by Brett Larner
After failing to even qualify for the 2007 All-Japan Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden, Team Toyota Jidoshoki scored a surprise win over defending champion Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo at this year's national championship ekiden in Gifu Prefecture. Toyota Jidoshoki, one of two teams in the ekiden coached by Yoshio Koide, had only previously qualified once and was missing its star runner Yuriko Kobayashi, whom Rikuren banned from competing in jitsogyodan events after her enrollment in university last year. Neverthless, strong performances from the entire team, particularly anchor Aya Nagata's stage best run, were enough to unseat Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo.
Team Panasonic's 17 year old Christie Muyanga, the 2008 World Junior 3000 m steeplechase champion, ran away from the field on the ekiden's 6.6 km 1st stage. She faded in the final 600 m and was almost overtaken by the chase pack which included 2008 International Chiba Ekiden Japanese national team anchor Mizuho Nasukawa (Team Aruze), 2007 Tokyo Marathon winner Hitomi Niiya (Team Toyota Jidoshoki) and 2008 Tokyo International Women's Marathon winner Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei). Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo's Ikuyo Yamashita handed off to teammate Rie Takayoshi close behind in 5th. Takayoshi was relentless, swiftly opening a sizeable lead over her rivals over the short 3.3 km 2nd stage.
Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo led for the remainder five of the ekiden's six stages, a stage-best run by 3rd leg specialist Yoko Shibui opening a gap of almost a minute on its rivals. Shibui started convervatively, only dropping into high gear around 3 km into the 10 km leg when she was about to be overtaken by Koide-coached Kenyans Winfridah Mochache Kebaso (Team Toyota Jidoshoki) and Julia Mumbi (Team Aruze). Shibui rocketed a 2:59 km split and pulled away.
Behind her, a variety of duels was taking place between many other teams' big stars. Team Hokuren's Philes Ongori overtook first Beijing Olympic marathoner and then 5000 m and half marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal). Fukushi was uncharacteristically sluggish and unresponsive, surprising considering that her standard response to questions this fall concerning her plans for another try at the marathon has been that she was focusing on the ekiden championships. Fukushi's coaching staff claimed she was suffering from shin and foot problems, but her performance may well have been indicative that she is actually running high mileage in preparation for a marathon.
In her post-run interview, Shibui said that she was glad she had increased Mitsui's lead but was disappointed with her run. When asked by an interviewer how it felt to have clocked the stage best time, Shibui's reaction of surprise and delight seemed unfeigned, as though she genuinely believed she had been outrun by Ongori. Mitsui's Reiko Tosa, who dropped out of the Beijing Olympics marathon with a foot injury and afterwards announced her retirement at the end of the current year, was at the handoff zone to assist Shibui after her run. Tosa had hoped to recover sufficiently to run the ekiden on the Mitsui team but depsite appearing on the entry list was not selected as a starter.
4th stage runner Yukako Eto further widened Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo's lead, but on the 5th stage Mitsui's Miki Ohira was in trouble right from the start, her form unsteady and her legs looking soft and weak. Team Toyota Jidoshoki's Akane Wakita bore down on Ohira even as she was in turn pursued by Team Hokuren's Yukiko Akaba. Akaba clocked the stage best time, running at 10000 m PB pace for most of the 11.6 km stage. Her performance was impressive at the very least, showing no signs of fatigue from her preparations to run her marathon debut in January at the Osaka International Women's Marathon. Although she was overtaken by Akaba and could not quite close the gap on Ohira, Wakita brought her team within 9 seconds of the lead, a return to form after a difficult year and a half since her appearance on the national team at the 2007 World Track and Field Championships.
Toyota Jidoshoki anchor Aya Nagata quickly overtook Hokuren and Mitsui's Chisato Osaki, opening a gap of 30 seconds by the time she reached the goal line. It was the first victory for the young Toyota team and, considering that its oldest runner is only 23, one which may mark the start of a new dynasty in the women's ekiden circuit. Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo, the best women's team in the competition's history, was devastated to finish 2nd, particularly as it was team leader Reiko Tosa's final appearance with the team before her planned retirement. Team Hokuren, led by Akaba's stage best mark and Kenyan Philes Ongori's stage 2nd best on the 3rd leg, held on for 3rd place overall, its highest-ever finish.
Complete overall and stage-by-stage results are available here.
2008 All-Japan Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden Top Placers
Stage Best Performances
1st stage (6.6 km): Christie Muyanga (Team Panasonic) - 20:20
2nd stage (3.3 km): Rie Takayoshi (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 10:14
3rd stage (10.0 km): Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 31:41
4th stage (4.1 km): Yoshie Kurisu (Team Tenmaya) - 13:00
5th stage (11.6 km): Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren) - 36:17
6th stage (6.595 km): Aya Nagata (Team Toyota Jidoshoki) - 20:35
1. Team Toyota Jidoshoki - 2:14:17
2. Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo - 2:14:53
3. Team Hokuren - 2:15:19
4. Team Tenmaya - 2:16:29
5. Team Daiichi Seimei - 2:16:35
6. Team Aruze - 2:17:26
7. Team Wacoal - 2:17:27
8. Team Shiseido - 2:17:47
9. Team Juhachi Ginko - 2:18:10
10. Team Daihatsu - 2:18:17
(c) 2008 Brett Larner
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