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MGC Race Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier - Masato Imai

Masato Imai

age: 35
sponsor: Toyota Kyushu
graduated from: Haramachi H.S., Juntendo University

best time inside MGC window:
2:10:30, 6th, 2019 Tokyo Marathon

PB: 2:07:39, 7th, 2015 Tokyo Marathon

other PBs:
5000 m: 13:47.15 (2014) 10000 m: 28:18.15 (2010) half marathon: 1:02:36 (2017)

marathons inside MGC window (Aug. 1 2017 – April 30 2019)
6th, 2019 Tokyo Marathon, 2:10:30
9th, 2018 Lake Biwa Marathon, 2:11:38
10th, 2017 Eindhoven Marathon, 2:17:00

other major results:
17th, 2019 Shibetsu Half Marathon, 1:06:05
10th, 2019 Sendai International Half Marathon, 1:03:19
3rd, 2019 New Year Ekiden Fourth Stage (22.4 km), 1:05:30
9th, 2018 Kumamoto Kosa 10-Mile Road Race, 46:22 – PB
14th, 2017 Tokyo Marathon, 2:11:02
2nd, 2017 Shibetsu Half Marathon, 1:03:44
5th, 2017 Sendai International Half Marathon, 1:02:36 – PB
1st, 2016 Sendai International Half Marathon, 1:03:06
7th, 2015 Tokyo Marathon, 2:07:39 – PB
2nd, 2014 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon, 2:09:30
1st, 2007 Hakone Ekiden Fifth Stage (23.4 km, ~800 m uphill), 1:18:05 – CR
1st, 2006 Hakone Ekiden Fifth Stage (23.4 km, ~800 m uphill), 1:18:30 – CR
1st, 2005 Hakone Ekiden Fifth Stage (20.9 km, ~800 m uphill), 1:09:12 – CR

Imai is the runner who launched the Hakone Ekiden into the modern era. If you weren’t there to see it it’s hard to explain, but his stage record-smashing run on the uphill Fifth Stage at the 2005 Hakone Ekiden transfixed the nation and made him one of the most respected figures in Japanese long distance. When he graduated from Juntendo University and went to the Toyota Kyushu yeam to train alongside future Beijing Olympics marathon gold medalist Samuel Wanjiru under the last Japanese man to win an Olympic marathon medal, Barcelona silver medalist Koichi Morishita, it seemed like great things were destined to happen.

When I interviewed Imai and Morishita following Wanjiru’s death in 2011, Imai told me, “I wanted to run a marathon with him. If it had been the Olympics it would have been the best. The next Olympics, or the one after that, I wanted to race him on the Olympic stage.” But Imai came up short of making the 2012 London Olympics marathon team. He worked hard to take things to the next level, tying the best-ever Japanese placing at the time at the NYC Marathon and running a PB 2:09:30 at the 2014 Beppu-Oita Marathon. When he dropped a 2:07:39 a year later it resonated throughout Japan. The first modern Hakone superstar had hit a home run in the marathon. Again, if you weren’t there it’s hard to understand how inspirational it was.

But the Olympics weren’t in the cards. Again, Imai fell short of making the Rio Olympics team. A year later when I was in Barcelona with Morishita for the 25th anniversary of his medal he told me, “I really thought Imai was going to be the one to pick up where I left off, but it wasn’t to be. In terms of his age now he’s past his peak, and I think it’s just too late.” Two months later, Imai dropped a half marathon PB. He wavered a bit in the marathon, then ran a 10-mile PB late last year and in January took 3rd on the New Year Ekiden’s longest stage against most of the top competition at the MGC Race.

In Tokyo Imai went under 2:11 and finished as the second Japanese man, enough to get him into the MGC Race at age 35. Could a miracle happen in September? Could he finally make the Olympic team he’s targeted for over a decade? His performance at July’s hot Shibetsu Half Marathon wasn’t encouraging, but even though it will probably take a miracle there’s no question that Imai is the sentimental favorite in the field, the one who will have people in tears if he makes it. Count us among them.

Next profile: Rei Ohara (Tenmaya).

© 2019 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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