Japanese race walker Eiki Takahashi (© AFP/Getty Images)
Eiki Takahashi was an emphatic winner of the 45th All Japan race on a grey, steely Sunday (21) morning in Nomi.
The rain was steady, but so was the winner’s pace.
Even when 50km specialist Masatora Kawano made a bid for glory early on, the sunglass wearing Takahashi remained suitably cool to reel in the rash charge.
In normal times, the race would also have been the Asian Championships, but for the second year running, the global pandemic forced it to become a swift domestic contest, in which Toshikazu Yamanishi was a notable absence.
The bespectacled world champion had already won in Kobe last month; a race in which Takahashi had to settle for second best. As he crossed the line behind Yamanishi in Kobe, he looked spent. This time, there was a faint smile as Takahashi came home in a modest 1:20:19. It was runner-up Kawano who suffered.
Clutching his chest at the end, he half staggered off the course.
But he had every reason to.
The Japanese 50km record holder at 3:36:45 has booked his Olympic place at the longer distance, and clearly had nothing to lose as he made an easy bid for a rare 20km win.
It came to nothing, but with world champion, Yusuke Suzuki in tandem, Japan will make a strong two-man bid in Sapporo.
It quickly became a four-man race halfway through the first 1km lap, and even that was reduced a circuit later when three-time Nomi winner Daisuke Matsunaga surprisingly came off the back at a rate of knots. He was destined to pull out a short time later.
In fact, the following large group soon swallowed up a walker with a PB 1:17:46 from 2018.
The three leaders became a pair at 4km which was hardly surprising.
The first lap had been 3:50, and served as a reminder that even without Yamanishi there was still plenty of talent.
Yuta Koga, who also raced in Kobe, and set a PB 1:18:42 on this course 12 months ago, was in arrears by 10 seconds at 5km passed by the leaders in 19:49.
Halfway through lap seven, Kawano visibly went through the gears to leave Takahashi seemingly adrift.
It came as no shock to see the circuit timed at 3:46, the fastest of the race, and for around five minutes that breakaway appeared decisive.
But Kawano was already weaving right and left to lap back markers strung out across the road, and this may have had something to do with his shadow’s second wind.
Either way, the pair were joined at the hip again by 8km, and passed halfway in 39:41, with Koga already 40 seconds behind.
It was raining more intently by now, and Takahashi was stretching the elastic inch by inch.
At 12km, he increased the pace by a mere two seconds but it was enough to force daylight, as overcast and dismal as it was. A lap later and Kawano was starting to throw his head back in a bid to get air into his lungs. That was enough for the eventual winner.
Off he went down the road, not so much charging to the front, but biding his time with steady laps clicking back and forth between 3:58 and 3:59.
Takahashi hit 15km in 59:37, with Kawano losing a heady 19 seconds over just two circuits.
By now Koga was nearly two minutes back for third. He would finish an isolated bronze ahead of Motofumi Suwa, who just held off Hiroto Jusho for fourth.
The leader shed his glasses at 17km, but he also slowed the average pace by four seconds a lap, secure in the knowledge of a solid win.
He even allowed himself the luxury of a 4:11 penultimate lap, slow by the standards of Japan’s finest. His PB, 1:17:26 from 2018 was never threatened, and a tilt at Suzuki’s world record 1:16:36 set in Nomi in 2015 is for another day.
But Takahashi’s home run on a course bordering the Neagari baseball field was duly deserved.
Likewise, Kawano has gone faster at 20km, 1:17:24 on this course in 2019, but he has other fish to fry at the Olympics.
For the record, Japan has chosen Suzuki and Kawano for the Olympic 50km. Yamanishi, Takahashi and Koki Ikeda at the men’s 20km.
Kawazoe takes women's title
The home nation's women will be represented by Kumiko Okada and Nanako Fujii for the women’s 20km - neither of whom raced here.
The real drama in this contest was saved for the last 5km when Kaori Kawazoe came from a long way back to overtake both a tiring Nami Hayashi and Minori Yabuta and win in 1:36:54.
In fact, eventual first across the line was 40 seconds behind Hayashi at half way (47:57) and still had 25 seconds to make up by three-quarter distance.
However, Kawazoe had saved best until last to hammer the last 5km in 23:56. By contrast, the pair in front looked as if they were walking through treacle in the final three kilometres.
Hayashi prevailed to take silver in 1:38:32 - last split, 26:39 - and while Yabuta went faster (26:15), her earlier effort had long since taken its toll. She finished in 1:39:13 - more than two minutes behind the winner.
Paul Warburton for World Athletics