by Brett Larner
Team Konica Minolta returned to the top in today`s 2008 New Year Ekiden, winning for the 4th time in the last six years with a time of 4:46:28. Cold, windy conditions prevented any new stage records, but Konica Minolta`s time was still almost one minute faster than last year`s winning time. Defending champions Team Chugoku Denryoku finished 2nd in 4:49:44, while the other pre-race favorite, Team Nissin Shokuhin, had a disappointing day with a 6th place finish in 4:52:11. 37 teams competed over the seven-stage, 100 km course in Gunma Prefecture.
The 12.3 km 1st stage was dominated by African runners, with only Konica Minolta`s Takashi Ota and Team Asahi Kasei`s Ryuji Ono able to keep up. Race rules bar non-Japanese runners from the 22 km 2nd stage, restricting them to the 1st and 3rd leg and thereby forcing teams to waste their best runners on two of the race`s shortest stages. Team Subaru`s Ethiopian ringer Asefa Giruma was first in 34:37.
On the ‘ace’ 2nd stage, Konica Minolta`s Takayuki Matsumiya started conservatively but attacked in the 2nd half to open a sizeable lead and, in the absence of African competition, take the stage best in 1:02:28, equivalent to a 59:54 half marathon. Asahi Kasei`s Tomoyuki Sato showed some lingering fatigue from the Osaka World Championships marathon, dropping 31 places. Chugoku Denryoku`s Tsuyoshi Ogata, absent from competition since Osaka, showed that he has recovered well. He employed the same strategy as in Osaka, keeping himself in a good position and then attacking in the last quarter of the race to move into contention. The biggest surprise of the stage was Team Toyota Kyushu`s Yu Mitsuya, who went through 5 km in 14:02, 10 km in the 27:40`s and passed 26 teams before fading after 18 km. Nevertheless, he finished having passed 24 runners, far exceeding the previous New Year Ekiden passing record of 20.
The 11.8 km 3rd stage featured a stunning array of African stars, including Samuel Wanjiru, Martin Mathathi, Daniel Njenga, stage record holder Ngatuny Gideon, 18-yr. old Konica Minolta debutant Alex Samuel, and others. Samuel was able to maintain the two-minute lead he received from Matsumiya despite the best efforts of half-marathon world record holder Wanjiru who moved into 2nd place. Wanjiru ran well but was likely still fatigued from winning the Fukuoka International Marathon only one month ago. Stage best honors went to Nissin`s Ngatuny Gideon for the 2nd year in a row. Gideon went through 5 km in 13:09, two seconds faster than last year`s stage record performance. Relentless headwinds caused him to slow in the 2nd half, hitting 10 km in 26:41 compared to last year`s 26:32. In the intervening year Gideon`s form has noticeably improved, his stride longer and arm movement smooth and relaxed. He has great potential for the future.
The 4th stage, the shortest at only 10.5 km, was mostly a holding pattern. The only notable result was Toyota Kyushu`s Shinichi Iwanaga finishing ten seconds ahead of Chugoku Denryoku`s Kurao Umeki. This set the stage for a dream matchup on the uphill 5th stage, half marathon national record holder and top current Japanese marathoner Atsushi Sato of Chugoku Denryoku versus Hakone Ekiden superstar and ‘God of the Mountains’ Masato Imai of Toyota Kyushu in his national professional debut.
Sato, who, like Imai, hails from Fukushima Prefecture, shook hands with the rookie just before starting the 15.9 km 5th stage. Imai had a ten second lead, but Sato caught him after 1.2 km and cut in so abruptly that Imai stumbled over Sato`s feet. Running into a headwind, Imai wisely stayed directly behind Sato, and it looked like the race would come down to a battle on the 66 m tall uphill near the end of the stage. Unfortunately it was not to be. Imai ran well but slowly drifted away to finish 1:16 behind Sato. While somewhat disappointing, this result was not surprising considering that Sato`s 10000 m PB is about one minute faster than Imai`s, and his half marathon PB two minutes faster. Imai`s solid but unremarkable debut run makes his astounding performances on the 874 m elevation gain Hakone Ekiden 5th stage even more enigmatic. It illustrates that while he does not have any kind of special speed, he possesses strength far beyond that of other runners. This combination points to great potential in the marathon.
Sato ran a superb 46:03 to take the stage best title for the 4th time in his four turns on the 5th stage. In his post-race interview he said that he still felt tired from running Fukuoka last month, but even so he was able to cut 55 seconds from the lead held by stage record holder Tomo Tsubota of Konica Minolta. Nissin`s Kosaku Hoshina had a fine run to move from 13th to 7th, while Team Honda`s Takashi Horiguchi actually caught Imai at 13.1 km before losing ground in the final kick to finish three seconds back.
After Sato`s excellent performance there was a chance for Chugoku Denryoku to overtake Konica Minolta, but its 6th stage runner Teruta Ozaki had a bad day, losing one minute over 11.8 km to the 34:09 stage best run by Konica Minolta`s Kazuki Ikenaga. Hisanori Kitajima, another former Hakone Ekiden star when at Toyo University where he had the stage best time on the 8th leg of last year`s Hakone, had a very strong debut with Team Yasukawa Denki, moving up from far behind to take 5th.
With a three minute lead it was up to Konica Minolta`s veteran Daisuke Isomatsu, a late replacement for Fukuoka-fatigued anchor Yuko Matsumiya, to bring the tasuki home over the 15.7 km 7th stage. Konica Minolta won without challenge in a time of 4:46:28, excellent considering the windy conditions. Behind Isomatsu, national university student marathon record holder Masakazu Fujiwara of Honda staged a dramatic campaign to catch 2:07 marathoner Shigeru Aburaya of Chugoku Denryoku. He very gradually moved up, coming within one second of Aburaya with 3 km to go. Despite still being in recovery from Fukuoka, Aburaya was able to respond, accelerating to finish 11 seconds up on Honda. Fujiwara was nevertheless overjoyed when he crossed the finish line, both for helping to give Honda a strong placing and for a run which represents something of a comeback from years of injury which have prevented him from reaching his potential. Yasukawa Denki`s Tadashi Shitamori also had an impressive run to deliver an unexpected 4th place finish, and Nissin`s Toshinari Suwa managed to move up one place to partially redeem weak performances by several of Nissin`s early-stage runners.
Race commentator and marathon legend Toshihiko Seko predicted a top five of:
1. Konica Minolta
2. Chugoku Denryoku
3. Toyota Kyushu
4. Nissin Shokuhin
Actual results were not far from his prediction:
1. Konica Minolta: 4:46:28
2. Chugoku Denryoku: 4:49:44
3. Honda: 4:49:55
4. Yasukawa Denki: 4:51:43
5. Toyota Kyushu: 4:51:57
6. Nissin Shokuhin: 4:52:11
7. Toyota: 4:52:29
8. Fujitsu: 4:52:45
9. Suzuki: 4:53:40
10. Otsuka Seiyaku: 4:54:03
For complete results and race highlights consult the race website here.
Ken Nakamura's report for the IAAF is here.
Happy New Year, and on to Hakone.
© 2008 Brett Larner
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