Yemane Tsegay taking the Lake Biwa Marathon title (Yohei Kamiyama/Agence SHOT) © Copyright
Preview Tokyo, Japan

Tsegay and Mekonnen the men to watch in Tokyo - PREVIEW

With some late hour withdrawals, Ethiopians Yemane Tsegay and Hailu Mekonnen will be the men to watch at Sunday’s (27) Tokyo Marathon, one of the three IAAF Gold Label Road Races in Japan.

For Japanese men, Sunday’s contest is one of the qualifying races for the upcoming World Championships in Daegu, and thus the race to be the first Japanese will be fierce. It should be noted however that the race is not a Daegu qualifier for Japanese women.

Knee injury sidelines Gebrselassie

The race originally featured current World record holder Haile Gebrselassie. It was hoped that Gebrselassie would dramatically improve the the 2:07:23 course record which is more than two minutes slower than the course record (2:05:18) of another Gold Label race in Japan, the Fukuoka Marathon. Unfortunately, Gebrselassie was forced to pull out of the race on Thursday after sustaining a knee injury after a fall and hitting a rock. His withdrawal left the race wide open, perhaps now making it more intriguing as it’s left totally unpredictable.

With Gebrselassie out of the race, the co-favourites may be Tsegay and Mekonnen (both are on the flight to Tokyo from Dubai at the time of this writing. After recording a personal best of 2:06:30 at the 2009 Paris Marathon, Tsegay has recorded a string of five straight sub-2:10 Marathons. Furthermore, he has broken 2:08 in his last two, and in his nine career Marathons, Tsegay, who was fourth at the 2009 World Championships, has never finished worse than fourth.

Formerly a respectable track runner, having finished seventh and eight at 5000m at the 1999 and 2001 World Championships, respectively, Mekonnen ran three Marathons in 2010 and improved his personal best in each race. Considering his 5000m personal best (12:58.57), Mekonnen could have a faster marathon in him.

Kenyan Felix Limo has fastest personal best among the entrants, 2:06:14, but it is almost seven years old and he has not broken 2:08 since 2007. He can’t be counted out, however, for if he re-capture the form of 2003 and 2004, when he cracked 2:07 three times, he could contend for the top spot on the podium.

“I will attack the course from the start,” Limo said.

Salim Kipsang was the 2009 Tokyo Marathon champion, but he was only ninth last year. A victory would make him the first two-time winner in Tokyo however he hasn’t broken 2:10 since 2007.  Paul Biwott could run 2:07, for he has done so twice in last two years. However, it should be noted that Biwott never won a Marathon in his 14 starts.

Although Cyrus Njui, who won his debut Marathon in Sapporo (Hokkaido marathon), will be running his second marathon in Tokyo, he actually knows the first 25Km of the course sine he was a pace maker in 2009. When he was a high school runner in Japan, Njui twice won the 3000m Steeple Chase at the Japanese Inter-High School Championships.  It should be noted that steeplechasers often excel at the marathon. Historically speaking, Waldemar Cierpinski, who was a steeplechaser in his youth, won Olympic marathon gold twice. Gaston Roelants, the 1964 Olympic gold medallist at in the steeplehase, won a silver medal in the marathon in 1966 European Championships.

Daegu spots on the line

It was to be (Masakazu) Fujiwara versus (Arata) Fujiwara for the race for the Japanese World Championships team, however defending champion Fujiwara pulled out of the race two days before Sunday's marathon. Thus the favourite’s role for domestic interest has fallen onto Fujiwara, who was second here on two occasions, in 2008 and 2010. 

“My goal on Sunday is to win with sub-2:08 clocking. I will conserve my energy for the first 30Km and be prepared for what ever happens after that,” Fujiwara said today (25).

After Fujiwara, Keita Akiba have the best chance to make the team, for he seems to be in shape. On 1 January he recorded the fastest time in the New Year Ekiden. Among other Japanese contending for the coveted Marathon team spots are Yoshinori Oda, a debutante and Naoki Okamoto and Takaaki Koda, both running their second marathons. They could make a big breakthrough.    

Focus on the locals? - women’s race

Among women Russian Tatyana Petrova could be the most intriguing runner, given her fourth place showing at the 2008 Olympics and runner-up finish at the 2007 World Championships in the 3000m Steeplechase. At the pre-race press conference, Petrova said her high altitude training in southern Russia has gone well.

Forty-year-old Nuta Olaru was third last year, and hopes to finish in the top-five. Olaru hopes to run under 2:28, which is fast but not quite a record for women over 40 - the record is 2:26:51 by 42-year-old Priscilla Welch.

Considering the fact that the race is not a Daegu qualifying race for Japanese women, quite an impressive domestic field has been assembled. The fastest runner in the field is a former national record holder Yoko Shibui, the 10,000m national record (30:48.89). She won her last marathon, in Osaka in 2009, but failed to start the 2009 World Championships due to injury. The question may be: will she start fast? At the pre-race press conference, Shibui said, “I have no pre-race plan. I will play it by ear.” Because Tokyo is a mixed gender race, she will be able to find someone to run with, however, she admitted that she may not be in the best possible shape.

Kiyoko Shimahara, the 2006 Asian Games silver medallist who was sixth at the 2007 World Championships, is the second best Japanese in the field. She is a very consistent Marathon runner, nearly always finishing in the top three. “I have been training in Nagano after November’s Asian Games,” Shimahara said. “Since Nagano is snowy I am bit short on speed work and thus will run the race with an even pace.”

Two Marathon debutantes - Misaki Katsumata and Noriko Higuchi - will attract attention. Ever since her junior high school days, Katsumata always excelled in the Ekiden and in fact she has run a faster 10Km (31:58) on the roads than she has on the track (32;54.78). Five Japanese women have broken 2:25 in their Marathon debuts. Can they join the exclusive club?

Manager on Gebrselassie – ‘Please don’t write him off’

At the end of today’s press conference, Gebrselassie’s long-time manager, Jos Hermens, explained his athlete's current situation.

“His training was going well, but Haile fell last week, which happens a lot but it’s not a problem if he falls on soft ground,” Hermens said. “Unfortunately, he banged his knee on a hard rock. An MRI indicated a bone bruise, and thus Haile was forced to withdraw from the race.”

Apparently Gebrselassie asked Hermens to fly to Tokyo to explain the situation on his behalf. His next marathon will be in the fall.

Concluding his statement, Hermens said, “Please don’t write him off.”

Ken Nakamura for the IAAF

Ed. Note: A statistical reference (PDF, 1.4 MB), prepared by Nakamura, is attached in the ‘Related Items’ section at right. Nakamura is solely responsible for all content. Nakamura will also be providing updates of the race via twitter - @KKenNakamura

Invited runners:

Men -
Felix Limo
Yemane Tsegay
Paul Biwott
Salim Kipsang
Hailu Mekonnen
Abraham Tadesse
Cyrus Njui

Arata Fujiwara
Keita Akiba
Takaaki Koda
Naoki Okamoto
Yoshinori Oda

Women -
Nuta Olaru
Tatyana Petrova
Tatyana Aryasova
Asmae Leghzaoui
Olena Burkovska

Yoko Shibui
Kiyoko Shimahara
Yumi Hirata
Misaki Katsumata
Noriko Higuchi