Bahrain’s Eunice Kirwa broke the course record when she won in Gifu last year, clocking 1:09:37. The world marathon bronze medallist improved her PB to 1:08:06 earlier this year when winning in Marugame. She also successfully defended her title at the Nagoya Marathon in March in 2:22:40.
Japan’s Rio-bound marathon runner Kayoko Fukushi, the Asian record-holder for the half marathon, is considered to be a co-favourite. Her 1:07:26 PB makes her the fastest woman in the field, while her winning time of 2:22:17 at the Osaka Marathon in January is quicker than Kirwa’s best this year.
Like Fukushi, Kenya’s Visiline Jepkesho recently had her Olympic marathon team berth confirmed. And as a former winner in Gifu, Jepkesho can also relate to Kirwa. The 28-year-old won the Paris Marathon last month in 2:25:53, having set a half marathon PB of 1:09:43 at the start of the year.
Other contenders for the title include Rebecca Kangogo Chesir, Betelhem Moges and Yuka Ando. Chesir has a half marathon best of 1:08:21, while Beijing Marathon champion Moges has a PB of 1:09:23. Ando made her half-marathon debut in December last year, clocking 1:09:51, and went on to finish 10th at the recent IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff.
Veronica Nyaruai Wanjiru could be an underdog. The 26-year-old Kenyan won the 2005 world youth and 2006 world junior 3000m titles, but more recently has been carving out a new career on the roads. Having recently set PBs of 31:55 for 10km and 53:12 for 10 miles, Wanjiru’s half marathon PB of 1:13:55 looks set for revision.
As is the case in the women’s race, two former champions will line up against one another in the men’s race as defending champion James Rungaru will take on 2011 and 2012 winner Martin Mathathi.
It will be their second clash in Gifu, as Mathathi finished third in last year’s race, 19 seconds behind Rungaru. Rungaru won the highly competitive African cross-country title just two months ago, so if the conditions are good the 23-year-old looks capable of running much quicker than his 1:02:21 winning time from last year.
Mathathi’s 58:56 PB from 2011 makes him the fastest athlete in the field, but he hasn’t run faster than 60 minutes for the half marathon since that performance five years ago.
With two other men in the field with sub-60-minute PBs, Sunday’s race is wide open.
Kenyan teenager Kenneth Keter clocked a PB of 59:48 in Venlo earlier this year, but was exactly two minutes slower than that when finishing 10th in Prague two weeks later.
Paul Kuira has contested just one half marathon to date, but it was a winning performance, clocking 59:47 to triumph in Marugame last year.
Another former Gifu winner, world half marathon silver medallist Bedan Karoki, was originally set to compete, but the Kenyan recently withdrew due to a calf injury. The Kenyan holds the course record of 1:00:02.
This year’s race will be the sixth edition of the Gifu Seiryu Half Marathon, which is also known as Naoko Takahashi Cup as it is held in the hometown of 2000 Olympic marathon champion Naoko Takahashi.