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Runners ready for 27th Naha Marathon

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2011-12-02

Koji Hayasaka and Yui Takaiwa can hardly wait for Sunday to get here, and neither can 87-year-old Hideaki Kouchi, but for somewhat different reasons.

Hayasaka, from Miyagi Prefecture, took the 2010 Naha Marathon victory, while Takaiwa, a 26-year-old from Ibaraki Prefecture, swept the women’s field by more than 3 minutes. Kouchi, who’s run seven consecutive Naha Marathons, had to drop out last year for the first time. All three are committed to this year’s race.

A marathon that began more than a quarter century ago as a friendship event linking Honolulu and Naha, who hold sister-city status, is this year expected to draw the full quota of 25,000 runners to the challenging—yet tranquil and colorful—route spanning the southern third of the island. The Naha Marathon is billed as one of the premier sports events of Japan under the banner of “Festival of Sun, Ocean and Joggers.” It began in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the sister city bond between Naha and Honolulu, with each successive race providing a forum for domestic and international interaction.

The 27th annual Naha Marathon kicks off Sunday at 9 a.m. from Onoyama Park Stadium just south of the capital city’s business district. The 42.195 kilometer-long trek winds its way through Kohagura, Haebaru, Tomigusuku and Yaese Town on the outbound leg, passing lush farmlands en route to Peace Memorial Park, the race midway point at 21.3 kilometers. The return to Naha takes runners through Nashiro, Itoman City, Onaga and Nakachi on the way back to the finish line at Onoyama Park.

Sunshine’s on tap for Sunday’s race, with 20C predicted at starting time, and a high of 22C (74F). The 25,000 runners are expected to step off the starting line, slightly fewer than the 26,973 who started in 2009 before the strict rules were imposed, and 23,402 who raced last year. As he did in past years, Naha City Mayor Takeshi Onaga will ring the starting bell to send everyone on their way.

There were so many runners last year, 16,613 men and 6,789 women, it took nearly 25 minutes to get everyone out of the starting blocks. Race organizers say they expect non-Okinawans, including foreigners, to be about the same as last year when more than 10,000 traveled from mainland Japan to participate, along with another 300 from overseas.

Hayasaka won last year with a time of 2 hours 26 minutes 49 seconds, a full minute slower than 2009’s winner, but enough to edge Yuki Murato. Takaiwa’s 2:59:27 was more than 3 minutes ahead of second place finisher Risa Mizutani, who had 3:03:07, and the third place Natsumi Mineshima, who finished at 3:03:43.

Ten visually handicapped runners participated, aided by escorts and 60 volunteer groups. A visually disabled runner praised organizers, saying “Naha’s marathon course is fun to run, and there were a lot of supporters on the streets and everywhere, giving joggers food and drink, and lots of cheers too. Even though we can’t see them, we felt their warm hearts.”

The Naha Marathon is a far cry from the first race on December 8th in 1985, when 5,139 runners braved the rain and 19.7C temperatures. Of those, 95.5%, 4,301 runners, completed the race.

Spectators are welcome both at the starting line, along the route, and at Onoyama Stadium’s finish line. Final registration for participants is Saturday 1 p.m. – 8 p.m. at the Prefectural Budokan at Onoyama Park.

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