Flomena Cheyech wins the women's race at the 2014 Paris Marathon (© Jiro Mochizuki)
For Kenya's Flomena Cheyech, the Saitama International Marathon on Sunday (13) might seem like less of an overseas race than for the other invited foreign entrants in the IAAF Silver Label Road Race.
Cheyech spent four years from 2007 running for Japanese corporate club Uniqlo, and returns to her former second home to try to capture her first career marathon title on Japanese soil.
"I feel good to compete in Japan," the 34-year-old Cheyech said at the pre-race press conference in this city 30 kilometres northwest of Tokyo. "Before when I came to work in Uniqlo company, I was still very young. Now I have grown and I'm happy to compete in the Saitama Marathon."
In what looks to develop into the latest duel between Kenya and Ethiopia, Cheyech will be joined by compatriot Monica Jepkoech and Japan-based Winfridah Kebaso in the second edition of the race, which features an elite division for women among the mass field of 16,000.
Ethiopia's Amane Gobena, who comes into the race with the fastest career-best time of 2:21:51, and Atsede Habtamu will try to keep the title won last year by Atsede Baysa in their nation's hands.
The other invited runners from overseas are Belarusian Olympian Maryna Damatsevich, a two-time winner at the Osaka Marathon; Italian veteran Deborah Toniolo, who was seventh at the more prestigious Osaka Ladies in 2014 after coming back from childbirth; and Australia's Cassie Fien.
Leading the Japanese contingent will be Saitama Prefecture native Kaori Yoshida, the runner-up last year to Baysa, and Mizuho Nasukawa, the winner of the 2009 Tokyo Marathon. Other invitees are Aki Otagiri and Akane Sekine, who will be making her marathon debut.
The Saitama race was created last year to replace the Yokohama International Women's Marathon, which in turn had been formed when the Tokyo Women's was eliminated to create a single major marathon in the capital.
Gobena targetting sub-2:21
Organisers have tweaked the course to eliminate some of the more severe undulations, although the runners noted that it still retained its share of tough spots.
Gobena, who ran her PB in finishing second in Tokyo in February, said that if the conditions are right, she could see going under 2:21. That would be a vast improvement on Baysa's winning time last year of 2:25:44.
"From what I've seen of the course, it seems good, but I won't know until I actually run on it," Gobena said. "I've only seen the map, and it looks like the race will get tough from 35 kilometres.
"If the weather is good, I want to run a good time. I want to beat my personal best. It will depend on the pacesetter. It will be the first time for me to run in a race with women pacesetters. If they hit the target times, I can run in the (two hour and) 20-minute range."
Gobena, also 34, is no stranger to Japan herself, having become in 2010 the first Ethiopian winner of the Osaka Ladies. She also won back-to-back titles in Istanbul in 2014-15 before her second-place showing in Tokyo.
"Right now my country is not cold. Japan is cold, but I have prepared and I expect that if the weather is good I can run a good race," Gobena said.
Cheyech, a cousin of former marathon star Tegla Laroupe, was a two-time winner of the Japanese corporate half-marathon while at Uniqlo. She ran her personal best of 2:22:44 in finishing second at the 2014 Paris Marathon, a victory that put her on the team to that year's Commonwealth Games, where she won the gold medal.
Cheyech did not mention a specific target time, but said she was well prepared for a run at the title.
"[Through] cooperation with my running mate and the pacemakers, and also the cheering people along the way, I will try to work hard to show my determination, also the training that I have done."
Haptamu, 29, made a name for herself during a remarkable stretch of wins earlier in the decade, and will be looking to get back to that level after finishing 11th at the Osaka Ladies in January.
Haptamu ran her career best of 2:24:25 while placing fourth at the 2011 Berlin Marathon, which came in the midst of winning three races---2010 Eindhoven, 2011 Daegu and 2012 Tokyo---while setting course records in all three.
Jepkoech, who triumphed in her debut marathon in Milan in 2013, won the Osaka Marathon later that year, then set her career best of 2:27:26 at the 2015 Toronto Marathon, where she placed fourth. She failed to finish the Nagoya Women's Marathon last March.
Locals gunning for World Championships spots
For the Japanese women, the race features the added incentive of serving as one of the domestic qualifiers for next summer's IAAF World Championships London 2017.
Yoshida and Nasukawa both missed out on selection on the team to the Rio de Janiero Olympics, and, with both in their mid-30s, would like nothing better than to gain a place on the national team at this stage of their careers.
Yoshida, in particular, has something to prove. Her second-place finish in Saitama last year put her into the mix for the Rio team, but her time of 2:28:43, while a personal best, was deemed insufficient by Japan officials and she was left out.
One of the few elite Japanese runners not affiliated with a corporate team, the 35-year-old Yoshida said she is determined to put on a performance that will leave no doubt of her credentials.
"As a 'citizen' runner, I am involved in club events and training with general runners," said Yoshida, whose victory at the Hokkaido Marathon this summer will help her cause. "There are many men that I train with who are faster than me, they pull me along and I have put in good training.
"As far as my condition, I feel I'm at a better level than last year. Thinking of time, I've run the course three times and, to me, it doesn't feel very different from last year. So I feel I can aim for a better time than last year."
Yoshida, who trains in Tokyo's public Yoyogi Park, said she competed in her first trail race in June. The 15-kilometre competition up and down a Gunma Prefecture mountain, she said, has her well prepared for any hills on the Saitama course.
Nasukawa, whose career best of 2:25:38 dates back to 2009, pulled out of last year's Saitama race due to injury, then tried to make the team to Rio at the final qualifying race in Nagoya. But she faded 37th place, killing her Olympic dreams.
"The selection meets for Rio were my last chance to make it to the Olympics, and the word was: 'Is Nasukawa going to retire?'" she said. "I was asked many times if I was going to retire. To me, that seemed like people were saying, 'She's still going?'
"That made me more determined to stick with it. Whether it's good or bad, my never giving up---to the point where everyone says, 'It's impossible'--is the way I want to run."
The 26-year-old Otagiri (PB 2:30:24), who finished eighth last year in Saitama, will be running her third full marathon this year. She is seen more as a project leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where the host country is looking to regain its glory in the marathon.
Ken Marantz for the IAAF