Japanese race walker Yusuke Suzuki at the IAAF World Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview La Coruna, Spain

All-star line-up gathers for 20km battles in la Coruna - IAAF Race Walking Challenge

The Gran Premio Cantones de La Coruña, the Spanish leg of this year’s IAAF Race Walking Challenge, will boast an impressive line-up on Saturday (8) to confirm that the event is arguably one of the key 20km competitions of the season.

Yusuke Suzuki, the world record holder at 1:16:36, leads a powerful and large Japan contingent in the men’s race. The 31-year-old is in good form as he clocked 1:17:47 at the Asian championships held in Nomi in March but the Japanese ace could only place fourth on that occasion despite his great performance. That event was taken by his compatriot Toshikazu Yamanishi in a career best and world leading time of 1:17:15 - Saturday’s event will provide a rematch of that encounter.

Isamu Fujisawa, a creditable fifth in Nomi thanks to a PB of 1:17:52, will also be in contention alongside other top Japanese such as Eiki Takahashi, who won the national title in February in a season’s best of 1:18:00 ahead of Yamanishi and Fujisawa among others. Tomohiro Noda (PB of 1:19:00 set this year) and the 2016 Olympic bronze and 2017 world silver 50km medallist Hiroki Arai, holder of a 1:19:00 time over the shorter distance, are also in the field.

China’s Wang Kaihua should be one of the toughest opponents the Japanese squad will face as the 25-year-old won at the national trials for the world championships held in Taicang last month in 1:19:48, not far from his season’s best set in March thanks to another winning effort of 1:19:01. The current Olympic silver medallist Cai Zelin (SB of 1:19:36) will also be in show eager to improve on his third place in 2015; he was bettered by Kaihua in Taicang but at least secured his spot for IAAF World Championships Doha 2019.

Yet the eight-man Asian armada won’t have a comfortable Saturday afternoon as the most in-form Europeans will also fight for the podium places.

The top seven finishers from the European Cup held three weeks ago in Alytus will line-up again on Saturday headed by Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom, a commanding victor on that occasion with a 1:19:54 clocking to his credit. Neutral athlete Vasiliy Mizinov finished runner-up and Spain’s current European silver medallist Diego García completed the quality podium. The Spaniard is having a consistent season as he has made the top three in all his five appearances this year including second places at the IAAF permits in Rio Maior and Lazaro Cardenas, his season’s best coming on his last competition (1:20:23).

García led the Spanish team which bagged gold in Alytus where he was joined by the current European champion Álvaro Martín in fifth and 2015 world champion Miguel Ángel López in sixth; this triumvirate will try to give the local crowd something to cheer about while Britain’s Commonwealth silver medallist Tom Bosworth completes the strong European challenge on Saturday when he’ll be looking to take some revenge against Australia’s Dane Bird-Smith, who took the Commonwealth title in Gold Coast last year, winning by four seconds.

Qieyang the woman to beat

The women’s event offers the presence of a double world record holder in the guise of China’s Liu Hong, the 32-year-old who set the then world 20km record of 1:24:38 in La Coruña four years ago and grabbed the Olympic title the following year in Rio de Janeiro. A two-year break for maternity leave followed but Liu has come back to the limelight this season as she became the first woman to dip under the 4:00 barrier in the 50km in Huangshan last March with a world record time of 3:59:15.

Yet the most in-form woman for the shorter event seems to be her fellow Chinese Qieyang Shijie, the 2012 Olympic silver medallist. The 28-year-old is enjoying a successful campaign and remains undefeated thus far having won the Huangshan permit in a world leading performance of 1:25:37, the Rio Maior permit in 1:29:00 and also the Taicang contest where she prevailed at 1:28:00 over a strong field which included Liu Hong. In recent days there has been some talk about a possible attack on the Chinese record by Shenjie on Saturday given she seems to be in the form of her life. She came inside one minute of Liu’s time last March; her lifetime best remains 1:25:16 since the London Olympics.

Shijie will be joined by reigning world champion Yang Jiayu who placed runner-up in Taicang sandwiched between Shenjie and Hong. The 22-year-old should be a factor and could complete a clean sweep of medals for China. The former (2016) world junior 10km champion Ma Zhenxia will also be in the hunt for the podium places having improved her personal best to 1:28:28 this season. The same goes for Duan Dandan (1:28:35).

Watch out too for the Japanese tandem of Kumiko Okada and Nanako Fujii; the former became world junior 10km silver medallist back in 2010 and has lowered her lifetime best to 1:28:26 last February. Fujii, 20, has already dipped under the 1:30 barrier this season, finishing third at the national championships in a PB of 1:29:55.

Brazil’s Erica de Sena should be a dangerous outsider after winning the Lazaro Cardenas permit in a season’s best of 1:29:22. The 34-year-old finished just out of the medals at the London World Championships but she managed a lifetime best and Area record of 1:26:59 to take fourth. De Sena will try to regain the title she won here in 2017.

Local hopes rest on Laura García-Caro, fresh from a runner-up spot at the European Cup in 1:29:55 and Raquel González, third on that occasion in 1:30:17.

The course records belong to the Chinese pair of Wang Zhen, who clocked 1:18:00 in 2015, and Liu Hong with a stunning performance of 1:24:38 four years ago, still the second quickest ever time.

The current joint men leaders of this year’s IAAF Race Walking Challenge are Spain’s Diego García and Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom (24 points each) while China’s Shijie leads the women’s standings, also with 24 points.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe awarded an IAAF World Athletics Heritage Plaque to the organisers of the event in March to recognise the event’s rich 34 year history.

Weather forecasters are predicting a cloudy day with a light breeze and temperatures in the 15-17C range at race time.

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF