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New Records, Challenges, Revivals, Revenge: Drama at the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon

The Oita International Wheelchair Marathon—an annual late fall event—was held on November 17, with a course that started in front of the Oita Prefecture Office and ended at the River Stadium. For the Men’s and Women’s Marathon events (T34/53/54), the marathon also served as the qualifier for the 2020 World Para Athletics Marathon Championships, which lead into the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games—a fact that led to significant emotional turmoil over the course of the race.

An Extremely High-Speed Women’s Marathon, as the Top Three All Break the Previous World Record

World record holder Schär smiling for the camera

“At 1 hour 35 minutes and 42 seconds, Manuela Schär comes in with a world record!”

The announcement echoed through the stadium as wheelchair racers rushed past the finish line, one after the other. Hearing the news, former world record holder Wakako Tsuchida smiled happily, clapping and congratulating Schär.

Schär, who finished first in the Women’s event, was neck to neck with Japan’s Tsubasa Kina and Susannah Scaroni of the U.S. at the beginning of the race, but had jumped out in front at around the 20km mark, drawing ahead of the pack. “I may not be able to sprint very much, but my strength is being able to maintain a high speed,” she said. Her plan must have been to draw ahead in the middle of the race to prevent the need for a sprint race. “I love this flat course, and how beautiful Oita is. I’m so happy,” said Schär, after her fourth victory—her first one in four years. Her extraordinary run had broken her own previous world record.

Tsubasa Kina also had a great showing, ending with the world’s second best time

Coming in second place was 29-year old Kina from Okinawa. Her time, 1:35:50, marked a Japan record, and was 3 minutes 46 seconds under her personal best. She came in number one amongst the Japanese racers, making the top three cut to qualify for the Japan national team in next year’s Marathon Championships. In an interview on the grounds, she said happily, “It’s incredible!”

“I’m not as experienced as the other racers. I noticed some issues I’ll need to work out, like the racing lines slowing me down” Kina said afterwards, looking calmly back on the race. “I’m not as good with the London course [where the Marathon Championships will probably be held] as I am with the Oita course [since you have to run on cobblestones], but I want to go into it fully prepared,” she continued, looking towards the next important step in her journey towards the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

One person who was very happy about Kina’s growth was Wakako Tsuchida, a wheelchair marathon pioneer and legend, who has competed in eight total Winter and Summer Paralympic Games. Tsuchida had announced her decision to transfer to the Triathlon event in 2017, after this very same marathon was cancelled due to a hurricane. And when she announced in October that she would compete in this marathon, she also revealed that she was working towards both the Triathlon and Athletics events for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Tsuchida smiling after the race

“Every day is a new challenge. I wanted to see how much strength I have right now, how much I’ve grown in terms of the wheelchair marathon,” she said, revealing why she’d competed in the race. Though she hadn’t had much time to prepare—less than two months—she said, “I felt good at the start line.”

Though she fell behind the leading pack at around the 10km mark, she kept a steady pace towards her goal of getting under 1 hour 45 minutes, and finished with a time of 1:44:43. Though this was far from her personal best, she seemed satisfied with her performance, telling us, “It was hard, but I was able to move forward without giving up. I was able to achieve the goal I had for this race.”

“To get to the Tokyo Paralympics, you have to just move up the stairs, one step at a time. The wheelchair marathon world is full of very fast racers, and the level as a whole has been upped considerably. It was a challenge even before, but it’s going to be even more difficult now. I want to come to terms with my own strength and work to become more competitive in terms of maintaining speed.”

In an interview a year ago, Tsuchida had said, “I’m not very attached to the idea of competing in the Paralympics. What I want to do is to test my limits, in the most competitive arena possible. If I’m unable to do that, it doesn’t matter if I compete in the Paralympics or not.” The higher the wall she must overcome, the higher her motivation is for the sport.

“Welcome back, Tsuchida!” “Go, go, Wakako!” The crowd, as always in Oita, was warm and friendly, with some calling out her name as they cheered her on. And so Tsuchida’s new journey, new challenge, began.

A Tough Race in the Men’s Marathon, with the “World’s Fastest Racer” in Play!

Like last year, the last portion of the race saw a one-on-one struggle between Hug (right) and Suzuki

Marcel Hug of Switzerland—seven-time consecutive winner of the marathon, wore his passion for the race on his face, under the shield of his silver helmet. This year saw 21-year old Daniel Romanchuk (U.S.), who had been dominating the world’s major races, competing in the marathon for the first time. Hug was thus going against someone he had lost to in the World Para Athletics Marathon Championships (U.K.) this April, as well as the track race in the Dubai 2019 World Championships right before this event.

Romanchuk chose this marathon in Oita as his last race of the season

Hug was aggressive from the start of the race, working to move ahead in the 3km downhill portion of the course. He went into a sprint at around the 23km, passing both Tomoki Suzuki and Romanchuk, and finally pulling ahead of Suzuki in the stadium. “It was a hard race and I’m very tired,” he said, with a relaxed smile, after his eighth victory. He and Suzuki—who came in 2nd—were also seen congratulating each other after the race.

Like Hug and Romanchuk, Suzuki had had a grueling schedule, coming into Oita straight from Dubai. “It became a track race at the end, and I didn’t have any strength left in my arms, and I think I just lost emotionally as well,” he said, expressing his regrets about the race. He has already qualified for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, however, and seemed overall satisfied with his performance, coming in 1st amongst the Japanese racers and 2nd overall, in the kind of closely-scheduled race that he would encounter in the Paralympics.

Star Romanchuk came in 3rd, with Sho Watanabe, who had reserved his strength for the end by staying within the pack, coming in 4th.

“I had strength left [to bring my all] at the end” said Watanabe, who came in second amongst the Japanese racers

Watanabe had finished in a position coveted by many of the Japanese racers. “I didn’t know what would happen [since this was a very close race], but I thought I could win even within the pack if I could go into a track race at a good position,” he said, acknowledging his performance. On the other hand, however, it seemed that his inability to make headway against the world’s top racers in the track race at the Dubai 2019 World Championships still weighed heavily upon him. When asked about whether he’d work to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, he expressed his reservations, telling us, “I can’t think about that right now.”

Yamamoto seemed relieved after coming in third amongst the Japanese racers

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by Rokuro Inoue

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