translated by Brett Larner
After two years of losses, Team Toyota Jidosha Kyushu won the 44th running of the Kyushu Jitsugyodan Mainichi Ekiden on Nov. 23. Team Toyota covered the seven-stage, 79.7 km course from Fukuoka to Kita-Kyushu in a time of 3:53:37 to seal its victory. Team Toyota`s ace runner Samuel Wanjiru set a new stage record on the fourth leg, and former Juntendo Unversity and Hakone Ekiden `God of the Mountains` Masato Imai made his Team Toyota debut by scoring the stage best on the anchor leg. Team Kyudenko were 52 seconds behind, with Team Yasukawa Denki finishing third. Team Asahi Kasei came a disappointing fourth, the lowest placing in their history. The top seven teams qualified for the All-Japan Jitsugyodan Ekiden on Jan. 1 in Gunma Prefecture.
Imai broke the goal tape with his right hand raised hesitantly. The real celebration came 57 seconds later. Second place finishers Team Kyudenko had been stopped at a railroad crossing for 57 seconds and Imai was forced to wait until the same pulse-pounding 57 seconds had elapsed in loss time before raising both hands for real and exploding with the joy of his victory.
Team Toyota`s stage-winning trio made the game. On the first leg, Yu Mitsuya ran his first race since the Osaka World Championships, putting on a last spurt to beat Team Yasukawa Denki`s Toru Okada by 1 second and win the stage. Afterward Mitsuya said, "I haven`t been able to practice like I wanted to, so I only tried to do my best to win the stage this time."
The team fell to third place over the next few legs, but on the 12.5 km fourth stage Samuel Wanjiru put on a stunning display of front running. Wanjiru will make his full marathon debut at the Fukuoka International Marathon on Dec. 2. "My body felt great and I had a lot of fun. This was good speed practice, " smiled Wanjiru. Taking the lead after 4 km, Wanjiru became the first person to break 35 minutes on the stage since the course was changed in the 24th edition of the ekiden. Wanjiru ran 34:40 to set the new stage record.
Imai received the tasuki with a `72 second` lead, but the actual difference was only 15 seconds due to Team Kyudenko`s time lost at the train crossing. Imai said, "I was lucky that they couldn`t see me. It must have been hard for them to chase me with the extra 57 second gap." Throughout the entire stage and right to the goal Imai showed stunning speed. "It was a nerve-wracking experience because I wasn`t sure if I had won or not when I finished."
Team Toyota Jidosha Kyushu coach Koichi Morishita counted down during the loss time while looking at a stopwatch. "The race went according to plan, but those 57 seconds were scary." Despite the pressure of being the pre-race favorites, Team Toyota Jidosha Kyushu won the overall race, showing its unshaken strength despite the delayed victory.
Translator`s note: Masato Imai is widely known in Japan for his three consecutive stunning stage-record victories on the fifth stage of the Hakone Ekiden, a 23.4 km leg run from sea level into the mountains with 864 m of elevation gain. Imai won the fifth stage from `05 - `07, graduated from Juntendo University in `07, and joined Team Toyota Jidosha Kyushu. This ekiden was his professional debut. He is the first of a current crop of eight extremely talented university runners to move into the professional scene and is likely to make a strong impact at the world level. Remember his name.