2019 Tokyo Marathon Men’s Preview: Can Japanese Record Holder Suguru Osako Earn a Massive Win on Home Soil?

By LetsRun.com
February 28, 2019

Want to see how different the state of US and Japanese men’s marathoning is? Look no further than the 2019 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon.

While Americans were settling in to watch the Super Bowl on February 3, the Japanese were getting after it. In all of 2018, only one American, Galen Rupp, ran faster than 2:12:24 in the marathon. At Beppu-Oita, 11 Japanese men accomplished the feat. That included three men under 2:10 — something that only three Americans, total, have achieved during the last seven years. And that was just a taste of Japan’s marathon depth; none of those 11 men even ranked in the top 10 last year in Japan, where it took a sub-2:09 sb to crack the top 10.

Going strictly by time, Japanese male marathoners accomplished almost as much in 2018 as the United States has in its entire history. Take a look at how the two countries stack up:

Japan  2018 USA All Time
Sub-2:06 1 2
Sub-2:07 3 3
Sub-2:08 5 4
Sub-2:09 10 9
Sub-2:10 16 18

That’s right. Japan produced more sub-2:08 and sub-2:09 marathoners in 2018 than the United States has in its entire history.

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There are two areas, however, where the US has been superior to Japan in recent years. One is on the Olympic podium: an American man has medalled in two of the last four Olympic marathons; no Japanese man has earned an Olympic medal since Koichi Morishita‘s silver at Barcelona 1992. The other is major marathon victories. Since the inception of the World Marathon Majors in 2006, American men have won three majors: Meb Keflezighi at 2009 New York, Meb again at 2014 Boston, and Galen Rupp at 2017 Chicago. During that span, Japan has won just one — Yuki Kawauchi at 2018 Boston — and it took a historically bad weather day just to accomplish that.

But on Sunday, Japan will have a chance to narrow the deficit in that department as their top marathoner, national record holder Suguru Osako, is running Japan’s biggest marathon, Tokyo. And that’s exciting. Because as great as Japan has been at the marathon in recent years, Kenya and Ethiopia have still been way, way better. Prior to last year, no Japanese man had broken 2:07 since 2002, which is almost a prerequisite to win a WMM these days: since 2013, 89% of men’s WMM champs have entered the race with a sub-2:07 PR. For context, 23 Kenyans broke 2:07 in 2018 alone.

But Japan is narrowing the gap to the East Africans. Last year, after going 15 years without a sub-2:07 marathoner, Japan produced three: Osako (2:05:50), Yuta Shitara (2:06:11), and Hirohito Inoue (2:06:54). And both Osako (3rd in Chicago) and Shitara (2nd in Tokyo) were in the mix for the win at majors.

Which leads us to this weekend, which kicks off an incredible 18 months of marathoning in Japan. It begins with the Tokyo Marathon on Sunday, the first WMM of 2019, and continues in September with the Japanese Olympic Trials, also in Tokyo, which are going to be incredible given that Japan is nuts about the marathon. Then there’s the 2020 Tokyo Marathon and, of course, the Olympic marathon in August 2020.

*TV/streaming information (the race is perfect for US viewers as it starts at 7:10 p.m. on Saturday night)

The biggest reason to be excited about this year’s Tokyo Marathon is Osako, who is based in the US and trains under Nike Oregon Project coach Pete Julian. A win by Japan’s best marathoner on home soil just 17 months before they host the Olympics would be a huge story, and it could actually happen. That doesn’t mean it will happen — there are five guys entered with faster PRs than Osako, including four under 2:05 — but there’s a case to be made for Osako. Let’s make it.

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The Case for Suguru Osako

  1. Osako is really good. Osako is one of the biggest talents Japan has ever produced. He’s the only Japanese man ever to break 13:10 in the 5,000 (13:08), but his best event is clearly the marathon. He’s run three in his career, and all have been impressive. In his debut in 2017, he finished 3rd in Boston, losing only to two studs in Geoffrey Kirui and Rupp (who finished #1 and #6 in our world rankings that year). Later that year, he slashed over three minutes off his PR to run 2:07:19 for 3rd in Fukuoka. And in his last marathon, in Chicago in October, he beat the likes of Rupp, Geoffrey Kirui, Rotterdam champ Kenneth Kipkemoi, and three-time major champ Abel Kirui to finish 3rd in 2:05:50, behind only Mo Farah and Mosinet Geremew, who earlier that year had set a course record of 2:04:00 in Dubai. Placing high in majors and running faster every time out is a good sign that you’re ready to contend for the win at a major.
  2. The Tokyo field is not that strong. Of the three “spring” majors (we’re counting Tokyo as a spring marathon even though it’s technically still winter), Tokyo has by far the weakest field on paper. London has four major champs and eight men who have broken 2:05, including Eliud Kipchoge. Boston has six major champs, five guys who have broken 2:05, and 12 guys who have broken 2:07. Tokyo has one major champ, four guys who have broken 2:05, and seven guys who have broken 2:07 and of those seven, three of them are running Tokyo after an abbreviated training schedule as their last races were either November 18th or December 2nd. Originally, the Tokyo field was stronger, but the two fastest guys by PR — Kenenisa Bekele (2:03:03) and Marius Kipserem (2:04:04, though that should be ~40 seconds slower since he ran it at Abu Dhabi) both withdrew earlier this month. There are still some good guys in the race, but there’s no reason why Osako can’t be right there with them, battling it out for the win.
  3. Osako beat a bunch of the guys in the Tokyo field last year. Aside from Osako, there are eight guys in the Tokyo field that fit the criteria of potential major champ — i.e. sub-2:08 PR or a World/Olympic medal (38 of the last 39 major winners have met that criteria). And Osako beat three of those eight head-to-head in Chicago in October: Bedan Karoki (9th), and the two fastest guys, Birhanu Legese (10th) and Dickson Chumba (DNF).

The Case for Everybody Else

As well as Osako has been running, he’s still unlikely to win. The other guys may not be studs on the level of a Kipchoge or even a Farah (few men are), but Osako still only has the #6 PR in the field. A lot of things have to go right to win a major marathon, but it only takes one thing to get beat.

Below we’ve listed the nine guys who meet our “potential winner” criteria (a PR below 2:08 or a World/Olympic medal). We break each man down in further detail below. To view the full elite field, click here.

Name Country PR Comment
Birhanu Legese Ethiopia 2:04:15 6th in debut at ’18 Dubai but just 10th in Chicago
Dickson Chumba Kenya 2:04:32 Reigning champ was a DNF in Chicago
El Hassan El Abbassi Bahrain 2:04:43 Ran massive PR at Valencia on December 2nd
Seifu Tura Ethiopia 2:04:44 Coming off wins in 2:09 in both Milan & Shanghai (Nov 18)
Nobert Kigen Kenya 2:05:13 2:05:13 sounds impressive but that was only 5th in Valencia and that was on December 2nd.
Suguru Osako Japan 2:05:50 3rd in Chicago last year
Gideon Kipketer Kenya 2:05:51 4th in Tokyo & Amsterdam last year
Deme Abate Ethiopia 2:06:47 7th in Amsterdam last year
Bedan Karoki Kenya 2:07:41 Stud half marathoner but not yet a stud marathoner
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Chumba is the most dangerous guy on that list and enters the race as the presumptive favorite. Though he dropped out of Chicago last year, that was an aberration as he is generally very consistent; in his previous nine marathons, he finished 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st, with three major victories sprinkled in (Chicago and Tokyo twice). He’s broken 2:07 in Tokyo four of the past five years, never finishing out of the top three, and ran 2:05:30 on the newish course last year (it was changed before the 2017 edition).

Ethiopia’s Seifu Tura is another guy we like. He went from 2:09 in his debut in Seoul in 2017 to 2:04 in Dubai last year, then proceeded to earn victories in 2:09 in both Milan and Shanghai. Running a big PR and winning races are always good signs. Our biggest worry is that he’s been racing a lot recently. Some guys can handle it, but Tura, less than two years into his marathon career, has yet to prove that. It’s been just 15 weeks since his win in Shanghai, and Tokyo will be his fourth marathon in the last 14 months. That’s a lot of hard racing, especially for a guy making his WMM debut.

There are other guys in the field racing on even tighter turnarounds. Both El Hassan El Abbassi (a Moroccan-born athlete competing for Bahrain) and Kenyan Nobert Kigen will be racing just 13 weeks after running Valencia in December. Both men ran fast (2:04:44 for El Abbassi, 2:05:22 for Kigen), but you may want to take those times with a grain of salt as Valencia is quickly developing a reputation for a super-fast course (six men broke 2:05:30 in that race); replicating those times on a course like Tokyo may be more difficult. That’s especially true for El Abbassi, who time in Valencia was a PR by over six minutes and who finished just 18th at the Houston Half in January in 62:38.

The fastest guy in the field is Birhanu Legese who ran 2:04:15 in Dubai last year (that only got him 6th and Dubai times, like Valencia, can prove difficult to replicate) and while he struggled in Chicago (10th), he is a strong half marathoner (wins in Berlin, RAK, and New Delhi twice over the last four years).

Bedan Karoki has been even better at the half, with a 58:42 PR and two wins at RAK, but has yet to run faster than 2:07:41 in the marathon. He’s hardly been useless — he’s finished 3rd and 5th in London the last two years — but his goals are much, much bigger than that as he told the Daily Nation that “I want to own the world records in both 10,000m, half marathon and marathon.” His coach Francis Kamau also told the Daily Nation that Karoki has struggled at the end of marathons, perhaps because he has gone out too fast, and in London that’s certainly been true. Last year he split 61:00/67:34, and in 2017 he went 61:42/65:59. But he also faded in Chicago last year despite a more sensible halfway split (63:05/64:54) and finished worse (10th) than in either of his London appearances. All of this makes him something of a wildcard for Tokyo and he should not be regarded as a favorite.

The two other guys with a chance — Kenya’s Gideon Kipketer and Ethiopia’s Deme Abate — finished 4th and 7th in Amsterdam in October. Of the two, Kipketer has the better chance in Tokyo, not only because he beat Abate and his PR is almost a minute faster, but also because he has finished 2nd and 4th in Tokyo the last two years.

Don’t forget the rest of the Japanese entrants

The other thing that’s incredible about Tokyo is the sheer number of Japanese guys who throw caution to the wind and just go for it. Last year, 18 Japanese men went out on sub-2:08 pace through halfway. Only two Japanese men actually wound up running sub-2:08, and some of the men who went out hard paid for it with some extremely painful second halves: Shouhei Morikawa went 63:42/71:10 for 2:14:53; Takashi Ichida went 62:51/72:18 for 2:15:09; Takafumi Kikuchi went 63:39/76:23 for 2:20:02 (roughest of all was Yuki Kuroda, who went 64:44/96:46 for a 2:41:30, including a 27:25 5k from 30-35k).

But it’s still exciting to see a group of guys willing to take big risks, and 13 of those guys still hung on to run 2:10:21 or faster last year. Including Osako, there are six Japanese men entered in Tokyo who have broken 2:10, with Ryu Kiname (2:08:08 PR in Tokyo last year) and Shogo Nakamura (2:08:16 for 4th in Berlin last year) the fastest among them. It will be interesting to see how aggressive those guys are; remember, there is still a 100-million yen ($900,000) national record bonus from Project Exceed on the line, though the record is 26 seconds faster than it was this time a year ago. Osako, who already claimed the bonus in Chicago last year, may need to break the record again if he is to win the race. Though the temperature will be ideal for marathoning (high of 48 on Sunday) and there isn’t much wind in the forecast (6 mph), Weather.com predicts a 100% chance of rain on Sunday.

LRC prediction: We’ll take Chumba FTW as he almost never has a bad race but a win by Osako would be huge for Japan, especially with the Tokyo Olympics just 17 months away.

Who do you think will win? Vote below and then talk about the race on our world famous messageboard/fan forum: MB:

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