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Birhanu Legese overcomes wet conditions to win Tokyo Marathon

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Ethiopia’s Birhanu Legese hit the pavement in arguably the worst conditions in the 13-year history of the Tokyo Marathon and performed as if the weather wasn’t much of a problem. For Suguru Osako and other Japanese runners, it was much more of a struggle.

Legese posted his first career marathon victory in his third attempt, crossing the finish line in 2 hours, 4 minutes, 48 seconds, the second-best mark ever at the annual competition, which is part of the World Marathon Majors series.

The 24-year-old hit another gear past the 30-km point to leave Bedan Karoki behind, building an exactly two-minute gap between himself and the second-place Kenyan in the end.

Reigning champion Dickson Chumba of Kenya finished with the bronze medal with a time of 2:08:44. Chuo University senior Kensuke Horio stunned the country by being the top Japanese finisher in 2:10:21, which earned him fifth place. Osako, who holds the national record, retired around the 29-km mark.

The annual marathon was struck by drizzling rain and low temperatures. When Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike fired the signal gun to start the competition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office at 9:10 a.m., the temperature was 5.7 degrees. It didn’t get much warmer during the event. Despite the weather, about 38,000 runners competed in this year’s race, the most in the event’s history.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, the top group set a fast pace for the first half of the 42.1950-km journey. The leading group consisted of eight runners, including Legese, Karoki, Osako, Yuki Sato and Shogo Nakamura, who kept a sub-3-minute-per-kilometer pace through about the halfway point.

After that, Osako and Nakamura began falling behind. Then around the 22-km mark, Sato was no longer able to keep up. After 25 km, the race for the title was down to Legese and Karoki, who had shaken off Chumba.

Legese picked up the pace after the 30-km mark and kept on widening the gap between Karoki and himself the rest of the way.

Legese, who notched a 2:04:14 time in his debut at last year’s Dubai Marathon, said he was excited about his first gold medal in the discipline.

While the cold and wet conditions served as an enemy for many of the elite runners, Legese put on a convincing performance and posted the second-best time in the event’s history, behind only Wilson Kipsang’s record 2:03:58, set in 2017.

“The weather was tough and it affected the result a little bit,” Legese said through an interpreter. “There were a lot of difficulties like the cold and the breeze, but because this course is a good course, if the weather had held up, I’m confident that I would’ve been able to run under 2:04.”

The pacemakers had the elite group on track to finish under 2:05. But in the end, it was too much for the Japanese marathoners to keep up with throughout the race. This was the case for Osako, who was one of the race’s biggest draws for domestic fans.

Osako suddenly stalled at about the 27-km mark before he eventually stopped jogging. The 27-year-old, of the Oregon Project team, clocked 2:05:10 at last fall’s Chicago Marathon, breaking the national record of Ryota Shitara, who accomplished it at last year’s Tokyo Marathon.

“I began feeling cold before the start. I eventually could not move my body and it forced me to withdraw from the race,” Osako said in a statement.

In the women’s competition, Ethiopians swept the podium with Ruti Aga as the gold medalist. Aga’s time was 2:20:40. Helen Tola and Shure Demise were second and third, respectively.

Marathon debutant Mao Ichiyama was the leading Japanese finisher at seventh with a 2:24:33 time. Honami Maeda, last year’s Osaka Women’s Marathon runnerup, was 12th while Asian Games silver medalist Keiko Nogami was 20th.

“The puddles on the road were bothering me,” Aga reflected after the race. “I’d set a time that I wanted to come up with. If it wasn’t raining like this, I think I would’ve been able to have the performance I would’ve liked to have had. But I want to regroup and train with my team.”

Meanwhile, although the times they clocked were certainly disappointing due to the difficult weather conditions, some of the top male Japanese finishers did not leave empty-handed.

Horio, Masato Imai, Takuya Fujikawa and Daichi Kamino exceeded the qualification criteria for this fall’s Marathon Grand Championship (MGC), which will serve as the Olympic trial event to determine the Japanese representatives for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

“As for the MGC, just looking around the roster for this race, I was thinking I would have little chance,” said Horio, who is the only student-athlete that has become an MGC finalist. “But I’m surprised that I’ve earned a spot at the MGC.”

Interestingly, Imai said the severe conditions worked in his favor in regards to earning a ticket to the MGC, which will be hosted in Tokyo in September.

“I wasn’t able to keep up (with the top group) from early,” said Imai, who is one of the runners to have been called “the God of Mountain” for his exceptional performance at the annual Hakone ekiden along with Kamino. “But I had a strong determination to at least earn a spot at the MGC. It was certainly cold running in the rain, but it made me think anything could happen until the very end because of it. I think it led to the result that I had after all.”

While acknowledging the rough conditions, Japan Association of Athletics Federations secretary general Mitsugi Ogata urged Japanese athletes to be stronger regardless of the weather.

“It was a tough circumstance,” Ogata said. “But it’s a great opportunity (for Japanese) to be able to try to compete at the pace of the top global runners. We believe that Japanese marathon will improve by competing in this Tokyo Marathon.”

Ogata added: “We would like those who have already earned spots for the MGC to look for more. We couldn’t say they exceeded our expectations. There might have been reasons other than the cold why they came up short.”

In the wheelchair races, Swiss athletes took the gold medals for both the men and women competitions. Rio de Janeiro Paralympic champion Marcel Hug captured first place in 1:30:44 in the men’s race while Manuela Schar crowned in the women’s in 1:46:57.

Kota Hokinoue was fourth in 1:35:39 in the men’s contest.

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