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Ritsumeikan Uji Girls and Sendai Ikuei Boys Return to the Top in All-Japan High School Ekiden (updated)

by Brett Larner

Hometown team Ritsumeikan Uji capped a strong season by winning the girls` division of the All-Japan High School ekiden for the first time in 7 years, while powerhouse Sendai Ikuei scored its seventh victory in the boys` race, returning to the top after last year`s loss to Sera. The two races were held back-to-back on the streets of Kyoto on Dec. 23 and broadcast live and commercial-free on national television. Each race featured the 47 prefectural champion high schools, the girls covering a hilly half-marathon course divided into 5 stages and the boys an even hillier full marathon course divided into 7 stages. Conditions at the start of the girls` race were 10 degrees with light rain and no wind, but the weather soon broke and the day became warm, sunny and breezy.

Girls` Race
The girls` race was billed as a battle between defending champions Suma Gakuen of Hyogo Prefecture and local high school Ritsumeikan Uji. Ritsumeikan had the faster qualification time leading into the race, 1:07:17 to Suma`s 1:07:58, with Okayama Prefecture`s Kojokan close behind in 1:08:03. Perennially dominant Sendai Ikuei of Miyazaki Prefecture were handicapped by the sidelining of their star runner Megumi Kinukawa with a back injury following her participation in the Osaka World Championships 10000 m and International Chiba Ekiden.

1st Stage: 6 km
A large pack of around 20 stayed together for the first 3 km, clocking steady splits of 3:12, 3:15 and 3:17. At 3.3 km, Toyokawa`s Wysela Wylim broke from the pack, followed closely by the field`s other Kenyan 'exchange student,' Felista Wanjugu of Aomori Yamada. The 2 runners dueled for the remainder of the leg, swerving dramatically to break contact, pushing each other and even tripping over each others` legs. Aya Nagata of Kobayashi was the only Japanese runner to try to follow the Kenyans, catching Wanjugu at the 5 km mark. Wanjugu responded by launching her final kick, quickly dropping Nagata and sprinting away from Wylim with 200 m to go. Wanjugu`s time of 19:09 was a 17-second improvement over last year`s performance.

1. Aomori Yamada: 19:09 (Felista Wanjugu, 2nd yr., stage best)
2. Toyokawa: 19:15 (Wysela Wylim, 1st yr.)
3. Kobayashi: 19:21 (Aya Nagata, 3rd yr.)

2nd Stage: 4.0975 km
In the first minute of the stage, Toyokawa`s Yukino Ninomiya flew by Aomori Yamada`s Mami Sato at an aggressive pace. Aomori Yamada continued to drop when Ritsumeikan Uji and Kobayashi passed shortly afterwards. Ritsumeikan`s Ikumi Natsuhara continued to accelerate, dropping Kobayashi and catching Ninomiya at the 2.45 km point. Ninomiya and Natsuhara staged a thrilling battle over the next 1.6 km, repeatedly passing each other before Natsuhara pulled away for good with 1 km to go. Kojokan`s Rei Ohara moved up in the later stages to take the 3rd position.

1. Ritsumeikan Uji: 32:08 (Ikumi Natsuhara, 2nd yr.: 12:42 stage best)
2. Toyokawa: 21:13 (Yukino Ninomiya, 2nd yr.: 12:58)
3. Kojokan: 32:42 (Rei Ohara, 2nd yr.: 13:00)

3rd Stage: 3 km
Ritsumeikan Uji`s Michi Numata initially opened a huge gap over Nanaka Izawa of Toyokawa but was unable to maintain her pace and fell apart, finishing just one step ahead of Izawa. Aika Tsutsumi of Kojokan had an excellent run, tying Izawa for stage best honors.

1. Ritsumeikan Uji: 41:57 (Michi Numata, 3rd yr., 9:49)
2. Toyokawa: 41:57 (Nanaka Izawa, 1st yr., 9:44 stage best)
3. Kojokan: 42:26 (Aika Tsutsumi, 1st yr., 9:44 stage best)

4th Stage: 3 km
Like Numata, Ritsumeikan Uji`s Aya Ito opened a huge lead over Toyokawa. Ito was able to keep it together, earning the stage best with an outstanding 9:06. Hojokan`s Mako Fukunaga caught Toyokawa`s Saki Oyaizu at the 2.5 km mark to move her team into 2nd place. Yu Mamizuka of Kamimura Gakuen likewise caught Toyokawa in the final sprint to capture 3rd.

1. Ritsumeikan Uji: 51:03 (Aya Ito, 1st yr., 9:06 stage best)
2. Kojokan: 52:07 (Mako Fukunaga, 3rd yr., 9:41)
3. Kamimura Gakuen: 52:09 (Yu Mamizuka, 2nd yr., 9:33)

5th Stage: 5 km
Ritsumeikan Uji`s captain Risa Takenaka ran the anchor leg, maintaining the lead which Ito built on the 4th stage to lead her school to its first victory in 7 years. Starting in 5th position, Kumamoto Chiharadai`s anchor Erika Ikeda ran a very impressive stage, advancing steadily and catching Kojokan`s Ami Kudo just after the 2 km point. Kudo followed just behind until the last km when Ikeda launched her last attack, capturing both 2nd place and the stage best time. Kudo held on for 3rd, followed closely by Yukari Abe of Sendai Ikuei who was only 1 second off Ikeda`s stage best time. Sendai Ikuei had reported before the race that in Megumi Kinukawa`s absence they would be happy with a 1:08 finish time. They were no doubt pleased with their 1:08:33. Defending champions Suma Gakuen were never a factor, finishing 5th in 1:08:47.

An emotional Coach Ogino of Ritsumeikan Uji told reporters after the race that he had spent many sleepless nights in the weeks leading up to All-Japan trying to devise a winning strategy and was overjoyed to bring the victory to the city of Kyoto.

1. Ritsumeikan Uji: 1:07:06 (Risa Takenaka, 3rd yr.: 16:03)
2. Kumamoto Chiharadai: 1:08:16 (Erika Ikeda, 1st yr.: 16:02 stage best)
3. Kojokan: 1:08:25 (Ami Kudo, 2nd yr.: 16:18)


Boys` Race
The boys` race featured a stacked field. Defending champions Sera of Hiroshima Prefecture were back, along with Hyogo Prefecture`s Nishiwaki Kogyo who included the current national high school champion runner Yuki Yagi. Also in the field were Nagano Prefecture`s Saku Chosei which despite having produced current university ace runners Yuichiro Ueno and Yuki Sato has never won All-Japan, and 6-time winners Sendai Ikuei. Sendai Ikuei, whose success has largely been fueled by the presence of Kenyan ringers such as Daniel Njenga and Samuel Wanjiru, were the heavy favorites.

1st Stage: 10 km
The pack went out incredibly hard from the gun, so quickly that the two Kenyan aces on the 1st stage, Sera`s Bitan Karoki and Yamanashi Gakuin Daifuzoku`s Ondiba Cosmas, couldn`t move into the lead until several hundred meters had passed. Cosmas ran right on Karoki`s heels, the two passing the 1 km point running flat-out in 2:45. Incredibly, the large pack of Japanese runners were right behind, hitting the first km in a suicidal 2:47. After entering the hills at 4 km, the Kenyans went through 5 km in 14:23. The Japanese pack led by Yusuke Mita of Toyokawa Kogyo were still close in 14:46. Yagi was the first casualty as Mita increased the pace, dropping from the pack of 7 runners at 6 km. At around the same time, Cosmas made a move on Karoki but was quickly countered. At 7.5 km Karoki counterattacked, dropping Cosmas for good. Karoki, who as a 1st-year high school student has a 5000 m PB of 13:38, continued to run with impressive abandon, dropping a 2:47 9th km and finishing the stage in 29:19. Mita continued to control the Japanese pack, repeatedly attacking and counterattacking and almost catching the struggling Cosmas.

1. Sera: 29:19 (Bitan Karoki, 1st yr. stage best)
2. Yamanashi Gakuin Daifukuzo: 29:37 (Ondiba Cosmas, 3rd yr.)
3. Toyokawa Kogyo: 29:44 (Yusuke Mita, 3rd yr.)

2nd Stage: 3 km
Sera`s Satohiro Yamasaki ran 2:40 for the 1st km and hung on to keep the lead. Behind him, Saku Chosei`s Takayuki Nagase quickly caught Toyokawa Kogyo rookie Shinji Mizuno, the two then working together to catch Yamanashi Gakuin Fuzoku`s Yuta Anamizu. Anamizu was overtaken by several other runners and continued to plummet. Nagase pulled away slightly, and in the sprint finish Mizuno was overtaken at the line by Kurashiki`s Shinya Kamiyamada.

1. Sera: 38:01 (Satohiro Yamasaki, 2nd yr.: 8:42)
2. Saku Chosei: 38:23 (Takayuki Nagase, 3rd yr.: 8:37)
3. Kurashiki: 38:24 (Shinya Kamiyamada, 3rd yr.: 8:32)
stage best: Takahiro Gunji, Nasu Takuyo, 1st yr.: 8:28

3rd Stage: 8.1075 km
Along with the 1st stage, the 3rd stage features most team`s ace runners. The stage record was set in 2004 by Samuel Wanjiru during his student days at Sendai Ikuei. Toyokawa`s Tomohiro Hayakawa immediately overtook Kurashiki`s Shinichi Takase and continued to advance on the 2 runners ahead. Saku Chosei`s Hirofumi Sasaki caught Sera`s Akihiro Kuroki at the 1.52 km point, with Hayakawa following suit at 2.48 km.

While this action was happening up front, Sendai Ikuei`s Kenyan runner Paul Kuira was advancing from his 10th place position at the start of the leg. Kuira had been injured and was on reserve status; he was only added to the team`s active roster the day before All-Japan. A phone call from Samuel Wanjiru that night gave Kuira confidence, and he lived up to expectations. Kuira caught Kuroki at 2.60 km to move into 3rd, Hayakawa at 3.15 km to pick up 2nd, and Sasaki at 4.42 km to take the lead. Kuira earned not only the stage best title but also tied for 2nd on the ekiden`s all-time list for number of people passed.

1. Sendai Ikuei: 1:02:05 (Paul Kuira, 2nd yr.: 23:14 stage best)
2. Saku Chosei: 1:02:28 (Hirofumi Sasaki, 2nd yr.: 24:05)
3. Toyokawa: 1:02:36 (Tomohiro Hayakawa, 2nd yr.: 24:12)

4th Stage: 8.0875 km
During the 1st half of the 4th stage, the leading 3 runners more or less maintained position. At 5.5 km, Takuya Sakai of Kyushu Gakuin moved up from the trailing pack to catch Toyokawa`s Himiyasu Nagasaka. Nagasaka attacked with 1 km to go and opened a gap, but approaching the end of the stage Sakai came back and ended beating Nagasaka by 3 seconds. Saku Chosei`s Kenta Chiba also put on a strong final km but was unable to catch Sendai Ikuei`s Ryohei Kawakami.

1. Sendai Ikuei: 1:26:10 (Ryohei Kawakami, 3rd yr.: 24:05)
2. Saku Chosei: 1:26:23 (Kenta Chiba, 2nd yr.: 23:55)
3. Kyushu Gakuin: 1:27:06 (Takuya Sakai, 3rd yr.: 24:09)
stage best: Yusuke Sato, Tomisato, 2nd yr.: 23:53

5th Stage: 3 km
On the 5th stage, Sendai Ikuei`s Takashi Saito struggled, barely holding on to his lead over Saku Chosei`s Tsubasa Fujii. Toyokawa`s Hirotaka Kojima hung behind Kyushu Gakuin`s Kento Kamimura, outkicking him in the last stretch to retake 3rd.

1. Sendai Ikuei: 1:34:58 (Takashi Saito, 2nd yr.: 8:48)
2. Saku Chosei: 1:35:02 (Tsubasa Fujii, 2nd yr.: 8:39)
3. Toyokawa: 1:35:49 (Hirotaka Kojima, 3rd yr.: 8:40)
stage best: Takahiro Niki, Nishiwaki Kogyo, 2nd yr.: 8:38

6th Stage: 5 km
Saku Chosei`s Kenta Sasaki came out swinging, catching Sendai Ikuei`s Yuki Munakata in the 1st km. The 2 ran together for the next 3 km, occasionally moving a step ahead or behind. With 950 m to go Munakata launched a furious long spurt, opening up a 10 m gap on Sasaki. Sasaki was not finished, though, coming back in the final meters to reach the handoff zone just a step behind in a stage best time.

1. Sendai Ikuei: 1:49:22 (Yuki Munakata, 3rd yr.: 14:24)
2. Saku Chosei: 1:49:22 (Kenta Sasaki, 2nd yr.: 14:20 stage best)
3. Toyokawa: 1:50:56 (Sho Masaki, 1st yr.: 15:07)

7th Stage: 5 km
With Sendai Ikuei and Saku Chosei starting only a step apart the stage was set for a dramatic anchor leg. Sendai Ikuei anchor Takamitsu Hashimoto, running his final ekiden as a high schooler, was forced to try to hold off Saku Chosei anchor Naohiro Domoto who had not only the motivation of bringing home Saku Chosei`s 1st All-Japan win but also a slightly faster 5000 m PB, 14:16 to Hashimoto`s 14:18. The rivals ran lockstep, passing 1 km in 2:46 and continuing on together all the way to the final lap of the track. With 350 m to go Hashimoto opened a slight gap. Coming off the final corner into the home stretch Domoto managed to pull even a final time, but Hashimoto was the stronger this day and finished half a stride ahead.

Behind the 2 leaders, 3 teams caught Toyokawa anchor Masaya Hiwada to form a pack of 4 battling for 3rd place. Nishiwaki Kogyo`s Kota Shinjo dropped the others at 2.3 km, continuing on to the finish without challenge in the stage`s best time. Hiwada almost held on to 4th, but in a replay of the top 2 teams` finish Saitama Sakae anchor Kento Tabe caught Hiwada coming off the final corner. In this case (sai) outleaned Hiwada at the tape to steal 4th. Defending champions Sera finished far down the field in 10th place.

For many of the top runners in the field it was their final run as high school students. It will be interesting to see which universities and jitsugyodan teams recruit this new crop of talent.

1. Sendai Ikuei: 2:03:55 (Takamitsu Hashimoto, 3rd yr.: 14:33)
2. Saku Chosei: 2:03:55 (Naohiro Domoto 3rd yr.: 14:33)
3. Nishiwaki Kogyo: 2:05:29 (Kota Shinjo, 2nd yr.: 14:26 stage best)

© 2007 Brett Larner
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