Mizuki Matsuda wins the Osaka Women's Marathon (© Agence SHOT)
Haftamnesh Tesfay leads a quartet of sub-2:22 runners at the 39th edition of the Osaka Women’s Marathon, a World Athletics Gold Label road race, on Sunday (26), while local eyes will be watching a race that could determine the third Japanese spot on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic team.
Four runners from abroad have faster personal bests than the Japanese: Ethiopians Tesfay and Meskerem Assefa, Mimi Belete of Bahrain and Kenyan Bornes Jepkirui. Tesfay ran 2:20:13 in her debut at the 2018 Dubai Marathon, at the time the fourth fastest marathon debut in history. She followed up with a 2:20:47 run in Frankfurt later that year. Assefa won the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in 2018 and later in the year finished 11 seconds ahead of Tesfay in Frankfurt with a 2:20:36 PB. Although they did not have a good 2019 season, both have sub-2:20 potential and said they are running to win on Sunday.
With a 2:21:22 performance to her credit, Mimi Belete is the third fastest in the field; more importantly, she set that at last October’s Amsterdam Marathon, clipping more than a minute from her previous best. Belete was a solid performer on the track, with 1500m and 5000m medals Asian Games medals in her collection.
Defending champion Fatuma Sado and Jepkirui, who was third last year, are back. Jepkirui improved her personal best to 2:21:26 in the 2019 Ljubljana Marathon. The last runner to win back-to-back titles was Lidia Simon who won in 1999 and 2000. Before the Romanian, Katrin Dorre also collected back-to-back victories. The German won in Osaka a record four times. Her daughter, Katharina Steinruck, a 2:27:26 marathoner, will be running this year.
Ohara, Matsuda and Fukushi battle for Tokyo 2020 spot
For Japanese women, it is the second to last opportunity to secure the third spot on the Olympic marathon squad. The first two finishers at September's Marathon Grand Championships (MGC) were automatically selected for the team. But third place finisher Rei Ohara, who finished four seconds behind the automatic-qualifying spot for the team, is not confirmed. Four years ago at the Nagoya Women’s Marathon, Ohara finished one second behind Tomomi Tanaka who clinched the final spot on the team bound for Rio. Thus Ohara is a sentimental favourite here, but if somebody runs faster than 2:22:22 in Osaka, or later in Nagoya, Ohara will be out.
Ohara could have chosen to sit and wait, but she decided run in Osaka.
“The memory of missing the team by one second four years ago still haunts me,” Ohara said, speaking at today’s pre-race press conference. “I could have sat and waited, but I want to be a challenger. On Sunday I want to go after the team berth which eluded me at the MGC.”
That sets up the clash between Ohara, who was third in the MGC, Mizuki Matsuda, fourth in the MGC and Kayoko Fukushi, seventh in the MGC, as a potential highlight of the race. Fukushi is the fastest with a 2:22:17 personal best from the 2016 Osaka race. Matsuda is six seconds slower with 2:22:23, recorded in the 2018 Berlin Marathon.
“I have done the best training possible,” said Matsuda, who also attended today’s press conference. “I will run on Sunday as if it is the last race of my life.”
Finally, newly minted Japanese half marathon record holder Hitomi Niiya, who blitzed to a 1:06:38 victory in Houston last weekend, will run as a pacemaker.
Ken Nakamura for World Athletics
Invited international runners:
Haftamnesh Tesfay (ETH), 2:20:13, 2015 Dubai
Meskerem Asefa (ETH), 2:20:36, 2018 Frankfurt
Mimi Belete (BRN), 2:21:22, 2019 Amsterdam
Bornes Jepkirui (KEN), 2:21:26, 2019 Ljubljana
Sintayehu Lewetegn (ETH), 2:22:45, 2018 Frankfurt
Fatuma Sado (ETH), 2:24:16, 2015 Toronto
Lisa Weightman (AUS), 2:25:15, 2017 London
Katharina Steinruck (GER), 2:27:26, 2019 Frankfurt
Bayrtsogt Munkhzaya (MGL), 2:29:18, 2019 Gold Coast
Kayoko Fukushi, 2:22:17, 2016 Osaka
Mizuki Matsuda, 2:22:23, 2018 Berlin
Rei Ohara, 2:23:20, 2016 Nagoya
Mizuki Tanimoto, 2:25:28, 2019 Nagoya
Shiho Takechi, 2:25:29, 2016 Nagoya
Hanae Tanaka, 2:26:19, 2017 Osaka
Hisami Ishii, 2:27:35, 2017 Nagoya
Haruka Yamaguchi, 2:27:39, 2019 Kobe
Miharu Shimokado, 2:27:54, 2017 Nagoya
Yukari Abe, 2:28:02, 2019 Osaka