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Tokyo Marathon 2019 Wheelchair Races: A Champion’s Intuition Against Rainy-Day Conditions

Tokyo Marathon 2019, which featured a 42.195km course that spanned the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to Gyoko-dori, was held on March 3. Marcel Hug (Switzerland) claimed victory for the first time in the Men’s Wheelchair event amidst tough conditions, coming in with a time of 1:30:44 and making up for his loss two years ago, when he’d been overtaken in the final sprint. In the end, the entire winners’ podium was comprised of foreign athletes, with Daniel Romanchuk (U.S.) coming in second, and Ernst Van Dyk (South Africa) coming in third. Coming in highest amongst the Japanese athletes was Kota Hokinoue, who came in fourth with a time of 1:35:39. Hiroyuki Yamamoto, who had finished just one second ahead to claim first place in the previous Tokyo Marathon, came in ninth, while Tomoki Suzuki, who had come in second in the same tournament, came in sixth.

The Tokyo Marathon & Abbott World Marathon Majors Series XII was held in rainy conditions

Preparation, Strategy, and a Champion’s Intuition

Conditions for the marathon were decidedly poor. The course, wet with rain, had become slippery, and the temperature at the start of the race was 5.7 degrees Celsius, dropping to below 5 degrees by the end of the race. “It was colder than I’d expected—to the point where I lost all feeling in my fingertips by the 5km mark. The later it got in the race, the more I felt chilled,” reflected Masazumi Soejima, Race Director, who himself competed in the marathon. The race was a tough one, and in the end, 11 men out of 26 and 2 women out of 7 were forced to drop out. Many of the athletes who made it to the end were shivering after reaching the goal.

The key factors in this race, then, were how well the athletes were able to handle the weather, and how well they were able to perform in the first half of the race. This was plainly evident in the words of the athletes after they had finished the race.

You move forward on a racing wheelchair by grabbing the outer rims (hand rims) of the back wheel with your gloved hands, and pushing forward. The efficiency of this action—known as a “catch”—greatly affects your speed. Thus, when it rains, athletes have to take proper measures to prevent their gloves from slipping on the rim. This can be done in various ways, from modifying the gloves to using globes made of more slip-proof material.

“It was a difficult race, and what really helped me out was having good gloves. We’ve tweaked my gloves and hand rims so I can get a better grip, which means I’m good at rainy-day races,” said Men’s Wheelchair champion Hug. Hokinoue, who came in highest amongst the Japanese athletes, said something similar, telling us, “It wasn’t supposed to rain during the wheelchair race, but in the morning the clouds looked pretty ominous, so we took some rainy-day measures. In my case that means putting cloth and rosin on my gloves.” These are factors unique to a wheelchair marathon.

Another factor that is very important when conditions are as poor as in this tournament is mental preparedness. Said Hokinoue, “Everyone’s under the same conditions. I knew there’d be some people who would feel discouraged because of the rain, and I knew to give off this air of ‘It doesn’t bother me at all.’ I was pretty aware of the importance of that kind of detailed mental strategy.”

Another important factor was how well the athletes performed in the first half of the race. In the Men’s Wheelchair race, Van Dyk—who came in aggressively from the beginning—was followed by Hug and Romanchuk. Throughout the race, there were small clusters of people dotted across the course. The top Japanese contenders all found themselves in the second and third clusters, and in the end, the results were pretty much decided in the first half of the race.

“Usually in the Tokyo Marathon, there’s large clusters of people. This gives you a disadvantage at the end when you’re trying to sprint, so I wanted to get out in front as much as possible in the first half,” said Van Dyk, who had an enormous influence on the flow of the race.

Ernst Van Dyk (front) had an enormous influence on the flow of the race

Around the 20km point, however, Hug went into action. “I’d already decided that I’d do it there. I tried all kinds of techniques and went for it multiple times,” he said. And indeed, he made a number of small strategic moves, pushing forward and ahead of Van Dyk and Romanchuk. Around the 25km point, he sped up even more, pulling ahead of the pack. When he passed the goal line, he was about three and a half minutes ahead of the others—an extensive gap.

When you look at the athletes’ times in 5km increments, you see that while the others slowed down after the midpoint of the race, Hug managed to keep his slowdown at a minimum. The small-cluster scenario created by Van Dyk, and the slowdown of his rivals due to the poor conditions meant Hug had no need for a final sprint. Indeed, he went across the finish line well ahead and all by himself.

Marcel Hug, Champion of All Major Marathons

With this victory in the Tokyo Marathon, Hug became the only athlete to have been crowned champion in all wheelchair races of the world’s major marathons (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York City).

Marcel Hug claimed victory in the marathon under tough conditions

The accolades were not limited to Hug. Romanchuk, who came in second, had—at only 20 years old—battled Hug for the crown in the World Marathon Majors (WMM), a series comprised of all six of the aforementioned tournaments. Having completed this tournament, he has now competed in all major marathons in the world. And in the Women’s Wheelchair event, Manuela Schar (Switzerland) came in first for the second time in a row, marking her fourth victory in the WMM. Schar has also dominated the series races. Tatyana McFadden (U.S.), who came in second, competes in everything from 100m races to full marathons, and has racked up gold medals in the Paralympics, world championships, and many major marathons. Though it is impossible to compare the two sports directly, it is hard to imagine there being these kinds of legendary athletes in the world of able-bodied athletics.

World-record holder Manuela Schar (center) came in first, and Tatyana McFadden (left) came in second

The aforementioned Hokinoue, who came in seventh in the Men’s Marathon event in the Rio 2016 Paralympics, commented on the Men’s top three in this tournament.

“Races can be divided roughly into four parts—uphill, downhill, flat/high-speed, and the goal sprint. And before, every person had parts they were good at and parts they were bad at. But these three are good at all of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining and it’s harder to get a grip—the winners will always win, no matter what condition. It’s less like there’s a specific reason I lost, and more like there’s just a significant discrepancy in skill. Since Rio, I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error to improve my positioning (sitting posture), form, and gloves. I knew I couldn’t win, doing the things I’ve done in the past, and I knew I had to start over from scratch. If I’m able to earn the right to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics, I’m thinking of doing a thorough check of the course, and using everything it offers—uphill, downhill, corners, everything—to get myself a victory.”

Though the course for the Paralympics will be different, this year’s Tokyo Marathon, held under tough conditions only a year before the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, was a dose of reality for many of the athletes. From measures against poor weather to strategies to combat different race scenarios, this was a race that asked a lot of its athletes.

Hug clearing the goal line, with Tokyo Station as backdrop

text by Naoto Yoshida

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