Eiki Takahashi wins in Kobe (© JAAF)
Eiki Takahashi put his Olympic disappointment behind him to claim an impressive sixth Japanese Championship 20km title in Kobe on Sunday (20).
In a race minus Japan’s two Olympic medallists from Sapporo, it proved to be the slowest winning time in more than nine years. Not since 2013, when Yusuke Suzuki won in 1:19:02, has the winner finished outside 1:19:00, and Takahashi’s 1:19:04 laid testimony to a race won at a canter. That said, he didn’t need to work anything like as hard as any of the other five victories.
Once he tore open a gap at exactly half way, his biggest obstacle was the numerous lapped race walkers on the 1km loop on Rokko Island at the southern end of Kobe. Forced to weave in and out like a slalom skier, Takahashi still had more than a minute ahead of surprise second place, Hiroto Jusho.
A surprise because the race walker with a 1:20:46 PB, obtained on New Year’s Day in Tokyo last year, had been dropped at 12km despite going with the early pace. His rescue came in the shape of an enforced stop in the penalty zone for Yuta Koga at 16km. Those two minutes twiddling his thumbs saw Koga plummet from second to an eventual 10th.
The third man on the podium proved to be Tomohiro Noda, who had been uncoupled from the back of a leading trio as early as 6km but kept his head when others flagged.
A group of 10 led the charge from the gun, with all pre-race favourites bunched together. The single digit race numbers on their vests underlined the quality, with nearly all boasting PBs under 1:20:00. In fact, 2km was passed in a comfortable 7:54 – comfortable by these race walkers' standards.
However, a single lap later, that group of 10 became just three with four more hanging on to its coattails. Ryasuke Kondo was the outlier, with a best of 1:23:20, but the others, mostly wearing sunglasses in the chilly morning sun, looked to be cruising.
That ease proved to be illusory.
At exactly 5km, back markers were lapped for the first time, and one circuit later, it was down to just three at the front with Jusho bravely battling the two favourites. Takahashi and Koga were swapping the lead, with Jusho tucked in behind the two. 10km arrived in 39:23, and it was the trigger for the eventual winner, who took off the second he hit his watch to record the time. In less than 200m, the gap to the chasing pair grew close to 30m.
Anyone else was now close to a minute behind as the leader navigated past the rest of the field, and by now more than 2km ahead of those towards the back of a large 80-plus field. Slowly but surely, Koga inched away from Jusho and had nine seconds on him by 12km. But disaster struck for the former, and his race was effectively ended with the wave of a judge’s hand and into the penalty zone.
The top six then walked the last six circuits completely solo as big gaps appeared between each chasing athlete. Having to walk outside and pass four or five abreast may have cost Takahashi the chance to dip under 1:19:00, but unsurprisingly, he looked far more comfortable than a year ago when he finished second to Toshikazu Yamanishi in 1:18:03.
Yamanishi, the world champion and Olympic bronze medallist, has apparently altered his 2022 schedule and intends to make his season debut a bit later in the year, according to Japanese sources.
None of his Takahashi’s other Kobe triumphs have been outside 1:18:26, but today’s victory was still considerably faster than his 1:27:29 at the Olympics that left him distraught with a 32nd place at the finish. The 29-year-old now has a chance to rectify the wrongs of last August with a tilt at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22.
Right from the start of the women’s 20km, Kumiko Okada and Kaori Kawazoe stamped their authority.
Okada, the national record-holder from 2019 with 1:27:41, and sixth at the World Championships the same year, led the way with Kawazoe, who has a PB of 1:31:10 from Kobe three years ago. Okada hit 2km in 9:02, with her partner four seconds back, while a group of nine were already 30 seconds in arrears.
The third lap was decisive. Okada didn’t so much sprint as maintain the same 4:31 pace, but that was too much for her only challenger, who slipped back 14 seconds.
In a black vest and black arm warmers protecting her from the six-degree chill, Okada reached halfway in 45:22, more than a minute ahead of Kawazoe, who in turn was 32 seconds ahead of the chasing group, now whittled down to five. The gap grew all the time and the contrast between the first two was marked.
Okada looked totally in control all the way to the finish line in 1:33:28, and crossed without a hair out of place, while Kawazoe laboured the last 5km, and had just 17 seconds to spare over the fast-finishing Minori Yabuta, with just another six seconds between her and Hitomi Shamooka. By now, the early morning sun had dissipated and it looked even colder.
Okada had to settle for second in 2021 behind Nanako Fuji, but recorded 1:31:51 to the winner’s 1:30:45. Needless to say, she was a lot more comfortable this time.
Paul Warburton for World Athletics
1 Kumiko Okada 1:33:28
2 Kaori Kawazoe 1:35:38
3 Minori Yabuta 1:35:56
4 Hitomi Shimooka 1:36:02
5 Maika Yagi 1:36:11
1 Eiki Takahashi 1:19:04
2 Hiroto Jusho 1:20:14
3 Tomohiro Noda 1:20:24
4 Daisuke Matsunaga 1:21:23
5 Yutaro Murayama 1:21:47