Tomomi Tanaka gave the Yokohama International Women's Marathon, an IAAF Silver Label Road Race, a thrilling end to its short-lived run. Running just her second marathon, Tanaka outsprinted Kenya's Philes Ongori down the final straight to win in 2:26:57 on Sunday (16).
Ongori, who went to high school and spent her early years as a professional runner in Japan, came up just two seconds short in the sixth and final edition of the race in this historic port city.
Just when it looked like it might be a photo finish, Tanaka pulled ahead as they approached the tape. "I didn't give up. I wasn't going to lose," reflected Tanaka.
"The time was bad, but as I was running, the calls of support never stopped," Tanaka said. "Many teammates and employees of Daiichi Seimei came not for an ekiden, but to support me alone. I could hear the cheers of my parents, family and friends, and that gave me energy."
"I wanted to win this race, but the last 50 metres, my legs, everything was finished," said Ongori, who placed fifth in last year's race after developing a leg cramp late in the race.
In addition to Tanaka's victory, the host nation could also celebrate the emergence of a prospective star, as 19-year-old Reia Iwade made an amazing debut by sticking with the lead group throughout the race and finishing a strong third in 2:27:21.
Iwade's time was the fastest ever by a Japanese teenager, eclipsing the record of 2:30:30 set by Akemi Masuda in 1983 and it also topped the 2:29:12 run by Chika Horie in 2000 on the downhill course in Nagano.
Kenya's Caroline Rotich was in line to make the fight to the finish a trio, but suddenly started retching badly with just under two kilometres to go and struggled home in fourth place in in 2:27:32, overtaken by Iwade in the final kilometre.
Last month it was announced that the race, which originally started as the Tokyo Women's Marathon in 1979 and was moved to Yokohama in 2009, was to be discontinued due to financial reasons but in its final hours, the event produced a lasting memory.
On a clear day, with temperatures around 14 degrees Celsius, the lead group was quickly winnowed down to seven runners at 5km after a quick opening split of 16:56.
The overenthusiastic Pacesetter Purity Cherotich, who was supposed to go out at around 17:05 over the 5km splits, then zipped through the next five kilometres to the 10km mark in 16:34. Only Japan’s Asuza Nojiri, second in Yokohama 12 months ago, and her compatriot Iwade decided to stay with her.
"During the first 10K, the pace was very fast for me, so I decided to slow it down," Ongori said. "The second group started to catch me and I went backwards, so I started to push with them. The second group was really my pace. "
The trailing group was content to keep it that way until around 16 kilometres, when Rotich, Ongori and Tanaka moved up to join the two early Japanese leaders.
With the pace slowing slightly, the five went through the halfway point in 1:11:56.
Nojiri, a former cross country skier who moved to the marathon six years ago, was the first to crack, falling back around the 24 kilometres as the tough early pace seemed to take its toll.
For the next 10 kilometres, the four leaders were biding their time at a steady pace, each formulating their own plan for making a move.
Rotich was the one who broke the stalemate at 37 kilometres, which shed Iwade from the group.
"There were times (in training) where I started to struggle," said Iwade, who set the Japan junior half marathon record (1:09:45) last December, which gave her the confidence to make such a rare early move up to the marathon.
"The senior members of [my team] Noritsu said that if I would stick it out at those times, things would get easier, and that kept me going. When I was left behind with five kilometres to go, I could still see the car with the clock. The only thing I thought about was watching that because I wanted to break 2:28"
At the 40km mark, Rotich, Tanaka and Ongori were running evenly and they all looked like they had enough left in the tank, which left the question: “Who would be the first to try to break away?”
Rotich’s chance of victory soon came to an end. She took water at the 40km drinks station but then soon slowed down and started heaving.
Tanaka and Ongori were left to run side-by-side as they made the turn into the bay front Yamashita Park, where the race ended on a long straight, with the harbour on one side and hundreds of cheering fans lining the other.
The avid audience were rewarded with a thrilling duel to the line and a home victory.
Tanaka, who finished fifth in her debut marathon in Nagoya in March, is one of nine athletes specially selected by Japan athletics officials for a national team, with the aim of regaining the Olympic medals that the nation used to earn so frequently.
An unheralded runner in college, Tanaka has bloomed at Daiichi Seimei under former Olympic medallist and coach Sachiko Yamashita. She won the All-Japan corporate half marathon in 2012 and 2014 before clocking 2:26:05 in her marathon debut.
Nojiri had to settle for fifth place in 2:28:54 while Olympic champion Tiki Gelana was hampered by back pain and finished sixth in 2:29:13.
Gelana, who was looking for her first marathon win in three races since winning the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics Games, slipped back early into second group and was never heard from again.
She said she developed back pain the night before the race and it became intense after the 15km mark.
"I was feeling pain and not at my best, but I'm happy because I completed the race," said the Ethiopian.
Ken Marantz for the IAAF