Toshikazu Yamanishi wins the Asian 20km Race Walking title (© Organisers)
It was cold, it rained, and the winner at the 20km Asian Race Walking Championships wore arm gloves to ward off the elements - but Toshikazu Yamanishi (20km race walk world ranking: 3) lived up to star billing when he fired off the fastest time in the year at this, the third leg of the 2019 IAAF Race Walking Challenge.
His 1:17:15 finish also netted the Japanese a personal best by 26 seconds in a race where the first three all went under a stunning 1:17:30.
The bespectacled 23-year-old wore number one on his vest. And on the 2km loop in Nomi that borders the Neagari baseball field, he went for a home run right from the off.
Whether it was to warm up after shivering on the start line in a mere three degrees, or just because he was feeling good, Yamanishi reached 5km in 19:18.
Trailing in his wake by a few seconds were team-mates Masatora Kawano (20km race walk world ranking: 16), and number one in the IAAF World Rankings, Koki Ikeda.
Five in total were soon joined at the hip to reach halfway in 38:27 - 19:09 for the split - but slowed ever so slightly when they passed 15kms in 15km, 58:00 on the nose for a 19:33 5km segment.
But it was as if Yamanishi was drawing breath for a final charge.
Over the last two kilometres he gradually stretched the elastic to put nine seconds between himself and Kawano, who nevertheless finished second in 1:17:24.
For him, this too was a new massive personal best. His previous was a distant 1:19:52 from 2018.
Ikeda was a step behind for 1:17:25. And yet again, another top Japanese athlete rewrote his personal record that had stood for a mere month when he notched 1:18:01 in the Japanese National Championships.
It did his pole position in the rankings no harm, and that second place in Kobe in February was in itself a 1:12 PB.
Yet again, three Japanese walkers walked breathtaking times to underline their country’s huge strength in depth.
Not far behind in fourth was world record holder Yusuke Suzuki in 1:17:47 - his fastest for three years, and Isamu Fujisawa (20km race walk world ranking: 12) - 1:17:52 and a further place back.
Factor in the absent Eiki Takahashi (20km race walk world ranking: 13), who won in Kobe for the fifth time in a row, along with three or four others treading on their heels, and Japan are going to take some stopping when it comes to Olympic glory on home soil next year.
This 14th edition of the Asian Championships featured a number of race categories.
So, actual second and third places in the Championships went to Georgy Sheiko (20km race walk world ranking: 68) from Kazakstan in 1:20:21 and Korea’s Byeongkwang Choe (20km race walk world ranking: 80) for 1:20:40.
It seemed the cold freshened up walkers throughout the field, because Sheiko only managed 1:21:57 at Nomi 12 months ago. His effort this time was another personal milestone improving a 1:20:47 PB on the same course two years ago.
In what was billed as the Asian Open Championships, 19-year-old Zhang Jun won in 1:20:17 that was also good for sixth overall.
Born in China, but made in Italy, where he is coached by the legendary Sandro Damilano, and augmented by Wang Yinhang, Zhang reeled off splits of 20:10, 20:07, 20:02, and a final 19:58 in metronomic fashion to add his name to China’s huge list of possibles for the IAAF World Championships in Doha, later this year.
Yet again, this category winner recorded a significant PB - 2:35 - on his previous mark from 2018.
Second in the open race was three-time winner in the actual championships, Hyunsub Kim (20km race walk world ranking: 33) from Korea in 1:21:01. Third went to India’s Devender Singh in 1:21:25.
Ma dominates women's contest
Damilano had a second reason to celebrate when another of his proteges, women’s favourite Ma Zhenxia, marched imperiously to a comfortable victory, both in the Championships and overall.
Ma has not long returned from Italy, and on a day of personal bests, the 20-year-old Chinese produced another to record 1:28:28 - exactly a minute better than her existing mark.
She led from start to finish with splits of 22:09, 21:45, 21:57, before slowing to 22:37, not that it mattered.
Ma had just over a minute on Australian Katie Hayward in all categories, and four minutes over official Asian Championships second place Kaori Kawazoe (20km race walk world ranking: 23) from Japan who finished in 1:32:48.
For the first time, tiny Hong Kong stood on the podium courtesy of Siu Nga Ching (20km race walk world ranking: 45) who recorded 1:34:17 for third.
Hayward, just 18, demonstrated a cool head on young shoulders to log splits of 22:50, 22:29, 22:07, and 22:05 for 1:29:31, and beat Aussie team-mate and Commonwealth champion Jemima Montag (20km race walk world ranking: 13) for the second time in a month - and in a time only six seconds slower than her debut at the first Race Walking Challenge at Adelaide in February.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF