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【Athletics】London Marathon and World Cup:irst Victories for Wada (Men's) and Michishita (Women's)!

The London Marathon, a major international marathon, took place on April 23 in London, U.K., simultaneously with the "2017 World Para Athletics Marathon World Cup" for para athletes.
The event included five classifications for para athletes. Ten Japanese athletes (six men and four women) participated in the T11/12 class (visual impairment), the most of all countries. After a tough competition on the 42.195-kilometer course through the City of London, Japan took home a total of four medals (gold and bronze in both men's and women's) and showed the force of "Team Japan" to the entire world. Here is a report of the day.

Experienced runners Wada and Horikoshi end the race with mixed feelings, but everything leads to the next phase.

Shinya Wada, a T11 runner, took the men's victory with a time of 2:34:59. Wada was the bronze medalist in the 5,000-meter at the London Paralympics, and this was his first gold at an international marathon. At the 2011 and 2013 World Championships for T11 class runners, in which all runners have guide runners, Wada won the bronze and silver, respectively. At both the London and Rio Paralympics, however, Wada finished fifth. These were combined competitions in which T12 runners (visually impaired but run alone) also compete. In both cases, Wada was defeated by T12 runners.

Wada (left) and guide runner Nakata during the first half
(c) Virgin Money London Marathon

He seemed pleased, saying, "This is my first gold, and in a combined race, too. I am very happy. We were able to run just as we, my two guide runners (Takashi Nakata, Kazumitsu Imaki) and myself, planned. We ran at my own pace during the first half and gradually increased speed during the second half."

Last December, in the first Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championship he attended, he broke the Japan record with a time of 2:32:11, just 12 seconds shy of the world record. This time there was some expectation for another new record, but the course was full of curves and uneven ground, which can be hazardous for visually impaired runners because of the danger of tripping. He made the decision that it was "too difficult to try for a new record." He focused on competing against others and stayed in the second place, then gradually crept forward to overtake Yutaka Kumagai (T12) a little after the 30-kilometer mark. From there he kept his top spot until the end.

This was his second medal in London. "I think London likes me. I hope to return again in three months." In July the "2017 World Para Athletics World Championships" will be held in London. After returning to Japan, Wada hopes to achieve the qualifying standard time in a track event at the "Oita Para Athletics 2017" (May 6). "I am already in Oita in my mind." He is still passionate about competing on an international level.

Tadashi Horikoshi (T12) took bronze with a time of 2:39:57. Horikoshi has endured a series of setbacks—he won the bronze at the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships (London), but did not finish at the 2016 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon, and then sprained his ankle after bumping into a fellow runner and falling during the Rio Paralympics (he finished fourth).

Horikoshi (back left) from Japan, putting on a strong performance
(c) Virgin Money London Marathon

He attended this event wanting to "stop the negative cycle," and at least got third. He still stays positive, however, saying, "All failures are a good experience on the journey to the Tokyo Games."

Other Japanese results include Masato Hatate (T12) at fifth place, Satoru Yoneoka (T11) at sixth place and Masahiro Taniguchi (T11) at seventh place. Kumagai, last year's champion, was at the lead until the 30-kilometer mark, but he suddenly started to feel bad and lost his speed. Despite the struggle, he kept going with a strong will and finished tenth.

Rio silver medalist Michishita makes her first victory, and Nishijima makes a great recovery.

In the women's race, ace runner Misato Michishita (T12) made her first World Cup victory with a time of 3:00:50. She has been consistently among the top players since her silver at the same event in 2014, including bronze at the 2015 World Championships and sliver at the 2016 Rio Games, but this was her first gold. She showed happy tears with the words, "This is my first gold medal at an international event."

From left, guide runner Aoyama, Michishita, and guide runner Shida photo by Kyoko Hoshino

She caught up to a Spanish competitor at the 10-kilometer mark and gained the lead, and from then on did not let anyone close, only creating more distance between herself and others. She said, "I am satisfied that I was able to run assertively, creating my own race without being influenced by others." She also thanked her guide runners, Yuka Aoyama and Jun Shida, who let her run the way she wanted. Her strong first half created anticipation for a new world record (2:58:23), but this was not to be as it was a tough course and her condition was not in top notch due to an injury just before the race.

"I am a little disappointed because I was going for a world record, but everything is a good step towards the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. It is more fun when you have a goal, so I will try again." She has her eyes on the future and ended her comments with a smile.

Mihoko Nishijima (T12) took third place with a time of 3:19:31. This was a great revenge race for Nishijima who dropped out at the Rio Paralympics due to heatstroke. "I am very happy. My experience at Rio ended in that way, so this time I was determined to get a medal," she said with a smile.

Yumiko Fujii (T12) finished fourth, and Hiroko Kondo (T12) fifth.

Four medals get a score of "70 out of 100" for the high-performing Japan Team.

Kyohei Yasuda, coach of the Japan Team, gave Japan's performance at this event a "70 out of 100," despite the four medals, men's and women's combined. Reasons for lost points include the fact that the men did not snatch all three medals, and that most did not achieve the times they were aiming for. As for Wada and Michishita, he said they could have "run more daringly" and aimed for new records.

This harsh evaluation comes from his belief that Team Japan can do better. He admits that there were some concerns before the event, as many of the athletes were injured or not in tiptop condition due to overwork or changes in their daily environment. Nevertheless, everyone achieved results to a certain extent, and he said, "It is definitely one step towards the future."

The Japan Blind Marathon Association (JBMA) has had a team-based training program for many years. Coach Yasuda reads the training logs of all high performance program members scattered across Japan at least once a week, and there are on average one- to two-night training camps every month where new and seasoned athletes gather together to train and encourage each other's growth. The training camps may have up to 40 attendants, including guide runners, and offer not only running but also classroom learning and yoga. The aim is to collectively strengthen the mind, body and technique. This helps strengthen relations within the team, and it is how Team Japan has become strong.

Training guide runners, indispensable for visually impaired runners, is one of the recent focus issues of the JBMA. Guide runners who compete with athletes on an international level need to have a strong ability in running, even more so than the athlete, as well as high awareness and self-management skills. Coach Yasuda attended three Paralympic Games as a guide runner (Atlanta, Sydney and Athens), and often uses the term "competitive guide runner."

"For athletes, the guide runner cannot merely be someone who is easy to run with. The marathon is a numbers game. In order to run 42.195 kilometers at the target time, guide runners must know how to carefully set each one-kilometer lap and be able to accurately run it." The more trust-worthy guide runners there are, the stronger the team will be. They have had guide runners from university athletics clubs and former members of corporate organizations, but they want to "recruit more help from a more diverse pool of people."

Yasuda said this World Cup was not a qualifying event for the representative team and was a "good race in the sense that each runner revealed his or her current problems." As always, identified problems can be worked on, one at a time, in daily practice and at training camp. Team Japan will continue to run strong towards the greatest stage, the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by Getty Images Sport

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