Eunice Kirwa wins the women's race (© Getty Images)
Ten years have passed since Kayoko Fukushi set the Marugame Half Marathon course record of 1:07:26, but there’s a fair chance it could fall at this year’s edition of the IAAF Silver Label Road Race on Sunday (7).
Bahrains’s world marathon bronze medallist Eunice Kirwa is the favourite for this year’s race. She has rarely finished outside the top three in all of her races over the past four years. She won the 2014 Asian Games marathon title and was victorious at the Nagoya Marathon last year, running 2:22:08. Her marathon best of 2:21:41 was set in 2012 in Amsterdam, while her half marathon PB is 1:08:37.
If she succeeds in breaking the Marugame course record, then she will also become the Asian record-holder for the event.
But Kirwa is not the fastest in the field. Italy’s 2010 European marathon champion Anna Incerti has a half marathon PB of 1:08:18, set at the 2012 Rome-Ostia Half Marathon, although that remains her most recent sub-70-minute clocking.
Eloise Wellings will be in Marugame to defend her title as part of her preparation for the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff. The Australian clocked 1:10:41 to win last year on her debut at the distance and has since gone on to improve her PB to 1:09:56.
Burundi’s Diane Nukuri is another sub-70-minute performer. She ran 1:09:12 to finish second in New York in 2013 and came close to that last year in Prague when finishing third in 1:09:33. Nukuri, who is based in the US and competed at the 2000 Olympics at age 15, will be racing in Asia for the first time.
For Japanese runners, this year’s event doubles as the qualification race for the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff.
Among the contenders to make the team, the best may be Rei Ohara, who was third at the 2011 Marugame Half Marathon. She recorded her personal best of 1:09:17 at the 2015 Sanyo Road Race in Okayama when she finished second.
Yuka Ando was two places behind Ohara in Okayama with 1:09:51, but was one place ahead of Wellings. Kotomi Takayama, who was third at the 2014 Marugame Half Marathon, is another leading domestic runner. She has a half marathon best of 1:10:47.
Tsegay takes on 2013 winner Birmingham
Although neither are entered for this year’s race, Paul Kuira and Zane Robertson – the top two finishers last year in 59:47 on their debuts at the distance – showed how unpredictable and exciting the event can be.
World marathon silver medallist Yemane Tsegay leads this year’s field.The Ethiopian has only contested four half marathons to date, so his PB of 1:01:37 is perhaps not truly indicative of his abilities. His best achievements have come in the marathon, for which he has a PB of 2:04:48, set when winning the 2012 Rotterdam Marathon. Aside from his three top-eight finishes at the IAAF World Championships, he has also won marathons in Daegu, Ottawa, Eindhoven and Gongju.
Tsegay’s toughest opponent could be Collis Birmingham. The Australian won in Marugame in 2013, setting a PB of 1:00:56. Although he finished just 15th in Marugame the following year, Birmingham has by far the strongest track credentials of the athletes entered; he has PBs of 13:09.57 for 5000m and 27:29.73 for 10,000m.
Eritrea’s Goitom Kifle has the fastest half marathon PB of the field. He ran 1:00:20 in Azkoita two years ago, but his best performance since then is 1:02:30.
Tsuyoshi Ugachi, Masato Kikuchi and Yuki Sato look to be the best Japanese prospects to make the national team for the World Half Marathon Championships.
Kikuchi was seventh and the first Japanese at last year’s Marugame Half Marathon in a PB of 1:00:57. He improved that mark two weeks later in Yamaguchi when finishing third, and again the top Japanese, in 1:00:32.
Ugachi has previously run well in Marugame; he was second in 2011 in 1:00:58 and third in 2013 in 1:01:16 and was the top Japanese finisher on both occasions. He will be running the Tokyo Marathon in three weeks, so his performance in Marugame will be a good indicator of how he might fare in his quest to make the Olympic team.
Sato has not officially run a half marathon, but he has run a marathon and has a best of 2:12:32. His strength, however, is his 10,000m speed. The four-time national champion in the event has a personal best of 27:38.25 from 2009 and has run faster than 28 minutes every year since 2011.
The other domestic entries include Keita Shitara, who was eighth in Marugame last year before improving his PB to 1:01:12 in Yamaguchi, Hiromitsu Kakuage, who finished fifth in Marugame in 2011, and collegiate star Akinobu Murasawa, who will be making his half-marathon debut.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF
Goitom Kifle (ERI) 1:00:20
Masato Kikuchi (JPN) 1:00:32
Collis Birmingham (AUS) 1:00:56
Tsuyoshi Ugachi (JPN) 1:00:58
Keita Shitara (JPN) 1:01:12
Fabiano Sulle (TAN) 1:01:21
Taku Fujimoto (JPN) 1:01:31
Arata Fujiwara (JPN) 1:01:34
Yemane Tsegay (ETH) 1:01:37
Yuta Igarashi (JPN) 1:01:46
Daisuke Matsufuji (JPN) 1:01:46
Kenji Yamamoto (JPN) 1:01:47
Ryo Yamamoto (JPN) 1:01:54
Hiromitsu Kakuage (JPN) 1:01:56
Yusei Nakao (JPN) 1:02:00
Shuho Dairokuno (JPN) 1:02:19
Suehiro Ishikawa (JPN) 1:02:23
Yuki Sato (JPN) debut
Akinobu Murasawa (JPN) debut
Eunice Kirwa (BRN) 1:08:31
Anna Incerti (ITA) 1:08:18
Diane Nukuri (BDI) 1:09:12
Rei Ohara (JPN) 1:09:17
Yuka Ando (JPN) 1:09:51
Eloise Wellings (AUS) 1:09:56
Kotomi Takayama (JPN) 1:10:47
Noriko Higuchi (JPN) 1:10:51
Ayumi Uehara (JPN) 1:11:19
Natasha Wodak (CAN) 1:11:20
Yukiko Okuno (JPN) 1:11:28
Megumi Matsuyama (JPN) 1:13:21
Yuko Mizuguchi (JPN) 1:13:29
Honoka Yuzawa (JPN) 1:13:41
Akane Sekino (JPN) 1:14:47
Moeno Nakamura (JPN) 1:16:01