Tsegaye Kebede wins the 2008 Paris Marathon (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright

While Limo and Kebede battle, will a new star emerge? –Fukuoka Marathon preview

While Limo and Kebede battle, will a new star emerge? –Fukuoka Marathon preview

5 December 2008 – Fierce domestic competition and another stellar international field are on tap at Sunday’s 62nd annual Fukuoka Marathon – an IAAF Silver Label Road Race – as the race, the second oldest Marathon in Japan, doubles as a qualifier for the upcoming World Championships in Berlin. 

Some of the best runners in history have run on this very fast course.  Several Olympic champions including Frank Shorter, Waldemar Cierpinski, Josiah Thugwane, Gezehegne Abera and Samuel Wanjiru have run in Fukuoka. The course record is 2:06:39 by the defending Olympic champion Samuel Wanjiru, set last year when he made his Marathon debut.

Limo looking for solid outing...

Six domestic runners and six runners from abroad were invited to Fukuoka this year.  The fastest runner in the field is Felix Limo of Kenya, who recorded 2:06:14 in the 2004 Rotterdam Marathon. He has also recorded 2:06 marathons on three other occasions, most recently at the 2006 London Marathon, where he won with 2:06:39. However, Limo has not run strong marathon since London in 2007 when he was third with 2:07:47. His most recent outing was in London earlier this year where he was only eighth, clocking 2:10:34. For his most recent race, Limo was seventh in the BUPA Great North Run (half marathon) with 1:03:11.

...but Kebede starts as favourite

Limo may be the fastest in the field, but Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia may be the best current Marathon runner in the field. Kebede recorded a personal best of 2:06:40 in the 2008 Paris Marathon, but more importantly he won the bronze at the Beijing Olympics. He has yet to run a poor Marathon since his debut and victory in Addis Ababa with 2:15:53 and then recorded 2:08:16 at the 2007 Amsterdam Marathon. In his last race, two months ago, Kebede won the Great North Run in 59:45, only 10 seconds off of his personal best. He is the favorite in Sunday’s race. 

Other invited runners from oversea are Jose Manuel Martinez with a personal best of 2:08:09, Aleksey Sokolov (2:09:07), Jon Brown (2:09:31) and Yuriy Hychum (2:10:59). Brown’s claim to fame is his fourth place finish at both the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, while Martinez and Sokolov were 16th and 21st, respectively, in Beijing. Brown was seventh in Fukuoka in 2006 (2:11:46) and is the only overseas invited runner who has competed in Fukuoka in the past.

Japanese to battle for Berlin team spots

Turing attention to the Japanese, with the last minute withdrawal of Tsuyoshi Ogata (2005 World Championships bronze medallist), the best domestic runner is Shigeru Aburaya, who was fifth at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships as well as the 2004 Olympic Games. Aburaya’s personal best is 2:07:52, but it was recorded back in 2001. His most recent Marathon was in Fukuoka last year where he was fifth with 2:10:30.  

Satoshi Irifune and Yuko Matsumiya may be on the verge of major breakthrough. They should have much faster marathons in their legs. Irifune improved his personal best to 2:09:40 earlier this year in Tokyo, but considering his sub-28:00 10,000m speed (27:53.92 from 2001 and more recently 27:56:33 last May), Irifune has not yet fulfilled his full potential over the Marathon distance. Irifune ran the 10,000m in the 1999 World Championships and the Marathon in the 2005 World Championships.

In his latest marathon, in Fukuoka last year, Yuko Matsumiya was fourth with 2:09:40. His personal best is 2:09:18, recorded in 2005. However, having the same DNA as his twin brother Takayuki, the world 30Km record holder, Yuko’s potential at the Marathon should be much faster than his current personal best indicates. In order to improve his endurance, it is reported that Yuko has done several 50Km runs.

Despite 2:08:40 Marathon he recorded in Tokyo this year, because of two dismal marathons - 2:38:27 at Lake Biwa last year and 2:23:10 at Chicago this year - Arata Fujiwara need to prove himself on Sunday. Fujiwara realizes that if he runs another poor race, his 2:08 marathon in Tokyo will be considered a fluke. In his last race, however, Fujiwara ran 27:29 for 9.5Km ekiden stage. 

Other invited domestic runners are Tomoyuki Sato, who has a best of 2:09:43, and Seiji Kobayashi, with a 2:11:02 to his credit. Sato, who has recorded a pair of sub-2:10 marathons, was 13th at 2007 World Championships. His previous Fukuoka experience was in 2006, when he finished 10th with 2:12:29.

A storied history

In its long history, several new superstars emerged in Fukuoka. Derek Clayton cracked the marathon’s 2:10 barrier for the first time in 1967. Frank Shorter won in 1971, the year before he won the Olympics. Toshihiko Seko’s first marathon victory came in Fukuoka in 1978, while Rob de Castella recorded the fastest marathon in history, 2:08:18, in 1981. Like Shorter, Gezehegne Abera in 1999, and Samuel Wanjiru, in 2007, won in Fukuoka as a prelude to their Olympic triumphs. 

Twice in Fukuoka’s history, a new superstar emerged just after the Olympics. Takeyuki Nakayama, who was a complete unknown at the time, won the 1984 edition in 2:10:00. He went on to finish fourth at both the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. Atsushi Fujita won the 2000 race in 2:06:51, a national record. Perhaps, this is another year in which a new star will emerge.

Ken Nakamura for the IAAF

- List of invited runners:

Felix Limo (KEN) 
Tsegaye Kebede (ETH) 
Jose Manuel Martinez (ESP)
Aleksay Sokolov (RUS)
Jon Brown (CAN)
Yuriy Hychun (UKR)

Japanese -
Shigeru Aburaya
Arata Fujiwara
Yuko Matsumiya
Satoshi Irifune
Tomoyuki Sato
Seiji Kobayashi

Pace makers -
Noritaka Fujiyama (JPN) 
Samson Ramadhani (TAN)
Jonathan Maiyo (KEN)
John Kales (KEN)