Twenty-three years before Fred Lebow founded the ING New York City Marathon, and two years before Virgin London Marathon race director Dave Bedford was born, the first edition of the Fukuoka Marathon was held in Japan. The year was 1947, Toshikazu Wada got the victory in 2:45:45, and one of marathoning's great traditions was born. That tradition continues on Sunday with the 63rd edition of Japan's most important marathon for men.
Before the running boom of the 1970's, only three marathons mattered: Boston, Fukuoka and the Olympics (the first world championships wouldn't be held until 1983). That continued to be the case until New York City went to the five-borough edition in 1976, when Bill Rodgers captured the first of his four victories. Rodgers would win Fukuoka the following year.
Frank Shorter, the two-time Olympic Marathon medallist, was Fukuoka's first true global superstar. In addition to his Olympic gold medal in 1972 and his silver in 1976, Shorter won Fukuoka four consecutive times, from 1971 through 1974. Japan's Toshihiko Seko would also go on to win four times (1978-1980, 1983) and became one of Japan's most popular distance runners, ever.
Fukuoka is still considered Japan's most important marathon for men and, along with Rotterdam and Paris, typically has the highest quality men's field outside of the World Marathon Majors. Organizers build the field around a handful of international stars, mix in some of Japan's best, and always have strong pacemakers to ensure fast times. The race is very exclusive: last year's contest had just 419 finishers.
Last year's winner, the tiny Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia, set a course record of 2:06:10 and is favored to win again. Kebede, who won the bronze medal at both the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 IAAF World Championships, was also second at London last April in a personal best 2:05:20.
His top challengers are likely to be Kenya's Evans Cheruiyot, the 2008 Bank of America Chicago Marathon Champion with a 2:06:25 personal best, and Mekubo Mogusu, who will be making his marathon debut but has a 59:48 half-marathon personal best. Ukraine's Dmytro Baranovskiy is also entered (he was the surprise Fukuoka winner in 2005). Baranovskiy has a 2:07:15 personal best. Tekeste Kebede of Ethiopia (2:09:49 PB), Jon Brown of Canada (2:09:31), Oleg Kulkov of Russia (2:10:13) and Tomoyuki Sato of Japan (2:09:43) also enjoy invited status.
And what will the winner receive on Sunday? Only a handful of agents know. The race depends on large appearance fees to attract top talent and keeps its prize money secret.