by Brett Larner
The 2008-2009 university ekiden season officially got underway on Oct. 13 with the 20th anniversary edition of the Izumo Ekiden. Twenty-two teams competed over the six stage, 44 km course, including the top teams from the Kanto regional championship Hakone Ekiden, strong schools from other regions of Japan, and a select team of ace runners from the American Ivy League. Tokai Unversity had won the previous three years at Izumo on the strength of its two stars Hideaki Date and Yuki Sato, but with the loss of Date to graduation Tokai faced a tough challenge in its quest for a first-ever fourth straight title from 2008 Hakone Ekiden winners Komazawa University. Komazawa’s runners have traditionally relied on sheer strength over speed to make it the top running school in Japan, but this year Komazawa comes to ekiden season with six runners under 14 minutes for 5000 m for the first time in its history. Waseda University, with 5000 and 10000 m Olympian Kensuke Takezawa and a squad of four outstanding first-year students, was also expected to be a serious challenger to Tokai’s title.
Toyo Univ. led most of the way on the strength of yet another noteworthy performance by its own outstanding first-year, Ryuji Kashiwabara, who looks poised to become the new big name in Japanese university distance running, and a brilliant run by its ace senior Tomoya Onishi, but lost control to Komazawa University in the final part of the 4th stage. Komazawa appeared to have a safe margin of victory on the anchor leg, but its first victory in 10 years was snatched away at the last moment by a stage-record run by Nihon Univ. junior Daniel Gitau, who covered the 10.2 km stage in 28:28 despite recent injury troubles. Gitau has been overshadowed by Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.'s popular Mekubo Mogusu during his first two years in the university ekiden circuit, but his double victory over Mogusu at last month's National University Track and Field Championships and his stage record in Izumo suggest he is ready to move up. Gitau was also charismatic and likeable during his first Japanese-language TV interviews before and after the ekiden and even poked fun at himself, removing the tasuki before finishing his anchor leg in parody of his debut ekiden run at Nihon when he was unaware of ekiden rules and took his tasuki off, only done when handing off to a following runner, before finishing his anchor leg. He is sure to earn many fans this season.
Komazawa’s performance illustrated its main strength as a team, its strength. The absence of a single star runner but overall high level is the reason it is the dominant school in the Hakone Ekiden, and its performance at the 2008 Izumo Ekiden demonstrates that it is likely to be the favorite for the 2009 edition of Hakone as well despite an Izumo loss to Nihon, which relies heavily on the strength of its Kenyan ringer.
Along with Gitau, top domestic runners Kensuke Takezawa and Yuki Sato returned from their own injury troubles, Takezawa with an unremarkable turn on the 3rd stage and Sato with a solid anchor run to land Tokai in 6th. It was clear from this performance the extent to which Tokai relied on its Date-Sato combination, boding ill for its chances this season. Waseda, after several years of improvement, finished a dismal 11th, its much-hyped first-year recruits failing to approach expectations in their ekiden debut and Takezawa’s run raising questions about whether he is fully recovered from his injuries. Waseda will have a long way to go to be competitive in time for Hakone.
Nine-time Kyushu Regional University Ekiden champion Daiichi Kogyo had its best-ever result at the Izumo Ekiden, finishing 3rd. The performance was partially due to Daiichi Kogyo’s use of two Kenyans, but strong performances by its Japanese runners, particularly senior Ryohei Nakano on the third stage, were also major contributing factors. As a university outside the Kanto region Daiichi Kogyo does not compete in the Hakone Ekiden and thus does not attract as many top high school runners as schools like Komazawa, Tokai and Waseda, so its performance at this year’s Izumo Ekiden is commendable.
Yamanashi Gakuin and 2008 Hakone Ekiden runners-up Chuo Gakuin had to settle for mediocre 4th and 10th place finishes respectively in the absence of their strongest runners, Mekubo Mogusu and Masato Kihara, both of whom were competing in the World Half Marathon Championships in Rio, Brazil. Mogusu will return to Japan from Rio only to find a challenger to his title as the top Kenyan student runner in Japan, as it was his stage record that Gitau erased.
Next up in the university ekiden season is November's All-Japan University Ekiden, followed by January's Hakone Ekiden. Tokai, Daito Bunka and other schools which are not seeded for next year's Hakone Ekiden will also take part in the Oct. 18 Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai 20 km road race to qualify for Hakone.
First Stage – 8.0 km
Conditions at the start were unseasonably hot, 24 degrees and sunny as the race began in front of Izumo Great Shrine, one of Japan’s most important cultural sites. Kenyan exchange students Samuel Ganga of Hiroshima Univ. of Economics and Kibet Kipngeno of nine-time Kyushu University Ekiden champions Daiichi Kogyo Univ. led on the first stage, pursued by Nihon Bunri Univ.`s Ryota Yoshida and Toyo Univ.’s superb first-year Ryuji Kashiwabara. Yoshida soon dropped back, joined by Komazawa’s Sota Hoshi as Kashiwabara stayed with the Kenyans through a 2:38 first km. By 2 km Kipngeno had been replaced by Hoshi and Kashiwabara was challenging Ganga for control. Leading the chase pack were Kipgenon and Waseda’s biggest new recruit, 2007-08 high school champion Yuki Yagi. Ganga, Kashiwabara and Hoshi hit 3 km in 8:19 with a substantial lead over the chase pack, while Yagi, holder of the fastest 5000 m PB in the field, 13:50, was dropping back through the ranks.
Just after 3 km Kashiwabara attacked on a steep downhill, opening a slight gap. Ganga responded but was unable to keep with the Toyo runner. He and Hoshi repeatedly traded places as they tried to catch back up. 4 km passed in 11:06 before Ganga was able to retake the lead. Hitting 5 km in 14:00, Ganga had a small lead over Kashiwabara and Hoshi was nowhere to be seen. At 5.5 km Kipngeno returned, catching Hoshi and moving up on a straining Kashiwabara. Ganga, a graduate of Sera High School, hit 6 km in 16:56 with Kashiwabara just under 17:00, then 7 km in 19:54. He looked back repeatedly during the final km, finishing the stage in 22:56 and just missing the stage record of 22:50 set at last year’s Izumo Ekiden by Chuo Univ. senior Yuichiro Ueno. Kashiwabara held on for 2nd in 23:09 with Kipngeno 3rd in 23:13. Komazawa was 4th, Tokai 15th, and Waseda 17th on the stage.
1. Samuel Ganga (Hiroshima Univ. of Economics) - 22:56 - stage best
2. Ryuji Kashiwabara (Toyo Univ.) - 23:09
3. Kibet Kipngeno (Daiichi Kogyo Univ.) - 23:13
4. Sota Hoshi (Komazawa Univ.) - 23:39
5. Eiji Teramoto (Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 23:40
Second Stage – 5.8 km
Toyo first-year Hiroyuki Uno quickly overtook Hiroshima Econ’s first-year Chihiro Uehara to move into the lead, taking control after just 1.5 km. Uehara held on for nearly one km but quickly fell away, overtaken in turn by Daiichi Kogyo’s Shota Atsuchi and a pack including Komazawa, Nihon, Yamanashi Gakuin and Rikkyo. The pack, led by Komazawa’s Nobuhiro Ajima, continued to advance and overtook Atsuchi with just 500 m to go. With 400 m left Nihon’s Takahiro Taniguchi attacked in an all-out sprint, pursued only by Yamanashi Gakuin’s Aoi Matsumoto. Uno held off the charge, handing off to ace Tomoya Onishi in the lead position and covering the stage in 17:01. Taniguchi was 9 seconds back in 2nd, Matsumoto just steps behind. After a short gap came Ajima and Atsuchi. Tokai advanced only one place to 14th, while Waseda failed to catch any rivals, maintaining 17th.
1. Hiroyuki Uno (Toyo Univ.) - 40:10 (17:01)
2. Takahiro Taniguchi (Nihon Univ.) - 40:19 (16:39)
3. Aoi Matsumoto (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 40:21 (16:38 - stage best)
4. Nobuhiro Ajima (Komazawa Univ.) - 40:26 (16:47)
5. Shota Atsuchi (Daiichi Kogyo Univ.) - 40:27 (17:14)
Third Stage – 8.5 km
The 3rd stage featured many schools’ best runners, setting viewers up for some of the Izumo Ekiden’s most exciting racing. Komazawa and Daiichi Kogyo swiftly caught up to Nihon and Yamanashi Gakuin, forming a pack of four to chase down Toyo senior Onishi. Onishi, part of a set of identical triplets, one of whom passed away as an infant, the other of whom, Kazuki, is Toyo’s captain, looked steady and comfortable but lost ground to the challenge led by Komazawa junior Takuya Fukatsu. Nihon senior Takuma Sasaya was unable to stay with Fukatsu’s pace, falling away from the chase pack.
Far to the rear, Takezawa was rapidly creating a classic run. The first university ekiden Olympian in forty-four years, senior Takezawa sat out most of 2008 with serious injuries, returning just in time to qualify for the Olympics. He picked off one runner shortly after beginning, then at 2.6 km went by a group of five including Tokai. Tokai senior Norimasu Yoshida stayed with Takezawa, moving a step ahead running together for one km. Takezawa began to grimace and looked red in the face. Within another km, Yoshida had pulled away, opening a gap of over 5 m over Takezawa.
In the lead, Yamanashi Gakuin’s Daisuke Koyama out of contention by 4.5 km, but Fukatsu and Daiichi Kogyo senior Ryohei Nakano were still close behind Onishi. At 5.6 km they were 4 seconds behind the leader. Further back, Sasaya had returned, overtaking Koyama. Tokai’s Yoshida continued to pull away from Takezawa, overtaking Chuo’s Tomoya Mizukoshi just as the pair reached the 5.6 km checkpoint. Takezawa was 13 seconds back.
After 6 km, Onishi began a long, slow acceleration, gradually shifting his form and pulling away from his tired pursuers. It was a masterful move which effectively neutralized Fukatsu’s finishing speed along with that of the more unknown Nakano. As a student at the Kyushu region's Daiichi Kogyo, Nakano cannot run in the Hakone Ekiden and thus does not receive anywhere near the media attention accorded to rivals such as Fukatsu, but he nevertheless ran as a worthy rival, outkicking Fukatsu by 4 seconds and finishing 13 seconds back from Onishi, who covered the stage in 24:41. Sasaya finished 1:04 back from Onishi, with Koyama another 13 seconds behind.
Tokai’s Yoshida finished the stage in 9th, 2:11 behind Onishi but advancing the defending champs five places. Takezawa was 37 seconds behind Yoshida in 11th place, picking up six spots but losing 56 seconds to the leader. He commented afterwards that his right thigh continues to be a source of trouble and that it had flared up during his Izumo run.
1. Tomoya Onishi (Toyo Univ.) - 1:04:51 (24:41)
2. Ryohei Nakano (Daiichi Kogyo Univ.) - 1:05:04 (24:37 - stage best)
3. Takuya Fukatsu (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:05:08 (24:42)
4. Takuma Sasaya (Nihon Univ.) - 1:05:55 (25:36)
5. Daisuke Koyama (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 1:06:08 (25:47)
Fourth Stage – 6.5 km
Toyo sophomore Yu Chiba led through the 4th stage, pursued by Daiichi Kogyo’s Ryo Taniguchi and Komazawa captain, senior Soji Ikeda. At 2.5 km Chiba looked back to check on the situation but seemed to continue without change. At 2.8 km Ikeda caught Taniguchi, running abreast as the gap to Chiba narrowed and then pulling away at the halfway point on the stage. A kilometer later Ikeda was right with Chiba, pulling into the lead at 4.5 km and putting Komazawa in position for its first Izumo victory in ten years. Chiba refused to be dropped, pulling even with Ikeda once again 400 m later. The two repeatedly traded stride-long leads, Chiba still looking relaxed but Ikeda showing the strain of having played catchup. With one km to go Ikeda launched his final spurt, definitively pulling away from Chiba, running with his eyes closed, and finished 8 seconds up on 2nd placer Chiba. Taniguchi was 29 seconds back from Chiba. Just behind him, Yamanashi Gakuin’s Kota Otani ran an incredible last km to overtake Nihon junior Yuki Marubayashi and set up a duel between the two schools’ Kenyan anchors on the 6th stage. Tokai advanced to 7th, 1:50 behind the leader, while Waseda maintained 11th but picked up 3 seconds.
1. Soji Ikeda (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:23:49 (18:41)
2. Yu Chiba (Toyo Univ.) - 1:23:57 (19:06)
3. Ryo Taniguchi (Daiichi Kogyo Univ.) - 1:24:26 (19:22)
4. Kota Otani (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 1:25:02 (18:54)
5. Yuki Marubayashi (Nihon Univ.) - 1:25:02 (19:07)
stage best: Masataka Fujiwara (Tokai Univ.) - 18:37
Fifth Stage – 5.0 km
Komazawa junior Yusuke Takahashi began quickly, opening his lead over Toyo junior Tatsuya Yokoyama. He was showing signs of struggle by the halfway point but maintained a steady pace of 2:41/km, on track for a potential new stage record. Behind him, Nihon’s Yosuke Inoue led Yamanashi Gakuin`s Kei Goto as the two worked to make headway against Daiichi Kogyo’s first-year Aya Yamamoto. At 4 km Goto pulled slightly ahead of Inoue who attempted to retake his lead with a long push but was outkicked by Goto in the final sprint.
Takahashi finished in 14:41, just outside the stage record as he handed off to anchor Tsuyoshi Ugachi. Yokoyama came through next, 30 seconds behind. Yamamoto handed off to Daiichi Kogyo’s second Kenyan, first-year Kiragu Njuguna, 1:07 behind Ugachi. 19 seconds later Goto was next, handing off to first-year Kenyan Cosmas Ondiba in the absence of Yamanashi Gakuin’s star Mekubo Mogusu who was in Rio for the World Half Marathon Championships. 3 seconds later Nihon’s ace Daniel Gitau started, 1:29 behind the leader and raising his fist in a victory sign as he began.
1. Yusuke Takahashi (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:38:30 (14:41 - stage best)
2. Tatsuya Yokoyama (Toyo Univ.) - 1:39:00 (15:03)
3. Aya Yamamoto (Daiichi Kogyo Univ.) - 1:39:37 (15:11)
4. Kei Goto (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 1:39:56 (14:54)
5. Yosuke Inoue (Nihon Univ.) - 1:39:59 (14:57)
Sixth Stage – 10.2 km
Komazawa junior Tsuyoshi Ugachi began in an all-out sprint, desperate to build his lead over the battery of Kenyan anchors he was facing. As first-years Njoguna and Ondiba’s abilities were relatively unknown factors, but in a pre-race interview Gitau had said he was confident he could win if he were within 1:20 of the leader at the start. Race announcer and legendary marathoner Toshihiko Seko voiced his concerns about Ugachi’s pacing, saying it was clearly far too fast after a 2:47 first km, but Komazawa coach Hiroaki Oyagi was unconcerned, saying that Ugachi was running according to plan and that if he was able to sustain himself through the first 7 km he was confident of victory.
At 2.4 km Ugachi had a lead of 49 seconds over Toyo senior Masaya Mori. Njuguna was 57 seconds behind Ugachi, with Ondiba and Gitau coming through together 1:02 behind the leader. Gitau had made up 11 seconds per km up to this point and was thus well on track to overtake Ugachi. Somewhat lost in the storm in 2:00 behind Ugachi in 6th place was Tokai anchor Yuki Sato, potentially Japan’s greatest distance runner but recovering from injury.
At a corner at the 4.2 km point Ugachi looked back to check on his pursuers. Ugachi’s pace had gradually slowed, covering the 4th km. in 3:01 as he ran into a headwind. Nothing could be seen, but behind him Njuguna had passed Mori, then in turn been passed by Gitau, who had dropped Ondiba just before taking Mori and Njoguna. Njuguna stayed right on Gitau’s heels as the two advanced toward the lead, and Ondiba overtook Mori, hinting at the possibility of a Kenyan sweep on the anchor stage. Ugachi slowed further to 3:04 for the 5th km, taking water at a drink station.
On the long downhill during the 6th km, one of Ugachi’s coaches shouted details of his situation to the struggling anchor. He responded, accelerating somewhat awkwardly and returning to sub-3 min/km pace. Gitau in the meantime pulled away from Njuguna, steadily pressing forward. With 3 km to go he was 15 seconds behind, and the only question became how many of the Kenyans would pass the unfortunate Ugachi. Just past 8 km the hammer came down as Gitau took the lead. Ugachi responded again, trying to stay in contention, but with 400 m Gitau had opened a gap and it was over. Or was it? Gitau began looking back, losing some of his composure and beginning to struggle. Ugachi seemed to hold his position, while Njuguna and Ondiba continued to get closer. Ugachi rallied in the final 500 m, but Gitau was too strong and finished 14 seconds ahead, 1:43 faster than his rival despite some recent knee trouble. Gitau’s time for the 10.2 km anchor stage was 28:28, a new stage record by 5 seconds over the mark set last year by Yamanashi Gakuin’s Mogusu.
Njuguna was 3rd, delivering Daiichi Kogyo its best-ever finish. Ondiba came in 4th with a strong showing, boding well for Yamanashi Gakuin’s next few years following Mogusu’s graduation. Toyo’s hapless anchor Mori came in 5th after being wiped out by the three Kenyans, but managed to hold off Sato, who brought the defending champs Tokai home in 6th place with the only sub-30 minute time by a Japanese runner on the 6th stage. Waseda struggled home in a crushing 11th place, just behind 2008 Hakone Ekiden runners-up Chuo Gakuin whose ace Masato Kihara was competing on the Japanese national team at the World Half Marathon Championships.
1. Daniel Gitau (Nihon Univ.) - 2:08:27 (28:28 - new stage record)
2. Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Komazawa Univ.) - 2:08:41 (30:11)
3. Cosmas Ondiba (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 2:09:10 (29:22)
4. Kiragu Njuguna (Daiichi Kogyo Univ.) - 2:09:18 (29:33)
5. Masaya Mori (Toyo Univ.) - 2:10:05 (31:05)
1. Nihon Univ. - 2:08:27
2. Komazawa Univ. - 2:08:41
3. Daiichi Kogyo Univ. - 2:09:10
4. Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. - 2:09:18
5. Toyo Univ. - 2:10:05
6. Tokai Univ. - 2:10:23
7. Ritsumeikan Univ. - 2:11:31
8. Chuo Univ. - 2:12:05
9. Teikyo Univ. - 2:12:08
10. Chuo Gakuin Univ. - 2:12:32
11. Waseda Univ. - 2:12:47
12. Asia Univ. - 2:13:28
13. Kyoto Sangyo Univ. - 2:14:09
14. Daito Bunka Univ. - 2:14:59
15. Nihon Bunri Univ. - 2:15:50
16. Hokkaido Select Team - 2:16:38
17. Ivy League Select Team - 2:17:21
18. Hokushinetsu Select Team - 2:18:26
19. Aichi Kogyo Univ. - 2:19:01
20. Hiroshima Univ. of Economics - 2:19:19
21. Central Shikoku Select Team - 2:19:55
22. Tohoku Select Team - 2:23:23
For more information including complete stage-by-stage results visit the Izumo Ekiden's website. The listings in the box on the left show a summary of the results in the link at the top of the box as well as overall standings by handoff order on the left and by time on each stage on the right.
(c) 2008 Brett Larner
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