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Three Course Records, Three National Records, a Title Defense from Legese, and $1.7 Million in Bonuses at Tokyo Marathon

Race director Tad Hayano wanted records at the 2020 Tokyo Marathon, and records he got. Despite the withdrawal of almost the entire international women's and men's wheelchair fields, both races saw Japanese athletes solo new course records. Tsubasa Kina and Tomoki Suzuki tuned up for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics with new records of records of 1:40:00 and 1:21:52, reaping the rewards of a doubled prize money purse.

In the women's marathon, Kenyan-born 2019 Prague Marathon winner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter (Israel) kicked away from a tight pack race at 30 km to win in 2:17:45, a course record and new Israeli national record. With three Japanese men controlling the pace through 30 km the race stayed right on the hot end of the planned 3:17~18/km pace up to that point, burning off competitors including defending champion Ruti Aga (Ethiopia) and Frankfurt Marathon winner Valary Jemeli Aiyabei (Kenya) one by one until it was only Salpeter, two-time Tokyo winner Birhane Dibaba (Ethiopia), Sutume Asefa Kebede (Ethiopia) and Selly Chepyego Kaptich (Kenya) when the pacers stepped off.

Salpeter then dropped a white hot 15:54 split from there to 35 km near the final turnaround point that only Dibaba could match. On the return trip back up Salpeter slowed to a 16:10 split through 40 km, but even that was too much for Dibaba. Salpeter cruised on unthreatened to take over two minutes off both the course record and Japanese all-comers record set three years ago by Sarah Chepchirchir (Kenya). Dibaba was also under both records, 2nd for the third time in her six Tokyo appearances to date in a PB 2:18:35, with Kebede knocking over three minutes off her best for 3rd in 2:20:30. Haruka Yamaguchi (AC Kita) was the top Japanese woman at 10th in 2:30:31.

In a race that showed the full impact of Nike's Alphafly shoes, it came down to a two-way battle between defending champ Birhanu Legese (Ethiopia) and the man he outran at last September's Berlin Marathon, Sisay Lemma (Ethiopia) for the win in Tokyo's men's race. A fast first 10 km with splits of 14:32 and 14:39 didn't seem to discourage anyone with 14 men together at that point not including pacers and another 36 close behind the faster-than-planned second pack of men chasing spots on the 2020 Olympic team. Legese, Lemma and 2019 Dubai Marathon winner Getaneh Molla (Ethiopia) seemed like the main players in the front group, with 2018 Jakarta Asian Games gold medalist Hiroto Inoue (MHPS) keeping himself right there with them in the front row through the pace's ebb and flow. A subgroup of the leaders including Bedan Karoki (Kenya/DeNA), El Hassan El Abbassi (Bahrain), Amos Kipruto (Kenya) and Suguru Osako (Japan/Nike) dropped off an came back at least three times as things progressed before Osako, who looked uncomfortable in the warmer than expected conditions, slipped off the back alone just before 25 km.

Right afterward the pack ahead of him started to fracture, with Molla, Inoue and others dropping off and forming a chase pack as Legese, Lemma and compatriot Asefa Mengstu (Ethiopia) pulled away with the final remaining pacer and Japan-based Simon Kariuki (Kenya) on his own in between. Things stayed that way over the next 5 km, but behind them Masato Kikuchi (Konica Minolta), the only Japanese man to have broke 61 minutes in the half marathon three times in his career, dropped the chase pack to try to run down Osako and the fading Inoue.

The situation for all three Japanese men and those behind them was this: with Osako sitting in a provisional spot on the 2020 Olympic team, they had to be the top Japanese man under Osako's 2:05:50 national record to occupy that 3rd spot. At 30 km Inoue was on 2:04:26, true to his 2:04:30 pre-race prediction, Osako on 2:04:43 pace, and Kikuchi just three seconds behind on 2:04:47 pace. Plus another 13 Japanese men on track to crack Osako's 2:05:50 record. Quite the race indeed.

With the pacers' departure at 30 km, up front Lemma went to work for all of a kilometer before he, Legese and Mengstu trimmed their pace to wait for the return trip back up after the turnaround point near Shinagawa Station. All alone in 4th Kariuki seemed to have the chance of catching back up ahead of him, but despite Mengstu dropping off it never materialized. Legese did most of the work with Lemma on his heels until 3 km to go, when he put in a long surge that was too much for Lemma to handle. The course record was out of reach, but Legese had no problem bettering his winning time from last year to take a second-straight Tokyo in 2:04:15.

Further back, on the corner just past 30 km Osako noticed he was about to get run down by Kikuchi. Seemingly out of nowhere he was transformed, looking strong and smooth and he blasted away from Kikuchi and then straight past the surprised chase pack. El Abbassi and Bashir Abdi (Belgium) were the only ones who could match him, Inoue watching helplessly as his Olympic hopes slipped away. The trio worked their way up one by one through the field before Abdi dialed it up to another level, dropping both El Abbassi and Osako and kicking up to catch Lemma just before the finish line for 2nd in a new Belgian national record of 2:04:49. Lemma was 3rd in 2:04:51, with Osako, who as at last September's MGC Race started clawing at his side late in the race, shaving 21 seconds off his own national record for 4th in 2:05:29.

Karoki, El Abbassi and Mengstu took the next three spots in 2:06:15 through 2:06:23, but the real show was just getting started. In the first major marathon of the Alphafly era, behind Osako two Japanese men, Ryu Takaku (Yakult) and Daisuke Uekado (Otsuka Seiyaku) ran 2:06. Seven more including former national record holder Yuta Shitara (Honda), plus Kariuki, ran 2:07. Kipruto, Molla and another five Japanese men ran 2:08. Four more ran 2:09, Inoue and debuting Hakone Ekiden star Hidekazu Hijikata (Koku Gakuin Univ.) among them. As many people under 2:08 as had ever broken 2:10 in a single race before. And it went on and on and on. Oh, and don't forget a three and a half minute-plus PB of 2:13:13 from 100 km world record holder Nao Kazami (Aisan Kogyo).

The old time standards just didn't seem to apply anymore, and nothing felt the burn of that fact more than Project Exceed, the pre-Vaporfly Japanese corporate federation bonus program to inspire Japanese runners to reach higher en route to Tokyo 2020. For the second time, Osako won the 100 million yen (~$925,000 USD) bonus for a new Japanese national record. For running 2:06 both Takaku and Uekado scored 10 million yen bonuses (~$93,000 USD) with their coaches earning 5 million yen (~$46,000 USD). Seven Japanese men who ran 2:07 each earned a 5 million yen bonus (~$46,000 USD), with their coaches picking up 2.5 million yen each (~$23,000 USD). Altogether, at least 182 million yen, almost $1.7 million USD, independent of the prize and bonus money the Tokyo Marathon itself had on bonus. It's great to see distance runners making some decent cash, but you have to feel like the Project Exceed creators couldn't have foreseen results like this. Let's hope the project's budget wasn't exceeded.

In terms of where Osako stands with Olympic qualification, by breaking his own national record he has strengthened his position on the team, but he's not 100% out of the woods yet. There's still one more race, next weekend's Lake Biwa Marathon, where people will still have the chance to knock him off his pedestal. Given the field in Lake Biwa, even at 2:05:50 that wasn't likely, and 2:05:29 makes it even less so. But hey, it's the Alphafly era. Anything can happen. Especially when it's the last chance for a home soil Olympic team. What could be sweeter than some ambitious darkhorse pulling off a last-chance miracle? It's the stuff dreams used to be made of.

Tokyo Marathon

Tokyo, Japan, 3/1/20
complete results

Women's Wheelchair
1. Tsubasa Kina (Japan) - 1:40:00 - CR
2. Christie Dawes (Australia) - 1:53:23
3. Yurika Yasukawa (Japan) - 1:49:18

Men's Wheelchair
1. Tomoki Suzuki (Japan) - 1:21:52 - CR
2. Sho Watanabe (Japan) - 1:30:00
3. Kota Hokinoue (Japan) - 1:30:04

Women's Marathon
1. Lonah Chemtai Salpeter (Israel) - 2:17:45 - CR, NR
2. Birhane Dibaba (Ethiopia) - 2:18:35 (CR), PB
3. Sutume Asefa Kebede (Ethiopia) - 2:20:30 - PB
4. Selly Chepyego Kaptich (Kenya) - 2:21:42
5. Tigist Girma (Ethiopia) - 2:21:56
6. Azmera Gebru (Ethiopia) - 2:22:58
7. Senbere Teferi (Ethiopia) - 2:25:22
8. Shitaye Eshete (Bahrain) - 2:27:34
9. Shure Demise (Ethiopia) - 2:27:42
10. Haruka Yamaguchi (Japan) - 2:30:31
11. Shiho Kaneshige (Japan) - 2:31:20
12. Andrea Deelstra (Netherlands) - 2:33:34
13. Yuki Mizuseda (Japan) - 2:40:29
14. Mai Fujisawa (Japan) - 2:41:47
15. Yuri Norimatsu (Japan) - 2:42:06
DNF - Ruti Aga (Ethiopia)
DNF - Valary Jemeli Aiyabei (Kenya)
DNF - Marta Megra Lemma (Ethiopia)
DNF - Kaori Yoshida (Japan)

Men's Marathon
1. Birhanu Legese (Ethiopia) - 2:04:15
2. Bashir Abdi (Belgium) - 2:04:49 - NR
3. Sisay Lemma (Ethiopia) - 2:04:51
4. Suguru Osako (Japan) - 2:05:29 - NR
5. Bedan Karoki (Kenya) - 2:06:15
6. El Hassan El Abbassi (Bahrain) - 2:06:22
7. Asefa Mengstu (Ethiopia) - 2:06:23
8. Ryu Takaku (Japan) - 2:06:45 - PB
9. Daisuke Uekado (Japan) - 2:06:54 - PB
10. Toshiki Sadakata (Japan) - 2:07:05 - PB
11. Shin Kimura (Japan) - 2:07:20 - PB
12. Yusuke Ogura (Japan) - 2:07:23 - PB
13. Yuta Shimoda (Japan) - 2:07:27 - PB
14. Masato Kikuchi (Japan) - 2:07:31 - PB
15. Tadashi Isshiki (Japan) - 2:07:39 - PB
16. Yuta Shitara (Japan) - 2:07:45
17. Simon Kariuki (Kenya) - 2:07:56 - PB
18. Amos Kipruto (Kenya) - 2:08:00
19. Getaneh Molla (Ethiopia) - 2:08:12
20. Naoki Okamoto (Japan) - 2:08:37 - PB
21. Shohei Kurata (Japan) - 2:08:44 - PB
22. Takuya Fujikawa (Japan) - 2:08:45 - PB
23. Yuji Iwata (Japan) - 2:08:45 - PB
24. Minato Oishi (Japan) - 2:08:52 - PB
25. Chihiro Miyawaki (Japan) - 2:09:04
26. Hiroto Inoue (Japan) - 2:09:34
27. Kenji Yamamoto (Japan) - 2:09:41
28. Hidekazu Hijikata (Japan) - 2:09:50 - debut
29. Yusei Tsutsumi (Japan) - 2:11:07 - PB
30. Shuho Dairokuno (Japan) - 2:11:19 - PB
39. Daichi Kamino (Japan) - 2:12:11
40. Keita Shitara (Japan) - 2:12:13 - PB
45. Kensuke Horio (Japan) - 2:12:32
48. Nao Kazami (Japan) - 2:13:13 - PB
DNF - Dickson Chumba (Kenya)
DNF - Titus Ekiru (Kenya)
DNF - Hayle Lemi (Ethiopia)
DNF - Kenta Murayama (Japan)
DNF - Yuki Sato (Japan)

text and photo © 2020 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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Anonymous said…
Is Shitara retiring now then?
Simon Sumida said…
So now we know what the organisers are doing with all the entry fees non refunded: they will need all that money to pay the bonus prizes... ;)
Geoff B said…
“It's the stuff dreams used to be made of.”

Absolutely nailed it. I’m not sure if the flavor that persisted in my emotional palate was creeping disinterest or outright apathy, but that line is most definitely the tasting note.
Anonymous said…
Neither winner was wearing Alphaflys...not sure comments about “Alphafly era” add up...

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