Gezahegne Abera (ETH) just clinches World Championships Marathon title ahead of Simon Biwott (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Fukuoka, Japan

Fukuoka Marathon - Abera versus Biwott, Marathon debut by Takaoka

Back in the late sixties to the seventies, before the advent of big prize money marathons and the World Championships, the Fukuoka marathon was called the ‘unofficial world championships.’  The unofficial title may be back this year, for both the gold and silver medallists from Edmonton will be running this prestigious marathon. 

Already in Edmonton, both Abera, a gold medallist and Biwott, a silver medallist indicated their plan of running the Fukuoka Marathon in December.  Fukuoka will be their third encounter.  They also raced in the 1999 Worlds, where Biwott was ninth and Abera eleventh.

For Abera, this is his third Fukuoka Marathon. His first appearance in Fukuoka was in 1999, when his marathon personal best was only 2:13:59.  Hence relatively unknown Abera was not an invited runner.  But it was the first time we saw Abera’s blazing kick; he outkicked Mohammed Ouaadi on the Heiwadai stadium track to win by one second in 2:07:54.  Last year Abera was back to Fukuoka as an Olympic champion, however, because of a headache he was suffering from 37Km, he could not stay with Atsushi Fujita who went on to win in the Asian record time of 2:06:51.  After Abera fared badly in the 2001 Boston marathon (2:17:04), some observers might have thought that his Olympic win was a fluke.  It was not, as he has shown in Edmonton, thus becoming the first marathon man to win both the Olympics and Worlds. 

His rival, Simon Biwott is no slouch either. 

Before finishing second in Edmonton, Biwott won three successive marathons.  He too has a fine kick as witnessed by his victories at the 2000 Berlin Marathon and the 2001 Paris Marathon, both of which he won the final sprint to the tape.  Even in Edmonton, Biwott stayed close to Abera throughout the homestraight in the Commonwealth Stadium.  However, Biwott must have known that he would have to run away from Abera before the final Km. His last chance may have been the final uphill leading up to the stadium. 

Many Japanese distance fans await a marathon debut by Toshinari Takaoka with much anticipation, because he is the national record holder at the 3000m (7:41.87), 5000m (13:13.40) and 10,000m (27:35.09).  Most of the Japanese distance runners move up to the marathon prematurely before fulfilling their potential on the track.  A few days after failing to make the final of the 10000m in the 1996 Olympic Games, Takaoka too expressed his desire to move up to the marathon, saying “The Japanese can only be competitive in the marathon.” 

However, after a few month of discussion, his coach Kunimitsu Ito was able to convince Takaoka to fulfill his true potential on the track.  Ito argued that Takaoka could not make the final of the Olympic Games, only because he was just coming back from an injury.  Following the plan, in 1998, Takaoka improved his 5000m national record to 13:13.40.  In 1999 he set a national 3000m record of 7:41.87.  In 2000, Takaoka finished seventh at the 10,000m final as well as making the 5000m final in the Olympic Games.  No other runners in Sydney Olympics made the final of both events. 

In February of 2001, Takaoka who said, “After the Olympics, I have decided to run 30Km road race as a step toward the marathon,” ran the Kumanichi 30Km, which he won in 1:29:23.  After the race, Takaoka said, “Because I am thinking of running the marathon next year (2002), I wanted to experience the 30Km road race this year.  I did OK, but I was hoping to break my coach’s record (1:29:12 by Ito).  I have not decided where I will make my marathon debut, and I am considering all marathons in February to April (of 2002).”

After the Kumanichi 30Km race, Takaoka set his sight on one goal that eluded him as a premier track runner in Japan, the national 10,000m record.  In the Cardinal Invitational in May, Takaoka fulfilled this goal, when he ran 27:35.09 for the distance. 

Immediately after his record performance, Takaoka said, “I will be running a marathon next year.”   He started training for the marathon after Edmonton.  “I realize that the course in Fukuoka is flat and fast one, where many fast times were recorded.  I decided to run Fukuoka marathon for two reasons: First, because it is an ideal race for a marathon debut, and second because my marathon training since September has gone well. I thought, since I am in great shape, why not now?” explained Takaoka. 

Takaoka has a lofty goal for his marathon debut.  When the Japanese marathon debut record of 2:08:53 by an Olympic marathon silver medallist Koichi Morishita was mentioned, Takaoka replied, “Although it obviously depends on race day conditions, I would like to keep pushing at 3 minutes per kilometer pace (which translates to 2:06:35 marathon).  It’s not certain, but I have heard that the pace makers will try to maintain such a pace.  So I will try to stay with them as long as I can. It will be ideal if I can keep such a pace all the way to the finish.”   He knows that  the marathon debut record is 2:06:54 by Ondoro Osoro in the 1998 Chicago Marathon. 

As Takaoka prepares for his first marathon, naturally, his training has evolved.  Actually his training started to change already during his preparation for the Kumanichi 30Km.  Asked about his marathon training Takaoka explained, “For my marathon preparation, I have increased the amount of  longer runs (in both distance & time based run).  Although I don’t count the miles, naturally, my total mileage has increased as well.  Although I don’t train on the track during marathon training, because my strength is my speed, I have not neglected my speed training either.  I have practised running alone, as well as going out fast from the gun. 

“As a competitor, of course, I would like to win all competitions.  Although I would like to set records, my ultimate goal is to win a marathon gold in Athens, but for now, I will do my best on December 2, so you can write about me after the race,” concluded Takaoka. 

Finally, Atsushi Sato will be running his second marathon in Fukuoka.  In his debut at the 2000 Lake Biwa Marathon, Sato broke the one-year-old national collegiate record of Atsushi Fujita with 2:09:50.  Before Fujita, legendary Toshihiko Seko held the collegiate marathon record.

Much is expected of Sato’s second marathon.  After all both Seko and Fujita went on to set an Asian marathon record.  On November 18, Chugoku Electric team won the Chugoku district Ekiden Championships by over five minutes.  Sato who ran the 17.9Km sixth stage for Chugoku Electric covered the hilly course in 53:06, and was a minute 20 seconds ahead of the second place runner.  Tatsuya Yamada who was at the ekiden reported that 2:09 marathon runner Noriaki Igarashi said, “Everyone in Chugoku Electric is running well now, but Sato is absolutely in awesome shape.”

K. Ken Nakamura for the IAAF