Daisuke Matsunaga leads the field at the 46th All Japan Race Walking event in Nomi (© Organisers)
Daisuke Matsunaga threw his hat into the ring for a World Athletics Championships Oregon22 place with a fine win at the 46th All Japan Race Walking Tournament – a World Athletics Race Walking Tour Bronze event – in a chilly Nomi on Sunday (20).
The man who will be 27 on Thursday awarded himself an early birthday present when he finally shook off a dogged challenge to claim a fourth win in the city on Japan’s southern isle of Honshu.
In fact, his winning 1:19:53 was testament to the threat posed first by Hiroto Jusho, who had already notched a PB this year in Kobe, and towards the end of the race by Yuta Koga, whose PB: 1:18:42 dates from 2020.
Both pushed hard to upset the favourite. But in the end the relentless Matsunaga won out.
Koga finished fast to come home second in 1:20:40, with the brave Jusho a couple of seconds back in 1:20:42 and Subaru Ishida right behind him in 1:20:43.
It was a chilly, grey morning, and threatening to rain as walkers toed the line. Even so, many of the main contenders sported sunglasses for reasons known only to themselves.
A group of 10 went through the first kilometre in 3:53 including Matsanuga and Ryosuke Kondo. Both slowed slightly through the second lap, and unsurprisingly no one got shed from the leading pack.
It was fast, but not crushingly so, though still speedy enough to lay down a marker.
Coming up to 3km, Matsanuga started to move away with Jusho seemingly the only one offering a challenge 15 metres back.
The other eight were much the same difference in arrears. Jusho made up the difference to the leader as they went through 4km, and even took it on over the next kilometre passing 5km in 19:41, with the remains of the group 13 seconds in their wake.
They were now lapping the back markers in a classy field. And in a bid to shake off his one threat, Matsanuga walked as wide as the road would allow to stop Jusho getting a free ride. In fact, the eventual winner kept walking wide on a 1km loop that significantly curved at both ends. Had he taken the shortest route available, he would surely have saved several seconds on his finishing time.
The cap-wearing Jusho had to cut across to get back on the leader’s shoulder, and again Matsanuga tried to shake off his shadow. He eventually managed to crevice a five-second gap over the next 2km, but the plucky pursuer refused to let go.
Those with pretensions of catching the leaders now consisted of Koga, Ishida, and Haruki Manju. Halfway was clocked in 39:34, with the hopeful trio 13 seconds back.
Manju fell just off the back at 11km, while up ahead, Matsunaga had a third attempt to walk solo to the finish, and the result was the same as the previous two: Jusho stubbornly closed the small gap.
Approaching 13km, a final gear change did for a brave challenge. In fact, sensing their chance, Koga and Ishida closed the gap on Jusho, with the three now vainly trying to catch the man up front.
With six 1km laps to go, the ebb and flow continued as Koga shed the other two and gave chase to Matsunaga. Jusho was having none of that and left Ishida, so that he and Koga closed the gap slightly to 12 seconds.
The leader hit the three-quarters mark in 59:40, and for the first time looked relatively comfortable. Koga also found a second wind to take control of second place, but right at the death, Jusho and Ishida tore up the final straight to make it a fight for the podium places.
Olympic and recent World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships Muscat 22 medallists Toshikazu Yamanishi and Koki Ikeda gave the race a miss, but Matsanuga’s solid race here will give the World Championships selectors a headache.
"I walked the race as part of training for the 35km Nationals at Wajima," he said. "I originally targeted 1:20:00 to 1:20:30, but I felt good so I challenged for the 20km World Championships nomination.
"I'm so happy to win today’s race. I felt like I’m back".
The depth of race walking in Japan was underlined by 20 finishing under 1:30:00 in an event still limited to just a domestic field as the country recovers from the pandemic.
Success for Sonoda
If the men’s race had been nip-and-tuck for all but the last few kilometres, Serena Sonoda made sure the women’s 20km was shorn of drama.
The 25-year-old had a modest 1:35:21 PB going into the race but blew that out off the water with an easy 1:32:12 victory.
She had 3:39 to spare over Miyu Naito by the finish, more than one length of the 1km lap, as Naito crossed in 1:35:51.
Sonoda went from the gun and was already up by nine seconds by 5km. It was nearly a minute by halfway, but the hammer really came down over the next 5km.
Sonoda recorded 22:56 for the split in contrast to 24:23 by her pursuer.
Hitomi Shimoka was slightly ahead of Naito at halfway and on her shoulder going into the last quarter, but paid for a brave attempt as she slowed to 1:36:32, but still held on for third.
Sonoda, like Matsanuga, also has eyes on the 35km in Oregon.
"I raced today as part of my preparation for the 35km Nationals, hoping to build up my confidence," she said.
"The weather was perfect and my condition was good and I did go a bit faster than my target pace but having a big PB one month before my target race boots my confidence.
"Today’s plan was to go at 4:45/km pace and gradually build up from there and keep it up during the latter part of the race. I’ll train one notch higher and I hope to earn a spot in the Oregon national team for the 35km."
Paul Warburton for World Athletics