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Komazawa Holds Off Rivals to Take 3rd Straight National Ekiden Championship (updated)

by Brett Larner

Komazawa University solidified its hold on the Japanese university ekiden world with a third straight victory at the All-Japan University Men's Ekiden on Nov. 2, outrunning rival Waseda University and holding off Yamanashi Gakuin University's double Kenyan challenge to take the win. Komazawa took the lead from Waseda on the seventh of the ekiden's eight stages and edged away by a second or two per kilometer for the rest of the race.

Yamanashi Gakuin, in striking position after a stage record final run by Kenyan senior Mekubo Mogusu on the fourth leg, was expected to win if its anchor, first year Cosmas Ondiba, was within 3 minutes of the lead, but despite being only 2:05 back at the start of his run Ondiba was unable to overtake either Waseda's or Komazawa's anchors.

Komazawa third year Takuya Fukatsu brought the defending champions home to win again in 5:16:16. Komazawa finished 2nd at the 2008 Izumo Ekiden behind Nihon University, which was a distant 6th at today's All-Japan Ekiden. Kyushu's Daiichi Kogyo University hoped to become the first school in many years from outside the eastern Japan Kanto region to make the seeded top six positions but ended up a disappointing 7th.

Toyo university captain Tomoya Onishi took the race out hard, running a 2:38 first km. The pack quickly separated into three sections, the rear and middle packs containing twelve of the schools from outside eastern Japan's Kanto region and one from Kanto, the front pack containing eleven Kanto schools and two from other parts of Japan. The difference in quality between Kanto, the region which hosts the Hakone Ekiden, and Japan's other nine regions could not have been clearer.

Onishi won the first stage by 19 seconds, running 42:48 for 14.6 km. He handed off to Toyo's second ace, first year Ryuji Kashiwabara. Running against many rival schools' top runners including Beijing 5000 m and 10000 m Olympian Kensuke Takezawa of Waseda Univ. and World Half Marathon Championships team leader Masato Kihara of Chuo Gakuin Univ., Kashiwabara showed again that he is the new man to watch this year by running one second off the stage record to maintain Toyo's lead and tie Kihara for the stage best time. Both runners clocked 37:44 for the 13.2 km stage, one second faster than Takezawa. The Olympian Takezawa was revealed to be running with a stress fracture in his left shin but nevertheless managed to overtake Komazawa and move Waseda into 2nd.

Waseda's star first year Yuki Yagi, the top graduating high school student nationally in 2008, ran even with Komazawa's Nobuhiro Azuma on the 9.5 km third stage, both runners picking up 2 seconds on Toyo's Ryo Takami but outdone for stage best honors by Chuo Univ.'s Takafumi Yanase who ran the leg in 27:29 far behind the leaders.

The 14.0 km fourth stage saw the first big shakeup to the running order. Another of Waseda's four ace first years, Yusuke Mita, ran a sensational performance, dropping Komazawa and overtaking Toyo to put Waseda in first by 7 seconds at the end of the stage. Behind the battle up front, Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. senior Mekubo Mogusu, who had a disappointing run at the World Half Marathon Championships after suffering swelling in his legs after a long flight to Rio in economy class, tried to regain some of his form as he chased Daiichi Kogyo Univ.'s Kenyan Kiragu Njuguna to put Yamanashi into the seeded top six. Behind him, Nihon Univ.'s Daniel Gitau, who beat Mogusu in both the 5000 m and 10000 m at September's National University Track and Field Championships and last month broke Mogusu's stage record on the anchor leg of the Izumo Ekiden while winning the race for Nihon, tried to overtake both Kenyan rivals. Mogusu came out on top, setting a new stage record of 39:32. Gitau also broke the old stage record with a mark of 39:41. Njuguna had the third-fastest time on the stage, running 40:54. Tokyo Nogyo Univ.'s Kazuki Tomaru, who won last month's Yosenkai 20 km road race, was the top Japanese runner on the stage in 41:03.

Waseda's Kiyonori Takahara had the top time on the fifth stage, widening the school's lead to 35 seconds, but Komazawa's sixth and seventh runners, Yusuke Takabayashi and Yukinori Ota, each had the fastest times on their stages, putting Komazawa in 2nd place 4 seconds behind Waseda at the end of the sixth leg and 4 seconds ahead in 1st by the end of the seventh leg, well clear of 3rd place Chuo Gakuin. Toyo had faded to 5th.

The eighth and final stage looked to be a duel between two-time defending champions Komazawa and the resurrected Waseda looking for its first win in 13 years. But there was more to the story. Back in 4th place, Yamanashi Gakuin ran its first year Kenyan Cosmas Ondiba as anchor. Komazawa anchor Takuya Fukatsu and Waseda anchor Takahiro Ozaki were clearly running scared. In the first half of the stage it looked as though Ondiba would make up the 2:05 deficit on the leaders, but his inexperience showed as he faded over the final 5 km to land in 3rd but nevertheless took the stage best time. Fukatsu gradually applied pressure on Ozaki, edging away one second at a time to put Waseda's win out of reach.

Komazawa's win makes it the strongest contender for a repeat win at the 2009 Hakone Ekiden. Its depth and quality, evidenced by its lineup of six sub-14:00 5000 m runners, puts it in another class from any of the other universities in Kanto. Waseda was runner up to Komazawa both today and at the 2008 Hakone Ekiden. Compared to last month's Izumo Ekiden, Waseda today looked like a different team, with excellent performances from all three first years who ran and a commendable performance by Takezawa even though injured. It's doubtful that Komazawa can run any better in Hakone than today, but Waseda still has considerable room for improvement and could be in position for an upset. Likewise, Yamanashi Gakuin will be in a position to challenge Komazawa as Mogusu returns to fitness and Ondiba learns from today's experience.

Notably absent today was Tokai Univ.'s Yuki Sato, along with Takezawa and Kihara one of the top university runners in Japan. Sato was plagued by injury over the summer. He ran well at the Izumo Ekiden but less than a week later struggled at the Yosenkai 20 km road race, walking repeatedly and finishing far back in the field. Without Sato Tokai is unremarkable, as evidenced by its 12th place performance today. If Sato, who has set stage records in all three of his Hakone runs so far, is unable to run or even still injured come Hakone, Tokai will struggle to make the top ten seeded positions.

2008 All-Japan University Men's Ekiden Championships
Stage Best Performances
1st stage: 14.6 km: Tomoya Onishi (4th yr., Toyo Univ.) - 42:48
2nd stage: 13.2 km: Ryuji Kashiwabara (1st yr., Toyo Univ.) and Masato Kihara (4th yr., Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 37:44
3rd stage: 9.5 km: Takafumi Yanase (Chuo Univ.) - 27:29
4th stage: 14.0 km: Mekubo Mogusu (4th yr., Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 39:32 - new stage record
5th stage: 11.6 km: Kiyonari Takahara (Waseda Univ.) - 34:33
6th stage: 12.3 km: Yusuke Takabayashi (Komazawa Univ.) - 36:15
7th stage: 11.9 km: Yukinori Ota (Komazawa Univ.) - 35:35
8th stage: 19.7 km: Cosmas Ondiba (1st yr., Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 58:33

Overall Team Finishes
1. Komazawa Univ. - 5:16:17
2. Waseda Univ. - 5:17:01
3. Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. - 5:17:54
4. Toyo Univ. - 5:20:18
5. Chuo Gakuin Univ. - 5:20:55
6. Nihon Univ. - 5:21:16
---(top 6 teams seeded for 2009)---
7. Daiichi Kogyo Univ. - 5:23:07
8. Chuo Univ. - 5:24:04
9. Nittai Univ. - 5:25:02
10. Tokyo Nogyo Univ. - 5:25:23
11. Meiji Univ. - 5:26:14
12. Tokai Univ. - 5:26:47
13. Teikyo Univ. - 5:27:16
14. Ritsumeikan Univ. - 5:29:07
15. Kyoto Sangyo Univ. - 5:34:42
--- Tokai Regional Univ. Select Team - 5:34:45*
16. Nihon Bunri Univ. - 5:35:11
17. Tohoku Fukushi Univ. - 5:35:11
18. Kanaya Sangyo Univ. - 5:36:16
19. Takaoka Hoka Univ. - 5:36:31
20. Sapporo Gakuin Univ. - 5:37:44
21. Hiroshima Univ. - 5:37:46
22. Aichi Kogyo Univ. - 5:38:13
23. Chukyo Univ. - 5:38:22
24. Fukuoka Univ. - 5:38:56
25. Shinshu Univ. - 5:41:49

* The Tokai Regional University Select Team is not included in overall scoring.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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