Friday, October 31, 2008

National University Ekiden Championships - Preview

by Brett Larner

The late fall and early winter ekiden season is the cornerstone of the Japanese running year, and nowhere is this more true than in university men's running. The university season comprises a series of 3 major ekidens culminating in the Biwako University Ekiden for schools from western Japan and the Hakone Ekiden for those in eastern Japan. It's one of the peculiarities of the Japanese distance running world that the major race of the season for university men is a regional event which takes place after the National Championships. There's no question that Hakone is the most important distance running event in Japan, but November's All-Japan University Men's Ekiden Championships offer a rare opportunity to see schools from other areas of Japan take on the famed powerhouses of eastern Japan.

The National Ekiden covers an 8 stage, 106.8 km course from Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture to Ise in Mie Prefecture. October's Izumo Ekiden offers the season's first national-level ekiden competition, but the event's 6 stage, 44 km course is geared more for speed and doesn't offer an accurate indication of what Japanese university runners are really training for. The National Ekiden is better suited to their conditioning, with individual stages ranging from 9.5 km to 19.7 km. The top 6 teams each year are seeded for the following year's Nationals, with the remaining teams having to run qualifying races in early summer. See below for videos of each region's qualifying races.

26 teams will compete in the National Ekiden, 12 of them from eastern Japan. Eastern Japan schools have historically dominated Nationals, taking the seeded top 6 positions for at least the last 6 years. This is hardly surprising considering that apart from attracting more talent, eastern Japan schools train for Hakone in which the shortest stage is 18.5 km, while the western Japan schools train for Biwako where the longest stage is 15.1 km.

2008 Hakone Ekiden winner Komazawa Univ. is the heavy favorite to win. Komazawa has won the National Ekiden the last two years and four of the last six years. It almost won October's Izumo Ekiden, caught at the last moment only by Nihon Univ.'s Daniel Gitau. Sporting potentially its greatest team ever, Komazawa's sheer strength is sure to outweigh the individual contributions of a lone, talented Kenyan ringer over the National Ekiden's longer distances.

Nihon was the last school to beat Komazawa at Nationals, in 2005, but that year's Komazawa squad was one of its weakest and a repeat upset this year is all but unthinkable. The only other school to beat Komazawa at the National ekiden in recent history, Tokai Univ., has for the last few years relied on the combination of two aces, Hideaki Date and Yuki Sato. With the loss of Date to graduation and Sato still in recovery from injuries sustained late spring Tokai will not challenge Komazawa's domination. Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. finished 4th at Izumo without its superstar Kenyan Mekubo Mogusu who was in Rio for the World Half Marathon. With Mogusu back in the lineup Yamanashi, this year fielding two Kenyans, may present a threat.

Despite history, western Japan's Daiichi Kogyo Univ. also has the potential to be a factor, having finished 3rd at Izumo and like Yamanashi Gakuin featuring two Kenyans. Daiichi Kogyo was also 3rd last year at Biwako. The two schools which beat it there, runner-up Kyoto Sangyo Univ. and winner Ritsumeikan Univ., are also in the National Ekiden lineup. Kyoto Sangyo finished 13th at Izumo and Ritsumeikan 7th, but like Komazawa both schools' strengths may translate better into the National Ekiden's longer distances.

The All-Japan University Men's Ekiden Championships take place Nov. 2 at 8:00 a.m. and will be broadcast nationwide on TV Asahi with commentary by Olympians Toshihiko Seko and Katsuhiko Hanada. On its website TV Asahi has provided video clips from each region's National Ekiden qualifying races in early summer. Click each region heading below for regional qualifier results and links to the race videos and each university name for team photos and profiles.

2008 All-Japan University Men's Ekiden Championships Field
Hokkaido Region
Sapporo Gakuin Univ.

Tohoku Region
Tohoku Fukushi Univ.

Hokuriku Region
Shinshu Univ.
Takaoka Hoka Univ.

Kanto Region
Komazawa Univ. (seeded)
Nittai Univ. (seeded)
Chuo Univ. (seeded)
Tokai Univ. (seeded)
Waseda Univ. (seeded)
Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. (seeded)
Chuo Gakuin Univ. (special invitation)
Meiji Univ.
Toyo Univ.
Teikyo Univ.
Tokyo Nogyo Univ.
Nihon Univ.

Tokai Region
Aichi Kogyo Univ.
Chukyo Univ.
Tokai Regional Select Team

Kansai Region
Ritsumeikan Univ.
Kyoto Sangyo Univ.
Kanaya Sangyo Univ.

Chugoku-Shikoku Region
Hiroshima Univ.

Kyushu Region
Daiichi Kogyo Univ.
Nihon Bunri Univ.
Fukuoka Univ.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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