NAGOYA — A nation watched. A nation waited. A nation hoped. . .

Naoko Takahashi, Japan’s female marathon icon, returned to the grand stage on Sunday, chasing her dream. The collective aspirations of a nation were carried on her slim, determined shoulders.

Q-chan desperately desired to emerge victorious at the end of the Nagoya International Women’s Marathon, and in doing so accomplish two things: catapult herself back into the conversation of the nation’s elite female marathon runners and put herself back in the running for the last coveted spot on the 2008 Japan Olympic Team.

The 35-year-old Takahashi, who attracted a TV audience of 55 million in Japan when she competed at the 2001 Berlin Marathon, was a non-factor in Sunday’s race, falling out of contention early.

Instead, this day belonged to unheralded Yurika Nakamura, who made a dazzling marathon debut. The 21-year-old, adorned in pink, showed remarkable stamina down the stretch, dashing to the finish line at Mizuho Athletic Stadium in 2 hours, 25 minutes and 51 seconds.

Yoshimi Ozaki took second in 2:26.19 and Yuri Kano was third in 2:26.39. Rounding out the top five were Yumiko Hara (2:27.14) and Chika Horie (2:27.16). Harumi Hiroyama, the 39-year-old who won the 2006 Nagoya race, placed ninth.

Q-chan, a two-time Nagoya Marathon winner (1998, 2000), never displayed the breakaway speed that enabled her to become the first woman to shatter the 2:20 barrier.

One Fuji TV commentator simply stated that Takahashi’s speed wasn’t there on this make-or-break race day. After 5 km were completed, Q-chan was near the front of the pack, a second behind seven runners who had run 17:53 at that point. After 10 km, she was 26 seconds off the 35:47 pace set by Kenya’s Margaret Toroitich and 11 others.

Kilometer after kilometer, Takahashi started sliding back toward the middle of the pack, and at the halfway point, she was 6:40 behind the four pace-setters, who had clocked 1:14.43.

Takahashi placed 27th overall (2:44.18). The 2000 Sydney Olympic champion, who began her career with seven wins in eight marathons, is now at a crossroads.

Just days before the race, she told Kyodo News that “it’s my goal to make the Olympics. As long as I don’t give up, I am sure my dream will be realized.”

Now what?

That’s the question Takahashi will be forced to answer.

“I guess this is my current level,” said Takahashi, who revealed she had undergone surgery on her right knee last August. “This time I didn’t do any speed training so maybe that’s why I couldn’t keep up. “I have to accept this result (but) I want to continue my life as an athlete.”

Despite this being Nakamura’s marathon debut, she has a history of success in prestigious events. She placed seventh at the 2006 World Road Running Championships, a 20-km race, in 1:05.36. In 2005, at the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships, she also placed 15th in the junior race in 21:43.

Nakamura ran the day’s best 5-km split from the 30th to the 35th km, doing so in 16:31. That gave her an 18-second advantage over Kano at that point, with Ozaki four seconds behind.

Nakamura, waving her arms and pumping her legs in sync at a brisk pace, stretched the lead to 28 seconds over Ozaki by the 40-km mark, and from there she was in cruise control, seizing the moment, chasing a gold medal and a possible Olympic spot at the same time.

“The pace was slow at the beginning, so I’m pleased with this time,” Nakamura said. “I tried to pick it up in the second half.”

Reiko Tosa, who captured a bronze medal at the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Osaka, and Mizuki Noguchi, the 2004 Athens Olympics gold medalist who won the 2007 Tokyo International Women’s Marathon, have already earned spots on the national team for the Beijing Summer Games.

Tomo Morimoto, this year’s Osaka International Women’s Marathon runnerup in 2:25.34, could receive the third spot. Or it could be Nakamura’s.

On Monday, the Japan Association of Athletics Federations will name the third female representative for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

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