NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 25 – With a new course that has eliminated some of the toughest elements, fast times are expected at the Tokyo Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, on Sunday.
Japan’s 2000 Olympic champion Naoko Takahashi, who ran the first sub-2:20 marathon in Berlin, said: “If I was preparing to run this course and was in great shape like I was in Berlin in 2001, then I would be going after sub-2:20 clocking.”
But not everyone is in agreement. “Although big bridges are eliminated after 35km, nearly a dozen small hills are introduced, and the total elevation gain over the marathon distance may be higher,” said former Tokyo, Boston and Chicago winner Toshihiko Seko. “It is not a world record course.”
Either way, at the pre-race press conference on Friday afternoon, Wilson Kipsang confirmed that he will go after the world record of 2:02:57.
When asked what is his target time, Kipsang stated 2:02:50. “In the Berlin Marathon last fall, I went out too fast (1:01:11). On Sunday, the plan is to run the first half in more reasonable 61:30 (and comeback with 61:20).”
Kipsang also talked about his other goal. “My goal is to win all the Marathon Major races. I have won Berlin, London and New York, but not Tokyo. So I decided to run Tokyo immediately after Berlin.”
The 2012 Olympic bronze medallist broke the world record in 2013 with 2:03:23. He improved his PB to 2:03:13 in Berlin last year to get within 16 seconds of the current world record.
Kipsang, the fastest runner in this year’s field, has run faster than 2:04 three times and has bettered 2:05 for the marathon in seven straight seasons.
Even if the world record is not possible, Kipsang has several other targets to chase: the race record of 2:05:42 set by Dickson Chumba in 2014, the Japanese all-comers’ record of 2:05:18 set by Tsegaye Kebede at the 2009 Fukuoka Marathon, and the Asian all-comers’ record of 2:04:11 set by Tamirat Tola at the 2016 Dubai Marathon.
Chumba, the 2014 Tokyo Marathon champion with a PB of 2:04:32, and Kebede, the 2008 Olympic and 2009 world bronze medallist with a PB of 2:04:38, are both set to race in Tokyo.
When asked about their target times, Kebede spoke of an ambitious 2:02:50, while Chumba had a more modest target time of 2:05:20.
Five of the invited runners have personal bests faster than 2:05 and a further five have personal bests faster than 2:07.
Ethiopia’s 2013 world bronze medallist Tadese Tola and Kenya’s Bernard Koech are the other sub-2:05 runners in the field, but neither has run faster than 2:08 for nearly three years.
Evans Chebet, who set a PB of 2:05:31 at last year’s Berlin Marathon, could challenge for the victory on Sunday.
He has made it on to the podium in his five most recent marathons and he ran faster than 2:06 in both of his marathons last year.
Bernard Kipyego, a medallist at the 2007 World Cross and 2009 World Half Marathon Championships, has twice contested the Tokyo Marathon, both times finishing on the podium with a 2:07 clocking.
If he were to take 80 seconds off his PB on Sunday, he would become just the fourth man in history to have run faster than 27 minutes for 10,000m, 60 minutes for the half marathon and 2:05 for the marathon.
The only other men to accomplish that feat are Paul Tergat, Haile Gebrselassie and Eliud Kipchoge.
Marius Kipserem, Alfers Lagat and Solomon Diksisa are the other sub-2:07 runners in the field.
For Japanese runners, the race is one of the qualifying races for the 2017 World Championships marathon team.
Top domestic runners who will be vying for the coveted spots are Masato Imai, Hiroaki Sano, Koji Gokaya, Takuya Fukatsu, and Yuki Takamiya.
But the most intriguing runner in the field may be Yuma Hattori. The 23-year-old has a marathon best of 2:11:46 from the 2016 Tokyo Marathon, his only outing at the marathon distance.
But his 30km PB of 1:28:52 suggests that he could be capable of taking a few minutes off his marathon best. Hattori’s target time is 2:08:00, the fastest target time among the Japanese runners.
Saina takes on top Ethiopians
Kenya’s Betsy Saina is the most intriguing entrant for the women’s race.
The 28-year-old will be making her marathon debut in Tokyo, but expectations will be high after a stellar 2016 season which included a fifth-place finish in the 10,000m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where she clocked a PB of 30:07.78.
She went on to record a PB of 1:07:22 to win the Great Scottish Half Marathon in just her second race over the distance.
Saina will face a trio of top Ethiopians, including 2015 Tokyo Marathon winner Berhane Dibaba. The 23-year-old finished fifth in Tokyo last year and second in 2014, setting a lifetime best of 2:22:30.
Like Dibaba, Amane Gobena will also be returning to the Tokyo Marathon. A former winner in Toronto, Osaka, Seoul, Xiamen and Istanbul, Gobena finished second in Tokyo last year with a lifetime best of 2:21:51.
Compatriot Amane Beriso recorded one of the fastest marathon debuts of all time when she finished second in Dubai last year in 2:20:48.
When asked about their target times on Sunday, Beriso said 2:20:20, Gobena said 2:20:00 and Dibaba said 2:21:00 – all of which are faster than the Japanese all-comers’ record of 2:21:18.
Nobody has twice won the Tokyo Marathon, but past winners Chumba and Dibaba could become the first two-time winner in Tokyo.
Wilson Kipsang (KEN) 2:03:13
Dickson Chumba (KEN) 2:04:32
Tsegaye Kebede (ETH) 2:04:38
Tadese Tola (ETH) 2:04:49
Bernard Koech (KEN) 2:04:53
Evans Chebet (KEN) 2:05:31
Marius Kipserem (KEN) 2:06:11
Bernard Kipyego (KEN) 2:06:19
Solomon Deksisa (ETH) 2:06:22
Alfers Lagat (KEN) 2:06:48
Masato Imai (JPN) 2:07:39
Stephen Mokoka (RSA) 2:07:40
Arata Fujiwara (JPN) 2:07:48
Kazuhiro Maeda (JPN) 2:08:00
Gideon Kipketer (KEN) 2:08:14
Hiroaki Sano (JPN) 2:09:12
Koji Gokaya (JPN) 2:09:21
Geoffrey Ronoh (KEN) 2:09:29
Takuya Fukatsu (JPN) 2:09:31
Yohannes Ghebregergis (ERI) 2:09:48
Yuki Takamiya (JPN) 2:10:57
Ryo Hashimoto (JPN) 2:11:20
Yuma Hattori (JPN) 2:11:46
Hiroyuki Yamamoto (JPN) 2:11:48
Amane Beriso (ETH) 2:20:48
Amane Gobena (ETH) 2:21:51
Berhane Dibaba (ETH) 2:22:30
Sarah Chepchirchir (KEN) 2:24:13
Marta Lema Megra (ETH) 2:24:32
Sara Hall (USA) 2:30:06
Betsy Saina (KEN) debut