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Shogo Nakamura and Honami Maeda victorious in MGC races

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Shogo Nakamura and Yuma Hattori edged national record holder Suguru Osako to finish first and second in the men’s competition at Sunday’s Marathon Grand Championship, punching their tickets to next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

In the women’s race, Honami Maeda and Ayuko Suzuki secured spots as they captured the gold and silver medals at the inaugural Japanese Olympic trial event.

Both races started and finished at Ichio Namiki Avenue in Meiji Jingu Gaien Park. The course, which went through some of the city’s most scenic spots including Asakusa’s Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), the famous Ginza shopping district and the Imperial Palace, was nearly identical to the one planned for Tokyo 2020.

Nakamura crossed the finish line with a time of 2 hours, 11 minutes and 28 seconds, while Hattori finished eight seconds behind.

“Ahead of the Olympics, I would like to do the best I can,” said Nakamura, the 26-year-old Mie Prefecture native who earned his MGC berth with a seventh-place finish at last year’s Lake Biwa International Marathon.

While Osako and former national record holder Yuta Shitara had been the favorites to win the 30-man race, the men’s competition was surprisingly dramatic.

Shitara set the pace early, establishing a lead of 1 minute, 44 seconds at the 10-km mark and expanding it to over 2 minutes at the midway point. But he gradually began slowing down, allowing the chasing runners to cut into his advantage. The nine-man group behind the leader reduced Shitara’s lead to less than a minute at the U-turn of the Imperial Palace’s Nijubashi Bridge, located at about 32 km.

Around 5 km down the course, Shitara was finally swallowed up by the group and quickly fell behind.

By the uphill slopes of the last few kilometers it became a three-man race, with Nakamura boasting a slight lead and Osako and Hattori close behind.

Osako briefly caught up to Nakamura at 41 km, but he was not able to overtake him. Nakamura regained his lead over Osako, crossing the finish line for his first-ever marathon victory in three attempts.

Osako was unable to hold on to the runner-up spot, allowing Hattori to beat him to the ribbon by a length of several hundred meters.

“When Osako caught me in the final stretch, I honestly lost my cool a little bit,” said Nakamura, who expressed confidence that he could compete in warm conditions similar to Sunday’s next August. “But I knew it would be uphill in the last 800 meters and thought that was where the winner would be decided.

“I still had some energy left in the tank by that point and could take off there, so I think overall the race went according to our plan.”

Temperatures during the race exceeded expectations, reaching 28.8 degrees Celsius, with 61 percent humidity when Nakamura reached the finish line according to the organizers.

After the race, Hattori said Osako looked back at him near the end, giving him the courage to make one last attempt for second place.

“I thought I would have a chance and ran more with my spirit,” said Hattori, who triumphed at last December’s Fukuoka International Marathon. “I don’t remember the moment when I overtook Osako at all, and it was right before the finish line when I came back to reality.”

When the three were competing for the gold medal, it was anticipated Osako would have a better chance because of the former track runner’s speed. But it did not work that way, perhaps because of the difficult slopes on the course.

“I was going to take off with the final 1,000 meters or so, but I didn’t have energy in my legs,” said Osako, who finished in 2:11:41.

The Oregon Project athlete came up with a 2:05:50 mark for the national record at last year’s Chicago Marathon.

Shitara, who ran a then-national record of 2:06:11 at last year’s Tokyo Marathon, was 14th in 2:16:09.

In the women’s race, in which only 10 athletes started, Maeda and Suzuki separated from the second group by about the midway point and Maeda pulled away from Suzuki after 25 km en route to victory. Her winning time was 2:25:15.

Suzuki, who competed in the women’s 5,000 at the 2016 Rio Olympics, managed to edge Rei Obara by four seconds with a 2:29:02 mark.

“I was determined to run at my own rhythm and was able to perform all the way to the end with confidence,” said the 23-year-old Maeda, a winner of the 2017 Hokkaido Marathon.

Obara settled for the bronze medal. Veteran Kayoko Fukushi, a four time Olympian who won a marathon bronze medal at the 2013 world championships in Moscow, finished seventh in 2:33:29.

Japan has one more spot each for the men’s and women’s marathon squads for the Tokyo Summer Games. The Japan Association of Athletics Federations has prepared three more races for each category in a series called the MGC Final Challenge.

The winners with the best time exceeding qualification marks set by the sport’s national governing body (2:05:49 for the men and 2:22:22 for the women) will take the third and final spots. If nobody does that, the third-place finishers at Sunday’s MGC will represent Japan in 2020.