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Joseph Gitau Takes Surprise Win in Fukuoka in 2:06:58

by Brett Larner

Click photo for Fukuoka video highlights courtesy of race broadcaster KBC.  Click here for lower-resolution stream.

click here for post-race comments from many of the top competitors in Fukuoka

Despite an expected duel between the debuting Martin Mathathi (Kenya/Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) and former world record holder Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia), completely unheralded Japan-based Kenyan Joseph Gitau (Team JFE Steel), with bests of only 1:01:19 and 2:21:54, stepped up to deal with all the major players' moves and deliver a masterful 2:06:58 win at the Dec. 2 Fukuoka International Marathon, one of the fastest winning times ever on the Fukuoka course.  2011 Daegu World Championships 7th-placer Hiroyuki Horibata (Team Asahi Kasei), coached by marathon great Takeshi Soh, scored one for the corporate leagues as he took down independent rivals Arata Fujiwara (Miki House) and Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref.) for 2nd in 2:08:24, short of the Federation's sub-2:08 World Championships qualifying standard but a PB by a minute and the second-fastest time of the year by a Japanese man.  Polish national record holder Henryk Szost, with the fastest time this year in the Fukuoka field, was solid again in his second Japanese marathon of 2012, 3rd in 2:08:42.

Both Mathathi and Gebrselassie dropped out in the last 10 km of the race along with at least a half dozen other foreign elites, while Fujiwara was 4th in 2:09:31 to become only the fifth Japanese man to go sub-2:10 five times, and Kawauchi 6th in 2:10:29.  Bunta Kuroki (Team Yasukawa Denki), a teammate of London Olympics marathon 6th-placer Kentaro Nakamoto, was a pleasant surprise as he lasted up front late into the race to hold on for 5th in a two-minute best of 2:10:08.  Four other runners, Mohamed Trafeh and Ryan Vail of the U.S.A., Cuthbert Nyasango (Zimbabwe) and Kota Noguchi (Team Toyota) rounded out the top ten with new bests, Noguchi the only one to miss breaking 2:12.

Paced by a group of five including top Kenyan 10000 m Olympian Bitan Karoki and past 1500 m/5000 m national champion Yuichiro Ueno of the soon-to-be-defunct Team S&B, the race went out at 3:01~3:03/km, slightly slower than typical but ideal for the Japanese World Championships hopefuls and most of the overseas elites in the large lead pack.  Through 30 km there was a little dramatic action outside a steady stream of rear-door exits including 2:07 Kenyan Isaac Macharia, 2012 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon winner Harun Njoroge (Kenya/Team Komori Corp.), 2011 World Championships team member Yoshinori Oda (Team Toyota) and more.  Kawauchi, looking calm and determined as he has not since his 2:08:37 breakthrough at the 2011 Tokyo Marathon, stayed up front beside Gebrselassie and Mathathi in the front row behind the pacers, Horibata staying in the second row with Szost and 2:07 Ukrainian Dmytro Baranovskyy and Fujiwara holding back near the rear of the group.  Kawauchi, 2008 World Half Marathon 5th-placer Yusei Nakao (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) and Moroccan-born American Trafeh slipped off the pack approaching 30 km, leaving only pacer Boniface Kirui (Kenya), Fujiwara, Gebrselassie, Gitau, Horibata, Kuroki, Mathathi and Szost up front.

With Kirui's departure at 30 km Horibata went to work.  Throwing in a surge that only Szost answered he opened a gap over the lead group.  Gebrselassie quickly worked back into contact, with the rest of the group joining them by the turnaround just past 31.5 km.  Horibata surged again, and like that he joined a select group including world record holder Patrick Makau (Kenya), Beijing Olympics silver medalist Jaouad Gharib (Morocco) and two-time New York City Marathon winner Marilson Dos Santos (Brazil) in leaving Gebrselassie behind on the side of the road.  Kuroki could not follow the move, and the lead pack was down to five.

Gitau briefly moved to the front but was eclipsed by a monster surge from Szost at 33.5 km, the move that made the race.  Only Gitau could respond. When he regained contact he went straight by into the lead, sailing on alone and steadily widening the gap to a 15-minute best of 2:06:58, the sixth-best winning time in Fukuoka history.  Szost drifted back toward Horibata, Mathathi and Fujiwara, but when he came in range Horibata surged again to go it alone.  Szost followed him as Mathathi and Fujiwara drifted back, but without warning Fujiwara staggered with the leg spasms that have hit him in many of his best races and lost touch with Mathathi.

As Horibata pushed on right on pace to break 2:08 he opened a gap on Szost, leaving everyone in the top ten running alone.  Fujiwara worked out his leg problem and settled into a cruising mode to meet his minimum pre-race goal of a sub-2:10, but just past 38 km came another surprise as Mathathi, looking fine until that point, pulled up and sat down on the curb.  From there on out nothing changed among the top five, Horibata and Fujiwara coming in to give Japan its ninth and tenth sub-2:10 performances of the year, an achievement only Kenya, Ethiopia and Japan have ever reached.  Horibata also had the distinction of being the fifth Japanese man sub-2:09 this year.

Kuroki was noteworthy in 5th, lacking the gear at this stage in his career to answer Horibata's move but looking like he was doing a relaxed jog as he continued a progression from 2:14:37 in Nobeoka last year to 2:12:10 in Tokyo this year to 2:10:08 in Fukuoka.  His teammate Nakamoto has had a similar progression that has taken him from 2:13:54 in Nobeoka in 2008 to 2:08:53 and 6th in the Olympics this year.  Kuroki could be another big up-and-comer on the Japanese scene.  In 6th, Kawauchi, struggling hard over the last third of the race, ran down Nakao and Trafeh as he characteristically closed hard with the second-fastest final 2.195 km in the field.

Vail was a surprise, the only man in the top ten to come up from the second pack after being paced by Canadian Olympian Reid Coolsaet.  All told, the shape and international atmosphere of the race hearkened back to Fukuoka's glory days as the world championships of marathoning, half the top ten hailing from overseas and many more deeper in the field.  If only Fukuoka truly lived up to the International Open Marathon part of its full name and made any effort at all to be open to international fan interest.

Gitau is a welcome addition to the circuit, his 2:06:58 outshining the wins of the more accomplished Japan-based Kenyans Josphat Ndambiri (Team Komori Corp.) and Samuel Ngungu (Team Aichi Seiko) at last year's Fukuoka and this year's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon.  Horibata fell just short of the Federation's 2:07:59 World Championships standard, but with a more serious effort to meet the standard than was in evidence at among the women at last month's Yokohama International Women's Marathon, a quality performance that took down almost all the competition and a solid track record, they'd be crazy not to put him on the team.  Fujiwara joins select company in having five sub-2:10 performances, along with greats Takeyuki Nakayama, Atsushi Sato and Toshihiko Seko.  Only national record holder Toshinari Takaoka has more, with six.  That is on the menu for Fujiwara in Tokyo in February.  For Kawauchi, there is Hofu in two weeks.

2012 Fukuoka International Marathon
Fukuoka, 12/2/2012
click here for complete results and splits

1. Joseph Gitau (Kenya/Team JFE Steel) - 2:06:58 - PB
2. Hiroyuki Horibata (Team Asahi Kasei) 2:08:24 - PB
3. Henryk Szost (Poland) - 2:08:42
4. Arata Fujiwara (Miki House) - 2:09:31
5. Bunta Kuroki (Team Yasukawa Denki) - 2:10:08 - PB
6. Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref.) - 2:10:29
7. Mohamed Trafeh (U.S.A.) - 2:11:41 - PB
8. Ryan Vail (U.S.A.) - 2:11:45 - PB
9. Cuthbert Nyasango (Zimbabwe) - 2:11:48 - PB
10. Kota Noguchi (Team Toyota) - 2:12:24 - PB
11. Dmytro Baranovskyy (Ukraine) - 2:13:23
12. Tim Nelson (U.S.A.) - 2:14:09 - PB
13. Scott Overall (GBR) - 2:14:15
14. Harun Njoroge (Kenya/Team Komori Corp.) - 2:14:34
15. Takeshi Makebe (Team Kurosaki Harima) - 2:15:02
16. Yusei Nakao (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:15:11
17. Chiharu Takada (Team JR Higashi Nihon) - 2:16:25
18. Tomoyuki Kawakami (Team Hitachi Logistics) - 2:16:47
19. Yasuyuki Yamamoto (Team JFE Steel) - 2:17:00
20. Tomoya Shimizu (Team Sagawa Express) - 2:18:46
21. Ryan Bak (U.S.A.) - 2:18:47
22. Akiyuki Iwanaga (Team Kyudenko) - 2:18:49
23. Sho Matsumoto (Dream AC) - 2:18:59 - PB
24. Mahoro Ikeda (Team Aichi Seiko) - 2:19:45 - debut
25. Muga Hamazaki (Yamanashi T&F Assoc.) - 2:21:01
DNF - Simon Bairu (Canada)
DNF - Jesse Cherry (U.S.A.)
DNF - Franck De Almeida (Brazil)
DNF - Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia)
DNF - Satoshi Irifune (Team Kanebo)
DNF - Andrew Lemoncello (GBR)
DNF - Isaac Macharia (Kenya)
DNF - Martin Mathathi (Kenya/Suzuki Hamamatsu AC)
DNF - James Mwangi (Kenya/Team NTN)
DNF - Cyrus Njui (Kenya/Team Hitachi Logistics)
DNF - Brent Vaughan (U.S.A.)

(c) 2012 Brett Larner
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