30 November 2012 - The 66th annual Fukuoka International Marathon, which doubles as the 96th Japanese national championships for the men’s Marathon as well as one of the selection races for the 2013 World Championships, is set for Sunday.
The great Haile Gebrselassie, who won this IAAF Gold Label Road Race in 2006, is running here for the second time. In the history of the race, there are eight runners who won the event multiple times including two four-time champions – Frank Shorter and Toshihiko Seko - and two three-time champions – Jerome Drayton and Gezahegne Abera. Can Gebrselassie become the third Ethiopian, after Abera and Tsegaye Kebede, to win in Fukuoka multiple times?
Although he turned 39 last April, Gebrselassie still ran 10,000m in 27:20.39 and the Half Marathon in 1:00:52 this year, both the fastest performance by anybody older than 37. In his last Marathon, the 2012 Tokyo Marathon, Gebrselassie, despite some physical problems during the race, ran 2:08:17. So he might have a faster Marathon in him on Sunday. It is generally believed that the course in Fukuoka is faster than the course in Tokyo. It should be noted that the record for a 39-year-old is 2:07:44 by Jaoud Gharib, recorded in 2012 London Marathon. Can Gebrselassie who has run the fastest Marathons for 33, 34 and 35 year-olds run the fastest Marathon for over 39 years old?
Gebrselassie is not the only former Fukuoka Marathon champion in the field. Another is Dmytro Baranovskyy of Ukraine who won in 2005. Baranovskyy, who set p his ersonal best of 2:07:15 in 2006, has run Fukuoka five times and never finished worse than seventh. Furthermore he runs exceptionally well if the weather turns nasty.
However, the best European in the field may not be Baranovskyy but rather Henryk Szost of Poland. Szost set his personal best of 2:07:39 in the Lake Biwa marathon nine months ago and then finished ninth, the best European finish, in the London Olympic Games in August. He could run even faster on the faster Fukuoka course.
Kenyan Isaac Macharia has the third fastest personal best, 2:07:16, in the field. However, his personal best was recorded back in 2008. Better indicator of his more recent form may be his most recent marathon in March of 2012, where he recorded 2:11:00. He’s never run Fukuoka as a official competitor, but has paced the race five times. So Macharia knows the course, at least the first part of it.
The most intriguing runner in the field is Martin Mathathi, who will be making the long awaited Marathon debut. With a 58:56 Half Marathon best recorded in 2011 and 26:59.88 10,000m best recorded in 2009, Mathathi is the second fastest runner (at both 10,000m and Half Marathon) in the field behind Gebrselassie. His championships records are also quite respectable. At 10,000m, Mathathi was fifth in 2005, third in 2007 and fifth in the 2011 World Championships. He was also third in the long race at 2006 World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka. So how fast can Mathathi run on Sunday? One possible target is 2:06:39 by Samuel Wanjiru, the fastest debut time on Japanese soil, which was recorded in 2007 Fukuoka Marathon. Perhaps he could even aim for the fastest debut in history, 2:03:06 by Moses Mosop in Boston, or fastest debut on the standard course, 2:04:16 by Dennis Kimetto in Berlin.
Several runners who were originally scheduled to run the New York City Marathon, which was cancelled, will be running in Fukuoka instead. Although none of them have broken 2:10, Tim Nelson (USA), and Simon Bairu (CAN), who have run 27:28.19 and 27:23.63, respectively, may surprise on Sunday.
Besides Mathathi, three other Kenyans living in Japan – James Mwangi, Cyrus Njui and Harun Njoroge - will also start. Mwangi was second with personal best of 2:08:38 in Fukuoka last year, while Njui was fifth in Tokyo 2011 with a 2:09:10 PB. Njoroge won the 2012 Beppu-Oita Marathon with a 2:09:38 PB. Among them, Mwangi with bests of 27:49:27 and 1:00:34 in the 10,000m and Half Marathon, may have faster Marathon in him.
The Japanese Corporate track team system was instrumental in the development of some of the great Kenyan marathon runners of the past - Douglas Wakihuri, Eric Wainaina and Samuel Wanjiru, all Olympic medalists. Who will be next? Mathathi? Mwangi, Njui or Njoroge?
Moscow 2013 berth at stake for top Japanese
From the Japanese perspective, the most important aspect of the race is selection of the World Championships marathon team. The top Japanese finisher will be automatically selected for the Moscow marathon team provided he finishes faster than 2:08:00.
Yuki Kawauchi, who has run six marathons this year already, is running in an attempt to qualify for the marathon team. “Unlike last year, when my main race to qualify for the Olympics was Tokyo Marathon, this year Fukuoka marathon is my main race to qualify for the World Championships,” Kawauchi said after the World Half Marathon Championships, where he was 21st, the best Japanese. Kawauchi, who set his 1500m personal best of 3:50.51 this year, want to run 2:07 on Sunday. His main competition is Arata Fujiwara, who was second in 2012 Tokyo Marathon with 2:07:48. However, he was a dismal 45th in the Olympic Games. Kawauchi and Fujiwara faced off three times at the Marathon; Fujiwara finished ahead in the 2012 & 2010 Tokyo Marathons, while Kawauchi finished ahead in Tokyo 2011.
Other Japanese vying for the spot on the Marathon team are Hiroyuki Horibata, 7th in 2011 World Championships Marathon, and Yoshinori Oda, who made the third fastest Marathon debut by a Japanese in Tokyo 2011.
Ken Nakamamura for the IAAF
Name - Personal Best - Venue
Haile Gebrselassie (ETH) - 2:03:59, 2008 Berlin
Dmytro Baranovsky (UKR) - 2:07:15, 2006 Fukuoka
Isaac Macharia (KEN) - 2:07:16, 2008 Dubai
Henryk Szost (POL) - 2:07:39, 2012 Lake Biwa
Frank De Almeida (BRA) - 2:12:32, 2008 Paris
Cutbert Nyasango (ZIM) - 2:12:08, 2012 Olympics
Mohamed Trafeh (USA) - 1:00:39, 2010 NYC Half
James Mwangi (KEN) - 2:08:38, 2011 Fukuoka
Cyrus Njui (KEN) - 2:09:10, 2011 Tokyo
Harun Njoroge (KEN) - 2:09:38, 2012 Beppu-Oita
Martin Mathathi (KEN) - 58:56, 2011 Great North Run (making Marathon debut)
Yuki Kawauchi - 2:08:37, 2011 Tokyo
Yoshinori Oda - 2:09:03, 2011 Tokyo
Hiroyuki Horibata - 2:09:25, 2011 Lake Biwa
Arata Fujiwara - 2:07:48, 2012 Tokyo
Those originally scheduled to run New York -
Scott Overall (GBR) - 2:10:55, 2011 Berlin
Ryan Vail (USA) - 2:12:43, 2012 Houston
Tim Nelson (USA) - 2:15:06, 2010 New York
Simon Bairu (CAN) - 2:19:52, 2012 Houston
Brent Vaughn (USA) - 1:02:04 half , 2010 Houston