The big question is: can Vincent Kipruto retain his title at the 69th annual Lake Biwa Marathon, the oldest marathon in Japan and an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, on Sunday (2)?
The Kenyan won 12 months ago in 2:08:34, his fastest time since he finished second in 2011 Rotterdam Marathon with a near personal best of 2:05:33. He has two more 2:05 marathons to his name: a personal best of 2:05:13 in 2010 Rotterdam Marathon and 2:05:47 in the 2009 Paris marathon, which he won.
His most recent marathon was the 2013 Frankfurt Marathon, which he won with 2:06:15, so he looks like he is returning to the form he had from 2008 to 2011, when he ran six consecutive marathons under 2:10 and got a silver medal at the 2011 IAAF World Championships.
“Last year I ran 2:08. This year I would like to improve it, perhaps to 2:07," said Kipruto. “(After the pace maker leave the race at 30km) I hope those who are still in the lead pack can assist each other to keep the good pace going.”
If Kipruto successfully defend his Lake Biwa Marathon crown, then he will be the first to defend his title since Spain’s Martin Fiz won in 1999 and 2000. He will also be the first two-time winner since another Spaniard, Jose Rios, won his second title back in 2006.
Bazu Worku is the second fastest man in the field with 2:05:25.
Besides that time, which the Ethiopian recorded in the 2010 Berlin Marathon, Worku ran 2:06:15 in the 2009 Paris Marathon and 2:07:48 at the 2012 Dubai Marathon. Incidentally, among the sub-2:05:30 marathon runners, Worku actually has the slowest half marathon best of just 1:01:56!
“I am in good shape so I would like to run 2:05 to improve the course record. After the pace makers are gone, I hope to increase the pace so I can run 2:05 marathon," commented Worku.
The Lake Biwa Marathon course record of 2:06:13 was set by the current world record holder Wilson Kipsang in 2011. The time is slower than the personal best of Kipruto and Bazu Worku, and so a new course record is certainly possible, if perhaps not probable, on Sunday.
Two other Kenyans could also enter the reckoning in this year’s race.
Gitau going for another Japanese win
Japan-based Joseph Gitau won the 2012 Fukuoka Marathon with a personal best of 2:06:58 and returned to that event last year, where he finished second behind his compatriot Martin Mathathi with 2:09:00.
“My foremost goal is to win. As for the time, it will be whatever the time that is needed to win,” said Gitau.
James Mwangi was third in the Lake Biwa Marathon last year with 2:08:48, 10 seconds short of his personal best of 2:08:38 which was recorded when finishing in the 2011 Fukuoka Marathon.
There are four other sub-2:10 runners are in the field. The most famous is the prolific Yuki Kawauchi, who is going to run his second marathon of the year, having won the Kumamoto Castle Marathon on 16 February with 2:10:14.
“I have been on the podium in Fukuoka, as well as Tokyo Marathon, so I would like to be on the podium also in Lake Biwa Marathon. My time goal, as I have said many times before, is 2:07," said Kawauchi, who has a personal best of 2:08:14 from last year's Seoul Marathon.
The other three are: Japan’s Yoshinori Oda, who recorded 2:09:03 in his marathon debut back in 2011 Tokyo Marathon; Morocco’s Hafid Chani has a best of 2:09:11 which was recorded in 2013 London Marathon while Qatar’s two-time Asian Games 10,000m silver medallist Essa Ismail Rashed ran 2:09:22 in 2012 Amsterdam Marathon
The race also doubles as the qualifying race for the Japanese team for the forthcoming 17th Asian Games in Inchon, Korea.
Two marathon runners will be selected from the top finishers in 2013 Fukuoka Marathon, 2014 Tokyo Marathon and 2014 Lake Biwa Marathon.
The top Japanese finishers in aforementioned marathons so far are Kawauchi, who was third in Fukuoka with 2:09:05, and Kohei Matsumura, who finished eighth in Tokyo with 2:08:09.
In the Tokyo Marathon last week, several little known Japanese runners came out of the woodwork to record huge personal bests inside 2:10:00 so Kawauchi’s position on the Asian Games team is by no mean secure if he has a bad day in Lake Biwa.
The illustrious list of former champions of the race includes household names within the global running community such as: Abebe Bikila, Kenji Kimihara, Frank Shorter, Karel Lismont, Yoshihiko Seko, Paul Tergat, as well as the current course record holder and world record holder Wilson Kipsang.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF