More Sports / Track & Field

Tokyo Marathon last chance for 2020 hopefuls

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The 14th edition of the Tokyo Marathon on Sunday could produce cutthroat battles among local men’s runners, including current and ex-national record holders.

Though they want to capture the title in one of the biggest marathon events in the world, they will also hit the road seeking the final spot on Japan’s 2020 Olympic squad.

Organizers held a news conference with some of the elite participants at a Tokyo hotel on Friday ahead of the competition.

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, the races will be limited to elite and wheelchair athletes, but the competitions will be televised. Marathon organizers announced cancellations for the general runners on Feb. 17. Many of the top wheelchair athletes have withdrawn from the races, including Swiss world-record holder Manuela Schar and nine-time event winner Wakako Tsuchida, reportedly due to coronavirus fears.

The spotlight will likely fall on Suguru Osako and Yuta Shitara, who set the national record (2 hours, 5 minutes, 50 seconds) and previously owned it, respectively. Shitara had previously rewritten the national record with a time of 2:06:11 at the 2018 Tokyo Marathon. Hiroto Inoue, who has a personal-best time of 2:06:54 — the nation’s fifth-fastest all-time mark — is another contender as well.

This race will serve as the last Olympic trial for Japan’s men’s participants. The top finisher with a time faster than Osako’s record will earn a berth to the Summer Games. Two spots on the Japan men’s and women’s teams were already filled based on results of last September’s Marathon Grand Championship in Tokyo.

If no one meets the criteria, Osako, who finished third in the MGC, will travel to Sapporo, where the Olympic marathon competitions will be held.

Both Osako and Shitara declined to state that they are aiming for the qualifying mark, only saying that they will focus on having the best performances they can.

Osako, who is based in Portland, Oregon, insisted that a run faster than the qualification mark would not be impossible depending on race day’s weather conditions, and, in fact, many runners could have a chance to make it happen.

But the 28-year-old has repeatedly told reporters that he would like to collect his first victory at the Tokyo Marathon.

On Friday, he said that he would “concentrate on running faster than anyone else” and his brain is “not caught up with the idea of having (the qualification) mark.”

Shitara’s remarks weren’t much different from Osako’s.

He said that he would like to compete on par with elite runners invited from overseas, such as defending champion Birhanu Legese, an Ethiopian who has run the fourth-fastest marathon of all time (2:02:48), and compatriot Sisay Lemma.

“I don’t really set an objective about a time,” Osako said. “I think if I compete well, the mark will follow. I’ll run not thinking too much (about my time).”

Meanwhile, audiences might be able to see fast-paced entertainment in both the men’s and women’s races. During the news conference, Lemma stated his goal for Sunday, saying he’s targeting a “2:02:00” mark, which would surpass Legese’s aforementioned time and put him at No. 4 on the all-time list.

“The weather condition is expected to be better than last year’s and there’s some athletes that have good marks,” said Lemma, who finished third with a personal best of 2:03:36 at the 2019 Berlin Marathon.

“And I’ve been preparing for this race. One of the goals here for me is to clinch an Olympic berth and another is to renew the course record here in Tokyo before I’m going back to my country.”

The 2019 race was hit by freezing temperature with drizzling rains. Despite the chilly weather, Legese triumphed in 2:04:48.

The Tokyo Marathon, one of six marathon majors in the world, modified its course after the 2016 edition and Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich completed the race in 2:03:58, which remains the course record.

Race director Tadaaki Hayano said that the pacesetters for the top group would run at a pace for the top participants to finish at 2:03:00 or slightly under that.

For the women’s competition, the reigning champion Ruti Aga and Birhane Dibaba, both of Ethiopia, are expected to contend for the top spot.

The winners will receive ¥11,000,000 in prize money.

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