In each of the last two years, Albina Mayorova ran at the head of the pack for much of the Yokohama International Women's Marathon, an IAAF Silver Label Road Race, but never made it to the end.
It wasn't a problem of stamina or injury. As one of the race's pacemakers, the Russian was contractually obliged to drop out early. However, this year, she will finally get her chance to cross the finish line, and Mayorova expects to be in the battle to be the first one across on Sunday (17).
Mayorova, a three-time Marathon winner in Japan, is among the 13 invited runners for the fifth edition of the race in the historic port city on the western rim of Tokyo Bay.
"I'm happy to finally get to run in the [Yokohama] marathon," Mayorova told the IAAF through an interpreter, during a visit on Thursday to a local elementary school with Kenya's Philes Ongori and South Africa's Rene Kalmer.
"I practically know the course, although it's a little bit different. The course is very flat, which I like. I like the fans in Yokohama. If everything goes fine, I will have a good race."
The 36-year-old Mayorova can expect company from Ongori, the 2011 Rotterdam winner who will be looking for her first marathon win in her second ‘homeland’, along with the Japanese trio of Remi Nakazato, Mizuho Nasukawa and Azusa Nojiri.
Mayorova has had remarkable success in Japan, with half of her six career wins coming in the Asian nation.
She posted her lifetime best of 2:23:52 while winning the 2012 Nagoya Women's Marathon, and captured back-to-back titles at the Nagano Marathon in 2005 and 2006.
"I won in Nagoya, so I like Japanese marathons," she said. "I feel very comfortable in Japan."
Mayorova placed fourth in last February's Tokyo Marathon, but finished a disappointing 21st at the IAAF World Championships on home soil in Moscow.
"I had good training, it just didn't work out. I was very disappointed, but that's sports."
Ongori retrurns 'home'
Ongori spent eight years up in Japan during her formative years, attending Yamanashi Gakuin High School and then competing for the Hokuren corporate team, for whom she won a combined five All-Japan corporate titles in the 1,500m, 5,000m and 10,000m.
Feeling limited by the Japanese system which committed her to Ekidens and other team events, she left in 2010 on amicable terms to pursue her dream of becoming a Marathon runner.
"She loves the Marathon more than anything else," said her husband John Ondari. "She can run Half Marathons, but her best race is the Marathon."
After winning the silver medal at the 2009 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Birmingham, she returned to Kenya to focus on Marathon training and won her debut race in Rotterdam in 2:24:20, which earned her a place on the Kenyan team going to the 2011 IAAF World Championships.
"I made it in 2011, but I got injured and didn't get to go to Daegu," she said in Japanese. "I'm aiming to get good results from now and make the 2015 World Championships."
Ongori, 27, did not enter any Marathons last year, running three Half Marathons. She won two and finished second in the other. Her second career Marathon came last May in Prague, where she placed second in 2:28.53.
A tweak in the Yokohama course this year makes it a bit flatter and could lead to faster times but Philes said that was not her main concern.
"I'm feeling alright," she said. "I don't know the course. But I'll aim for the title without thinking about the time."
Kalmer looking for big step forward
South Africa's Kalmer will be looking to improve on her fifth place finish from the 2011 race and the personal best of 2:29:59 that she ran that day.
"I'm pretty excited about the race," she said. "I did my personal best here two years ago, so I have some fond memories. I know the course and hopefully I can improve on that."
The other invited foreign runners are Portugal's former European cross country champion Jessica Augusto, who finished seventh at the London 2012 Olympics games and has a best of 2:24:33 set last year; Great Britain's Freya Ross (best of 2:28:10 in 2012) and Ukraine's two-time Olympian Tetyana Filonyuk (2:26:24 in 2010).
Japan finally got back on the World Championships medal podium in Moscow with Kayoko Fukushi's third-place finish, but it is still looking for up-and-coming runners to fill the void leading up to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics.
Yokohama will be their first test.
Nakazato and Nasukawa lead local hopes
Expectations are high for the 25-year-old Nakazato, dubbed ‘Q-chan II’ in reference to her physical resemblance to Sydney Olympic Games gold medalist Naoko Takahashi, although she has recently been in a slump.
A teammate of 2011 Yokohama winner Ryoko Kizaki at Daihatsu, Nakazato made Japan's team to Daegu after finishing second in the third Yokohama race (the 2010 edition, which was actually run in February 2011), then barely missed out on the London Olympics team after placing third in Nagoya in March last year.
However, things started going awry 12 months ago, when she failed to finish in Yokohama. A poor showing at the All-Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden followed, then a modest 12th place finish at the London Marathon, where she clocked a mediocre 2:33:34.
Japan officials are anxious to see how see bounces back.
Nasukawa, a product of noted marathon guru Yoshio Koide, set her personal best of 2:25:38 when she won the 2009 Tokyo Marathon.
She finished second in Yokohama last year to Kenya's Lydia Cheromei, but by such a wide margin that Japan officials opted to leave her off the team to Moscow even though there was a berth available.
Nojiri, along with Eri Okubo (best of 2:26:08 in 2012), have both opted out of the corporate team system and run independently with sponsors but what makes Nojiri unique is that she was a cross country skier who switched to athletics at age 26, saying she thought it gave her a better chance of making the Olympics.
The 31-year-old has shown potential, making the Japan team to Daegu after running 2:25:29 at the 2011 London Marathon, and then clocked a career best of 2:24:57 with a third place finish at the 2012 Osaka Ladies Marathon.
Actually, the fastest personal best in the field belongs not to an invited runner, but to one of the 328 general entries who met the qualifying standard of 3:15. Yumiko Hara, 31, was once among Japan's most promising runners, appearing in the 2005 and 2007 IAAF World Championships (she finished sixth in Helsinki), but saw her career knocked off track by injuries.
Hara managed to win the Hokkaido Marathon in the summer of 2010, although her winning time of 2:34:12 was well off the personal best of 2:23:48 she ran in winning the Osaka Ladies Marathon in 2007.
Ken Marantz for the IAAF