07 December 2020, 11am
Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championship
Sun 6 December 2020
Ten men went with the A-group in the early going, eight Japanese plus the debuting Cyrus Kingori and Mongolian natiojnal record-holder Ser-Od Bat-Ochir. Prominent in that group were Yoshida, now 23, and the favourite, last year’s winner Taku Fujimoto (Toyota). Fujimoto said pre-race that he was going for 2:04:50, but while his training partner Karoki never got the pace that hot it was still steadily on track for 2:05 all the way until he stepped aside at 30km.
Along the way people fell off one by one. With 10 km to go it was just Yoshida and Fujimoto, and as Yoshida applied pressure Fujimoto fell away. Yoshida looked strong the whole way but his pace slowed to just over 2:06 pace at 35km and just under 2:07 at 40km.
He needed a big finish to stay under 2:07 but although he picked it up it was less than he needed. Yoshida crossed the finish line in 2:07:05 – the second-fastest time ever by a Japanese man at Fukuoka and ninth-best Japanese time ever. His victory made it the first time Japanese men have won Fukuoka three years in a row since 1989. In his post-race interview he was as calm, mature and professional as he had been in the race, assessing his performance matter-of-factly and looking like someone with a bright road ahead of him.
Only one other runner who went with Yoshida in the A-group made it into the top ten, with the large B-group working together to stay on 2:06/2:07 pace even after the pacing stopped at 30km. Naoya Sakuda was the first to break away as he surged to run down A-group straggler Yoshiki Takenouchi, Olympic team alternate Shohei Otsuka who had fallen early in the race and bled from his left knee, and Kenyan Michael Githae were next, with Sakuda’s JR teammates Natsuki Terada and Paul Kuira pulling away from the remnants.
As they all bore down on the fading Fujimoto they overtook each other and switched order with the tides of the marathon’s final 5km, but it was Otsuka who ultimately proved the strongest, closing to within 33 seconds of Yoshida for a 2:07:38 PB in his first time going sub-2:10 and with a bloody leg to show for it. As the alternate for the Olympic team, he now has a faster PB than the top two at the Trials. Only NR holder Suguru Osako (Nike) remains faster at 2:05:29. If any of the top three don’t make it to the main event, if there is one, today Otsuka proved that he’s their equal and that the team’s level won’t suffer if he has to take over someone’s spot.
The race showed the beneficial effect of pacing in the marathon, but there’s equally a lesson on the role of ambition, fearlessness and confidence. As in the record-breaking National Track and Field Championships a day earlier, the current generation of Japanese athletes showed they have enough of all three to go around.