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National University Women's Ekiden - Preview pt. II: The Top Five Contenders

translated and edited by Brett Larner

The 26th All-Japan University Women's Ekiden, also known as the Morinomiyako Ekiden, takes place Oct. 26 in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Two-time defending champion Ritsumeikan University is set to win a third-straight title, with four schools presenting potential challenges. Brief profiles of each school follow.

Ritsumeikan University
Ritsumeikan University, alma mater of professionals including 2008 Sapporo International Half Marathon winner Yuri Kano (Second Wind AC), is the dominant women's running school in Japan, winning the Western Japan Regional Ekiden title every year since 2003 and the National Invitational Ekiden all five years of the event's existence thus far. Ritsumeikan won the 2003 and 2004 National University Women's Ekiden titles but in trying to become the second school in Morinomiyako history to win a third consecutive championship lost out to rivals Meijo University in 2005. Ritsumeikan came back to win in 2006, then dominated the event in 2007 with its runners setting new stage records on the first three of the ekiden's six legs and clocking stage best times on the fourth and fifth legs. The team as a whole set a new record of 2:06:19 for the 38.6 km course and beat runners-up Bukkyo University by 2:27.

Five of the six members of last year's team return in the 2008 season, although only three are on the Morinomiyako entry list. One of them is the team's star runner, third-year Kazue Kojima, who among other achievements since last year's Nationals ran on the Japanese national team at February's Yokohama International Women's Ekiden. The team has also picked up several star first-year recruits including Risa Takenaka and Michi Numata, both of whom were on Ritsumeikan Uji High School's winning team at last year's National High School Ekiden championships. Numata won the National University Track and Field Championships 10000 m in September, and Takenaka, Numata and Sendai Ikuei High School graduate Machiko Iwakawa were on Ritsumeikan's team at September's Western Japan Regional University Women's Ekiden where the team won by 47 seconds over Bukkyo. In short, if any of the other schools can come even close to Ritsumeikan this year it will be a major upset, and the team's future looks secure for at least the next few years.

Nihon University
Ritsumeikan's biggest challenger, on paper at least, may be two-time Eastern Japan Regional University Women's Ekiden winners Nihon University. Nihon faltered last year, finishing in 7th place just 8 seconds outside the seeded bracket for this year's Nationals. The team focused on cross-country running and speedwork over the summer and looks to be in a much stronger position this year. At Regionals its first stage runner Natsuko Goto beat Josai University's Yui Sakai, possibly the best university woman in Japan, and the team now sports two Kenyan 'exchange students,' Ann Kingori and Jemima Maina. Nihon's men's team won this month's Izumo Ekiden on the strength of a spectacular run by its Kenyan anchor Daniel Gitau, and Kingori followed suit at Regionals, making up a large gap to take the win. She will be hard-pressed to take any of Ritsumeikan's runners, but one of the truisms of university ekidens is that the unexpected usually happens.

Bukkyo University
Last year Bukkyo University had its best-ever finish at Morinomiyako, landing in 2nd almost entirely thanks to its ace Ryoko Kisaki, who has since graduated and moved on to Team Daihatsu. Bukkyo finishing 2nd to Ritsumeikan was a familiar situation, as it mirrored the two school's positions in all five editions of the National Invitational Ekiden. This year, despite Kisaki's loss, the team looks stronger than ever. Kasumi Nishihara, who as a first-year broke Ritsumeikan's stranglehold on stage titles at last year's Morinomiyako by winning the sixth stage, returns to the team. Fourth-year Chizuru Ideta finished 3rd in the 10000 m at September's National University Track and Field Championships. Third-year Yuika Mori set a new stage record on the second leg of this year's Western Japan Regional University Women's Ekiden. Bukkyo head coach Kenichi Morikawa claims the team has nine top-notch athletes this year versus only six last year and has confidently predicted an upset for Ritsumeikan. Last year Bukkyo was 1:46 behind Ritsumeikan at Regionals and 2:27 behind at Nationals. This year Bukkyo improved its Regionals performance by 59 seconds, finishing 47 seconds behind Ritsumeikan. This improvement may not be enough for them to overtake the defending national champions, but it may put Bukkyo's runners close enough that each invidual can find the extra something they will need to stay in contention.

Josai University
Josai, alma mater of 2008 Olympian Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren), has never finished higher than 4th at the National level. This year may be different. The team includes 2008 East Japan Regional University 5000 m and 10000 m champion Yui Sakai, one of the highest-potential runners in the current generation of Japanese university women. Sakai has shown dramatic improvement over the last two years and is now so much better than any other woman on the Josai team that she does much of her training with the Josai's men's team. Sakai will give Josai a large advantage, but any team dependent upon one star is vulnerable. At Regionals in September Josai finished only 5th, but Josai head coach Naoto Suzuki had planned for the team to peak at Nationals and was undisturbed by the team's relatively weak showing.

Osaka Taiku University
Osaka Taiku only finished 9th at last year's Morinomiyako Ekiden, but the team's potential is in reality much higher. In 2006 it recruited two star high school runners, identical twins Mai and Yui Ouchi. As a first-year Mai was injured and could not run, but the team nevertheless finished 3rd thanks in part to a strong performance by Yui. Last year Mai was again injured, and this time Yui likewise struggled, finishing 11th on her stage, the team dragging its way home in 9th. This year both runners are in excellent form, with Osaka Taiku finishing a close 3rd behind Ritsumeikan and Bukkyo at September's Western Japan Regional University Women's Ekiden. It's unlikely that Osaka Taiku will be able to overtake Ritsumeikan, but the school remains a darkhorse contender and it would not be suprising if it marked a 2nd-place finish.

Other Contenders
2005 Morinomiyako winner Meijo University remains a threat, although its fortunes have declined somewhat in the time since its victory. Last year's 6th-place finisher Tamagawa University looked poised for a dramatic improvement thanks to its combination of aces Tomomi Tanaka and Kumiko Komiya, but Komiya was injured over the summer and will not be running. Tamagawa will likely be trying just to stay within the top six teams in order to remain seeded for next year's Morinomiyako Ekiden.

The 2008 Morinomiyako Ekiden takes place Oct. 26 at 12:10 p.m. It will be broadcast nationwide from Sendai on Nihon Television.

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