Tokyo ready to welcome the world

SERIES XV of the Abbott World Marathon Majors begins this Sunday in what feels like rebirth for the Tokyo Marathon as one of the greatest 26.2-mile races on the planet.
It’s not since 2019 that this enormous, heaving city of 37 million people has been able to throw its doors open and welcome the world here to run.
Runners clad in race jackets from the other five AbbottWMM events have been flooding into the expo halls at Tokyo Big Sight, the towering futuristic venue for bib pickup, all week. It’s a reassuring signal that the city and its flagship road race are back in full sound and color.
This year’s race marks the comeback of the overseas masses – and a Six Star Finisher Guinness World Record into the bargain – but for the elite athletes, it’s a chance to see if they can match up to the incredible standards set here in 2022.
One year ago, Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei decimated the men’s and women’s course records on a crisp, clear morning. Their marks of 2:02:40 and 2:16:02 are now the benchmark for 2023’s invited professionals.
Leading the charge on the women’s side is Ethiopia’s Ashete Bekere, who will start as race favorite on Sunday as she bids to go one better than her second place in 2022.
Bekere finished in 2:17:58, a personal best, and declared in Friday’s press conference that something in the 2:16 range was possible this weekend if conditions permit.
This year she faces another Kenyan threat in Rosemary Wanjiru, whose PB of 2:18 was set in Berlin in 2022 and suggests a close race between the two.

In a strong women's field, there are four more women with PBs under 2:19, which means a healthy-sized pack could be in close proximity as the race nears its conclusion.
The men’s leading contender is Sisay Lemma, the 2021 London champion: “I have been doing very intensive training,” he said. “I hope I can set a new personal best. I know it will be an outstanding race for all of us.”
Ethiopian Lemma hinted that a sub 2:04 finish could be on the cards if the leading men are carried to 30km by the pacemakers in good shape. He ran 2:03:36 in Berlin in 2019, in the same race where his countryman Kenenisa Bekele ran him down in the final kilometres to win in  2:01:41.
Kenya’s Bernard Koech is likely to provide stiff opposition. The 35-year-old’s fastest time to date is 2:04:09, set in Amsterdam in 2021, and he is intent on giving a better account of himself than he managed in his last appearance in Tokyo. “I’ve been consistent in training and I’m injury free, and I have unfinished business here,” he said. “I did not finish in 2017 due to health issues.”

There are eight men who have run under 2:05 including home-grown Kengo Suzuki, whose contest with countryman Suguru Osako will be an intriguing sub-plot as the Japanese athletes jostle for places in their Marathon Grand Championship, which will decide who will travel to the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

The elite wheelchair races also herald the start of the new AbbottWMM series.
Marcel Hug is in town to begin the defence of his series title. He won here in 2022 by a large margin, and was asked in front of the media by the ever-jovial Johnboy Smith if he wouldn’t mind giving everyone else a chance on Sunday.
There is little danger of Hug feeling charitable, but he is experienced enough to know there are variables that could turn the form book on its head once the race gets underway.
One new twist on the course is the change in position of the AbbottWMM bonus point contest. This year it has moved to the 10km point, which could spark an early dust-up among a large pack of racers.
“I think it will be very exciting,” said Hug. “I really like the course and the bonus point is a very important part of the race. There might be a sprint there so I have to be at the front of pack for that.
“I am aware that at some time I will be beaten. I can’t win every race. At one point there will be an athlete who can beat me.”
Looking for her first victory in the Tokyo Marathon is Australia’s Madison de Rozario, who conquered all on the roads to take Paralympic gold here in 2021 but has less fond memories of this race, where she failed to finish in the freezing, wet weather in 2019.

De Rozario is now racing in a chair made by the same manufacturer as the one that has carried Hug to such resounding successes since he adopted it in 2021. Tokyo will be her first 26.2-mile race in the machine.
She is up against two-time Tokyo champion Manuela Schär, whose season was affected by illness and injury last year and has not won a race since Boston last April.
Series XIV champion Susannah Scaroni has not travelled due to illness.
“The marathon is so tricky,” said de Rozario. “Sometimes you go in with a plan and if someone else has a different one, you have to go with that. Manuela goes out hard steady and drops us one by one, she’s an incredible woman to race with, so that will be a big factor.
“That’s one of the most interesting things; no matter how much you plan, you have to think on the spot. I could have all the plans in the world and have to change them on Sunday morning.”

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