Kayoko Fukushi won the 35th Osaka Women’s Marathon in a personal best of 2:22:17, putting more than six minutes between herself and her nearest rival at the IAAF Silver Label Road Race, and the 2013 IAAF World Championships marathon bronze medallist almost certainly clinched section for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Sunday (31).
After checking her time on the finish line clock, confirming she had beaten the Japan’s Olympic qualifying standard of 2:22:30, Fukushi was ecstatic.
“I am so happy. I am so happy,” screamed Fukushi, almost uncontrollably.
In the post-race interview, Fukushi added more calmly, “During the race, I was not sure of myself. I kept on wondering, ‘Am I going to be OK? Am I going to be OK?’”
The race started quite fast, in a bid to beat the 2:22:30 standard, in sunny conditions with the temperature at nine degrees Celsius.
The first kilometre was covered in 3:24, the second in 3:19, and the lead pack was quickly reduced to six runners – Japanese quartet Kayoko Fukushi, Risa Shigetomo, Risa Takenaka and marathon debutante Misaki Kato as well as the Kenyan pair of Selly Chepyego and Beatrice Toroitich – plus two pace makers.
“I knew the pace was fast, but I also knew I had to go with the pace,” commented Fukushi.
After six kilometres, Toroitich started to drift back; three kilometres later, Kato was the next casualty while 10km was passed in 33:23 by the remaining four leaders.
After 12 kilometres, it was obvious that 2012 Osaka winner Shigetomo was having hard time keeping up with the pace. She drifted back once before catching up with the leaders and then losing contact for good after 15km, which was passed in.49:57.
Halfway was reached in 1:10:27 – potentially putting Mizuki Noguchi's race record of 2:21:18 from 2003 within reach – but the fast pace started to take a toll after 24km.
Takenaka and then Chepyego started to drift back with only Fukushi staying close to the remaining pacemaker.
At 25km, reached in 1:23:26, Chepyego was three second behind Fukushi, while Takenaka was another five seconds further back.
The last pacemaker dropped out at 30km and Fukushi was alone in front in her quest for a fast time.
The 30km split of 1:40:13 was more than 20 seconds ahead of the same split by 2004 Olympic champion Noguchi in 2003 but without any help, Fukushi started to slow.
Race record out of reach
The 5km split from 30 to 35km took over 17 minutes for the first time in the race, 35km reached in 1:57:21, and the next 5km took 17:24.
With the race record starting to drift out of reach, Fukushi concentrated on beating 2:22:30 and picked the pace again.
She entered the Nagai Stadium, venue for the 2007 IAAF World Championships, with more than one minute to spare and a little over 300 metres to run before completing her task and taking her second Osaka title, after winning in 2013, clocking the fastest winning time in Osaka since Noguchi’s win 13 years ago and a personal best by 2:04.
The performance also took Fukushi up to seventh on Japan's all-time list of female marathon runners.
Misato Horie was second with 2:28:20 and Risa Takenaka was third with 2:29:14. The first overseas runner home was Lithuania’s Diana Lobacevske with 2:30:09 while Shigetomo came home fifth in 2:30:40.
Fukushi’s huge winning margin of 6:03 is not the largest in Osaka Women’s Marathon history as Ireland’s Carey May won the 1983 edition of the race by a massive 6:20.
With Kaori Yoshida already having clinched her place on the Olympic team, unless two runners go faster than Fukushi in the forthcoming Nagoya Marathon, which is very unlikely, Fukushi will be on the plane to Rio.
Fulfilling her massive potential over the classic distance has been a long time coming for the 33-year-old Fukushi.
After an impressive track career, which included setting several national records, Fukushi was considered to be a next great Japanese women’s marathon hope.
However, in her debut at the 2008 Osaka Women’s Marathon, she ran aggressively from the start and led most of the race but hit the wall hard and finished a disappointing 19th place with 2:40:54, and then did not run another marathon until 2011.
She three times ran under 2:25 between 2011 and 2015 and won a bronze medal at the world championships in Moscow but never quite produced the fast time many thought her capable of, until Sunday.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF