Ryoko Kizaki celebrates winning the Nagoya Women's Marathon (Yohei Kamiyama/Agence SHOT) © Copyright
Preview Nagoya, Japan

Japan’s Olympic hopefuls take on defending champion Kirwa in Nagoya

Of Japan’s Olympic qualifying marathons for women, the best has been saved for last as the Nagoya Marathon boasts the deepest field of the three races. But there is still no guarantee of a Japanese victory at the IAAF Gold Label Road Race on Sunday (13).

With Mai Ito already confirmed for Japan’s Olympic team after finishing seventh at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, only two slots are left.

Kayoko Fukushi won the recent Osaka Women’s Marathon with a big PB of 2:22:17, but because the Japanese federation would not confirm her selection, she was prepared to run again in Nagoya. Eventually, though, the 2013 world bronze medallist withdrew from this weekend’s race and will instead await the team announcement on 17 March.

If Fukushi is granted a spot, it leaves just one available slot on the Japanese Olympic team – unless, of course, two runners run faster than 2:22 on Sunday.

Defending champion Eunice Kirwa of Bahrain will start as the favourite. The world bronze medallist set a course record of 2:22:08 last year, and before that she beat Japan’s Ryoko Kizaki and Eri Hayakawa – both of whom are racing this weekend – to win the 2014 Asian Games title.

Betelhem Moges, Monica Jepkoech and Iwona Lewandowska are also in the field. Former Denso track team runner Moges has bettered 2:29 in all five of her marathons to date, while Jepkoech recorded a huge personal best of 2:27:26 at the 2015 Toronto Waterfront Marathon.

Race to Rio

The competition for Olympic team spots will be fierce. Although 2004 Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi is the fastest runner in the field, her 2:19:12 personal best was set more than 10 years ago at the 2005 Berlin Marathon. The last time she completed a marathon was in 2013 in Nagoya, where she finished third in 2:24:05, while her last race of any distance was the Osaka Half Marathon in January, when she was sixth in 1:13:28.

“I have completed one 40km run and two 30km runs,” the 37-year-old said at the pre-race press conference. “I have no time goal in mind.”

Kizaki, who represented Japan at the 2012 Olympics, will be the favourite to clinch Olympic selection in Nagoya. The 30-year-old won the 2013 Nagoya Marathon in a PB of 2:23:34 and then went on to finish fourth at that year’s World Championships. She also finished second at the 2014 Nagoya Marathon, so is familiar with the course.

“I concentrated on both over-distance work and speed work for seven weeks in Albuquerque,” said the Asian Games silver medallist. “I feel that my speed is back because I ran my final 1000m repetition under three minutes at altitude.”

Hayakawa, whose PB of 2:25:31 was set at the 2014 Nagoya Women’s Marathon, is the next fastest among the Japanese. But it is perhaps unrealistic to expect the 34-year-old to improve to 2:22.

There are, however, some runners who might make a big breakthrough in Nagoya: Tomomi Tanaka, Asami Kato and Reia Iwade.

After winning the 2014 Yokohama Women’s Marathon, Tanaka expected to be selected for the 2015 World Championships team. She was overlooked by selectors, though, so she will be seeking redemption in this weekend’s race.

Tanaka knows the Nagoya Marathon course, for she recorded her personal best of 2:26:05 in 2014.

“I received a lot of encouragement when I was left out of the World Championships team, so I want to show my fans that I am running well,” said Tanaka, who set her PB of 2:26:04 in Nagoya in 2014. “I have run three marathons in my career, but I have completed my best training for this race. I really want to win, but the time depends a lot on pace makers and how the race unfolds.”

Asami Kato has also run three marathons to date. She has improved her PB on each occasion, going from 2:30:26 at the 2013 Nagoya Marathon, to 2:28:51 at the 2014 Gold Coast Marathon and then 2:26:30 at the 2015 Rotterdam Marathon.

“If I chase fast time, I might tighten up in the race,” said the 25-year-old. “So I will concentrate on transferring results of my training to the race.”

Reia Iwade was third at the 2014 Yokohama Marathon in 2:27:21, the fastest time ever by a Japanese teenager.

“I want to run 2:24 or faster,” she said. “But I might tighten up if I think too much about cracking 2:25, so I will just try to improve my personal best.”

All three runners have previously run well at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships. Tanaka was eighth and Kato was 12th in 2012, while Iwade was 19th in 2014.

Rei Ohara, Michi Numata and Mao Kiyota round up the invited domestic runners. Numata and Kiyota are making their marathon debuts, while Ohara has one slow marathon to her credit.

Although not classed as invited runners, several other women have a chance of making the team by being the top Japanese finisher. Yuko Watanabe, Azusa Nojiri, Kaoru Nagao and Yoko Miyauchi all have PBs between 2:24 and 2:27, but they have not run faster than 2:30 in recent years.

Since 2000, the Tenmaya track team has had at least one runner in the Olympic marathon. Their best hopes of keeping that streak alive this year rests with Rei Ohara and Aki Otagiri.

Ken Nakamura for the IAAF