In sixteen days this month Sawahata, 24, won three marathons, all in course record time, all under 2:42 and two in PBs, to give her a streak of fifteen marathon wins since April, 2015, undefeated after a tentative first step at the 2014 Honolulu Marathon. According to the ARRS database, it's one of greatest marathon win streaks at the elite or sub-elite level in history, male or female. Who in the world is she?
Born in 1993, Sawahata was an ordinary high school runner at Tokorozawa Kita H.S., favoring the 3000 m on the track and finishing 15th on her stage at the Saitama qualifying race for the National High School Ekiden Championships her senior year. After graduating she enrolled at Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University to study veterinary nursing, following in the footsteps of her father Masahiro Sawahata, a veterinarian and amateur runner. In university Sawahata continued to run on her own without coach or club, doing local 5 and 10 km road races and quickly showing promise. In all thirteen races she ran between October, 2011 and October, 2013 she finished in the top three, including a 36:55 win in the 2012 Koedo Kawagoe Half Marathon's 10 km division.
Moving up to the half marathon at age 20 Sawahata won her debut at the October, 2013 Joshu Ota Subaru Half in 1:20:33, and over the following fifteen months she won her next five half marathons, taking her PB down to 1:16:14 while winning the November, 2014 Iwai Masakado Half. The next month, like tens of thousands of Japanese amateurs before her, she made a casual marathon debut at the Honolulu Marathon, running 3:06:42. Her first real loss in the half marathon came at the January, 2015 Chiba Marine Half Marathon where she was 6th, but there she topped the general division, the first finisher in the purely amateur non-JAAF-registered division with only corporate league and university runners in the elite division ahead of her.
Sawahata returned to winning in March with a 1:16:30 victory at the Kumagaya Sakura Half Marathon, and a month later it was time for her first serious marathon. At Chiba she had told reporters that her goal was to someday break 3:00 in the marathon, but at April's Maebashi Shibukawa City Marathon she came out big with a 2:44:57 course record for the win. And with that, her marathon streak began.
Another course record win at September's Harunako Marathon, then an impressive double at the first runnings of both the Gunma Marathon and Saitama International Marathon just twelve days apart, going under 2:44 at both. In Japan a runner of her ability would virtually always run in the JAAF-registered division at a race like Saitama, but Sawahata opted to remain in the general division, an entirely separate race starting half an hour after the elite women's race.
Sawahata ended 2015 with another sub-2:50 win at the Toshinose Marathon to make it five for five in her first year as a marathoner, all wins, all course records, all under 2:50. The marathons she ran that year formed the core of her schedule in 2016 and 2017:
- 16th - 3:06:42 - Honolulu Marathon, 14 Dec. 2014
- 1st - 2:44:57 - Maebashi Shibukawa City Marathon, 19 Apr. 2015 - CR
- 1st - 2:48:05 - Harunako Marathon, 27 Sept. 2015 - CR
- 1st - 2:41:15 - Gunma Marathon, 03 Nov. 2015 - CR
- 1st - 2:43:26 - Saitama Int'l Marathon general division, 15 Nov. 2015 - CR
- 1st - 2:48:42 - Toshinose Marathon, 27 Dec. 2015 - CR
- 1st - 2:47:57 - Maebashi Shibukawa City Marathon, 17 Apr. 2016
- 1st - 2:53:14 - Kumagaya Summer Marathon, 19 June 2016 - CR
- 1st - 2:55:25 - Harunako Marathon, 25 Sept. 2016
- 1st - 2:51:09 - Gunma Marathon, 03 Nov. 2016
- 1st - 2:48:11 - Saitama Int'l Marathon general division, 13 Nov. 2016
- 1st - 2:45:49 - Toshinose Marathon, 25 Dec. 2016 - CR
- 1st - 2:46:05 - Harunako Marathon, 24 Sept. 2017 - CR
- 1st - 2:40:59 - Gunma Marathon, 03 Nov. 2017 - CR
- 1st - 2:41:30 - Saitama Int'l Marathon general division, 12 Nov. 2017 - CR
- 1st - 2:40:31 - Fujisan Marathon, 19 Nov. 2017 - CR
The addition of the hot and humid Kumagaya Summer Marathon in June, 2016, where she beat the top man to take 1st overall, seemed to impact her racing in the fall as she was over 2:50 at both Harunako and Gunma, but at Saitama she returned to 2:48 territory and ended the year with another course record win at the Toshinose Marathon in 2:45:49.
After Chiba Marine Sawahata had been unbeaten for eleven straight races from 10 km to the marathon in 2015 until running it again in January, 2016 and finishing 2nd. 2016 saw her rack up twelve straight wins through January this year when she had a 4th-place finish at the Akabane Half Marathon, but even there she placed 1st in the general division, still forgoing JAAF registration in favor of doing her own thing.
After giving Kumagaya a miss she hit her usual fall trio of Harunako, Gunma and Saitama's general division again. The effects of the changes she'd made were obvious. Course records to win all three. At Gunma she ran a PB of 2:40:59 to come into the orbit of the very top of amateur running in Japan. Nine days later in Saitama she was almost as fast in 2:41:30. In both 2015 and 2016 Sawahata followed this double up with a win at the Koedo Kawagoe Half Marathon the last weekend of November, but as with her ultra debut she had something else in mind this year.
Lining up at the Nov. 26 Fujisan Marathon she blasted a new course record and PB of 2:40:31 just sixteen days after Gunma and seven after Saitama. Three marathons in sixteen days, all course record wins, all within 61 seconds of each other and two of them PBs. Not even Kawauchi has tried something that audacious. And if she follows her regular schedule Sawahata isn't done for the year yet, with December's Tokorozawa Half Marathon and the Toshinose Marathon still to come.
There's an argument to be made that she cherry-picks her races, but looking at their geographic distribution almost all are local races in Saitama and nearby cities in neighboring prefectures. Combined with her apparent total lack of interest in JAAF membership it looks like she really is just a pure amateur like anyone else, running for fun when she's not working and not interested in the elite racing circuit. One who happens to be very, very good, edging toward bronze label level and the cusp of what the IAAF considers world class, all along the way achieving some incredible things.
If that all sounds familiar, it should. There's just something about Saitama that keeps turning out some of the most unique and intriguing runners the world has ever seen. Add Tomomi Sawahata to that list.
© 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved