The 67th annual Fukuoka International Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race which doubles as the qualifying race for the Japanese Marathon team for the 17th Asian Games in Inchon, will be held on Sunday (1).
In its heyday, back in the late 1960s to the early 1980s before the advent of the IAAF World Championships, Derek Clayton became the first man to break 2:10 when he ran 2:09:36 in 1967. Olympic champion Frank Shorter won four times in a row between 1971 and 1974, and the race then became known as ‘the unofficial World Championships’.
With 2:04:53 marathon runner Gebre Gebremariam pulling out of the race this week due to a calf injury, the fastest runner in the field is defending champion Joseph Gitau, who won last year’s race in a personal best of 2:06:58.
Sunday’s race will be the fourth Marathon of his career, having also won at the Yangon Marathon in January in 2:19:13. Gitau’s performances this year so far are far from impressive, but his marks in 2012 ahead of his 2:06 Marathon were also somewhat lacklustre, so he shouldn’t be discounted.
If Gitau wins on Sunday, he will be the first man to successfully defend the Fukuoka Marathon title since Tsegaye Kebede did so in 2009. On that occasion the Ethiopian set the current course record of 2:05:18, having also set a course record of 2:06:10 12 months prior.
With his 2:07:39 national record set at the 2012 Lake Biwa Marathon, Poland’s Henryk Szost has the second-fastest personal best of the elite field. Although he dropped out his last Marathon, the Warsaw Marathon in April, Szost otherwise has a solid record, finishing third in Fukuoka last year in 2:08:42 and ninth at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
In Fukuoka four years ago, Mekubo Mogusu’s highly-anticipated marathon debut did not end well. Despite his PBs of 59:48 for the Half Marathon and 27:26.56 for 10,000m, Mogusu dropped out after 30km having run with the leaders for the first 25km.
The 26-year-old Kenyan has contested several Marathons since then with his personal best being 2:11:02, set at this year’s Tokyo Marathon, but his other PBs suggest that he may be capable of running much quicker.
Alistair Cragg of Ireland is another runner who is yet to fulfil his marathon potential. He started two Marathons in 2011, at Boston and Fukuoka, but has not finished one yet. His track credentials – 13:03.53 for 5000m and 27:39.55 for 10,000m – indicates that when he finishes a Marathon, his time is likely to be fast, perhaps even sub-2:10.
Other invited runners from abroad include Spain’s Ayad Lamdassem, who has a best of 2:09:28, and Canada’s Reid Coolsaet, who has a best of 2:10:55 set in Toronto.
Much of the Japanese media attention may focus on Yuki Kawauchi, the ultimate amateur runner. Kawauchi is the most prolific elite marathon runner in the world, if not in history. He has run nine Marathons already this year, after running nine Marathons in 2012. He has twice broken 2:09 this year and set a personal best of 2:08:15 in Beppu-Oita in February and then improved it by one second to 2:08:14 in Seoul in March.
Kawauchi’s main rival in the race to qualify for the Asian Games marathon team is Arata Fujiwara, who has a faster marathon PB with 2:07:48, set at the 2012 Tokyo Marathon. Fujiwara and Kawauchi have raced four times at the Marathon with Fujiwara winning on three of those occasions.
The last time a Japanese runner won in Fukuoka was 10 years ago, but the rivalry between Kawauchi and Fujiwara could result in a domestic victory on Sunday.
Another Japanese contender is Takayuki Matsumiya, the former 30km World record-holder who recorded his Marathon PB of 2:09:14 this year in Tokyo, although his 13:13.20 national 5000m record suggests that he may be able to run even faster over 26.2 miles.
Although not an invited runner, Kenya’s 2007 World 10,000m bronze medallist cannot be overlooked. He made his marathon debut last year in Fukuoka, but dropped out after passing 30km in 1:45:47. Based on his PBs of 26:59.88 for 10,000m and 58:56 for the Half Marathon, Mathathi looks capable of a fast time.
Japan’s Atsushi Sato, who has a 2:07:13 PB and finished sixth at the 2009 IAAF World Championships, will be running his final Marathon as an elite athlete on Sunday.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF
Elite field (with PBs)
Joseph Gitau (KEN) 2:06:58
Henryk Szost (POL) 2:07:39
Arata Fujiwara (JPN) 2:07:48
Yuki Kawauchi (JPN) 2:08:14
Takayuki Matsumiya (JPN) 2:09:14
Ayad Lamdassem (ESP) 2:09:28
Reid Coolsaet (CAN) 2:10:55
Mekubo Mogusu (KEN) 2:11:02
Satoru Sasaki (JPN) 2:11:28
Chiharu Takada (JPN) 2:11:53
Alistair Cragg (IRL) debut