Martin Mathathi en route to winning the 2013 Fukuoka Marathon (© Takefumi Tsutsui / Agence SHOT)
Five of the top seven finishers from last year’s Fukuoka International Marathon - Martin Mathathi, Joseph Gitau, Henryk Szost, Chiharu Takada and Mekubo Mogusu – will be back on the start line of the IAAF Gold Label Road Race but much of the attention will also be on former world record holder Patrick Makau on Sunday (7).
Makau not only ran a world record, 2:03:38 in the 2011 Berlin Marathon, but he has also run two sub-2:05 marathons, four sub-2:06 marathons and six sub-2:07 marathons.
However, Makau has not run over the classic distance since the 2013 London Marathon, where he was only 11th with a modest 2:14:10, the worst completed marathon performance of his career, and he has had injury problems in the last 18 months.
His last good marathon was more than two years ago in 2012 where he won the Frankfurt Marathon with 2:06:08, so the big question is: “Has Makau regained the fitness that took him to the top of marathon world from 2009 to 2012?”
Makau says his goal for the race is to run around 2:05 or 2:06.
If he runs another sub-2:06 marathon on Sunday then his sub-2:06 total will be five, which ties the best mark for the most sub-2:06 marathon held by Haile Gebrselassie, Geoffrey Mutai and Wilson Kipsang.
He is just one of an impressive array of Kenyan runners in the 68th edition of this famous race which has seen a brace of world records, the last one coming from the Australian legend Rob de Castella who ran 2:08:18 in 1982.
Mathathi to challenge Kebede's course record?
Japan-based Mathathi is the defending Fukuoka champion. He has run the marathon twice, both times in Fukuoka and although he failed to finish the 2012 edition of the race, but won convincingly 12 months ago.
Although Mathathi has only one completed marathon to his credit, he is superb at shorter distances, having gone under both 27 minutes for the 10,000m on the track and 60 minutes for the half marathon and so has a good chance to retain his title.
The last man to do so was Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede, winning in 2008 and 2009, on the latter occasion setting the current course record of 2:05:18.
Mathathi raced sparingly since his marathon victory last December, but won the Marugame Half Marathon in February with 1:00:11.
Gitau is another Kenyan based in Japan was second last year but won the 2012 edition of the race in 2:06:58.
Szost, from Poland, leads the European challenge. He was third in 2012 and fourth in 2013, and holds the national record with his run of 2:07:39 from 2012 Lake Biwa Marathon.
However, Szost will be starting his third marathon in less than four months, after failing to finish at the European Championships in August and only finishing ninth in the Dutch city of Eindhoven in 2:16:26.
Other contenders for the podium could be Ethiopia’s Raji Assefa, with personal best of 2:06:24 from 2012 Paris Marathon, Ukraine’s 205 Fukuoka winner Dmytro Baranovskyy who ran 2:07:15 in this race the follow year and Kenya’s Isaac Macharia, with personal best of 2:07:16 from 2008 Dubai Marathon.
Eritrean record holder Yared Asmeron, with a best of 2:07:27 from the 2011 Chunchon Marathon, will be looking to bounce back after failing to finish the Tokyo Marathon in February and could also be a factor.
World Championships places at stake
The race is the qualifying race for Japan’s 2015 IAAF World Championships marathon team and several top Japanese runners have entered the race with the intention of making the team.
The best Japanese man in the field is Kentaro Nakamoto. He has an excellent major championship record: he was sixth at the London 2012 Olympic Games as well as fifth at the 2013 World Championships and has a personal best of 2:08:35.
The other Japanese runners with, perhaps, the best chances of making the team are Masakazu Fujiwara and Yoshinori Oda.
The pairs claim to fame is that they are first and third fastest marathon debutantes in Japan, respectively.
In the 2003 Lake Biwa Marathon, Fujiwara ran fastest debut marathon by a Japanese runner, 2:08:12, while Oda ran 2:09:03 in the 2011 Tokyo Marathon.
Oda has ran five more marathons since but has not broken 2:11 again. Although Fujiwara won 2010 Tokyo Marathon, he could not crack 2:10 for the marathon in his next five marathons. However, in 2013 Lake Biwa Marathon, Fujiwara went under 2:09 for the second time in his career, and thus he could be regaining his top form.
Both Tomoya Adachi, with a personal best of 2:10:22 from 2013 Lake Biwa Marathon, and Chiharu Takada with a best of 2:10:39 in Fukuoka last year, appear to be on the verge of sub-2:10 marathon.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF