Shogo Nakamura Wins WILD and THRILLING Japanese Olympic Marathon Trials as Honami Maeda Crushes Women’s Field

By Jonathan Gault and Robert Johnson
September 15, 2019

The Marathon Grand Championship men’s race will be remembered for many reasons. For its history: this was the first-ever Japanese Olympic marathon trials. For its drama: this was a thrilling race, with nine men still in contention with five kilometers to go. For its finish: at 39k, Shogo Nakamura, the 2018 Berlin 4th placer (2:08:16 pb), made a big move into the lead and then an even bigger move once he was caught at 41k, pulling away to win in 2:11:28. Behind him, Yuma Hattori (2018 Fukuoka champ, 2:07:27 pb) took the second automatic Olympic spot in 2:11:36 as national record holder Suguru Osako of the Nike Oregon Project (2:05:50 pb), who pulled even with Nakamura at the 41k mark, settled for third in 2:11:41.

But more than anything, the MGC may be remembered for Yuta Shitara, the former Japanese record holder in the marathon (2:06:11 pb).

A true iconoclast who has built his career on doing things his own way, Shitara spoke openly before the race about wanting to run fast at MGC, no matter the conditions.

“If you win it in 2:14 or 2:15 you’ll never be competitive at the Olympics,” told Japan Running News’ Brett Larner. “I want to crush it. If this were the Olympics then I realize you’d have to be a bit careful about tactics, but it’s just a race against a bunch of Japanese guys. Running conservatively would be pretty boring.”

And despite hot weather on the same Tokyo course that will host next year’s Olympic marathon (75 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny with 75% humidity at the start, climbing to 82 F by the finish), Shitara was good on his word as he tried to crush and ran far from a boring race. He jumped out to a big early lead, hitting halfway in 63:27 — some 2:01 ahead of the chase pack. 

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This was going to end one of two ways. Shitara could blitz the field like Sammy Wanjiru did in Beijing in 2008. Or it could end in disaster.

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By 35k, it was clear which way this one was going. After running the 5k segment from 30-35k in 16:57 (2:23 marathon pace), Shitara’s lead had dwindled to 35 seconds. At the drinks station two kilometers later, the eight-man chase pack blasted by Shitara, who would fade badly and wind up 14th in 2:16:10.

But the real drama was just beginning. With barely three miles to run, eight men were vying for just two automatic spots on the 2020 Olympic team. That group was cut in half by 39k, with Ryo Hashimoto, a 26-year-old who dipped under 2:10 for the first time in February, pushing the pace, with only Hattori, Osako, and Nakamura coming with him. Nakamura then came over the top with a huge move of his own, completely stringing out the race.

As the leaders climbed the hill just before 40k, the top three places were clear, but with only the top two guaranteed a spot at the Olympics in 11 months’ time, there was still everything to race for. Hattori began by dropping Osako for second place, closing the gap to Nakamura. But Osako, who was clearly in discomfort, grabbing his right side repeatedly during the final miles, responded by closing the gap to second by 40.5k; suddenly, they were both gaining on Nakamura.

Just before 41k, Osako made his bid for glory, dropping Hattori and pulling onto Nakamura’s shoulder. But Osako could not get by him, and as they passed the Olympic stadium, Nakamura launched his counterpunch. Nakamura ran the turn far wider than Osako, who did his best to cut the tangent. But that was irrelevant, because Nakamura was running significantly faster than Osako; he would pull away unchallenged to win by eight seconds.

With just 400 meters to run, Osako held second place but was spent after his failed bid for the win. Hattori, meanwhile, had never stopped fighting behind him, and reeled in Osako to claim the all-important second place.

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Top 10 Men’s Results (Full results at bottom)
1 Shogo Nakamura 2:11:28
2 Yuma Hattori 2:11:36
3 Suguru Osako 2:11:41
4 Shohei Otsuka 2:11:58
5 Ryo Hashimoto 2:12:07
6 Yoshiki Takenouchi 2:12:31
7 Kengo Suzuki 2:12:44
8 Kentaro Nakamoto 2:12:46
9 Taku Fujimoto 2:13:58
10 Naoki Okamoto 2:14:55

The victory was a breakthrough run for the 27-year-old Nakamura. Of the top three, he owns the slowest personal best — 2:08:16 to Osako’s 2:05:50 and Hattori’s 2:07:27. But his run today proved that he is capable of better — and, more importantly, demonstrated to handle the heat and the pressure that will be necessary to earn Japan’s first Olympic men’s marathon medal since 1992.

Hattori backed up his Fukuoka victory — last December, he became the first Japanese champion there in 14 years — by claiming second, while Osako will have to wait until the conclusion of the winter marathon season in March to be sure of his spot on the team. His chances are good — the only way he can miss out is if someone breaks his 2:05:50 national record in the interim.

(Men’s analysis appears below women’s recap).

Women’s Race

While there was lots of drama in the men’s race, the 10-person women’s race was decided early; Honami Maeda, 23, who was the first woman to qualify for the MGC and owns a 2:23:48 pb, took off just after 20k and won in blowout fashion in 2:25:16 as Ayuko Suzuki, the only woman with Maeda at 20k and the woman with the slowest marathon pb in the field (2:28:32), held on for the second Olympic spot in 2:29:02. Maeda’s corporate teammate Rei Ohara, 29, who missed the Rio Olympics by 1 second, was third in 2:29:06.

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Women’s Results
1 Honami Maeda 2:25:15
2 Ayuko Suzuki  2:29:02
3 Rei Ohara  2:29:06
4 Mizuo Matsuda  2:29:51
5 Keiko Nogami 2:31:14
6 Mao Ichiyama 2:32:30
7 Kayoko FUKUSHI 2:33:29
8 Yuka ANDO 2:36:29
9 Reia IWADE 2:41:22
10 Miyuki UEHARA DNF

All of the women ran big positive splits as the lead pack of eight hit 5k in in 16:31 (2:19:23 pace). At 20k (67:27), Maeda and Suzuki were on 2:22:20 pace and Maeda was still on 2:23:22 pace at 36k (1:58:55). While she faded significantly over the final 7.2k, she still won by a ton.

Quick Take: “Going for it” may sound cool and may have made Steve Prefontaine famous, but it’s incredibly stupid in the year 2019, particularly in a hot weather marathon

While we love Shitara’s quote above and agree with much of it — namely that if you run 2:14 or 2:15 at the Olympics, you won’t be competitive for a medal no matter how hot it is and that running conservatively would be pretty boring — the part of his quote about not having to be careful with tactics in a trials race is the TOTAL opposite of reality.

If it’s the Olympics and you are an underdog, you can go for broke. At the trials, when you are one of the favorites, there is no need to go for broke because it’s just a qualifying race. So if you are going to be careful about tactics, you do it at the trials, not the Olympics.

Yes that may be boring, but the reality is that the last 40 years of racing has taught us is the best tactics are boring tactics. Try to run as evenly as possible, don’t make any big moves, conserve as much energy, and then make your move at the very end of the race. That’s what Nakamura did today, and now he’s going to the Olympics.

Quick Take: Shitara’s Olympic marathon dreams aren’t over and Suguru Osako’s aren’t confirmed

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Unlike the US trials, where the top three finishers across the line make the Olympic team, only the top two at the Japanese trials are guaranteed an Olympic spot. For the men, the third placer gets to go to the Olympics assuming no one else breaks the national record (2:05:50) this winter at Fukuoka, Tokyo or Lake Biwa (for the women, anyone breaking 2:22:22 gets to go instead of the third placer).

So Shitara has some pretty cool motivation. If he breaks Osako’s national record, not only does Shitara reclaim the national record that he once held, he also kicks Osako off the Olympic team.

Osako and his coach Pete Julian now face a decision. Does Osako run the Tokyo Marathon in February (since that’s where Shitara broke the record in 2018, it seems like the logical time/place for a record attempt) and play some defense on Shitara? Or do they sit out the winter/spring season (or race elsewhere) and trust that Shitara likely won’t break the record? 

There are still almost 11 months between now and the Olympic marathon, so it’s possible that Osako would want to run another marathon anyway before the Olympics. Tokyo, with its late-February date, offers great timing if that’s the case.

Quick Take: If you thought it was hot today, just wait for the Olympics

The conditions were far from ideal — low to mid 80s temps with a dew point around 65 (humidity 55%) — but that’s much better than what is predicted for the Olympic marathons. 

In April, we did a little research to find out what the normal conditions are in Tokyo on the same day the Olympic marathons will be run (August 2 for women and August 9 for men). We went back and looked at what the weather was like on those days every year since 2009. Normally, it’s MUCH worse than today. Only three times since 2009 has the dew point been less than 70 on the day of the Olympic women’s marathon and only once was that true for the men. The average humidity for the women’s race day from 2009 to 2018 was 79% and for the men it was 77% as shown here.

Quick Take: We hope the IAAF and IOC were watching this — nothing beats top-3 drama

If a country is going to send three athletes to the Olympics, the IOC/IAAF should let them send the top three at their trials regardless of whether they have hit some arbitrary qualifying standard. Suguru Osako is the Japanese record holder. His pb is 2:05:50. Because he dropped of the Tokyo Marathon, he didn’t have the Olympic standard of 2:11:30. Because it was so hot today, he just missed that time (2:11:41) but thankfully he can go as the IAAF said anyone who is top five in this race will be considered to have the standard.

Quick Take: The course and atmosphere surrounding the race were terrific

Today’s races functioned as our first look at next year’s Olympic marathon course, and based off what we saw on TV, it should be tremendous. The fans in Tokyo were out in force, as almost every inch of the course was lined with spectators. And the hills at 39k and 40k (elevation map here) were perfectly-placed to create maximum late-race drama.

The weather is still a concern, but if we can get the same conditions as we had today for the Olympics yesterday, we should get two outstanding marathon races.

Quick Take: The US gets an assist for 1st and 3rd in the women’s race

Both Maeda and Ohara are part of the juggernaut Tenmaya corporate team, which Brett Larner has said has the “best track record of success at getting people onto national teams in the marathon.” They did their training for the MGC in the US in Albuquerque.

Quick Take: While Suzuki had the slowest marathon pb of any woman in the race, her qualification was far from a shock

In fact, Larner nailed it when before the race he wrote, “If there were one person female or male we had to pick to definitely make the Tokyo Olympics team at the MGC Race it’s Suzuki.”

He had good reason to write that as Suzuki has an Olympic pedigree on the track (Rio Olympian, top 3 in 5000 or 10,000 at the Japanese nationals on the track every year since 2015). And while she had the slowest marathon pb of anyone in the race, that doesn’t mean her lone marathon wasn’t a success. Her 2:28:32 win at the hot 2018 Hokkaido Marathon showed she could handle: a) the 26.2-mile distance and; b) the heat. 

Talk about the race on our messageboard / fan forum: MB: The Most Dramatic Marathon of The Year is Saturday – Official 2019 Japanese Marathon Grand Championship Discussion Thread.

Full Men’s Results With Splits

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Full Women’s Results With Splits

Download (PDF, 62KB)

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