Atsede Baysa wins the 2015 Saitama International Marathon (© Getty Images / AFP)
Like the song goes, it felt like the first time; that's how Ethiopia's Atsede Baysa described ending a three-year title drought by winning the inaugural Saitama International Marathon, an IAAF Silver Label Road Race, on Sunday (15).
Baysa made her move out of the leading group of three about 32 kilometres into the race and then pushed on and won by almost three minutes in 2:25:44.
Japan's Kaori Yoshida finished second in 2:28:43, with Kenya's Rebecca Chesire third in 2:29:11.
"I had been troubled by an injury for a long time, but today, I had no problems, I could relax and was able to finish the race," said Baysa, who had been plagued with a hamstring injury. "It's like I won my first marathon."
The 28-year-old's first triumph came in Istanbul in 2007, and she went on to win back-to-back titles in Paris in 2009 and 2010, and then Chicago in 2012, where she ran her PB of 2:22:03.
The victory in Saitama, a city of 1.2 million about 30 kilometres north of Tokyo, ended a run of mediocre results this year. She was just 17th in Dubai in January and a relatively modest eighth in Paris in April.
One place Baysa is now looking to make her mark is at a global championship.
She has twice appeared at an IAAF World Championships, but finished 27th in Berlin in 2009 and 11th in Daegu in 2011.
She said she is unsure if Sunday's win will be enough to earn her a ticket to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games but would relish the chance to make the trip to Brazil next summer.
"I don't know, there are many strong rivals, and some might have better times than me," she said. "If one does not come out, then I have a chance. But I don't know if I will be chosen."
Baysa said Japan has always had a special place in heart, as she made her marathon debut in Nagano back in 2006, when she placed fifth.
There were many unknowns going into the first edition of the mass participation race, which featured a women's-only elite field and replaced the Yokohama International Women's Marathon on the international marathon circuit.
Most of all were the many undulations along the course as it followed overpasses, but Baysa said the hills were not a problem.
"I heard there were up and downhills, but to me it wasn't that difficult," she added.
Chesire, the 2013 Istanbul winner, had a different opinion. "It was very tough, because the course is very hard," she said. "By 33 (kilometres), I decided to go at my own pace because it was very hard."
Yoshida, a 34-year-old who has long been on the fringe of the Japanese elite, lost contact with both Baysa and Chesire, but came back to pass the Kenyan with less than two kilometres left.
"It would have been better if I was a little more aggressive," said Yoshida, who was second in this summer's Hokkaido Marathon. "I need to have a stronger will in my next race."
Yoshida enhances her Olympic options
With the race also serving as the first of three domestic women's qualifiers for Japan's team to Rio, Yoshida helped her cause by finishing ahead of the other Japanese, including former national record-holder Yoko Shibui.
"I had aimed to become the top Japanese, so I'm happy about that," she said. "But there is a difference between first and second. So finishing second is disappointing. I was also second in the Hokkaido Marathon. I'll aim to win the Tokyo Marathon."
The 36-year-old Shibui, who lost contact with the leaders at about 29 kilometres, finished fourth in 2:31:06, followed by Japan-based Kenyan Winfredah Kebaso in 2:32:08.
Even with the slow beginning pace (despite the two pacesetters), the group of 13 invited runners lost two members early as Japan's Aki Otagiri and Natassia Ivanova of Belarus fell back within the first two kilometres.
After going through the 5km split in 17:27, the top group was soon winnowed down to eight as Japan's Emi Nakazato and Poland's Agnieska Mierzejewska dropped back. Mierzejewska would stop running at just before the 11km checkpoint.
The next ones to drop out of contention, after 10 kilometres were Kenya's Sylvia Kibet, a two-time World Championships 5000m medallist who was among the favourites despite running only her second career marathon, and Ethiopia's Askale Tafa.
The remaining group of six stayed in a tight pack and passed the halfway point in 1:13:12 before the course flattened out for the next eight kilometres.
At the course's highest rise as it went up a railroad overpass at about 29 kilometres, Kebaso became the first to fold, with Shibui and Ethiopia's Meselech Melkamu, a late addition to the field, soon following suit.
At 30km, Shibui and Kebaso were more than 10 seconds behind the top trio of Yoshida, Chesire and Baysa, and it just seemed a matter of who was going to make a move and when.
Baysa left the Kenyan behind for good at 32 kilometres, pulling away for a solo run back to Saitama Super Arena.
"I just went with everyone else at the beginning and started increasing my speed," said Baysa. "When the two others were gone, I knew I would win."
At the post-race press conference, Baysa invited the Japanese media to check out a YouTube video of her singing an original Ethiopian song.
Maybe now she'll think about covering the famous Foreigner anthem from the 1970s.
A correspondent for the IAAF