. After 10 km he gradually began to slow, but he still built up a lead of 2:13 by 15 km, through halfway in 1:03:27, before it really started to come back to him.
Behind him formed a chase quartet with core members Nakamura, Hattori and Osako plus Nakamura's teammate Kengo Suzuki (Fujitsu) who qualified for the MGC Race by 3 seconds this April. Together they represented the best of Japan's university development system, Nakamura the 2013 National University Half Marathon champion, Hattori the 30 km collegiate national record holder, Osako the Asian junior half marathon record holder, Suzuki Nakamura's successor as 2017 National University Half Marathon champ. All four of them Hakone Ekiden stage winners like Shitara.
But as they approached the 24 km turnaround point, one by one, others joined them. Taku Fujimoto (Toyota), 2:07:57 in Chicago behind Osako last fall. Hakone uphill stage winner Shohei Otsuka (Kyudenko). The oldest man in the race, four-time Olympics and World Championships top ten placer Kentaro Nakamoto (Yasukawa Denki). Random 2:10 no-name Yoshiki Takenouchi (NTT Nishi Nihon). And Ryo Hashimoto (GMO), a member of Hakone Ekiden champion Aoyama Gakuin University who had never been good enough to make its starting roster.
You couldn't have asked for a more interesting chase pack. When they hit the 24 km turnaround they could see Shitara coming back. By the 32 km turnaround they knew they'd catch him. Suzuki did most of the work to keep the pace fast enough to make up the ground, but Otsuka, Nakamoto, Hashimoto, and even Takenouchi took their turns. True to form, just about the only one who didn't was Osako, who repeatedly held his right side but lost no ground to whatever the problem was. With 5 km to go they ran Shitara down, Suzuki leading the way with an ekiden-style pass, surging just before the overtake and keeping it on until he was 10 m ahead.
Only Nakamura, Osako and Hattori could follow at first, and that proved the move that signaled the final standings. 2 km later, after vomiting at the 38 km mark, with exactly 3 km to go Nakamura went all-out, dropping everyone and opening his lead up the steepest hill on the course to 40 km. Osako and Hattori tried to follow, and it took until the last long downhill with just over a kilometer to go for Osako to drop Hattori and close up Nakamura's lead. But Nakamura refused to let Osako pull even with him, staying half a step ahead and then attacking again on the short final uphill with 800 m to go to get away for good. His closing split of 6:18 from 40 km to the finish, with two uphills, may have been the fastest ever by a Japanese man.
Dropped on the downhill, Hattori also used his uphill skills to retake Osako on the final climb. Like a million other times in his career Osako found himself simply without the closing speed he needed, and could only watch helplessly as Hattori pulled away. Nakamura crossed the line first in 2:11:28 with Hattori next in 2:11:36 to score the two Olympic spots on offer. For the fourth time in his four marathon finishes to date Osako was 3rd, 5 seconds back from Hattori in 2:11:41 and only earning a provisional place on the Olympic team.
The next-generation Otsuka was close behind in 4th in 2:11:58, provisionally the alternate behind Osako. The Hakone Ekiden was created a hundred years ago to cultivate Olympic marathoners, and with the Olympics coming back to Japan next year and the JAAF taking a huge risk on something new with the MGC Race it paid off with a thrilling head-to-head battle over the last 3 km between four Hakone stage winners that produced about as good an Olympic lineup as you could hope for. The real payoff is yet to come 11 months from now, and with a final 14th-place finish here Shitara having a 2:05:49 in his sights to steal Osako's spot on the team promises a lot more drama before then. "Thanks for cheering!" he tweeted right after the race. "That was fun!"
The women's race was almost the exact inverse of the men's. The youngest qualifier female or male, 22-year-old Mao Ichiyama (Wacoal) took the race out on 2:18:32 pace, and except for 2018 Jakarta Asian Games silver medalist Keiko Nogami (Juhachi Ginko) everybody went with it. Things stayed sub-2:20 for at least 10 km, enough to burn off fastest qualifier Mizuki Matsuda (Daihatsu), fastest Japanese woman of 2019 Reia Iwade (Under Armour), and Rio Olympics 5000 m finalist Miyuki Uehara (Daiichi Seimei) to leave a core group of six, Wacoal runners Ichiyama, Yuka Ando and Kayoko Fukushi, Tenmaya teammates Maeda and Ohara, and pre-race favorite Suzuki.
After 10 km the pace slowed enough for Matsuda to regain contact, but when Maeda took over up front 2 km later she slipped off again as the field strung out. As it started to come apart Suzuki saw that Maeda was for real and moved up behind her for the first time as they neared 15 km. At 16 km Maeda surged to break away, and only Suzuki followed. Within 2 km it was down to just the two of them with Ohara trailing behind and the rest of the field disappearing into the distance, and it took less than another 2 km for Maeda to put Suzuki away for good.
On 2:22:18 pace at 20 km, a minute and a half better than her PB, Maeda ran the entire rest of the race alone. Rising temperatures took a toll and naturally she slowed, almost seeming to drag herself up the hill to 40 km, but pulling it together to finish hard she took 1st in 2:25:15, the second-best time of her career, adding another link to the chains of Tenmaya's success at putting people on national teams, and enough to have her taken away for emergency medical treatment post-race.
Once Maeda went out front nothing changed between Suzuki and Ohara, the only drama coming as Ohara closed hard to come within 4 seconds of Suzuki by race's end. Suzuki held on to 2nd in 2:29:02, not the performance people had been hoping for but getting her on the Olympic team. After missing the Rio team by 1 second Ohara found herself in 3rd by 4 seconds this time. While Osako may be relatively secure in 3rd as the 2:05:50 men's national record holder, 2:22:22, the time women need to run this winter to steal her spot, is something eight Japanese women have done before and one that leaves her position vulnerable.
Vulnerable to people like Matsuda, who overcame the ups and downs of her performance today to take 4th in 2:29:51. Matsuda hasn't been herself since running 2:22:23 in Berlin last year, but if she gets back to that kind of shape in time she could replace Ohara as the third woman on the team after Maeda and Suzuki. Special mention has to go to Nogami, who let go of the rest of the field in the first 800 m when she realized the pace and ran her own to race to wind up 5th in 2:31:14.
As I wrote above, the real test of whether the MGC Race was a success will come next summer, but in terms of how it helped motivate Japan's best to aim higher and especially in terms of the excitement it generated throughout the entire two-year qualifying period and today there's no question at all that it was the right move, one that should have happened a long time ago and should happen again.
And the excitement isn't over yet as the winter season will bring the Final Challenge, the chance for men to replace Osako on the team if they can break his 2:05:50 national record in Fukuoka, Tokyo or Lake Biwa, and for women to knock off Ohara if they can go 2:22:22 in Saitama, Osaka or Nagoya. It's a TV broadcast cash grab by the JAAF that detracts from the purity of a single-trial race, but that's reality, and you know it's going to mean some hardcore racing. Bring it on.
Marathon Grand ChampionshipJapanese 2020 Tokyo Olympics Marathon Trials
Top 2 are named to Olympic team. 3rd is provisionally on team pending outcome of winter 2019-20 season. 4th and 5th are provisional alternates.
complete results and splits
1. Honami Maeda (Tenmaya) - 2:25:15
2. Ayuko Suzuki (Japan Post) - 2:29:02
3. Rei Ohara (Tenmaya) - 2:29:06
4. Mizuki Matsuda (Daihatsu) - 2:29:51
5. Keiko Nogami (Juhachi Ginko) - 2:31:14
6. Mao Ichiyama (Wacoal) - 2:32:30
7. Kayoko Fukushi (Wacoal) - 2:33:29
8. Yuka Ando (Wacoal) - 2:36:29
9. Reia Iwade (Under Armour) - 2:41:22
DNF - Miyuki Uehara (Daiichi Seimei)
complete results and splits
1. Shogo Nakamura (Fujitsu) - 2:11:28
2. Yuma Hattori (Toyota) - 2:11:36
3. Suguru Osako (Nike Oregon Project) - 2:11:41
4. Shohei Otsuka (Kyudenko) - 2:11:58
5. Ryo Hashimoto (GMO) - 2:12:07
6. Yoshiki Takenouchi (NTT Nishi Nihon) - 2:12:31
7. Kengo Suzuki (Fujitsu) - 2:12:44
8. Kentaro Nakamoto (Yasukawa Denki) - 2:12:46
9. Taku Fujimoto (Toyota) - 2:13:58
10. Naoki Okamoto (Chugoku Denryoku) - 2:14:55
11. Daisuke Uekado (Otsuka Seiyaku) - 2:15:08
12. Hiroyuki Yamamoto (Konica Minolta) - 2:15:52
13. Daiji Kawai (Toenec) - 2:15:56
14. Yuta Shitara (Honda) - 2:16:09
15. Kensuke Horio (Toyota) - 2:16:21
16. Kenji Yamamoto (Mazda) - 2:16:44
17. Daichi Kamino (Cell Source) - 2:17:40
18. Ryo Kiname (MHPS) - 2:18:51
19. Tomohiro Tanigawa (Konica Minolta) - 2:18:56
20. Yuji Iwata (MHPS) - 2:19:14
21. Akinobu Murasawa (Nissin Shokuhin) - 2:19:52
22. Jo Fukuda (Nishitetsu) - 2:19:55
23. Yuki Sato (Nissin Shokuhin) - 2:20:13
24. Takuya Fujikawa (Chugoku Denryoku) - 2:20:35
25. Masato Imai (Toyota Kyushu) - 2:21:15
26. Hayato Sonoda (Kurosaki Harima) - 2:21:51
27. Hiroto Inoue (MHPS) - 2:22:10
DNF - Chihiro Miyawaki (Toyota)
DNF - Kohei Ogino (Fujitsu)
DNF - Ryu Takaku (Yakult)
© 2019 Brett Larner, all rights reserved