Kenyan Henry Sugut and Moses Kibet of Uganda will start as the men to watch at the 19th edition of the Nagano Marathon, an IAAF Bronze Label Road Race, on Sunday (16).
Sugut is the fastest runner in the field with a best of 2:06:58 recorded in the 2012 Vienna Marathon. However, the 31-year-old hasn’t cracked 2:10 since April of 2013. Most recently he clocked 2:12:40 at the Cannes Marathon last November.
Kibet meanwhile, with a more modest 2:13:55 lifetime best set at last year's Chunchon Marathon, might be the man to beat, given his 13:15.18 personal best over 5000m on the track and a recent 1:01:55 victory at a half marathon in Madrid just 12 days ago.
A third invited runner from abroad is Okbay Tsegay of Eritrea, who'll be making the marathon debut. He'll arrive armed with best of 28:25.29 for 10,000m from 2016 and 1:03:10 for the half marathon from 2015.
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir of Mongolia, who lives and trains in Japan, is also in the field, and with a 2:08:50 personal best from the 2014 Fukuoka Marathon, is the second fastest among the starters.
Bat-Ochir is one of the most prolific marathoners in the world, having contested at least four 42.2km races each year since 2010. Last year, he ran seven including Nagano where he was second. His last race was October's Osaka Marathon where he was fourth in 2:13:43. His last respectable race was at the 2015 Hamburg Marathon where he was sixth in 2:10:15.
Another runner who lives and runs for a Japanese corporate team is Kenyan Cyrus Njui, who has a personal best of 2:09:10 set in Tokyo in 2011. More recently he clocked 2:14:48 at last August's Sapporo Marathon where he finished second.
Leading the domestic field is Taigo Ito, who finished third in this race one year ago. In this year’s Beppu-Oita Marathon, Ito improved his personal best by 17 seconds to 2:10:52. He's run in Nagano three times, finishing third in 2014 and 2016 and fifth in 2015. Since his 2:10:52 is the fastest recorded among the entrants in the last three years, Ito may be in the best form on Sunday. If he wins he'll be just the second Japanese after Yuki Kawauchi to claim the title.
Other Japanese runners in the field include Tatsunori Hamasaki, who has a best of 2:12:12 from the 2015 Tokyo Marathon, Shota Yamaguchi, who has a 2:13:13 from the 2015 Nagano Marathon, and Yuki Oshikawa, who recorded his 2:13:24 personal best at Lake Biwa in 2014.
Ethicha vs Wangari in the women’s race
The women’s field features a pair of runners who'll bring sub-2:28 credentials to the start line: Fantu Eticha of Ethiopia and Miriam Wangari of Kenya. Eticha produced her best of 2:26:14 in the 2015 Dubai Marathon while Wangari's best of 2:27:53 came in the Xiamen Marathon that same year.
The two have met head-to-head twice, splitting their two encounters. In the 2016 Xiamen Marathon Eticha was third with 2:26:53 and Wangari fifth in 2:33:27; four months later at the Yellow River Marathon in May, Wangari was second in 2:31:22 and Eticha fourth with 2:32:32.
A third entrant from abroad is Racheal Mutgaa but with no sub-2:30 or sub-1:13 performances to her credit in the marathon or half marathon, she isn't expected to challenge for the win.
Leading the domestic field is Aki Otagiri, with a best of 2:30:24 from the 2015 Nagoya Women’s Marathon. Yumiko Kinoshita, who has a 2:35:49 best also from 2015, is also in the field. Kinoshita has run twice in Nagano, finishing fifth in 2014 and third in 2015.
Former greats have also been invited to participate as guests outside of the elite competition. They include 2000 Olympic marathon champion Naoko Takahashi, 1988 Olympic Eriko Asahi, world 100km record holder Takahiro Sunada and 2009 Tokyo Marathon winner Mizuho Nasukawa.
The race dates back to 1999, a year after Nagano hosted the Winter Olympic Games to commemorate those Games. Organisers expect 10,000 runners to take part. They have five hours to complete the course.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF