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Fukuoka International Marathon - Preview (updated)

by Brett Larner

The Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championship is the most important of Japan's elite men's marathons. At its peak Fukuoka served as the unofficial marathon world championships, the place where all the world's best came to end the year with a battle royale, hence the event's full name. Fukuoka's international stature faded in the era of the big city, big money marathon, but its importance to Japan's elite men has never diminished. As the first chance for Japanese men to qualify for an Olympic or World Championships team it remains a highly competitive domestic event with national record-level performances. In recent years Fukuoka's organizers seem to have made a concerted effort to return the event to a level of international signifcance; the invited overseas field at the 2006 Fukuoka included future world record holder Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) and two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist-to-be Jaouad Gharib (Morocco), while 2007 had on its entry list former world record holder Paul Tergat (Kenya) and future Olympic gold medalist Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya) in his marathon debut. Tergat did not start, but Ethiopia's Deriba Merga, who went on to nearly win the Olympic bronze in Beijing, turned up as an individual entrant to give Wanjiru a race.

2008 continues Fukuoka's reemergence. Headlining the invited field are Beijing Olympics bronze medalist Tsegaye Kebede (Ethiopia) and London, Chicago, Berlin and Rotterdam winner Felix Limo (Kenya) along with a handful of other sub-2:10 runners. As a selection race for the Japanese national team at the 2009 Berlin World Championships marathon, the domestic field is also strong, led by Athens Olympics 5th place finisher Shigeru Aburaya (Team Chugoku Denryoku) and 2008 Tokyo Marathon runner-up Arata Fujiwara (Team JR East Japan) with at least three other sub-2:10 Japanese runners in contention.

On paper Fukuoka will be a battle between Limo and Kebede. Limo is unquestionably the most accomplished runner in the field, with wins in three of the World Marathon Majors and a PB of 2:06:14 to his name, but his performances seem to have peaked with his 2006 London title. He was only 3rd in the 2007 London Marathon, albeit in a strong time of 2:07:47, and his only significant race result since then was a 2:10:35 finish far down in the field at this year's London. Limo may be on the downward career curve or at the very least in a long slump, but even so he will present a challenge to the others in the Fukuoka field.

Kebede is in the opposite position. Only 21, Kebede debuted at the marathon in 2007 and ended the year with a 2:08:16 PB set in Amsterdam. He ran several sub-hour half marathons in the early part of 2008 before winning the Paris Marathon in 2:06:40. Representing Ethiopia in the Beijing Olympics, he ran a tactical race and overtook countyman Deriba Merga with less than 300 m to go to win the bronze medal. Unlike many other Beijing Olympic marathoners, Kebede has been in excellent form in the months since, most prominently winning October's Great North Run half marathon in 59:45. He looks as though he will be bringing an A-level effort to Fukuoka, and it will take Limo's best to contend with him.

If there is a potential winner among the Japanese entrants it is Fujiwara. His only credential is his out-of-nowhere 2:08:40 performance at Tokyo this year and his other races since have been almost embarrassing, most notably a 2:23:10 finish at Chicago in October after trying to go out at 3:00 / km pace with the lead pack of Kenyans, but nevertheless, Fujiwara gives the impression of having the ability and mindset to run at the 2:06 level and is strongly motivated to show that his Tokyo run was not just a fluke. With the withdrawal of World Championships marathon medalist and Olympian Tsuyoshi Ogata on Dec. 4, Fujiwara stands as the best, if least accomplished, Japanese marathoner in the field, and the contention for the win and a ticket to Berlin are his to lose.

Other possible Japanese contenders are Aburaya, Yuko Matsumiya (Team Konica-Minolta), Satoshi Irifune (Team Kanebo), and Tomoyuki Sato (Team Asahi Kasei). Aburaya has the best PB in the domestic field, a 2:07:52 from Biwako 2001, and 5th place finishes in two World Championships and an Olympics, but he has only ever broken 2:10 on two other occasions, running 2:09:26 at the 2003 Paris World Championships. His best recent performance was a 2:10:30 at last year's Fukuoka. With such times he is unlikely to be near the leaders in the later stages of the race. Similarly, Irifune and Sato have each run on a World Championships team and broken 2:10 twice, but neither shows potential to break 2:09 and thus will probably not be factors. This leaves Matsumiya, the less talented identical twin of 30 km world record holder Takayuki Matsumiya. Thus far Yuko Matsumiya has shown promise, with 2:09 marks in three of his four marathons including last year's Fukuoka, and he gives the impression of not yet having reached his potential. A breakthrough performance would put him in the front pack.

Among the overseas runners, Spain's Jose Manuel Martinez and Russian Aleksey Sokolov could also be involved in the action. Martinez, 37, holds a PB of 2:08:09 from 2003 and was very, in fact overly, aggressive during the Beijing Olympic marathon, running in the lead pack and actually pushing the pace after 10 km before predictably fading to a 16th place finish. His marathon times in recent years have been unremarkable, but in Feb. he ran a half marathon PB of 1:02:46. It would be a stretch for him to be in position for the win, but it is not unthinkable.

Sokolov is a better choice for darkhorse. A former steeplechaser, Sokolov finished 9th in London this year to make the Russian Olympic team. He was only 21st in Beijing, but his PB of 2:09:07 was set at last year's Dublin Marathon and sets him at around the same level as Fujiwara and Matsumiya. If Kebede has an off day and Limo performs in keeping with the trend seen in his running of the last two years, Sokolov could find himself contending with these two Japanese runners for the win.

The complete elite field is listed here. The Fukuoka International Marathon will be broadcast nationwide on TV Asahi beginning at 12:00 noon on Dec. 7.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


Anonymous said…
No mentioning of Brown...come on. In a slow tactical race, Brown could easily factor into the top 3. Give the man some credit.

Other than that, great preview.


Concerned Canadian
Brett Larner said…
The omission of Brown was intentional. He had no chance. Sorry.
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