01 March 2021, 11am
Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon
Sun 28 February 2021
Kengo Suzuki set a sensational new Japanese record of 2:04:56. 15 runners ran under 2:08; 42 under 2:10 and 174 under 2:20. Of the first 50 runners 42 either set personal best times or made their debut.
The race is set to be absorbed into the mass-participation Osaka Marathon as its elite men’s field next year the same way the old Tokyo International Marathon was swallowed whole by the Tokyo Marathon.
Conditions were good: light cloud, 7˚C, 57% humidity and light breezes at the start. 24 of the field had run sub-2:10 in the last three years and 52 sub-2:12. The lead trio of pacers hit almost every split within a couple of seconds of the target 2:58/km and the second group pacers even closer to the 3:00/km target. The shoes were good; across brands.
30 went out on pace to go under the 2:05:29 national record in the first group, with what looked like about a hundred on mid-2:06 pace in the second group. Nature took its course as both groups shed runners until at 25km there were only 12 left up front and a couple of dozen in the second group when most of the pacers stepped off. Then Hiroto Inoue, the second-fastest man in the field at 2:06:54, made a surge. The sole remaining pacer James Rungaru took his time reeling Inoue back in and had just five others still with him when he regained contact 3km later.
Rungaru stopped at 30km as Simon Kariuki took over with five Japanese strung out single-file behind him. Kariuki slowed slightly but even so three of the Japanese, including Inoue, started to lose touch. Suzuki and Hidekazu Hijikata, stayed smooth and calm, right behind Kariuki.
The gaps grew, while the national record seemed to be slipping out of reach. But at 36km Suzuki as they approached the special drinks table Kariuki looked to his left to grab his bottle and Suzuki pulled out from behind him. Immediately there was a 5m gap.
Suzuki had made a similar move near 20km in the Olympic trials race that had helped his senior teammate Shogo Nakamura win. Here he just kept going, hitting each remaining kilometre between 2:51-2:53 as the projected time brought the national record back into sight, then sub-2:05:15, then sub-2:05.
With a final surge in the last 200m of the track he became the first Japanese man to break 2:05. The time beat former world record holder Wilson Kipsang’s course record by 77 seconds and his own best time by 5:30. “I didn’t expect this kind of time at all,” he said post-race. “In my other marathons to date I’ve slowed down in the last part, so the focus today was on finishing hard. I knew that was the right time to make my move.” Still just 25, Suzuki’s career goal is the Paris Olympics. Unluckily for him, the Project Exceed 100 million yen bonus program for a new national record has already run out.
Behind him Hijikata, only 23 and running just his second marathon after a 2:09:50 debut in Tokyo last year, dropped Kariuki for 2nd in 2:06:26. Likewise doing his second marathon after a 2:28:47 debut at Lake Biwa last year, 25-year-old Kyohei Hosoya ran almost perfectly even splits, going through halfway in 1:03:21, to come up from the second group and run down Kariuki, Inoue and others for 3rd in 2:06:35. And behind them the hits kept coming.
With the shoes these days times might not be worth what they used to be, but even if you factor in a couple of minutes this was about as good a demonstration of the sheer depth of quality of the marathon development system in Japan as you could ask for. It was the perfect sendoff for Japan’s oldest marathon before it disappears next year into the maw of Osakan modernity.