After a two year absence from marathon running, Naoko Takahashi won the Tokyo Women's Marathon today with a 2:24:39 performance. On this course wo years ago, Takahashi was overhauled by Elfenesh Alemu at 39 kilometres. This time, it was Takahashi who surged away from Alemu in the 35th kilometre. Thus what many considered to be a race of redemption for the 2000 Olympic champion became a great comeback story, particularly since she carried injuries into the race.
The key to her win was the five kilometre stretch between 35 and 40. Despite it's uphill climb and strong headwind, Takahashi churned out the stretch in 17:09 to run away from her final two challengers: Zivile Balciunaite of Lithuania and Alemu. The question of whether she is still one of the top marathon runners in the world was answered affirmatively, not because of her final time, 2:24:39, but rather because she showed her ability to change her pace at the end of the race.
Takahashi: "I never gave up the idea of winning"
"I did not know what to expect from this race," she said, referring to a recent injury, "but I never gave up on the idea of winning this race." It was the third fastest performance on this course and for Takahashi, her first marathon after she parted ways from long time coach Yoshio Koide and formed "Team Q." She showed that she can succeed as a self coached athlete.
The pace was admittedly quite slow, but Takahashi didn't seem to mind.
"My primary goal was to win. The time was not important today. In light of of my injury and the problem I had on this course two years ago, I tried to run very carefully at the beginning. However, because of the slow pace, I had to be patient."
Despite the slow early going, the the lead pack quickly was reduced to nine by the time they reached 5km (17:00): Alevtina Ivanova, Tatyana Petrova, Mara Yamauchi, Balciunaite, Takahashi, Alemu, Lee Eun-Jeong, Svetlana Zakharova and Mihaela Botezan by 5Km (17:00). Two kilomtres later, Botezan and Yamauchi were dropped. After kilometre 15, Petrova, one of the pace setters, dropped out, leaving Ivanova as the only rabbit. By the half (1:11:28), Zakharova was the next casualty.
Takahashi and Alemu briefly opened a gap on Balciunaite, but the petite Lithuanian quickly regained contact to remain in contention.
"I was not feeling bad," Balciunaite said. "I was only running my own pace at the time. I still felt confident at that point." After Ivanova dropped out after 25Km, it was Balciunaite who took up the leader duties.
"During this part of the race," Takahashi said, "I was thanking her for the good pacing job she was doing."
Takahashi's decisive move came in the 35th kilometre when she quickly built an eight second gap.
Still haunted by last marathon
"Naoko was too fast," said Balciunaite, who held on for second in 2:25:15. "I could not go with her. I just wanted to close the gap between us gradually, but I was not able to do so."
Takahashi admitted she was still haunted by her last appearance here two years ago, in what was her last marathon. ""When I passed 38Km," the point where she struggled two years ago, "the bad memory came back."
Alemu, who complained about the head wind during the course's latter stages, was third in 2:26:50, five seconds ahead of Zakharova. Further back, Briton Yamauchi was fifth in 2:27:38.
Running with a heavily taped leg and despite being told by her doctor to drop out if her pain got worse, Takahashi said, "I did not think about dropping out. All I was hoping for was my leg to hold up the entire race." It did.
1. Naoko Takahashi (JPN) 2:24:39
2. Zivile Balciunaite (LTU) 2:25:15
3. Elfenesh Alemu (ETH) 2:26:50
4. Svetlana Zakharova (RUS) 2:26:55
5. Mara Yamauchi (GBR) 2:27:38
6. Beatrice Omwanza (KEN) 2:32:10
7. Rie Matsuoka (JPN) 2:32:14
8. Lauren Shelley (AUS) 2:33:42
9. Jackie Fairweather (AUS) 2:35:57
10. Mihaela Botezan (ROM) 2:37:16
Splits for Takahashi -
10Km: 33:48, 16:48
15Km: 50:41, 16:53
20Km: 1:07:43, 17:02
25Km: 1:24:49, 17:06
30Km: 1:42:23, 17:34
35Km: 2:00:00, 17:37
40Km: 2:17:09, 17:09
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF