A showdown between world record holder Dennis Kimetto and a past world record holder Patrick Makau will form the centrepiece of the 69th Fukuoka Marathon, which takes place on Sunday. But that's not the only reason it's one of the biggest draws in the road racing calendar. Here’s our guide to one of Japan’s most historic road races.

The Originator

The Fukuoka Marathon is the third oldest in Japan. First run in 1947 and initially taking place in locations across the country, Fukuoka became the permanent venue in 1959 (although it was run in Tokyo in 1963 as a precursor to the following year’s Olympic Games).

Foreign athletes were invited to take part since 1954, and in 1966 it was renamed the Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championship, reflecting its prominent standing in the global marathon community. Such was its reputation that it became regarded as the de facto marathon world championships – this two decades before the IAAF organised the first World Championships in Helsinki in 1983.

“The goal of the organisers was to invite the winners of all the major marathons of the year and set up a head to head competition for all the best marathoners in that year,” says Japanese statistician and historian Ken Nakamura. “It was the unofficial world championship of marathon until 1983 and was proud to be so.”

Star quality

Four Olympic marathon champions, three former world champions and a glut of world record holders all form the roll of honour of past Fukuoka Marathons winners. Among the former victors are Olympic marathon gold medallists Frank Shorter of the USA (a four-time Fukuoka winner), Josia Thugwane of South Africa, Ethiopian Gezahegne Abera and the late Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya.

Haile Gebrselassie, Belayneh Dinsamo and Derek Clayton are other marathon legends to have triumphed on the streets of Fukuoka. Yet, arguably, the highlight of the previous 68 editions of the race came in 1981 when Clayton’s fellow Australian Rob de Castella set a world record 2:08:18 with a sustained drive over the final 12km.

This year’s defending champing is former world record holder Patrick Makau, of Kenya. He is a big fan of Fukuoka, commenting: “I would recommend it to any professional athlete because the event is well organised and supported, pacing is good and the race can be fast or tactical.”

Fukuoka Marathon 1957 ()

The 1957 Fukuoka Marathon was won by Kurao Hiroshima, who became the first repeat winner after he reclaimed his crown in 1959

Royal visitors

Barry Magee was one of the first overseas winners of the race, which has been organised and sponsored for its entire 69-year history by Japanese national newspaper Asahi Shimbun. The Kiwi fondly recalls being made to feel like royalty by the race organisers.

Now aged 81, Magee, who triumphed in the 1960 race just three months after winning Olympic bronze in Rome behind barefoot Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, says: “Japan treats its marathoners like super heroes. As soon as I arrived off the plane I was greeted by 20 flash lights and taken through customs into the VIP lounge. It was a dream.”

Experiencing exclusive hotels and dining on luxurious Kobe beef during his stay in the city, which is located on the north shore of Kyushu Island, the New Zealand grocer delivered, winning in 2:19:04.

“Winning the Fukuoka Marathon was the second greatest moment of my marathon career behind winning the Olympic bronze medal,” he recalls proudly.

Exclusive club

We’re all about inclusivity at SPIKES, but we make an exception for the Fukuoka Marathon. It is one of the city marathons to wholly target only the world's best marathoners. Top overseas and Japanese names fill Group A, which demands a slick sub-2:27 marathon to qualify. To compete in the secondary B Group requires a sub-2:40 time.

Don't expect to see a fancy dress costume, as each of the 1,000 or so runners who will take to the start line in Fukuoka for the male-only race on Sunday do so in the hunt for personal bests and pride. The Osaka Ladies International Marathon, traditionally held in late January, provides Japan’s top quality women-only 26-miler.

"And look at that power!!"

Track finale

One advantage of featuring in the A Group is a guaranteed start and finish in the Heiwadai Stadium. Most of the Group B athletes have to start in Ohori Park (which, based on the evidence, is no bad thing).

Once was a time when nearly all marathons started and finished in a stadium. Yet outside of major championships, stadium marathon finishes are an increasingly rare phenomenon. The grandstand finish (and start) at Fukuoka adds to the race day drama. It also allows for spectators to properly hail the champion.

High noon showdown

Next to sumo wrestling and baseball, marathon running is one of Japan’s sporting obsessions (which is why they love this guy).

The country’s rich endurance history means the race, which is traditionally staged in the first Sunday in December, is a huge occasion for the whole of Fukuoka. A mass of passionate spectators line the course, while its live screening on free-to-air national TV attracts impressive viewing figures.

Japanese winter temperatures hover around 10°C – it has even snowed in previous year – and dictate the 12.10pm start time.

“Stage it at 8am in the morning and it would simply be too cold,” says Nakamura.