There is a long tradition of distance running in Japan. There is a long tradition of distance running in Australia. But the twain had scarcely met before Hitomi Niiya won this year’s annual Zatopek 10,000m race in Melbourne on Thursday (13) night.
The Zatopek 10,000 was having its 58th staging. Japan’s Hyogo Relays 10,000 in Kobe is one of the few – arguably the only other - non-championship race around the world to boast a similar history.
Until Thursday, however, the only Japanese runner to have competed in the Zatopek (that this correspondent could determine, anyway) was Jun Hiratsuka, who finished ninth in the men’s race in 1999.
So, when Niiya burst out of the pack and into the lead after five laps of the women’s race, history was beckoning. And she did not disappoint, finishing almost 100 metres ahead of second-placed Sinead Diver to win in 31:32.50.
That was the fourth-fastest women’s time in Zatopek history, and the third-fastest winning time. Joyce Chepkirui set the race record at 31:26.10 in 2011. Just as importantly, it was well under the 31:50 qualifying time recently announced as the qualifying standard for the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019. Of course, the difficult thing will be making the Japanese team.
Diver was marginally outside the standard with her 31:50.98, but she continued to mine the rich vein of form she has been in through 2018, marked by a marathon breakthrough to 2:25:19 in Melbourne two months ago.
In taking the men’s race, Stewart McSweyn became the first Australian to win successive Zatopek race since Steve Moneghetti in 1991 and 1992. Moneghetti, Mr Zatopek 10,000, had also won in 1989 and 1990 as he took four on the trot.
Paced through the first half of the race by training partners Ryan Gregson and Jordan Williamsz, McSweyn ran away from Jack Rayner in the second 5000 metres to win in 27:50.83, his best time by some 15 seconds and his first under 28 minutes.
Conditions for the race were cool and relatively still. Melbourne had been drenched with rain through the morning of race day due to the influence of a tropical cyclone off the Queensland coast. More is expected, but the rain held off for the annual Zatopek meeting.
Niiya caps return after long absence
With her win, Niiya moves into calculations for the Japanese team for not only Doha but also Tokyo 2020.
It is a far cry from what she imagined when she retired in 2014. While saying she had “nothing but good memories,” when asked about her future, Niiya was definite: “I can’t imagine what I’ll be doing . . . but I will completely cut off connection with the world of athletics.”
Back then, Niiya was battling the pain of a persistent plantar fasciitis condition and the disappointment of a fifth place finish in the 10,000m at 2013 World Championships in Moscow. Niiya had led then from the 3000m point until 500 metres to go when eventual champion Tirunesh Dibaba and three others swept past.
Through her coach, former Santa Monica Track Club 800m runner and Japanese record holder Masato Yokota, Niiya said after the Zatopek that her return was based on “a feeling”. She did not elaborate, but presumably that feeling has something to do with a home Olympic Games.
Yokota explained they had settled on the Zatopek race rather than one of the many, deep Japanese races because he and Niiya wanted to seek out international competition. She will face domestic competition enough in attempting to make the Olympic team which Yokota said would mean winning the national championship.
McSweyn and Rayner go one-two
McSweyn and Rayner were the two form athletes coming into the men’s Zatopek, though they came with contrasting records.
McSweyn, who hails from King Island in the middle of the Bass Strait between the Australian mainland and Tasmania, came off an impressive season of international track running, capped by a 13:05.23 5000m at the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels, but also including personal bests at 1500, one mile and 3000m.
Rayner, after disappointingly missing out on the Australian Commonwealth Games team, had won everything on offer through the domestic winter season and then had his best international victory when he won the Commonwealth half-marathon title in Cardiff two months ago.
The track form won out. McSweyn and Rayner were still together as Williamsz and Gregson towed them through the half-way point in 13:55.79.
McSweyn then surged clear, leaving the result in no doubt. But after the injection of pace he slowed a little in the final laps to record 27:50.89. Rayner held on well to take almost 40 seconds off his previous best with 28:12.07. Jack Bruce, who is at the University of Arkansas, was third in 28:49.70.
Len Johnson for the IAAF