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Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon: Misato Michishita’s New World Record and the Battle for Tokyo 2020

The 69th Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon was held on February 2, from in front of Mt. Takasaki’s Umitamago in Oita City to the Oita Athletic Stadium, for a total distance of 42.195 kilometers. This was the last tournament before the three wild-card athletes would be chosen for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, and the races were heated until the very end.

A New World Record, Borne of the Support of “Team Michishita”

It was a sunny, clear day—the perfect weather for a marathon. Misato Michishita ran into the stadium alongside her guide (escort runner), Jun Shida, with a powerful momentum. She ran one lap around the track, then finished the race with a new world record of 2:54:22. As the media rushed to surround her, the two said, again and again, how grateful and relieved they felt.

Michishita and her guide Shida, smiling in front of the electric scoreboard

It had been an ideal race from the start. For the first half, which she ran with guide Yuka Aoyama, she stuck to her own pace, saving her stamina for the second half. “I decided not to use my head or legs in that first half, so I could be better prepared for the second half. I just kept telling myself, ‘Hey, relax,’” she said, looking back on the race. A little past the midpoint of the race, she upped her pace significantly—about 20 seconds per 5-kilometer stretch—now with her guide Shida. “There was headwind around the 25- to 30-kilometer point, so that part was especially hard,” said Michishita, though her lap times during that period had actually been faster than those before. In what Shida describes as “an incredibly confident run,” she ran with the air of a world champion, pushing through until the very end without dropping her pace.

It was ultimately the support of the people around her—her guide and partners, her “Team Michishita”—who waved away her worries.

Michishita smiling after breaking her own world record

“When you spend a lot of time not getting results, it gets harder for you to be motivated in terms of training. You can get lax with your everyday life, and fall into this negative spiral. So the whole time, I was mindful to be positive around her, to rack up this sense of achievement, however gradual,” said her guide Aoyama.

Michishita holds a lot of power in her small frame—a heavy-duty engine, and the endurance to survive the most intense training without injury. Though she herself says “I need to work on my speed,” her strongest weapon—strong enough to overcome any issues with speed, and more—is her incredible stamina. Her plan, heading into Tokyo, is to compete in multiple races in the spring, before diving into her final adjustment for the Paralympics.

“I’ve got to be tough to win in Tokyo. [Even going into this race] I just ran, ran, and ran, and tried to get as much confidence as possible. That should help me in Tokyo as well,” said Michishita.

She’d won a silver medal in the previous Paralympics in Rio. Now, with a world record on her belt, her eyes are set on just one thing—the gold.

Horikoshi Perseveres Through an Accident

In stark contrast to the joy exhibited by Michishita was the men’s champion, Tadashi Horikoshi. After finishing the race with a time of 2:31:53, he collapsed on the ground, his expression pained.

“It wasn’t the race I was planning on running. My time isn’t good either, and there was so much I should’ve done better,” he said, looking frustrated with himself.

Horikoshi, who hadn’t been at his best physically from the very start of the race, had been brought even lower when he got into an accident at around the 8.5km mark of the race. At the first water station, the runner that had been right in front of him had moved directly to the side. Because of a congenital illness, Horikoshi has a prosthetic right eye, and his vision in his left eye is about 0.03. Because of this, he says, this sudden movement “made it seem as if the water station table just all of a sudden appeared in front of me.” He ran hard into the table, then tumbled onto the ground, suffering a cut and a contusion on his left thigh.

Men’s marathon star Horikoshi in his last race before the Tokyo Paralympics

“It was the hardest marathon I’ve ever run,” said Horikoshi. But, he says, there were lessons to be learned from it.

“No matter what condition you are, you have to go as hard as you can in that moment. And you cannot give up, stop caring. I think I was able to learn, again, how important it is to try my best when things are really difficult.”

Men and Women Alike Battle It Out for the No. 3 Wild-Card Slot

It’s a complicated path for a blind marathon runner to get to the Tokyo Paralympics. There are three races that award the points they need to qualify. The first is the World Para Athletics Marathon Championships in April 2019, the second is the Hokkaido Marathon in August, and the third is this one, the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon.

Assuming Japan sends three runners to the Tokyo Paralympics, the Japanese Blind Marathon Association (JBMA) would have to decide on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place wild-card athletes, based on their performance in the aforementioned three races. What’s more, the runners in question would have to have fulfilled the minimum qualification standards for the Tokyo Paralympics.

Aoki (left) won the final women’s wild-card slot

This time around, it was Yoko Aoki who managed to fight her way into the third wild-card slot in the women’s race. Aoki, who’d been gaining competitive momentum—setting a personal record of 3:09:55 at the Hofu Yomiuri Marathon last December—found herself trailing Chika Nishimura, who’d shot out to the front in the first half of the race. Aoki caught up to her a little over the 30km mark, then went out ahead, finishing the race with a time of 3:10:40.

Yamashita (left) beat his own record by a significant margin

On the men’s side, it was Shinji Yamashita who snagged the last wild-card slot. Like Aoki, he’d been riding a wave of momentum, beating his own record by more than 4 minutes at the Hofu Yomiuri Marathon. For this race, he set out at a high speed, and managed to maintain that pace until the very end. He overtook Rio Paralympic bronze medalist Masahiro Okamura as Okamura slowed down, then finished the race with a time of 2:34:05—again beating his own record by about five minutes.

He’d fought an incredible fight, shortening his personal record by about 10 minutes total in this race, and the one in Hofu. His time, however, was still 16 seconds short of fulfilling the minimum qualification standards for the Tokyo Paralympics (2:33:49).

Results of the 69th Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon (Visual Impairment)

text by Naoto Yoshida
photo by X-1

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