Eiki Takahashi (#1, far right), in action at the Japanese national 20km championships in Kobe (© Organisers)
Eiki Takahashi won the 102nd Japanese National 20km Race Walking Championship in a scintillating race at Kobe that hung in the balance until the very last second - and at the same time lifted the title for an incredible fifth time in a row.
The 26-year-old loves this particular stretch of road like no other, and although his triumphant 1:18:00 was 34 seconds down on last year, it was still good enough to rank in the all-time top 25 marks for the distance.
Indeed, 80 finishers under 1:37:00 is the biggest strength in depth for any comparable race in the world.
A leading group of eight, including Takahashi, clocked a modest 19:52 for the first five kilometres in a sharp wind with a temperature struggling to get reach 4C.
Isamu Fujisawa, who boasts a personal best 1:18:23 on this course in 2017, made a bold move during the next split to reach halfway in 39:06 that left Takahashi, Koki Ikeda, and Toshikazu Yamanishi anxiously glancing down the road at Fujisawa’s disappearing back.
World 50km silver medallist Hirooki Arai was already 10 seconds further back on the chasing three who themselves were 13 seconds in arrears of the flying leader.
But Fujisawa’s bold bid slowly moved him into the red, and at 15 kilometres (58:40), his lead had been whittled to seven seconds with the trio of chasers looking ominously comfortable.
It was here the medals started to take shape, as Takahashi, Ikeda, and Yamanishi clicked off the kilometres in metronomic style.
Fujisawa felt something akin to a rush of wind as the three swept past him at 16 kilometres, and knowing he had overcooked it, was forced to settle for a distant fourth by the end.
But even going into the final 500 metres, top of the podium was still up for grabs.
Yamanishi was first to fall off the back, and in the final 100-metre sprint Takahashi desperately inched ahead to dip at the line no more than a couple of metres in front of Ikeda.
Besides second place, the consolation for the World Race Walking Team Championships winner was a personal best by a huge 1:12, improving on the mark he achieved in the same race 12 months ago.
Yamanishi finished nine seconds further back, and a gutsy performance from Tomohiro Noda dragged him back into the race for fifth just behind the tired Fujisawa.
It’s 268 miles from Kobe to Tokyo, but Takahashi only needed a couple of steps to narrow the gap to an Olympic place in the capital next year.
Even so, his six best marks have all been at Kobe, and despite being eighth on the world all-time list, Takahashi was a distant 42nd at the 2016 Olympics and 14th at the 2017 World Champsionships, three minutes slower than his 1:17:26 PB.
One notable casualty in the race was Daisuke Matsunaga, third last year in 1:17:46, but forced to drop out at five kilometres as he felt the effects of a lingering illness.
The women’s 20km soon became a three-horse race between world record-holder Liu Hong of China, Japanese champion Kumiko Okada and Masumi Fuchise.
By five kilometres (22:06) the pair were inches ahead of Fuchise, and at halfway the difference to third was 33 seconds and growing.
Liu, competing as a guest, kept up the same pace, and showed that at 31, and just over a year since giving birth to her first child, the Chinese multi champion is still a force to be reckoned with.
At 15 kilometres (1:06:15) she was eight seconds better than Kumiko before ramping up the pace to stop the clock at 1:27:56 to the Japanese’s 1:28:26.
The time was considerably shy of Liu’s world record 1:24:38 from almost four years ago, but it appears she may consider moving up to the 50km in the next year or two.
At Kobe, there were 292 finishers in both 20km and two junior races - and few with times that would disgrace any national championship in the world.
Japan will start with a huge advantage when the real showdown shifts to Tokyo in 2020.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF
1 Eiki Takahashi 1:18:00
2 Koki Ikeda 1:18:01
3 Toshikazu Yamanishi 1:18:10
4 Isamu Fujisawa 1:18:53
5 Tomohiro Noda 1:19:00
6 Hirooki Arai 1:19:00
1 Liu Hong (CHN) 1:27:56
2 Kumiko Okada 1:28:26
3 Nanako Fujii 1:29:55
4 Kaori Kawazoe 1:31:10
5 Masumi Fuchise 1:32:23
6 Jessica Ching Siu Nga (HKG) 1:32:30