Risa Shigetomo takes a surprise victory in Osaka (Kazuo Tanaka/Agence SHOT) © Copyright
Preview Osaka, Japan

Olympic places on the line in Osaka

The 35th Osaka Women’s Marathon, an IAAF Silver Label Road Race, is one of the four qualifying races to select the Japanese marathon team for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, so most of the attention of the local fans will be on the domestic runners on Sunday (31). 

Mai Ito was seventh at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 and has clinched her spot on the Brazil-bound team so only two slots are left. In Osaka, the best way to qualify for the Olympics will be to run faster than 2:22:30.

No runner in Osaka – domestic or overseas – has ever run this fast but two Japanese runners, both previous winners of this race, appear to have a chance to get this standard and go to Rio.

Kayoko Fukushi, third in the marathon at the 2013 IAAF World Championships, has a best of 2:24:21 when winning this race in 2013 while 2012 Olympian Risa Shigetomo ran 2:23:23 to win four years ago.

Fukushi, now 33, has been Japan’s best female track runner with several national records to her name and, with a half marathon best of 1:07:26, these numbers all point to a potentially faster marathon time than her current best.

In the past, she was emphasising speed workouts over the distance but Fukushi has added more volume to her training for this marathon, and thus she might finally run the time her fans have expected from her. “My goal is to win with the time under 2:22:30,” Fukushi told local reporters this week.

At the 2015 Osaka Women’s Marathon, Shigetomo finished second with 2:26:39, the second-fastest time of her career, before finishing a slightly disappointing 14th at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015.

Chepyego and Habtamu the top overseas contenders

If anybody can challenge Fukushi and Shigetomo in Osaka, it is likely to be Ethiopia’s Atsede Habtamu, who has a marathon best of 2:24:25 from the 2011 Berlin Marathon, and Kenya’s Selly Kaptich Chepyego, the world half marathon bronze medallist 

Habtamu recently said, “I want to break 2:24”, but because her most recent results are 2:29:40 for sixth place at the 2015 Toronto Waterfront Marathon and a 1:11:47 half marathon in the Czech town of Olomouc, this looks highly ambitious.

Chepyego’s marathon best may be only 2:26:43, from the 2015 Tokyo Marathon, but since it is the only marathon of her career, it may not be a good indicator of her true ability over the classic distance. With a 10,000m best of 31:22.11 and a half marathon of 1:07:52 to her name, she should be able to run much faster.  

Other Japanese runners who might have a chance to make the Olympic team are Yuko Watanabe, who ran 2:25:56 at the 2013 Osaka Women’s Marathon, Misato Horie, who was seventh at the 2014 Nagoya Women’s Marathon with 2:27:57, and Risa Takenaka, who was fourth at the 2015 Nagoya Women’s Marathon.

Mari Ozaki, now 39, has a respectable marathon best of 2:23:30 but that was set more than 10 years ago at the 2003 Osaka Women’s Marathon. Last year in Osaka, Ozaki finished sixth with 2:29:56 so she can still run decent times but is probably not in contention for the Olympic team.

A new category of the ‘Next Heroine’ was established last year, and six young Japanese runners in their early 20s will make their marathon debuts.

The best among them are Misaki Kato, who has 1:09:49 half marathon best, and Sakurako Fukuchi, who ran 1:11:44 for the half marathon.

The original Osaka Women’s Marathon course was used for the marathons at the 2007 IAAF World Championships, but in 2011 the course was modified slightly to make it faster. The maximum elevation difference of the course decreased from 23 metres to nine metres. The course used to go through middle of Osaka Castle Park which is quite undulating but now the course goes around the outer rim of Osaka Castle to avoid the multiple hills. 

But despite the course changes, the fastest time recorded in the race has been Mizuki Noguchi's 2:21:18 in 2003, a year before she won the 2004 Olympic title. Shigetomo's 2012 winning time of 2:23:23 is the fastest on the current course.

Ken Nakamura for the IAAF