Friday, March 28, 2008

Peter Snell Lectures at Tokyo Kaiyo University

by Brett Larner

1964 Tokyo Olympic 800 and 1500 m gold medalist Peter Snell of New Zealand delivered a lecture at Tokyo Kaiyo University on Mar. 27 as part of a lecture tour of Japan to promote his research into the physiologocial basis of the training system designed by Snell's coach and mentor Arthur Lydiard. Audience members in the full auditorium included marathon great Masako Chiba, Japanese men's 1500 m national record holder Fumikazu Kobayashi, national 800 m champion Masato Yokota, and a variety of coaches and other athletes.

After an introduction by the Lydiard Foundation's Nobby Hashizume, Snell gave his lecture, then fielded questions from audience members including Kobayashi and Yokota. His exchange with Yokota turned into an extended debate over the merits of jogging as part of a middle distance runner's training. Snell's tour was scheduled to continue over the weekend in Gunma Prefecture with a workshop featuring panelists such as Olympic marathoner Toshinari Suwa.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On to the Next Dream: Naoko Takahashi to Run All 3 Elite Women's Marathons Next Winter

translated and edited by Brett Larner

2 weeks after finishing 27th in the Nagoya International Women's Marathon and missing her chance for the Beijing Olympics, Sydney Olympics women's marathon gold medalist Naoko Takahashi (35, Team Phiten) has found a new dream: she intends to run and win all three of the major elite women's marathons in Japan during next winter's season.

Speaking at a press conference on Mar. 24, Takahashi announced that she plans to race the Tokyo International Women's Marathon on Nov. 16 this year, the Osaka International Women's Marathon on Jan. 25 next year, and the Nagoya International Women's Marathon on Mar. 8, also next year. She told reporters that she will be running to win each of the races.

It may seem reckless for one person to try to run three marathons within four months, but Japan Rikuren has given its permission. Rikuren marathon director Tadasu Kawano commented, "Is this some kind of statement of retirement? If that is what she wants to do, go ahead."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hachioji Wins Tokyo Championship Ekiden

by Brett Larner
The team from Tokyo's western suburb of Hachioji showed the value of solid teamwork, winning the 61st Tokyo Tomin Ekiden on Mar. 23 in Tokyo's Komazawa Park without the benefit of an ace runner. Professional, university and talented amateur runners alike competed as 24 teams representing Tokyo's wards and suburbs faced off in the annual metropolitan championship. Each of the six runners on a team covered two laps of a rolling 2.6 km course beginning and ending in Komazawa Stadium. Several days of rain ended just in time for the race to take place under warm, sunny skies free of the cedar pollen which blankets Tokyo each spring.

1st Stage
Leading the pack from the start was Shibuya's Yuhei Tomioka, a former Josai University runner who ran the 9th stage of the 2004 Hakone Ekiden. After the first lap the lead pack had whittled down to three, with Tomioka trailed by fellow Hakone alumnus Keishi Nomura of Fuchu and Hachioji's Sadakazu Saito. Tomioka and Nomura entered the track together, but Nomura had the stronger kick and took first on the stage by a single step. Tomioka recorded an identical time, with Saito two seconds behind.

2nd Stage
Fuchu's Jun Shida ran an outstanding leg, running 15:28 for the 5.2 km course to widen Fuchu's lead to almost one minute. Hachioji's Hirohiko Kumazawa likewise maintained his team's 3rd place position, while Shibuya's Jason Lawrence had a difficult day, dropping to 4th. Surprisingly, Shida did not take the stage best title; Tachikawa's Taiki Tsuji came up from 14th place to 2nd with a 15:17 to steal the honor.

3rd Stage
The 3rd stage saw a complete shakeup among the top teams' standings. Hachioji's Katsumi Asada ran a stage-best 16:29 to move the eventual winners into 1st place, while Fuchu dropped to 2nd after Kazukin Kitagawara's weak 17:29 showing. Tachikawa's Daiyu Yabushita likewise dropped a position, coming in 3rd with Shibuya's Taro Agui maintaining 4th close behind.

4th Stage
The 4th stage saw somewhat slower performances as most teams placed their weakest members here simply to hold position. Hachioji's Koji Kawamura kept the 1st position despite running a stage 4th 17:01. Tachikawa regained 2nd place thanks to Harumichi Imazeki, while Koto's Kitaro Hirano ran a stage 2nd 16:57 to move Koto into 3rd place. Stage best honors belonged to Mitaka's Satoshi Noguchi who overtook Shibuya's struggling Shinji Nakadai in the stage's final 100 m to move Mitaka into 4th.

5th Stage
Once again Hachioji managed to hold on to its lead despite faster performances by the chasing runners. Masayuki Shigehara of Hachioji was 3rd on the 5th stage in 16:44, while behind him Osamu Watanabe of Koto recorded the stage best of 16:18, passing Tachikawa's Satoshi Tomizawa to move into 2nd. Shibuya's Brett Larner was 2nd on the stage with 16:34, passing Mitaka's Yutaka Okura and Tachikawa's Tomizawa and moving Shibuya up from 5th to 3rd.

6th Stage
Hachioji's Ryosuke Nakazato held on to the lead, running 16:37 to clock the stage 3rd time. National duathlon champion Yuya Fukuura, running on the Shibuya team, ran the stage best of 16:07 to pass Koto's Masashi Endo and put Shibuya into 2nd. Koto hung on for 3rd. The 2nd best time on the stage was run by Chiyoda's Katsutoshi Higuchi, running 2nd to last in 23rd place.

Top 10 Results
1. Hachioji: 1:39:25
2. Shibuya: 1:39:44
3. Koto: 1:40:27
4. Tachikawa: 1:42:08
5. Shinjuku: 1:42:40
6. Mitaka: 1:43:03
7. Edogawa: 1:43:32
8. Fuchu: 1:43:35
9. Adachi: 1:45:27
10. Arakawa: 1:46:20

Stage Bests - all stages 5.2 km
1st Stage: Keishi Nomura, Fuchu: 16:18
2nd Stage: Taiki Tsuji, Tachikawa: 15:17
3rd Stage: Katsumi Asada, Hachioji: 16:29
4th Stage: Satoshi Noguchi, Mitaka: 16:55
5th Stage: Osamu Watanabe, Koto: 16:18
6th Stage: Yuya Fukuura, Shibuya: 16:07

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved
all photos by Yuko Kondo
used by permission

Friday, March 21, 2008

Yukiko Akaba Returns From Birth Stronger Than Ever

by Brett Larner

Six months ago Yukiko Akaba was just an ace runner on a corporate team, a strong athlete with some a few good results in university but nothing truly noteworthy other than continuing to run after giving birth in August, 2006. When the 2007 fall and winter season came around, the 28 year old Akaba suddenly let loose with a string of impressive performances and major PBs culminating in last weekend's Jitsugyodan Half Marathon, where she ran a 3 minute 12 second PB of 1:08:11 to break Mizuki Noguchi's course record and become the 3rd-fastest Japanese woman of all time in the half marathon behind former national record holder Noguchi and current national record holder Kayoko Fukushi. Her time is also the 2nd-fastest in the world so far this year, and her intention to run the 10000 m in the Beijing Olympics and to debut in the marathon next winter marks her as a runner to watch on the world scene.

Akaba was born in 1979 in Tochigi Prefecture. She attended Josai University where her accomplishments included a silver medal in the half marathon at the 1999 Majorca Universiad and a bronze in the 10000 m at the 2001 Beijing Universiad. Her 3000 m PB of 9:15.73 also dates from this era. Akaba also won stage best honors all 4 years in the All-Japan University Women's Ekiden, a difficult achievement which led to her being hired by Team Hokuren upon her graduation in 2002.

Akaba's first few years with Hokuren were mediocre, her times for 5000 m and 10000 m actually declining compared to her student-era bests. She married her university team manager Shuhei, but despite his additional coaching assistance Akaba did not improve. It was not until late 2005 that she had a breakthrough performance when she ran 15:11.17 at a track meet in Yokohama, a 17-second PB, her first time breaking one of her student times since turning pro 3 1/2 years earlier, and the all-time 4th best by a Japanese woman. 9 months later she gave birth to a daughter, Yuna. Her pregnancy attracted some attention in the media as she continued running until 2 days before Yuna's birth then resumed training only 3 weeks later. Akaba's return to racing came 3 months after the birth in an ekiden with Team Hokuren, then a few weeks later she ran 15:51.01 for 5000 m. It was 40 seconds off her best from the previous year but still marked a return to form.

Yukiko Akaba and her family at home and at work.

From this point on, Akaba began to improve steadily throughout 2007. Among her major results in the spring and summer of 2007, Akaba ran a 32:20 road 10 km PB at the Feb. 11 Karatsu Road Race, followed by her lifetime 2nd best of 15:24.65 for 5000 m on Apr. 7 and a PB of 32:27.63 for 10000 m on July 11. When the fall season came around just after Yuna's 1st birthday Akaba really took off.

In the 10000 m at the All-Japan Jitsugyodan Track and Field Meet on Sept. 21 she broke 32 minutes for the first time, recording a 36 second PB of 31:51.58. 2 weeks later she ran a new lifetime 2nd best of 15:22.73 for 5000 m. She set a new stage record on the 11.1 km 5th stage of the Nov. 3 East Japan Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden, running 34:37 to break Naoko Takahashi's long-standing mark. 3 weeks later came the race which made Akaba a household name in Japan, the International Chiba Ekiden on Nov. 23.

Akaba ran anchor for the Japanese team. Starting in 2nd place, Akaba faced the formidable challenge of running down Osaka World Championships marathon gold medalist and former marathon world record holder Catherine Ndereba of Kenya. Akaba passed Ndereba after only 800 m and went on to win by over 400 m (top photo). Ndereba was admittedly tired from running the New York City Marathon just a few weeks before, but Akaba's time was nevertheless a strong stage best. Nationwide TV coverage of the ekiden featured post-race footage of Ndereba, team member Kayoko Fukushi and Akaba playing with Yuna on the track's infield. Akaba was duly nicknamed the 'Mama-san Runner.'

Akaba's next race was the All-Japan Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden championship on Dec. 16 where she squared off against Fukushi and other top domestic runners on the 11.6 km 5th stage. Akaba ran 36:49 but had to settled for 2nd on the stage as she was 7 seconds slower than Fukushi's stage best 36:42. Just a week later came the result of her life up to that point, a 31:23.27 10000 m PB at the Dec. 23 Nittai University Women's Track and Field Meet. This was a 28 second PB for Akaba and her 1st truly world-class performance in so far as it met the Beijing Olympics A-standard. After not making the national team for the World Championships following childbirth, Akaba now ended the year as the top-ranked 10000 m runner in the country.

She began 2008 with 2 ekidens, running 32:02 on the 10 km 9th stage of the Jan. 13 Interprefectural Women's Ekiden and 31:43 for 10 km on the 2nd leg of the Feb. 24 Yokohama International Women's Ekiden, both times 2nd on her stage. 3 weeks after Yokohama came the biggest performance of her life to date, her 1:08:11 course record at the Mar. 16 Jitsugyodan Half Marathon. Akaba was very, very impressive throughout the first 15 km of the race, showing strength, aggression, and beautifully powerful form. She fearlessly dropped 1:07 half marathoner Phyles Ongori on an early hill as she chased her own 1:07, running a road 10 km PB of 31:58 along the way. Although Akaba said she was disappointed by her time of 1:08:11, her new mark broke her 7 year old PB by 3 minutes, 12 seconds and was, in fact, her 1st half marathon in 4 years. Despite fading in the final kilometers and missing 1:07 by seconds, Akaba's run showed that Kayoko Fukushi is not the only contender to be the next great Japanese marathon woman. Her chance will come soon; in a post-race interview Akaba said that after running the 10000 m in Beijing she will begin preparing for her marathon debut next winter.

Beyond simply the quality of her performances, Akaba is noteworthy as a clear example of an elite athlete who became stronger after giving birth. As such she is breaking new ground for women worldwide and helping to redefine what is possible.

For a list of Akaba's top performances, consult the IAAF's athlete biography section here. Her blog also includes complete records of her race results, some training menus and many photos.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner

all rights reserved

top photo by Jason Lawrence; used by permission

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Japan to Send Squad of 26 to 36th World Cross Country Championships

translated by Brett Larner

Rikuren has announced the squad of 26 Japanese runners to be sent to the 36th World Cross Country Championships scheduled for Mar. 30 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In the Senior Men's 12 km event, the team of 8 is led by Makoto Tobimatsu (Team Yasukawa Denki), the top Japanese finisher in both the Chiba International and Fukuoka International Cross Country meets, along with Satoru Kitamura (Nittai University), the 2nd Japanese in Chiba and 3rd Japanese in Fukuoka. Appearing for the 4th time and 3rd consecutive year is Yoshitaka Iwamizu (Team Toyota Jidosha).

The team of 6 for the Senior Women's 8 km race is jointly led by Chiba International Cross Country top Japanese finisher Kazuka Wakatsuki (Team Toto) and Fukuoka International Cross Country top Japanese finisher Aya Manome (Team Shimamura). Joining the team for the 3rd straight year is Aimi Horikoshi (Team Yamada Denki).

The Junior Men's 8 km team of 6 features Chiba and Fukuoka short course winner Akinobu Murasawa (Saku Chosei High School), while the Junior Women's 6 km team of 6 includes Fukuoka competitor Atsuko Matsumura (Tokiwa High School), appearing for the 2nd straight year.

Complete listings of Japanese entrants are included below.

Senior Men
Makoto Tobimatsu, Team Yasukawa Denki (Fukuoka), 3rd time on team
Satoru Kitamura, Nittai University (Hyogo), 3rd time on team
Yuki Nakamura, Team Kanebo (Tokyo), 2nd time on team
Yoshitaka Iwamizu, Team Toyota Jidosha (Aichi), 4th time on team
Hiroyoshi Umegae, Team NTN (Mie), 1st time on team
Yuki Sato, Tokai University (Nagano), 3rd time on team
Tsuyoshi Ugachi, Komazawa University (Tochigi), 3rd time on team
Hidekazu Sato, Team Toyota Boshoku (Aichi), 4th time on team

Senior Women
Aya Manome, Team Shimamura (Saitama), 1st time on team
Kazuka Wakatsuki, Team Toto (Fukuoka), 1st time on team
Megumi Seike, Team Sysmex (Kyoto), 1st time on team
Aimi Horikoshi, Team Yamada Denki (Gunma), 3rd time on team
Yuko Nohara, Team Toyota Jidoshokki (Chiba), 3rd time on team
Kazue Kojima, Ritsumeikan University (Kyoto), 3rd time on team

Junior Men
Akinobu Murasawa, Saku Chosei High School (Nagano), 1st time on team
Kenta Chiba, Saku Chosei High School (Nagano), 1st time on team
Shun Kurihara, Kyushu Gakuin High School (Kumamoto), 2nd time on team
Hiroyuki Sasaki, Saku Chosei High School (Nagano), 1st time on team
Hirotaka Tamura, Aomori Yamada High School (Aomori), 1st time on team
Ryuji Kashiwabara, Iwaki Sogo High School (Fukushima), 1st time on team

Junior Women
Atsuko Matsumura, Tokiwa High School (Gunma), 2nd time on team
Risa Takenaka, Ritsumeikan Uji High School (Kyoto), 1st time on team
Ayaka Mori, Suma Gakuen High School (Hyogo), 1st time on team
Asami Kato, Toyokawa High School (Aichi), 1st time on team
Yukino Ninomiya, Toyokawa High School (Aichi), 1st time on team
Yukari Abe, Sendai Ikuei High School (Miyagi), 1st time on team

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Atsushi Sato Honored in Ceremony at His High School

translated by Brett Larner

Beijing Olympics men's marathon team member Atsushi Sato (29, Team Chugoku Denryoku, Waseda University), a native of Aizu Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, was honored in a ceremony at Aizu High School on March 14. Sato is the first marathoner from Fukushima Prefecture to make the Olympic team since Kokichi Tsuburaya 44 years ago* and received the warm support of the students and younger runners in his hometown.

Principal Shinichiro Komori addressed Sato, "Seeing you make the Olympics has been a tremendous motivation for all our students. You are the pride of our school." Following a tradition, Sato wrote four kanji representing the words which best reflect his essence on a large card to present to the school. He wrote a phrase meaning, "An honest heart capable of feeling sorrow."

More than 200 students gave Sato their support. 2nd year class president Takehiro Sato (17), spoke on behalf of the student body. "Run without any worries. The whole school is supporting you." Aizu High School track club members added, "Run Beijing with the spirit of the Byakkotai."**

The entire student body sang Aizu High School's anthem together. Sato remembered the words from his own student days, joining in the song and telling students, "I am able to keep running thanks to the support I receive from you all. My gratitude will become a source of confidence as I fight for a medal."

Sato also appeared at the Fukushima Prefectural Government offices the same day. "I have eternal respect for Tsuburaya's memory," he told listeners with honest emotion. "I will put everything I have into getting a medal."

*Kokichi Tsuburaya won a bronze medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic marathon. He afterwards suffered chronic lower back problems and committed suicide in early 1968, leaving an eloquent note in which he apologized for not being able to run any more and thanked family members for the food they had given him during Japan's post-war years of scarcity.

**The Byakkotai were a group of young samurai in the Aizu area who refused to accept the Meiji government and fought the government's forces until the end, finally committing suicide together rather than give in. The people in Aizu still have deep respect for the Byakkotai.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reiko Tosa Happy to Run Matsue Ladies 10 km as Guest Runner, But Admits to Being Out of Condition

translated by Brett Larner

Beijing Olympics women's marathon team member Reiko Tosa (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) ran as a guest runner in the 10 km competition at the Matsue Ladies Half Marathon on March 16. Although Tosa was not racing the event, it was her first appearance in a race of any kind since winning the bronze medal at last summer's Osaka World Championships marathon.

Tosa reached the goal in 33:30. Afterwards she smiled, "Wow, my legs are soft and lifeless. I have a long way to go to get in shape for Beijing." In May Tosa will be heading to a training camp in Boulder, Colorado for the first time in 7 years. "Coach Suzuki thought I should go back to the place where I first became fast," she explained. By returning to her roots, Tosa hopes to move on to a medal.

Translator's note: As this article mentions, Tosa has not raced since the World Championships last summer. She suffered from anemia and other health problems through the fall and has reportedly had difficulty doing speedwork during subsequent training.

Nagano Marathon to Introduce Random Doping Tests

translated by Brett Larner

The organizing committee of the Nagano Olympic Commemorative Nagano Marathon announced at its general meeting on March 13 that the event will introduce random doping tests of elite athletes at this year's 10th anniversary event on April 20. The Nagano Marathon decided to add the doping controls after receiving a 'silver' rating last December in the IAAF's worldwide ranking of international marathons and other road races. 6 male and 6 female athletes will be randomly selected from among the invited and jitsugyodan competitors to receive the tests.

This year's race will feature 8352 entrants from 25 countries. The event includes a marathon clinic the day before the race as well as a 'marathon town' international expo in Minami Nagano Athletic Park on race day. The Nagano Marathon will also be part of Rikuren's 'Green Project' to make races more environmentally friendly. Cherry trees will be planted around the track in Minami Nagano Athletic Park to commemorate the event.

Takahashi Reveals She Had Knee Surgery in August (updated)

by Brett Larner

A documentary aired on Mar. 16 revealed that Sydney Olympics marathon gold medalist and former world record holder Naoko Takahashi, who ran 2:44:18 at last week's Nagoya International Women's Marathon while trying to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, had serious knee surgery in the United States in early August, 2007. Takahashi developed problems with the mensicus in her right knee while training in the first half of 2007; the corrective surgery required extensive rehabilitation and represented a major disruption to Takahashi's training.

Takahashi's management firm Team Q successfully concealed this surgery from media. Her subsequent ferocious altitude training in Kunming, China attracted large-scale media coverage, and her Nagoya run was presented as a serious bid. Nagoya attracted viewer ratings of over 20% as the nation tuned in to watch its most respected marathoner try to realize a dream, but in interviews shortly after the race she admitted that her preparation had been inadequate and that as a result she was not really in shape.

Despite the seeming deception, Takahashi's admirable decision to finish the race after dropping from the lead pack in the first 9 km renewed her place in fans' hearts. Takahashi's motto is 'Your dreams will come true if you don't give up,' but while she certainly didn't give up in Nagoya, how much truer would her words have rung if she had run the same performance after admitting the reality of her situation rather than pretending to be in serious contention? It is likely the demands of her sponsorship deals precluded this as an option; her sponsors undoubtedly benefitted from the high viewer ratings and media attention. But in light of the revelation of her condition, the pre-race presentation of Takahashi as making a real attempt for the Olympic team comes across as less than honest and disrespectful to her fans and legacy.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Update: The AERA weekly news magazine published the following poll about Takahashi in its Mar. 24 issue, street date Mar. 17. AERA interviewed 224 people following Takahashi's performance in Nagoya. Answers are divided by age group, with people in their 30's divided by gender.

Q1. Do you still like Naoko Takahashi?
20's: yes - 47% no - 11% don't care - 42%
30's men: yes - 67% no - 13% don't care - 20%
30's women: yes - 51% no - 15% don't care - 34%
40's: yes - 41% no - 15% don't care - 34%
50's: yes - 67% no - 13% don't care - 20%
60's and up: yes - 57% no - 10% don't care - 33%

Q2. Should Takahashi retire?
20's: yes - 37% no - 26% don't care - 37%
30's men: yes - 21% no - 38% don't care - 41%
30's women: yes - 21% no - 38% don't care - 41%
40's: yes - 29% no - 31% don't care - 40%
50's: yes - 33% no - 33% don't care - 34%
60's and up: yes - 33% no - 37% don't care - 30%

'Mara Yamauchi Wins Matsue Ladies Half Marathon'

Monday, March 17, 2008

Akaba Breaks Noguchi's Course Record at Jitsugyodan Half Marathon

by Brett Larner

The last major race of the Japanese running year, the 36th Jitsugyodan Half Marathon championships, took place Mar. 16 in Yamaguchi. Warm, somewhat windy weather made for more difficult conditions than usual and the absence of entered big names such as course record holders Mizuki Noguchi and Toshinari Takaoka marginally reduced the excitement of this year's event, but both women's and men's races nevertheless featured impressive performances.

The Men's Race
Coming at the end of the professional Japanese marathon season in an Olympic selection year, the Jitsugyodan Half Marathon was absent many of the top runners. Advertised entrants including Takaoka, Yu Mitsuya and Masato Imai did not appear, leaving the field dominated by recent recruits. Among these, Team Toyota's Tomohiko Sumi took the lead from the gun, running 2:45 for the 1st km with a substantial gap over the rest of the field. It was a replay of his three runs as a Nittai University student on the 1st stage of the Hakone Ekiden. By 5 km the pack had reabsorbed Sumi, passing the marker in 14:45, 5 seconds ahead of Takaoka's course record pace. Team Asahi Kasei's Ryuji Ono led the way, followed closely by two-time Ageo City Half Marathon winner Gebretsadik Bekele of Team Honda.

The large lead pack hit 10 km in 29:25, now behind Takaoka's course record. Makoto Harada, a JR East Japan teammate of Tokyo Marathon 2nd place finisher Arata Fujiwara, had taken over the lead with Ono and Bekele right behind. Ono accelerated at 14 km, pulling away from the pack and looking strong. Shortly before the 15 km mark he pulled off the course without warning, holding his left foot in the air and grimacing in pain. Bekele took over, rapidly opening a margin on a chase pack of three Japanese runners and Kenyan Steven Njenga after passing 15 km in 44:05.

Well before 20 km Bekele was alone, chasing his PB of 1:01:26 from the 2006 Ageo City Half Marathon. His split of 58:29 meant that a PB was out of reach, but Bekele hung on for a strong 1:01:40 win. Race commentators noted that Bekele has not yet run the New Year Ekiden with Team Honda, relegated to B-team status due to the presence of other, stronger runners. Team Mazda's Njenga was 2nd, with the rest of the top 10, all Japanese, breaking 1:03.

The Women's Race
With Noguchi out of the race due to health concerns, the women's race was billed as a duel between 10000 m national record holder Yoko Shibui of Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo, and Team Hokuren's Yukiko Akaba, who has had a very impressive string of performances in the last six months after returning from childbirth and was running her first half marathon in four years.

Akaba and her teammate Philes Ongori, who holds the fastest half marathon time in the world so far this year, 1:07:57, went out together, followed only by Team Suzuki's Birha Kamau, Team Uniqlo's Filomena Cheyech Danielle, and Shibui. Akaba was clearly in control, hitting the 1st km in 3:12. Hitting the course's first hill, a 30 m uphill at the 4 km point, Akaba attacked, dropping first Kamau, then Shibui, and finally opening a gap over the remaining two runners. She clocked 16:06 for 5 km, 24 seconds ahead of Noguchi's course record pace and well on track to break her own 5 year-old PB of 1:11:23. The four trailing runners also went under Noguchi's mark.

Akaba continued to run wild. 8 km came in 25:33, a 9:27 split between 5 and 8 km, followed soon enough by 31:57 for 10 km, 15:51 for the 2nd 5 km and now 23 seconds ahead of Noguchi's pace. Ongori and Danielle were also still under Noguchi's pace, 32:17 and 32:18 respectively, while Shibui, now in 4th, had slowed somewhat to 32:49. Around the 10 km point Akaba began passing men who had started 5 minutes before her race.

Running into increasing headwinds, Akaba widened her margin over Noguchi's record pace to 31 seconds by the 15 km point, clocking a 16:08 split for 5 km to record a time of 48:05. By 18 km the high pace was clearly taking its toll as Akaba's impeccable form started to break down and she began to cry out loud with each breath. She reached 18 km in 57:57, 9:52 for the intervening 3 km. 20 km came in 1:04:42, a slow 16:37 split from 15 to 20 km and only 21 seconds ahead of Noguchi's record. This margin was enough, as Akaba reached the line in 1:08:11, breaking Noguchi's course record by 18 seconds and becoming the all-time 3rd-fastest Japanese woman in the half-marathon behind national record holder Kayoko Fukushi and Noguchi.*

While holding her daughter during post-race interviews, Akaba said that she had been targeting a 1:07 and so was somewhat disappointed with her result. Commentators mentioned that after the Beijing Olympics, where Akaba plans to run the 10000 m, she will begin preparations for her debut marathon sometime during next winter's marathon season.

Men's Top Ten Finishers
1. Gebretsadik Bekele (Team Honda): 1:01:40
2. Steven Njenga (Team Mazda): 1:02:28
3. Tetsuo Nishimura (Team YKK): 1:02:35
4. Yukihiro Kitaoka (Team NTN): 1:02:40
5. Michinori Takano (Team Sanyo Special Steel): 1:02:48
6. Ryosuke Fukuyama (Team JAL Ground Service): 1:02:49
7. Kazuyuki Maeda (Team Konica Minolta): 1:02:50
8. Takaaki Koda (Team Asahi Kasei): 1:02:52
9. Koichi Mitsuyuki (Team Honda): 1:02:55
10. Makoto Harada (Team JR East Japan): 1:02:57

Women's Top Ten Finishers
1. Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren): 1:08:11 - CR, PB
2. Filomena Cheyech Danielle (Team Uniqlo): 1:09:06
3. Philes Ongori (Team Hokuren): 1:09:43
4. Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo): 1:10:27
5. Mayumi Fujita (Team Juhachi Ginko): 1:11:38
6. Mai Ito (Team Denso): 1:11:48
7. Megumi Terada (Team Tenmaya): 1:12:11
8. Yuko Masai (Team Nihon ChemiCon): 1:12:22
9. Megumi Seike (Team Sysmex): 1:12:25
10. Birha Kamau (Team Suzuki): 1:12:26

Men's Team Winners
1. Honda
2. Konica Minolta
3. Mazda

Women's Team Winners
1. Hokuren
2. Kyudenko
3. Nihon ChemiCon

*Masako Chiba ran the fastest half marathon time ever by a Japanese woman, 1:06:43 at the 1997 Tokyo City Half Marathon, but the mark is not counted due to that course's excessive downhill.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Friday, March 14, 2008

Wanjiru Hospitalized, Withdraws From CPC Half Marathon

Half marathon world record holder Samuel Wanjiru is based in Kyushu, where he runs for the Toyota Jidosha Kyushu jitsugyodan team. He set the world record at last year's CPC Half Marathon and is scheduled to run next month's London Marathon.

Noguchi Withdraws From Jitsugyodan Half Marathon After Developing Rash in Kunming

translated and edited by Brett Larner

Mizuki Noguchi (29, Team Sysmex), who this summer in Beijing will attempt to become the first woman to win two Olympic marathon gold medals, left for a training camp on Amami Oshima on Mar. 13.

Noguchi withdrew from this Sunday's Jitsugyodan Half Marathon championship after contracting a skin rash while training at altitude in Kunming, China. Noguchi decided to leave Kunming and return to Japan on Mar. 6 for extensive health testing. After her final examination on Mar. 12, Noguchi told reporters, "It was nothing. I am completely fine," while smiling in apparent perfect health. Two doctors who examined Noguchi said that the rash may have been a reaction to China's notorious yellow sandstorms. They said there is no danger of lingering effects or of an impact upon her performance in this summer's Beijing Olympics.

The training camp in Amami Oshima is scheduled to last until Mar. 18. From the end of the month Noguchi will relocate to Kumamoto for two weeks, then will focus on final preparations for the Sendai International Half Marathon in May to regain her racing mentality. Following Sendai, Noguchi will enter another training camp.

Translator's note: Noguchi originally planned to run two races this spring as part of her preparation for Beijing. She withdrew from the Kumanichi 30 km Road Race last month due to insufficient fitness, instead switching her plan to include the Jitsugyodan Half Marathon. Sendai will now be her only tuneup race barring further changes.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kyoto City Half Marathon Video

Complete video of last weekend's Kyoto City Half Marathon is now available online.

Imperial Crown Prince Hironomiya Runs Outside Akasaka Palace

translated by Brett Larner

Jogging enthusiast Imperial Crown Prince Hironomiya ran outside the Akasaka Imperial Grounds in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Mar. 11, running two laps in 33 minutes.

Translator's note: One lap of the course which the prince ran is 3.34 km and includes two considerable uphills. 5 min / km is quite respectable there. The prince seems to be allowed out to run once a year or so, and, when it is reported, consistently turns in a decent pace.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Japanese National Marathon Record Holders Noguchi and Takaoka to Run Jitsugyodan Half Marathon (updated)

translated and edited by Brett Larner

The Japan Jitsugyodan Track and Field Association has announced the field for this year's 36th edition of the All-Japan Jitsugyodan Half Marathon Championships, to be held March 16 in Yamaguchi. This year's race will feature women's full marathon national record holder and Beijing Olympic marathon team member Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex) as well as men's full marathon national record Toshinari Takaoka (Team Kanebo), who also holds the course record of 1:01:07.

The women's field includes 10000 m national record holder Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo), looking for revenge for last year's Olympic marathon selection race, as well as 'Japan's Fastest Mama,' Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren), who ran an Olympic A-standard 10000 m late last year. Also appearing are Osaka World Championships 10000 m competitor Akane Wakita (Team Toyota Jidoshokki) and Kei Terada (Team Tenmaya), 2nd in last summer's Bankok Universiad meet. It promises to be a battle of the top female track stars in Japan.

Other runners in the men's field include Athens Olympic marathon 5th place finisher Shigeru Aburaya (Team Chugoku Denryoku) and Hakone Ekiden 'God of the Mountain' Masato Imai (Team Toyota Jidosha Kyushu), appearing for the first time in this event after making his jitsugyodan debut at this year's New Year Ekiden. Imai's teammate Yu Mitsuya, who ran the 5000 m in last summer's World Championships, will also run, as will Team Chugoku Denryoku's rookie Naoki Okamoto, a former Nihon University ace who was 2nd on the 3rd stage of this year's Interprefectural Ekiden. Team JFE Steel's new Kenyan member Joseph Gitau is also scheduled to run. A true clash between veterans and the next generation of runners.

Translator's note: This is the professional half marathon championship race. It will be broadcast nationwide at 2 pm on the 16th. Video highlights of past editions of the Jitsugyodan Half Marathon are available here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Japanese Olympic Marathon Teams Announced

by Brett Larner

The big news in Japanese distance running today was the announcement of the Japanese women’s and men’s marathon teams for the Beijing Olympics. There were four contenders for each team, both including a tough decision. The results were, for better or worse, unsurprising.

On the women’s side, two of the three slots were taken by Reiko Tosa of Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo, who was guaranteed when she won a bronze medal at the Osaka World Championships last summer, and defending Olympic gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi of Team Sysmex, who had an incredible course record win at the Tokyo International Women’s marathon in November to effectively seal a position. The last slot was a toss-up between Tenmaya teammates Tomo Morimoto, top Japanese but 2nd overall in January’s Osaka International Women’s Marathon where she ran 2:25:34, and 21-year old Yurika Nakamura, who won her marathon debut yesterday at the Nagoya International Women’s Marathon in 2:25:51. While the experienced Morimoto’s time was faster, the selection committee at Rikuren placed higher emphasis on rookie Nakamura’s win. Her 1:11:08 2nd half, a 3 1/2 minute negative split, was surely also a factor. Morimoto is thus consigned to alternate status.

From this it seems that Rikuren’s criteria are good results in a world-level event or a win in one of the three selection races over a fast time. No men medaled in the World Championships or won a selection race, but the selection criteria for them were evidently not simply based upon time. Tsuyoshi Ogata of Team Chugoku Denryoku was chosen based on his 5th in the World Championships last summer, a fair performance but not especially impressive when you consider how easily he was dropped in the final kilometers by eventual 3rd and 4th place finishers Viktor Rothlin and Yared Asmeron. Atsushi Sato, also of Team Chugoku Denryoku, was all but guaranteed a slot thanks to his 2:07:13 3rd place finish at the Fukuoka International Marathon in December. Satoshi Osaki of Team NTT Nishi Nihon was named to the 3rd spot after his 2:08:36 3rd place finish in the Biwako Mainichi Marathon and his 6th in the World Championships. Left over in the alternate spot, unfortunately, is newcomer Arata Fujiwara who had a stellar run in the Tokyo Marathon where he finished 2nd in 2:08:40.

Osaki’s time was only 4 seconds faster than Fujiwara’s, but Fujiwara finished higher and, subjectively, ran a far more impressive race. The more controversial decision is Ogata’s selection over Fujiwara. Ogata’s result in the World Championships was good, but ultimately he was in contention for a medal and failed. Rikuren officials specifically said that Ogata was chosen over Fujiwara for the former's depth of experience and past achievement. Precedent supports this decision. Team Chugoku Denryoku's Shigeru Aburaya was 5th in the 2003 Paris World Championships and was picked for the Athens Olympic team over national record holder Toshinari Takaoka's 3rd place 2:07:59 qualifier; Aburaya duly went on to come in 5th in Athens, the top Japanese placing. Ogata is a reliable runner and says he will run well in Beijing, but 5th place is not a medal.

The media and officials frequently talk about how Japanese men aren’t as good as the women; while they took a risk and added a rookie to the women’s team, Rikuren missed a chance to cultivate a talented new man by choosing a veteran with a history of passable results and a weaker qualifier instead. This has to be a bit discouraging to the younger generations of runners. It would be wonderful to see New York or Chicago pick up Arata Fujiwara this fall and give him the chance he deserves.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Ikeda and Fujikawa Win Kyoto City Half Marathon

translated by Brett Larner

Komazawa University's Soji Ikeda won the 15th Kyoto City Half Marathon on Mar. 9, starting in front of Kyoto's Heianjingu and breaking the tape on the 21.0975 km course in 1:02:10. Aki Fujikawa of Team Shiseido won the women's race in a time of 1:10:41.

Together with Kazuo Ietani (Team Sanyo Tokushu Seiko), Ikeda broke away from the lead pack of six runners at the 15 km point but could not drop Ietani until the last km, winning by 8 seconds. Kyoto residents Tsukasa Morita (Team Sanyo Tokusho Seiko, Kyoto Sangyo University) and Takahiko Onishi (Kyoto Sangyo University) were 4th and 8th respectively.

Fujikawa had a more commanding win in the women's race, running alone after the halfway point. She was 24 seconds ahead of 2nd place finisher Yui Sakai (Josai University), while last year's winner Ryoko Kisaki (Bukkyo University) was 3rd. Hiroaki Nishihara (Minami Ward) was 1st among the six competitors in the 5 km wheelchair event in a time of 11:03.

Unlike the radiant face fans are used to seeing in university women's ekidens, one notable runner was downcast after the race. Graduating Bukkyo ace Ryoko Kisaki was 35 seconds behind the winner. "I really wanted to win my last race as a student and I feel sorry I couldn't it. But I will make up this sorrow soon when my jitsugyodan career starts."

Fujikawa, who was 8th in the Osaka International Women's Marathon, set a high pace. "The first 5 km were 16:20. I thought it was way too fast, so I slowed down a bit," Kisaki commented after the race. She sat in 2nd place, but with 2 km to go Sakai overtook her. "I tried to stick with her through the 2nd half, but I just couldn't compete with her," she said, dropping her shoulders dejectedly.

After the halfway point Kisaki suffered severe blistering on her right foot, but still managed to hang on for a 1:11:16 PB, 7 seconds faster than her winning time last year. "The soles of my shoes were too thin. Every time my feet hit the ground I really felt the impact. That's never happened to me in a half before, but I learned a lot from it."

Nevertheless, her last race as a student will be a happy memory for Kisaki. She new the course well from practicing on it, and winning last year also helped her self-confidence. The biggest boost to her spirits, however, came from spectator's cheers along the roads. "The cheering for me was unbelievable, and it really helped me to push through the hardest parts. Thank you to everyone who supported me."

Despite her disappointment, Kisaki's run in Kyoto today will give her increased motivation when she enters the Daihatsu jitsugyodan team in April. "I'm able to run thanks to the support I receive from everyone around me," she says, "and I want to always keep that with me." Here's to hoping she takes these memories to a new and higher level.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Photos From the Nagoya International Women's Marathon

JRN's Mika Tokairin ran the Nagoya International Marathon. Below are photos she took before the race and at the post-race award ceremony and reception.

Competitors in Mizuho Stadium before the race.

Naoko Takahashi warming up.

Naoko Sakamoto getting last-minute advice from her coach.

Harumi Hiroyama warming up.

Naoko Takahashi comes around the track again.

The top 8 finishers at the award ceremony.

Winner Yurika Nakamura.

Top 4 finishers Yurika Nakamura, Yoshimi Ozaki, Yuri Kano and Yumiko Hara, L-R.

Yurika Nakamura talking to Rikuren officials.

Naoko Takahashi at the reception.

all photos (c) 2008 Mika Tokairin

all rights reserved

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Koide Prescient: Yurika Nakamura Wins Nagoya in 2:25:51 Debut

by Brett Larner

Of all the scenarios forecast for the final selection race for the Japanese women's marathon team at the Beijing Olympics, run today at the Nagoya International Women's Marathon, few included 21 year old first-time marathoner Yurika Nakamura of Team Tenmaya. A longshot with a half marathon PB of only 1:10:03, Nakamura's sole vote of confidence came from a knowledgeable source, legendary coach Yoshio Koide. Koide had picked Nakamura as the most likely contender after Sydney Olympics gold medalist Naoko Takahashi. Takahashi faded after only 9 km, but with an extremely slow and tactical 1st half of 1:14:43 it looked as though the winner would be irrelevant as the time needed to make the Beijing Olympics, faster than the 2:25:34 run by Tenmaya's Tomo Morimoto in January's Osaka International Women's Marathon, was all but out of reach.

Nakamura had other ideas. After Team Shiseido's Yumi Hirata and Harumi Hiroyama pushed the pace in the 2nd half, most of the big names launched a series of attacks. First went two-time World Championships entrant Yumiko Hara at the 25 km mark, dropping Kiyoko Shimahara and Megumi Oshima from the lead pack. Next Athens Olympics team member Naoko Sakamoto opened a gap on the pack after the 28.6 km turnaround point, with only Yoshimi Ozaki following. Four runners caught back up, and the lead pack was down to six. Chika Horie was the next to make a move, trying to get away at the 31.7 km point. Yuri Kano, Ozaki and Nakamura followed, with Hara and Sakamoto falling away.

All of this was just a lead up to Nakamura's move at 32.6 km. She definitively dropped the rest of the field, recording a 5k split of 16:31 from 30 to 35 km and another of 16:44 between 35 and 40 km. It was clear with 2.195 km to go that Morimoto's time would be hard for her to reach, but she did all that was possible. She ran 7:13 over the final stretch to win in 2:25:51, a 1:11:08 2nd half but 16 seconds short of Morimoto's time.

Nakamura's fate is now in the hands of Rikuren, the governing body of Japanese Track and Field. Morimoto ran a faster time in Osaka but finished 2nd a short distance behind winner Mara Yamauchi of the U.K. Nakamura won in a slower time but in a far more impressive performance which accurately simulated the early strategic style of race which often occurs in Olympic and championship events. Only one of the two runners will be selected for the team when Rikuren announces its decision tomorrow, Mar. 10. The irony is that the two rivals for the Olympic Team are otherwise teammates at Tenmaya.

Beyond the Olympic Team outcome, Nagoya was significant in that a new generation came out on top. While Yuri Kano and Yumiko Hara, two of the brightest prospects to emerge in recent years, came 3rd and 4th, the top two slots were taken by younger first-time marathoners, Nakamura and Yoshimi Ozaki. Despite not being part of the elite field, each recorded a 7:13 final 2.195 km, the fastest in the field and competitive even by men's standards. Regardless of whether Nakamura is selected for Beijing, these two runners will be welcome additions to the Japanese marathoning scene.

Takahashi, on the other hand, made what may well be her final elite performance. After showing difficulty as early as the 5 km point despite the slow opening split of 17:53, she dropped away from the leaders but continued on relatively consistently to a 27th place 2:44:18 finish, her slowest time ever. To Takahashi's credit, her decision to soldier on to the finish showed that her motto is more to her than just words. All the best to her hereafter.

Top 10 Results
1. Yurika Nakamura: 2:25:51 (debut)
2. Yoshimi Ozaki: 2:26:19 (debut)
3. Yuri Kano: 2:26:39
4. Yumiko Hara: 2:27:14
5. Chika Horie: 2:27:16
6. Megumi Oshima: 2:29:03
7. Yumi Hirata: 2:29:23 (debut)
8. Maya Nishio: 2:29:34 (PB)
9. Harumi Hiroyama: 2:29:50
10. Naoko Sakamoto: 2:30:21

Complete results are available here.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Nagoya Extravaganza

There are too many articles about tomorrow's Nagoya International Women's Marathon to translate. Here are a few of the more interesting ones.

Click here on race day for live updates every 5 km. The race begins at 12:10 p.m.

All the previous winners along with Kenyan Joice Kirui at the pre-race presss conference.

Yoshio Koide says debutante Yurika Nakamura will be Naoko Takahashi's main competition.

Two histories of Naoko Takahashi's career.

Team Suzuki's Kaori Akagawa and Yoko Yagi excited for their marathon debuts.

Profile of Yuri Kano.

Profile of veteran Harumi Hiroyama.

Two profiles of Kiyoko Shimahara.

Naoko Sakamoto back in one piece.

Chika Horie looking forward to running with former teammate Naoko Takahashi.

Takami Ominami running on home ground.

Takahashi's sponsor Phiten collects 90,000 messages of support for her from fans.

5 former Nagoya winners to compete (published prior to Yasuko Hashimoto's withdrawal).

There was also an article up prior to Hashimoto's withdrawal which said that her team, Sega Sammy, will be dissolved at the end of this month, but the article was taken down when she pulled out of the race this week with a knee injury.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Nagoya: The Last Piece of the Puzzle

by Brett Larner

Of all the Japanese men's and women's selection races for the Beijing Olympics marathon teams, none has been as eagerly anticipated as the final event, this Sunday's Nagoya International Women's Marathon. Of the three slots on the women's team, one was taken by Reiko Tosa via her bronze medal performance at last summer's World Championships in Osaka. Another was all but settled in November with defending Olympic gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi's course record win at the Tokyo International Women's Marathon. Barring at least two more truly spectacular performances, the final slot would be determined between the top Japanese finishers in January's Osaka International Women's Marathon and Nagoya. Tomo Morimoto was the top Japanese in Osaka, finishing 2nd overall. A good result, but her time of 2:25:34, unremarkable among Japanese women, leaves a very strong chance for one of the Nagoya runners to take the spot on the Olympic team away. Among all the contenders for this spot, including four past Nagoya winners and six runners with PBs faster than Morimoto's time, none faces as much domestic or international attention as Naoko Takahashi.

Naoko Takahashi
age: 35; PB: 2:19:46, Berlin '01 (WR); gold medal, Sydney Olympics '00
Takahashi, or Q-chan as she is known in the Japanese media, is the single most loved and respected figure in Japanese marathoning. Her win in the Sydney Olympics was Japan's first Olympic marathon gold medal, she was the first woman in the world to break 2:20, and she remains the Olympic record holder and a symbol of perseverence. After her string of successes in the early 2000's she broke off her working relationship with coach Yoshio Koide, then failed to make the 2004 Athens Olympics. A win at the 2005 Tokyo International Women's Marathon created significant buzz about a comeback, but Takahashi's dismal run in cold, rainy conditions at Tokyo the next year caused many to write her off. She has not raced a marathon since then, but her training for Nagoya, which she has won twice, has been epic. The Japanese public would dearly love to see Q-chan make the team and if she is anywhere close to the shape she should be in after several months of altititude training then 2:25 is certainly within her capability. The only question, again assuming her fitness, is whether one of her competitors will outrun her. While she will benefit from the withdrawal of defending champion Yasuko Hashimoto due to a knee injury, Takahashi's chances took a body blow with the switch from Osaka to Nagoya of Yumiko Hara and Yuri Kano.

Yumiko Hara
age: 26; PB: 2:23:48, Osaka '07 (winner); 2005 and 2007 World Championships entrant
Hara was the defending champion in Osaka but withdrew at the last moment with stomach troubles. She won Nagoya in 2005 in her debut marathon, qualifying for the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. Her bizarre, robotic personality gives her a somewhat frightening focus and determination, but at the same time seems to force her into a singleminded race strategy in all situations: going hard from the start. In Helsinki, Hara's second marathon, she tried to run down world record holder and eventual winner Paula Radcliffe in the early stages of the race. She came back from injury to win Osaka last year by pushing the pace, and at last summer's World Championships she again tried to frontrun the race right from the start, eventually falling apart in the heat. Her coach has said that he expects the veteran runners to be strong in the later stages of the race and as a result Hara's strategy will be once again to go out hard and make the race.

Yuri Kano
age: 29; PB: 2:24:43, Osaka '07; winner, Hokkaido '07
Kano debuted at last year's Osaka, running an impressive performance to finish 3rd, just a few seconds from making the 2007 World Championships team. She went on to run the Hokkaido Marathon instead, winning in heat and humidity similar to that at the World Champs. She was aiming for a significant PB at Osaka in January but was forced to withdraw after only 17 km with severe foot pain. It is questionable whether she has recovered fully from this injury but if so must be considered one of the major contenders.

Other Domestic Contenders
The four remaining big names among the domestic field are past Nagoya winners Harumi Hiroyama and Takami Ominami, along with one of Japan's all-time fastest women, Naoko Sakamoto and proven heat running specialist Kiyoko Shimahara. Hiroyama, a true veteran at age 39, ran her best time of 2:22:56 in 2000, but her winning time of 2:23:26 at the 2006 Nagoya was still highly competitive. She suffered from remaining with Team Shiseido when coach Manabu Kawagoe left to form Second Wind AC and was not at peak fitness through the winter, but says she is ready and will concentrate on running her own race. Ominami set her PB of 2:23:43 in winning Rotterdam '02 and says that the balance of her mind and body is now at its best point in her long career. Sakamoto's best time, 2:21:51, also came some years ago, in her case at Osaka '03. She has been injured almost continuously since then but reports being glad to be in one piece again in time for the Olympic selection races. Shimahara does not have the fast times of the other contenders, her PB being only 2:26:14, but that time was run at the late-summer Hokkaido Marathon and she has great experience in hot international events. She won a silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games, a performance which led to her being selected for the 2007 World Championships where she beat many faster competitors to finish 6th. She will be hard-pressed to beat some of the other runners in the cooler March temperatures at Nagoya, but her stated goal is to win with a PB.

One of the most impressive aspects of Japanese distance running is its depth, a trait which often leads to runners making spectacular debuts when they step up from the half marathon to the full. Arata Fujiwara did just this in the Tokyo Marathon men's selection race last month, and several runners in the Nagoya field have the potential to do likewise. Akane Taira is the most likely candidate thanks to her sub-70 half marathon PB, but other contenders include Yurika Nakamura and Yoshimi Ozaki along with a half-dozen more.

Foreign Competitors
Five invited elites from abroad will also be running Nagoya. Of these, only Kenya's Joice Kirui is likely to have a chance of being up front. Kirui holds a PB of 2:26:52, set last year in winning the Kitale marathon. Lioudmila Kortchaguina, a former Russian now running for Canada, will also be trying to make her first Olympic team with her new home country.

The Race
Hara is likely to be the one setting the pace. Look for her to go out hard, followed closely by Takahashi, Sakamoto and possibly Ominami and Kirui. If Kano is fit she should also be in the lead pack, but Hiroyama is likely to hold back and in the later stages try to pick up the victims of a fast early pace. The race will probably come down to whether Hara can keep her herself together and whether Takahashi can conjure up the Q-chan of old this one more time. Make that two more times if she is successful. Already the most respected runner in all of Japanese marathoning, qualifying for Beijing would make Takahashi a living legend.

A complete listing of the Nagoya field, including JRN's Mika Tokairin, is available here.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Japan Running News Now Appearing in Runnerville Weekly Podcast

Beginning this week I'll be contributing to the Runnerville Weekly series of podcasts. I will mostly be talking about different aspects of Japanese distance running, unsurprisingly.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

4 Years After Missing Athens, Osaki Hopeful for a Beijing Spot

translated and edited by Brett Larner and Mika Tokairin

Clenching his fists, Satoshi Osaki took the top Japanese spot in finishing 3rd overall at the Biwako Mainichi Marathon. He became highly emotional during his post-race interview, weeping openly. "I didn't want to show my emotions....It wasn't easy to keep control until today, though."

Osaki's strength in the marathon lies in his stamina, but he has never been confident about his speed. Throughout the first half of the race, the pace was 3 minutes per km, very fast for him. Around the halfway point he considered letting go of the lead pack. His face at the time showed the strain. "If I had let them I go, all the effort I put into preparing for the race would have turned to nothing." He forced himself to keep it together, going on to drop 2-time winner Jose Rios (Spain) while not letting any Japanese runner catch him.

Osaki ran the last 2.195 km in 6:43, the fastest split of any runner in the race. He broke Arata Fujiwara's time of 2:08:40 from the Tokyo Marathon by 4 seconds, a PB and a result which will send him to Beijing.

"Finally, I'm here," he thought to himself on the starting line. 4 years ago at the Tokyo International Marathon Osaki was the top Japanese finisher and 2nd overall in the Athens Olympics qualifier. He ran 2:08:46 but it not good enough to make the team. Afterwards he drank heavily although this is out of his regular character. He promised himself that he would begin again from the beginning. Last summer he was 6th in the World Championships, a result which gave him a slight chance of being selected for Beijing. His coach Shimizu of Team NTT West Japan advised him to avoid running one of the selection races, telling him, "Why don't you just wait and see?" But with 4 years of heartbreak, Osaki never wavered. "I want to get my Olympic ticket with my own hands."

In January he injured his left hip joint and suffered symptoms of anemia. He couldn't run for 2 weeks. Just 6 weeks before Biwako he put all his concentration into his training and brought this focus to the race. "I felt that these 4 years were long, but at the same time passed in the snap of my fingers," recalling his difficult but fulfilling days.

Speaking at a press conference in an Otsu hotel, Osaki said, "I ran the way I wanted to run. I'm not relieved yet [about making the Olympic team], but when it is officially announced I want to set my new goal." He is eagerly awaiting the confirmation announcement on Mar. 10.

"I've heard that the road surface in Beijing is very hard, so I would like to go have a look," he told reporters, indicating his intent to take part in the pre-Olympic course preview on April 20. Before then, he will be taking the rest of March off to travel with his family and rejeuvenate himself. After resuming training in April, he will be focusing on speedwork in May and June in preparation for the big stage. "If I'm selected for Beijing, I will definitely be going for the gold medal."

Four Men in Contention for Japanese Olympic Marathon Team

by Brett Larner

The last selection race for the team Japan will send to compete in the Beijing Olympics men's marathon took place on Mar. 2 at the Biwako Mainichi Marathon. Unlike the American one-race-one-chance system, Japan uses 3 domestic selection races to decide its Olympic marathon teams, December's Fukuoka International Marathon, February's Tokyo Marathon, and Biwako, with last summer’s World Championships also factoring in to this year's selection process. Japanese men have a respectable history of Olympic and World Championships medals, but no Japanese man has ever won gold at the Olympic level. Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi’s gold medals at the Sydney and Athens Olympics have created the impression in Japan that its men are not up to the same level as its women. Media commentators bemoan the 'inadequacy' of Japanese men and the absence of any new stars on the horizon. The pressure is on for Japan’s male marathoners to excel.

Atsushi Sato is the best current prospect. An ace ekiden runner with the Chugoku Denryoku professional team, Sato stepped up last fall with an Asian 1/2 marathon record at the World Road Running Championships before running a 2:07:13 at Fukuoka, the 4th fastest ever by a Japanese runner. Many believe him capable of running a 2:05, and he is certain to make the Olympic team.

After Sato, Biwako’s top Japanese finisher Satoshi Osaki is the next most likely to be selected. Osaki had solid marathon credentials going into Biwako, including a 2:08:46 PB, a bronze at the 2006 Asian Games, and 6th at the last World Championships. His 2:08:36 3rd place finish at Biwako puts one foot in the door; catching 2nd place finisher Yared Asmerom of Eritrea, who finished 2 seconds ahead of Osaki, would have all but sealed it.

The choice for 3rd man is far less clear. Veteran Tsuyoshi Ogata ran a brave race in the World Championships, coming from behind catch bronze medal contenders Viktor Rothlin of Switzerland and Asmerom but was ultimately dropped by both and finished 5th. Ogata’s performance was the weakest of the Beijing contenders, but he has the most experience including a bronze at the 2005 World Championships and a PB of 2:08:37. Japan’s governing track and field body, Rikuren, loves experience, and is in fact currently hosting Ogata at a national training camp in New Zealand. His chances look good.

The biggest question mark is Arata Fujiwara. Fujiwara came from nowhere to finish 2nd in Tokyo in 2:08:40, a dramatic performance in which he dropped Kenyan Olympian Julius Gitahi in the final 2 km. Fujiwara was exactly what everyone was looking for, a young guy stepping up to challenge international-level foreign competition. Rikuren officials were uncharacteristically enthusiastic about his run, going so far as to say that it would take an overall win at Biwako for someone else to be selected.

While Osaki didn't win Biwako, his strong performance means Rikuren must now decide between a veteran with a weak qualifier and a newcomer with nothing to show but potential. For American readers, the situation would be similar if Khalid Khannouchi had a chance of being selected over Brian Sell. History points in favor of Ogata, as Paris World Championships 5th place finisher Shigeru Aburaya was picked for the Athens Olympics over national record holder Toshinari Takaoka’s 2:07:59 3rd place finish in the Fukuoka selection race. Whatever the outcome, Rikuren will announce its decision on Mar. 10 following the final women’s selection race.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Monday, March 3, 2008

Satoshi Osaki 3rd in 2:08:36 at Biwako (updated)

by Brett Larner

Satoshi Osaki of Team NTT Nishi Nihon, 6th place finisher at the 2007 World Championships and 2006 Asia Games bronze medalist, ran a 10-second PB of 2:08:36 to take 3rd at the 2008 Biwako Mainichi Marathon and likely make the 2008 Beijing Olympics team, close behind World Championships silver medalist Mubarak Hassan Shami of Qatar, the winner in 2:08:23, and World Championships 4th place finisher Yared Asmeron who ran a 7-minute PB of 2:08:34 to take 2nd. Osaki was himself followed closely by Team Nissin Shokuhin's Yuzo Onishi, who ran an impressive 4-minute PB of 2:08:54.

Biwako was the final selection race for the Japanese men's marathon team to be sent to Beijing Olympics. The top Japanese finisher needed to break Arata Fujiwara's 2:08:40 mark from the Tokyo Marathon and be one of the top overall finishers to have any chance of being selected. Conditions at the start were 10 degrees and sunny with intermittent wind. The race was planned to begin with an initial pace of 15:05 per 5 km. The first split was slightly fast, 15:00, but an enormous pack containing all the domestic and international favorites stayed right behind the pacemakers at this challenging pace. Team Asahi Kasei's Mitsuru Kubota, who qualified for last summer's World Championships by finishing as top Japanese at last year's Biwako, dropped off the rear of the pack after the 5 km mark, the first of the casualties.

Accelerating to jockey for position while approaching a drink station, the 7th km passed in 2:56. Many could not handle this change and the pack fractured, but a surprising number of runners with PBs in the 2:12 to 2:15 range remained, including Yuki Abe, Yusuke Kataoka, Takehisa Okino, Yuzo Onishi, Tomohiro Seto and Yared Asmeron. 10 km passed in 30:02. Shortly afterwards, Team Toyota's Kensuke Takahashi, who had a strong showing at December's Fukuoka International Marathon, was the next favorite to fall away from the pack.

Accelerating again at the 11 km drink station, a small pack containing Asmeron, Dmytro Baranovsky (Ukraine), Mubarak Hassan Shami (Qatar), Jose Rios (Spain), Okino, Osaki, Seto and a few others broke away from the main pack. It was a short-lived move as the trailing runners caught up around 12.5 km. Mexico's Pablo Almedo was the next to lose contact, slowing at 13 km and dropping out at 14 km. Almedo was followed by Team Asahi Kasei's Tadayuki Ojima, who had run 2:08:18 to win Biwako 4 years ago. Around the 15 km point Australia's Lee Troop fell away, the remaining 36 runners hitting the mark in 45:10.

2 fast km in a row, 2:58 for 17 km and 2:56 for 18 km, eliminated Kataoka, Kenji Noguchi of Team Shikoku Denryoku and Kenyan Peter Kariuki. During these fast km, Asmeron notably held a stable position at the front of the pack, looking at ease running much faster than his 2:15:14 PB would have predicted. Komazawa University's powerful Koichi Sakai, running his debut marathon, dropped back at around 19.5 km. 20 km passed in 1:00:07, a 14:58 split for the last 5 km.

At the 20.5 km drink station, Asmeron launched a surprise attack. The pack once again fractured, this time with Baranovsky, Seto and Team Honda's Masakazu Fujiwara unable to keep up. Many were cheering for Fujiwara, who had run the national student marathon record of 2:08:12 while at Chuo University but has been injured ever since and was doing his first marathon in 5 years. Caught in the gap between packs were 2-time Biwako winner Rios and Team Mitsubishi Juko Nagasaki's Yuki Abe, a 2:13:47 marathoner. Abe earned many fans at last year's Biwako when as a no-name runner he was the only Japanese to go with the lead pack of foreigners in the last quarter of the race.

Despite Asmeron pushing the pace to a fast 2:56 for the 21st km, Rios and Abe re-entered the lead pack. At the halfway point, 1:03:22, the pack consisted of 10 runners plus 2 pacemakers. Asmeron continued his assault, running ahead of the pacemakers much of the time and dropping a 2:54 for the 23rd km, too much for Team Honda's Takashi Horiguchi and Team Nissin Shokuhin's Yuzo Onishi, a 2:12:53 marathoner. Asmerom was very impressive, continuing to look calm and in control of both himself and the race. The group reached 25 km in 1:15:01, a 14:54 5 km split. 1 pacemaker dropped out, and shortly afterwards Koji Watanabe of Team Osaka Gas and Takehisa Okino of Team Chugoku Denryoku lost contact.

Thus by the 26 km marker the pack was down to 7, with pacemaker Isaac Macharia leading Asmeron, Shami, Rios and pre-race domestic favorites Osaki and Tomoyuki Sato of Team Asahi Kasei, a 2:09 marathoner who ran in last summer's World Championships. The surprise final member of the lead pack was Abe, once again showing great courage and ambition. The pace slowed to 3:03 per km over the next 5 km, but at 28.5 km first Sato and then Abe abruptly fell out of the pack. Sato quickly overtook Abe and tried unsuccessfully to regain contact with the leaders. Ahead of him, Shami dropped to the rear of the pack, while behind him Onishi, who had slowed at the 23 km mark, remained in sight and began to advance on Abe. Asmeron pushed again at 29 km, and Shami quickly moved up to avoid losing contact. Osaki now slipped to the rear.

The lead group of 5 hit 30 km in 1:30:16, the slowest 5 km split so far in the race. When pacemaker Macharia dropped out at 30 km, Asmeron immediately launched another attack, answered instantly by Shami. Osaki and Rios made no attempt to cover the move, running together while Sato continued to try to recatch them. Asmeron opened a small lead on Shami, but the leaders essentially remained in 2 pairs. Farther back, Onishi passed Abe and advanced on Sato, who now showed signs of strain from the early fast pace. 35 km passed in 1:45:30 for Shami and Asmeron and 1:45:57 for Osaki and Rios. Osaki at this point was 1 second faster than Arata Fujiwara's 35 km split in the Tokyo Marathon, the mark he would have to beat to have a chance for the Olympic team. He was focused and intent, but Rios was visibly losing his concentration, repeatedly checking his watch and looking around.

At 36.5 km Shami made what would be the race's decisive move, dropping Asmeron without effort. Osaki and Rios slowed to 3:13 per km, while Onishi caught Sato. It looked probable that Onishi would continue to advance and catch Rios and Osaki, making it a 2-man race for the coveted top Japanese slot. Osaki had other ideas, however, as he launched his final spurt at 38 km, rapidly dropping Rios and beginning to make up the distance to the fading Asmeron. Onishi quickly caught Rios but could no longer get any closer to Osaki.

Shami hit 40 km in 2:01:16, a 15:46 5 km split which, considering that he was running away from the other leaders, showed how much the entire field had slowed. Osaki reached 40 km in 2:01:53, a 15:56 5 km split and now 13 seconds behind Arata Fujiwara's mark. Osaki ran the final 2 km with great desperation, reaching the track just seconds behind Asmeron. Unfortunately for Osaki, the Eritrean was not finished yet and was able to match his speed over the final 600 m, maintaining his lead as Shami reached the tape 11 seconds ahead. Asmeron was clearly exhausted but recorded an impressive PB of almost 7 minutes. Osaki came in 3rd in 2:08:36, his fantastic final stretch helping him to beat Arata Fujiwara's time by 4 seconds. Onishi also finished in remarkable style, running a 4-minute PB to also break 2:09. 7 runners broke 2:10, an unusual feat in the Japanese race circuit.

Osaki wept openly during his post-race interview, and with good cause. Rikuren official Keisuke Sawaki, who had given Arata Fujiwara great praise at the Tokyo Marathon, was likewise very positive about Osaki's peformance. He said that in his opinion Osaki's performance against the 2nd and 4th place finishers from the World Championships together with his excellent finish time made for a 'respectable' result. He concluded by saying, "Rikuren will consider all the selection races and performances and will make a fair selection for the Olympic team." The organization's decision about the team's membership will be announced on Mar. 10.

Top 10 Results
1. Mubarak Hassan Shami (Qatar): 2:08:23
2. Yared Asmeron (Eritrea): 2:08:34 PB
3. Satoshi Osaki (NTT Nishi Nihon): 2:08:36 PB
4. Yuzo Onishi (Nissin Shokuhin): 2:08:54 PB
5. Tomoya Shimizu (Sagawa Express): 2:09:23 PB
6. Jose Rios (Spain): 2:09:38
7. Tomoyuki Sato (Asahi Kasei): 2:09:59
8. Kazuki Ikenaga (Konica Minolta): 2:10:44 debut
9. Masakazu Fujiwara (Honda): 2:12:07
10. Toshiya Katayama (NTT Nishi Nihon): 2:12:30

The IAAF's report on Biwako is here.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

'Kuira, Konovalova Prevail at Fukuoka Cross Country'

From an observer's standpoint, one of the interesting things about this meet was that the two senior races were broadcast live nationally on network television. Somewhat unusual even by Japanese standards, but then the meet was also advertised on Tokyo subways.

'Ngatunyi, Momanyi Take Kenyan Cross Titles'

Gideon Ngatuny is based in Tokyo where he runs for Team Nissin Shokuhin.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Kenji Noguchi Goes for the Top in Biwako Mainichi Marathon

translated by Brett Larner

For those who want to make the Beijing Olympics men's marathon team, Sunday's Biwako Mainichi Marathon is the last chance. Team Chugoku Denryoku's Tsuyoshi Ogata, who was 5th at last summer's World Championships, and Atsushi Sato, who was 3rd at December's Fukuoka International Marathon, are both likely to be picked for the team. After these runners remained 2 races to decide the 3rd man. At the Tokyo Marathon, Arata Fujiwara (Team JR East Japan) ran 2:08:40 to finish 2nd and make Biwako the object of intense observation.

The favorite for top Japanese in Biwako is Satoshi Osaki (Team NTT West Japan). At the World Championships last summer he was 6th, leading some to advise him to sit out the selection races and hope for a slot. Having finished in the top 3 in 6 of his 8 marathons, Osaki was unsatsified with his World Championships result and went back into training for another qualifier. He is ready to go. His closest domestic competitor is expected to be Tomoyuki Sato (Team Asahi Kasei) who will be looking to improve on his PB of 2:09:43.

A potential dark horse is Kagawa Prefecture's Kenji Noguchi (Team Shikoku Denryoku). It has been 3 years since Noguchi ran a full marathon, but he has been training at a high-altitude camp in Kunming, China through the winter and is in excellent condition. 3 years ago he ran his PB of 2:16:04, but he will of course be looking to improve upon this mark and to come in as top Japanese in order to make the Beijing grade.

Overseas competition includes World Championships 2nd place finisher Mubarak Hussan Shami (Qatar) and Dmytro Baranovsky (Ukraine), the fastest man in the field with a PB of 2:07:15. An outright win by a Japanese runner will not be easy.

Translator's note: Although the headline of this article is about Noguchi, it doesn't actually say much about him. His 2:16:04 PB certainly doesn't reflect his ability, particularly after a strong 2007. Noguchi ran a 1:02:20 PB at the World Road Running Championships in Udine, Italy last October. He ran on the Japanese national team in November's International Chiba Ekiden, had a good turn in the New Year Ekiden, and most recently finished 2nd behind marathon national record holder Toshinari Takaoka at the Himejijo 10 Mile Road Race on Feb. 11. A breakthrough performance is quite possible.

One Last Chance For the Olympics: The Biwako Mainichi Marathon (updated)

translated and edited by Brett Larner

The organizing committee of final selection race for the Beijing Olympics men's marathon team, the Mar. 2nd Biwako Mainichi Marathon, on Feb. 19 announced the field for this year's race. Headlining the field with a 2:08:46 PB is Osaka World Championships 6th place finisher and 2006 Asian Games bronze medalist Satoshi Osaki (Team NTT Nishi Nihon). Joining him are Osaka World Championships teammates Tomoyuki Sato and Mitsuru Kubota, both of Team Asahi Kasei.

Overseas competitors include Osaka World Championships silver medalist Mubarak Hassan Shami (Qatar) and 4th place finisher Yared Asmeron (Eritrea), as well as 2-time Biwako winner Jose Rios (Spain) and past Fukuoka International Marathon winner Dmytro Baranovsky (Ukraine) who holds a PB of 2:07:15.

2007 Fukuoka 3rd place finisher Atsushi Sato leads the standings to qualify for the Olympic team with his mark of 2:07:13. Tsuyoshi Ogata also has a good chance of being selected courtesy of his 5th place finish in last summer's Osaka World Championships. Both Sato and Ogata run for Team Chugoku Denryoku. At the Tokyo Marathon on Feb. 17, 2nd place finisher Arata Fujiwara (Team JR East Japan) also put his name onto the list with a 2:08:40 PB finish.

To be assured of an Olympic slot, the domestic runners in Biwako will have to beat 2:07-level international runners. Rikuren's director of road racing Toshio Kiuchi commented, "Since we are talking about the Olympics, time is not as important. Being just the top Japanese finisher will not be good enough either. What will matter most is a win against strong foreigners."

Translator's note: Also scheduled to run in Biwako is Komazawa University's powerful Koichi Sakai. Sakai took the lead for the victorious Komazawa at this year's Hakone Ekiden and will join Team Fujitsu after he graduates this spring. He has been training with former marathon national record holder Atsushi Fujita and will be doing Biwako as his debut marathon.

More information on the Biwako elite field can be found here. A complete listing of the Biwako field is available here.

On race day, check here for live splits every 5 km. Click on the large orange button to see the split data.

The IAAF's Biwako preview is located here.