Osaka Ladies' marathon: Simon turns in a hat-trick
K. Ken Nakamura for the IAAF
When Harumi Hiroyama surged with 5km to go and widened the gap between herself, Simon and Wanjiru, many presumed she was on her way to her first marathon victory. But just after the 40km point, Romania's Lidia Simon, who was 11 seconds behind Hiroyama broke away from Esther Wanjiru, and started to chase Hiroyama.
Even when Simon caught Hiroyama with 500m to go, many expected that Hiroyama, known for her blazing kick, would get the better of Simon (Hiroyama once ran the last 200m of the 10,000m in 30.4 seconds). But it was not to be, as Simon opened the gap soon after she caught Hiroyama, and the Japanese was not able to regain the lead in the last 200m. In retrospect she felt she made her move too early. She should have kept to her usual strategy on the track and waited till the last 200m, but she felt the pressure to record a fast time and therefore, be considered for the Olympic team.
This marathon was an Olympic qualifying race for Japanese women. With Ari Ichihashi, silver medallist at the World Championships in Sevilla 99 pre-selected, there was only two spots left open. In addition, as Eri Yamaguchi ran 2:22:12 in the 1999 Tokyo Ladies marathon, it was thought that minimum requirement to be considered for the team was a win with a fast time comparable to the national record (2:21:47).
The race started fast, covering the first kilometres in 3:22. Soon after 5km (16:41) one of the main contenders for the Olympic team Junko Asari, the 1993 World Marathon champion, lost contact with the lead pack. She was reportedly in great shape, having run in training 40km in 2:32, and 20km in 1:10 at an altitude of 2700m. But leg cramps, probably caused by the cold rain, forced her to drop out just after 15km. Next to go was Tomoe Abe, bronze medallist in Stuttgart 93, at 6.6Km. Another contender for the Olympic team, Yuko Arimori, two-time Olympic medallist (92 Silver medallist, 96 Bronze Medallist), fell behind just before 15Km. Even from behind the leaders, she received huge cheers from the crowds alongside the course, and the television coverage kept on covering her progress. She eventually finished ninth with 2:31:22.
By 20km (1:06:59), the pack was down to seven, and by 22km it was down to Six: Wanjiru, Simon, Alemu, Hiroyama, Obata and Geji. After 25km (1:24:16), the runners entered the park surrounding the Osaka castle, a hilly section of the course, and it was obvious that Noriko Geji and Kayoko Obata were in trouble.
Soon after 30km (1:41:47), debutante Noriko Geji who seemed to be barely hanging on finally started to lose contact. Geji would eventually finish seventh in 2:29:23. Next to go, at 33km, was Kayoko Obata, who was eighth in Seville. Obata, whose debut marathon time was an unimpressive 2:53:18 improved her personal record steadily over her next seven marathons. Although she did not improve personal record in the 1998 Osaka Ladies marathon, she achieved 2:26:18 in the 1999 edition. She again improved to 2:25:14, but it will not be enough to be selected for the Olympic team.
Soon after 35km (1:58:22), Elfenesh Alemu of Ethiopia who looked so good, finally started slide back. She would eventually finish fourth in 2:24:47, but it was a huge improvement to her personal best. So it was down to Esther Wanjiru of Kenya who runs for the Hitachi track team in Japan, Harumi Hiroyama who was fourth in the 10,000m in Seville, and Lidia Simon, the Romanian two time defending champion.
Then with 5km to go, Hiroyama made what seems to be a decisive move. First Simon and then Wanjiru fell behind. Simon later told reporters that she could not counter Hiroyama’s move at that point, but kept telling herself not to give up.
Hiroyama went through 40km in 2:15:30, with Simon and Wanjiru 11 seconds behind. Soon after, Simon left Wanjiru behind to chase Hiroyama. With 1000m to go, Simon was less than 5 seconds behind Hiroyama; the crowds kept Hiroyama infomed of Simon's progress. The Japanese was shaken as she later told reporters. Finally with 500m to go, Simon passed Hiroyama.
Hiroyama’s preparation was not perfect. She missed training in late December due to a knee injury and a cold. Simon had also had problems, an injured right heel started to hurt during the race. Hiroyama was only a few metres behind Simon as they entered the stadium, and the gap increased as they circled the track. Those aware of Hiroyama's devastating kick were still hoping that Hiroyama would win. But her kick was not there. Simon won in 2:22:54, with Hiroyama two seconds behind. They both set personal records and moved up to eighth and ninth best performances in the all-time marathon list. More significantly, they are third and fourth best performers in the women's only race rankings, second and third best performers in women's only race on the out and back course. Simon was the first to win this prestigious race three times in a row. The next three finishers, Wanjiru, Alemu and Obata also set personal bests.
It is not certain at this stage whether Hiroyama will be selected for the Olympic team. She must wait for the results of the Nagoya Ladies marathon on March 12. Recovered from an injury that prevented her from competing in Seville, Takahashi recently ran a 1:08:55 half marathon. One JAAF official said that
"Takahashi need to run faster than Hiroyama in order to be selected for the Olympic team."
Naoko Takahashi’s coach, Yoshio Koide said "Takahashi could have run around 2:20 today. But 2:22 is a fantastic time. If Takahashi runs 2:20 in Nagoya, who will be selected?"
Now the pressure is on for the national record holder Naoko Takahashi who will be running in the Nagoya marathon on March 12.
1) Lidia Simon 2:22:54
2) Harumi Hiroyama 2:22:56
3) Esther Wanjiru 2:23:31
4) Elfenesh Alemu 2:24:47
5) Kayoko Obata 2:25:14
6) Tomoe Abe 2:28:01
7) Noriko Geji 2:29:23 (debut)
8) Sonja Oberem 2:31.03
9) Yuko Arimori 2:31:22
10) Susan Hobson 2:32:37
11) Azumi Miyazaki 2:33:00