The Unofficial World Championship Marathon — “Fukuoka”

Dec. 7, 2020 — It’s been almost 30 years since I lived in the US, but when the first week of December comes around, I get excited. I grew up watching Fukuoka Marathon. Recently, I got connected with the ultramarathon legend, Frank Bozanich on Facebook. He shared with me the picture of him warming up with Akio Usami in the 1975 Fukuoka Marathon. “You may enjoy this,” he said. I’d say!! I was actually quite impressed!! Usami was the first Japanese to win this “local” marathon. It was the fifth Fukuoka International Marathon in 1970 in then Japanese national record of 2:10:37 (first sub-2:11 by Japanese). I was in the 5th grade and it was such a big deal we actually even talked about it in the class!!

The first time Japanese sent its Olympic team was in 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games. The team consisted of 2 athletes; Yohiko Mishima (400m) and Shizo Kanaguri (marathon). Mishima was eliminated in the heat; and Kanaguri dropped out after 16-miles. Kanaguri was so disappointed, when he went back to Japan, he gathered a group of people and worked on setting up ways to produce the Olympic marathon champion some day. He founded famed Hakone Ekiden Road Relay; and he also founded a marathon race in his home prefecture (state) of Kumamoto, located in the southern island of Japan, Kyushu, as the Kanaguri Cup Asahi International Marathon (the race’s main sponsor was one of the biggest newspapers in Japan, Asahi Newspaper). The first race was run on December 7, 1947. The first race over Fukuoka course was run in 1951; and first time they invited top international runners in 1954. Lydiard’s runners had some memorable performances as well. Barry Magee, fresh from his bronze medal performance at Rome, became the first man to go sub-2:20 in Japanese soil in 1960; and in 1963, run as a part of Pre-Olympic Games over the same course run in the Olympic Games in the following year, was won by Jeff Julian. With this convincing performance, Julian was nicknamed “King Julian” by Japanese media; when New Zealand Olympic team arrived at Haneda airport in 1964, nobody cared about the defending champions, Snell or Halberg; they all rushed to Julian!!

In 1966, the course now was located permanently in Fukuoka-city, starting and finishing at Heiwa-dai Stadium, and the race became the International Open Marathon Championships (at first, the name “Fukuoka” was not included) and it was IAAF recognized un-official marathon championships. To be true to the title, they always tried to bring in the best of the best. The race is run on the first Sunday of December, and they invite top marathon runner from each continent; fastest runner of that year and, if it’s Commonwealth Games or Olympic Games year, the winner of the Games. In order to participate, you have to run faster than 2:25 for the marathon. In 1971, Frank Shorter, his first of 4 consecutive victories, before the race said to his teammate, the second place finisher in the previous race, Kenny Moore: “You know, the winner of this race really will be the favorite in Munich (Olympics in 1972)…”. The first champion was yet another Lydiard-trained Kiwi runner, Mike Ryun.

From left; Derek Clayton (history’s first sub-2:10) in 1967; Bill Adcocks in 1968; Jerome Drayton in 1969, ’75 and ’76; Ron Hill — the best Hill could do was 2nd place in 1969

History’s first sub-2:10 marathon was run the following year, in 1967, by then totally unknown Australian runner, Derek Clayton with 2:09:36. You can see the names of who’s-who in the world of marathoning in the list of participants at Fukuoka in the 1970s and 1980s. Ryun, Clayton, Jerome Drayton (’69, ’75, ‘76), Bill Adcocks (‘68)…. Heck, even great Ron Hill didn’t get to win (second place behind Drayton in 1969)!! And the competition always consisted of runners from Russia, East German, other European countries, Down-Under…. Japan’s Kunimitsu Ito was another great runner who never got the ultimate crown. He was competing in the era of Toshihiko Seko and the Soh Brothers. In 1981, Seko opted to skip Fukuoka. It was Ito’s chance!! From nowhere came this big man, Robert de Castella of Australia, setting then the “official” world record time of 2:08:18 and denied him of championship. In 1982, once again, no Seko and, this time, no Deek!! Then complete unknown (again) Kiwi, Paul Ballinger, set the NZ record of 2:10:15 and pushed Ito down to the 4th place. Consider this: when Alberto Salazar, cocky Cuban-born American with then the world marathon record of 2:08:13 (later the course was found to be 150m short), came to this fast Fukuoka course, flirting the idea of breaking his own world record. That was 1983 and Fukuoka served as Japanese Olympic Trial to decide 3 runners to represent Japan for the following year’s Los Angeles Olympic marathon. It turned out ALL these 3 Japanese runners, plus Tanzania’s Juma Ikangaa, finished ahead of Salazar!! Talk about the shell-shock!!

Frank Shorter of USA won 4 consecutive Fukuoka championships

America’s Frank Shorter was the winningest marathon runner of the 1970s. He won Fukuoka Marathon 4 times out of 4 starts (1971, ‘72, ‘73 and ‘74). Another North American great, Canada’s Jerome Drayton would win the next 2 (’75 and ’76) and then another American, Bill Rodgers (1977). Rodgers pretty much monopolized the title, “the King of the Road” at that time; he had won Kyoto Marathon earlier that year along with 5 other full-marathons that year. Fukuoka was his 6th and you could see he was a tad tired!! Nevertheless, he led pretty much the whole way and, even stopped and sipped some water 2km to go and still no problem winning it in the year’s leading time of 2:10:55. I still have newspaper clip (of coruse, Asahi Newspaper!!) from Rodgers’ 1977 Fukuoka win 43 years later!! The images of Shorter and Rodgers were so imprinted in my memories; these two figures had remained as my “running heroes” to this day.

A couple of days ago, I received a text message from one of these high school heroes; Bill Rodgers. He asked me about this weekend’s Fukuoka Marathon. He is a big fan and the student of the sport himself; whenever there’s a major marathon in Japan, I usually keep him informed, if not live-stream text messages, the coverage of the race. Last year, when they had what they call MGC (=Marathon Grand Championships) Olympic Trial, I sent him the link to watch the race and I was texting him continuously of who’s who and what’s going on. “Do you think Fukuoka is #2 marathon in Japan behind maybe Tokyo?” he asked. “Well,” I replied, “unfortunately, Fukuoka lost a lot of credibility…. This year, because of COVID issue, there’s no invited foreign runners (except for a few Kenyan runners who live in Japan and “work” for a Japanese company and a couple of Kenyan “pacers”). There’s no “mass” recreational runners and, top-ranked Yuma Hattori, who had made the Japanese Olympic team for Tokyo Olympics, had pulled out due to a leg problem. “There will be only some 40 domestic runners…,” I told Bill. Since mid-1980s, fast course and big bucks hit the road and megalopolis marathons for mass runners attracted thousands of runners to be a part of “world-record breaking” marathons. Just as Boston faced in the mid-1980s, because Fukuoka refused to offer prize money (although they offered hefty appearance fee), top ranked fast runners tend to ignore Fukuoka. True to the title of “Championships”, Fukuoka’s original course was not necessarily designed for a fast time — it included going out in the Umi-no-nakamichi Peninsula which often brings strong wind but that was perfect for “competition”. Now, in order to survive with other record-setting marathons, they had no choice but change this traditional course to going around the city of Fukuoka in a rectangle shape to avoid headwind.

Actually, I was happy to have been wrong. A young 23-year-old Yuya Yoshida ran the second fastest Japanese time at Fukuoka Marathon of 2:07:05 and took his first title. He was a decent, but not necessarily outstanding, collegiate runner at Aoyama-gakuin University. He competed at prestigious Hakone Ekiden road relay but he was actually going to stop competitive running after he graduated college. As his own graduation “present”, he decided to run a full-marathon as a senior. He ended up running 2:08, the second fastest debut marathon as a Japanese. So he decided to keep on just a little longer to see what happens. So this is what happened — he ended up winning this prestigious Fukuoka Marathon to line up as one of the Japanese Fukuoka champions like Toshihiko Seko and Akio Usami. (anybody interested in watching the race coverage, click HERE).

So despite COVID fiasco, the 74th Fukuoka Marathon in 2020 delivered the exciting performance true to its title. Yet, Bill Rodgers texted me first thing Sunday morning, asking: “I saw the results of Valencia Marathon (at a well-known running website) but there’s nothing about Fukuoka. Do you have the results?” Pity. Back in October, Fukuoka Marathon was awarded with Heritage designation by World Athletics. Even during the coverage (if you decided to watch the whole thing, you’ll see!!) Sebastian Coe made a short video clip to honor the event. Surely, managing the marathon is very different and not an easy task. Arthur Lydiard called Fukuoka Marathon “a true championship marathon” that starts and finish on the track. Of course, because of that, you cannot bring in thousands of mass runners; hence, you cannot bring in the kind of $$$ other mass marathons do. The Marathon Race didn’t use to have “world record”. The fastest time was recognized as the “world best” time simply because you cannot compare. The weather condition, the type of the course, etc., make a big difference in the marathon performance. Yet, many people, even including some semi-experts, are only after super-fast times. There is a lot more to “competition” than simply time-trial-like fast time. It’s man against man; runner against runner. That’s what makes it thrilling. Fukuoka Marathon has always provided that in the 1970s and 80s.

2003 Fukuoka Marathon saw one of the most exciting competitions in history. It served as 2004 Athens Olympic Marathon Trial for Japan — as it did for 1979 (for Moscow), 1983 (for LA), and 1987 (for Seoul). Incidentally, for 2007, Fukuoka even served as a part of Kenyan Olympic Trial — the winner of Fukuoka, Samuel Wanjiru, actually went on and claim the Olympic title in the following year in Beijing. But for this instance in 2003, three men, Kunichika (left), Suwa (middle) and then Japan’s national record holder (2:06:16), Takaoka battled it out in the final 5km. All 3 of them ran 2:07s, all finished within 7 seconds. That was true competition; real Spirit of Fukuoka Marathon!! Incidentally, Takaoka organized a Lydiard clinic for Japanese corporate team coaches in 2015. Both Kunichika and Suwa, who were then coaches, attended. I was the speaker/instructor; but I couldn’t help but ask for autograph for all these 3 guys!! ;o). For the past 74 running, “Fukuoka of the World”, as fondly known among Japanese, has produced many memorable “competition”. Hopefully its legacy will continue and it will be recognized as “Fukuoka of the World” in many more years to come. — Nobby Hashizume