Three big names are set to clash at the 70th Lake Biwa Marathon as defending champion Bazu Worku, 2012 winner Samuel Ndungu and Eric Ndiema will line up for the IAAF Gold Label Road Race on Sunday (1).
Not only do they all have a sub-2:08 marathon personal best to their credit, but they have all broken that barrier on numerous occasions.
Worku has the fastest personal best among the starters with 2:05:25, recorded at the 2010 Berlin Marathon. Although that performance was more than four years ago, he has maintained a good level and his latest race was at the 2015 Dubai Marathon where he recorded 2:07:09.
The Ethiopian has run faster than 2:10 in his past four marathons, and although he failed to break 2:10 in his two marathons before that, Worku won both of those races. In short, the 24-year-old has not had a bad marathon in recent years. The only concern may be that he is running his second marathon in the space of six weeks.
"I am shooting for 2:07 tomorrow," said Worku. "If the weather is good, I may even go for the course record. Rain is not a problem for me. The 2014 Houston marathon, which I won, was also contested in the rain."
Kenya’s Ndiema has the unfortunate distinction of never having won a marathon, despite running 2:07 or faster on five occasions.
His debut marathon, still his personal best, was 2:06:07, which at the time was the fastest marathon by a junior runner, while his half-marathon PB of 59:57 was set back in 2010. His last marathon was at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where he finished sixth.
Ndungu won the 2012 Lake Biwa Marathon in 2:07:04 on his debut at the distance. That remains his personal best, but he has run faster than 2:10 in his three marathons since then. Before contesting the 2012 Lake Biwa race, he twice served as a pace maker, so the 26-year-old Kenyan is more than familiar with the course.
His PB of 2:11:08 may not be as fast as some of the entrants, but European marathon champion Daniele Meucci should not be counted out. This will be the Italian’s fourth marathon to date and he has improved his PB with each race over the classic distance. His track PBs of 7:41.74, 13:19.00 and 27:32.86 suggest that he could be set to improve on his PB and that he could be a big danger if the race comes down to a sprint finish.
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir, who now runs for a Japanese Corporate sponsored track team, has been steadily improving the Mongolian record in recent years. His current personal best is 2:08:50, set at the 2014 Fukuoka Marathon, was his ninth national record and he could improve on that again this weekend.
Other sub-2:10 marathon runners from abroad are Jose Uribe, who was third at the 2014 Houston Marathon in 2:08:55 and Fikadu Girma who was third at the 2014 Dusseldorf Marathon in 2:09:34.
This year’s race is the final qualifying opportunity for Japanese men hoping to compete at the World Championships.
With only Masato Imai running 2:09 in two qualifying races so far, two runners from the Lake Biwa Marathon could make the team but they would need to run 2:08 or faster for automatic selection. The Japanese selectors have explicitly stated that performances as well as race content are important for selection, implying that a fast time as well as beating 2:05-2:06 runners will help the case of runners wishing to be selected.
Kazuhiro Maeda, with marathon best of 2:08:00 from the 2013 Tokyo Marathon, is the fastest among the Japanese men. Although he ran well in Tokyo twice, in 2012 and 2013, cracking 2:09 on both occasions, Maeda has not cracked 2:14 in his past three marathons, so it is not certain if he is back in 2:08 form.
Other sub-2:10 Japanese men are Satoru Sasaki, who was second last year in Lake Biwa with 2:09:47, and national 5000m record-holder Takayuki Matsumiya, whose former world 30km record of 1:28:00 suggests that he is capable of running a faster marathon than his 2:09:14 PB.
Japanese distance-running fans are keenly awaiting a marathon breakthrough from Tsuyoshi Ugachi. Like Imai, who ran brilliantly at the Tokyo Marathon last Sunday, Ugachi was a college ekiden star. Since making his marathon debut, he has improved with every race, and many feel he could run a lot faster than his existing 2:10:50 PB.
"My goal is to win with 2:08.30," said Ugachi. "I would like to run aggressively. I realise my problem in Fukuoka (his last marathon) was I thought too much about the remaining distance and failed to run aggressively."
The Lake Biwa race is the oldest marathon in Japan, with the course record standing at 2:06:13 by Wilson Kipsang from 2011. The last time the defending champion won was back in 2000 when Martin Fiz successfully defended his title from 1999.
The weather forecast calls for a rainy day, which could hinder some runners.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF
Elite athletes (with PBs)
Bazu Worku (ETH) 2:05:25
Eric Ndiema (KEN) 2:06:07
Samuel Ndungu (KEN) 2:07:04
Kazuhiro Maeda (JPN) 2:08:00
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (MGL) 2:08:50
Jose Antonio Uribe (MEX) 2:08:55
Takayuki Matsumiya (JPN) 2:09:14
Fidadu Girma (ETH) 2:09:34
Satoru Sasaki (JPN) 2:09:47
Bunta Kuroki (JPN) 2:10:08
Tsuyoshi Ugachi (JPN) 2:10:50
Soji Ikeda (JPN) 2:10:59
Daniel Meucci (ITA) 2:11:08
Wirimai Juwawo (ZIM) 2:12:38