As at Lake Biwa up the road a ways, this was it for any Japanese women who wanted to make the 2020 Olympic marathon team and be one of the three to hopefully line up in Sapporo this summer. Like last week's Tokyo Marathon cut down from a mass-participation event to an elite-only race as a measure against the novel coronavirus, the Nagoya Women's Marathon had clear criteria to make the Olympic team: be the first Japanese woman across the finish line, and do it under the 2:21:47 that Mizuki Matsuda ran to win January's Osaka International Women's Marathon.
Right after she won Matsuda said, "There's nobody else in the country who can beat that time." But there were some willing to try. Despite cold temperatures, rain and wind, from the gun the race was out on the hot side of a planned 3:20/km, 2:20:39 pace, and while the projected finish time fluctuated around 2:21 it never came within 20 seconds of Matsuda's mark and spent more its morning on the low end of that range. That burned off most of the field, including four-time Olympian Kayoko Fukushi (Wacoal), doubling back from a DNF in Osaka to try to make a fifth team, four of the invited Kenyans, and defending champion Namibian record holder Helalia Johannes.
As they came up to the last few pacers' departure at 30 km it was down to top two-ranked women Purity Cherotich Rionoripo (Kenya) and Helen Tola (Ethiopia), Ethiopian duo Hirut Tibebu Damte and Birke Debele, and three Japanese women, 2017 Nagoya runner-up Yuka Ando (Wacoal), 2019 National Corporate Half Marathon winner Sayaka Sato (Sekisui Kagaku), and 22-year-old Mao Ichiyama (Wacoal). Running her fourth marathon since making her debut in Tokyo a year and a week ago and having taken the MGC Olympic trials race out at national record pace before fading to 6th, Ichiyama was impatient to go by 29 km, pulling up to the front and pushing the pacers to a 3:14 for their 30th and final km.
And then it was show time. That fast km before the pacers left dropped Ando and strung the pack out. When the pacers stopped Ichiyama had a few strides on Tola and Rionoripo, and though they tried to close it up Ichiyama, the only woman up front wearing Nike's Alphafly shoes, was relentless, going 3:14-3:14-3:10-3:15 for her next four km, 16:08 from 29 to 34 km. Neither Tola nor Rionoripo could follow, and it was just down to a question of whether Ichiyama could sustain it.
The needle ticked in the yes direction as the kilometers went by, Ichiyama's projected finish time moving further and further under Matsuda's winning time and zeroing in on 2:20:35. With one more gear after 40 km she closed hard in 7:13 to break the tape inside Nagoya Dome in 2:20:29, the fourth-fastest ever by a Japanese woman, nearly a minute under Mizuki Noguchi's old record for the fastest Japanese time on Japanese soil, a course record, and 1:18 under what she needed to knock Matsuda back down to the alternate's position on the Olympic team.
Post-race she said she'd trained to go it alone after 30 km, and there doesn't seem to be any question it worked. Her teammate Ando was a surprise 2nd in 2:22:41, rolling up from 6th in a major comeback after a coaching change following her 2:21:36 in Nagoya 2017. Rionoripo, the only woman in the field with a recent sub-2:21 before Ichiyama did it, was 3rd in 2:22:56, with Tola fading to 6th. Making her debut, Sato ran an impressive 2:23:27 for 5th and all smiles post-race. Her time also earned her a little place in Japanese history as the 50th Japanese woman to break 2:26.
4th at the MGC Olympic trials in September, Matsuda's win in Osaka put her into the provisional spot on the Olympic team ahead of trials 3rd-placer Rei Ohara. Despite her confidence that nobody could beat her 2:21:47 she now finds herself back as the alternate after Ichiyama's all-in last-ditch shot at Olympic glory. It was a spectacular finish to an innovative new Olympic team selection process that stayed exciting to the very end. Raise the bar, and people will jump higher. If there was one takeaway from the MGC race and Final Challenge series, that would be it.
Japan's 2020 Olympic women's marathon team:
Mao Ichiyama (Wacoal - Nike shoes) - 2:20:29, 6th, MGC Olympic trials race
Honami Maeda (Tenmaya - Asics shoes) - 2:23:48, 1st, MGC Olympic trials race
Ayuko Suzuki (Japan Post - Nike shoes) - 2:28:32, 2nd, MGC Olympic trials race
alternate - Mizuki Matsuda (Daihatsu - NB shoes) - 2:21:47, 4th, MGC Olympic trials race
Nagoya Women's MarathonNagoya, Aichi, 3/8/20
complete results and splits
1. Mao Ichiyama (Japan/Wacoal) - 2:20:29 - CR, PB
2. Yuka Ando (Japan/Wacoal) - 2:22:41
3. Purity Cherotich Rionoripo (Kenya) - 2:22:56
4. Hirut Tibebu Damte (Ethiopia) - 2:23:17 - PB
5. Sayaka Sato (Japan/Sekisui Kagku) - 2:23:27 - debut
6. Helen Tola (Ethiopia) - 2:23:52
7. Birke Debele (Ethiopia) - 2:25:08
8. Ai Hosoda (Japan/Daihatsu) - 2:26:34 - PB
9. Reia Iwade (Japan/Under Armour) - 2:28:39
10. Natsuki Omori (Japan/Daihatsu) - 2:29:29
11. Erika Honda (Japan/Higo Ginko) - 2:29:51 - PB
12. Mao Uesugi (Japan/Starts) - 2:30:00
13. Ayano Ikemitsu (Japan/Noritz) - 2:30:07
14. Chiharu Suzuki (Japan/Hitachi) - 2:30:19 - PB
15. Anna Matsuda (Japan/Kyocera) - 2:30:36 - PB
16. Yui Okada (Japan/Otsuka Seiyaku) - 2:32:00 - PB
17. Rie Kawauchi (Japan/Otsuka Seiyaku) - 2:32:14
18. Ako Matsumoto (Japan/Denso) - 2:33:01 - debut
19. Nami Hashimoto (Japan/Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 2:33:09 - PB
20. Yuri Nozoe (Japan/Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 2:34:04 - PB
DNF - Stellah Jepngetich Barsosio (Kenya)
DNF - Truphena Chepchirchi (Kenya)
DNF - Kayoko Fukushi (Japan/Wacoal)
DNF - Chien-ho Hsieh (Taiwan)
DNF - Ayano Ikeuchi (Japan/Denso)
DNF - Helalia Johannes (Namibia)
DNF - Yuko Kikuchi (Japan/Hokuren)
DNF - Nancy Jepkosgei Kiprop (Kenya)
DNF - Betsy Saina (Kenya)
© 2020 Brett Larner, all rights reserved