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Toyokawa Takes Its First-Ever All-Japan High School Girls Ekiden Title

by Brett Larner

Click photo for video highlights courtesy of NHK.

The All-Japan High School Ekiden Championships took place Dec. 21 in Kyoto, broadcast nationwide and commercial-free on government-sponsored NHK Television. A widespread heatwave brought warm, sunny conditions for the first race of the day, the five-stage, 21.0975 km High School Girls Ekiden. In only its third appearance in the championship ekiden, Toyokawa High School of Aichi Prefecture overcame a new rule intended partly to limit the effectiveness of its Kenyan ace Wysela Wylim to take its first national title. Defending champion Ritsumeikan Uji High School finished 3rd, a fantastic performance by anchor Ikumi Natsuhara not quite enough for her to catch rival Ai Kuboki of Kojokan High School, who finished in 2nd just 4 seconds back from Toyokawa's Wylim.

1st Stage - 6.0 km
A new rule this year in both the girls' and boys' races followed a nationwide trend in championship ekidens by banning non-Japanese runners from the longest, most competitive stages, in this case the 6.0 km 1st stage. No rationale for the change was presented to the television audience. Perhaps as a consequence of this elimination of runners unafraid to race from start to finish, the first kilometer was a very slow 3:23, 11 seconds slower than last year's race when two Kenyan 'exchange students' led the way. A pack of four made up of defending champion Ritsumeikan Uji, last year's 2nd and 3rd place teams Kumamoto Chiharadai and Kojokan, and newcomer Toyokawa pulled away from the rest of the field. Kojokan's Rei Obara took the lead in the final third of the stage, giving Kojokan a 10 second lead.

2nd Stage - 4.0975 km
Kojokan's Aika Tsutsumi widened her team's lead to 18 seconds, but with 1 km to go Toyokawa's Nanaka Izawa burst from the chase pack, picking up 11 seconds on the leader to finish just 7 seconds back.

3rd Stage - 3.0 km
Toyokawa's national 3000 m champion Asami Kato moved up on Kojokan's Mahiro Akamatsu, while Tokiwa's Mayuka Sekiguchi led a chasing group of three schools including Ritsumeikan Uji. Kato gradually inched closer, and almost even with 400 m to go, but Akamatsu attacked on a final uphill and pulled away to maintain a slim lead for Kojokan's. Ritsumeikan Uji's Nanase Arai dropped the other chasers for 3rd, Tokiwa landed 4th, and Suma Gakuen overtook Chiharadai for 5th.

4th Stage - 3.0 km
Kojokan's Rie Toda rocketed away from Toyokawa's Waka Shimomura. At 1 km Toda's lead was up to 12 seconds, while further back Suma Gakuen's Minami Naka-Arai overtook Tokiwa and Ritsumeikan Uji.

By 2 km Toda paid the price for early aggression, slowing dramatically as Shimomura came back with a vengeance and passed Toda with 660 m left. Toda tried to hang on and Shimomura gradually applied more pressure, but Toda was tenacious and once again pulled even. With 250 m to go Toda again moved into the lead, and with her last sprint opened a gap on Shimomura. In battling each other the two widened the lead over Suma Gakuen to 20 seconds.

5th Stage - 5.0 km
The race was over almost as soon as the race began, as Toyokawa's Kenyan anchor, Wysela Wylim, barred this year from repeating last year's brilliant 1st stage run, sailed effortlessly past Kojokan's Ai Kuboki to take the lead. However, by halfway Kuboki started to narrow the gap reeling Wylim back in. In the distance, Ritsumeikan Uji's Ikumi Natsuhara was overtaking Suma Gakuen's Akane Abushita in the race for 3rd, passing her at 3 km. Ahead, by 3 km Wylim's lead was down to 8 seconds and she looked to be struggling. At 3.5 km her lead was 5 seconds. At 4 km it was 4 seconds. Who had the stronger kick?

Kuboki was on fire as she tried to chase down the Kenyan, who looked back for the first time just before entering the stadium and realized how close she was to losing the race. As Wylim tried to stay ahead of the charging Kuboki, from out of nowhere Nasuhara came into the stadium just behind. In a dramatic sprint finish Wylim held on, reaching the goal line in 1:07:37 to give Toyokawa its first-ever victory. Kuboki was 2nd in 1:07:41, with Nasuhara 3rd in 1:07:49, outrunning Wylim by 17 seconds and just missing the stage record by 4 seconds. Suma Gakuen was 4th and Tokiwa 5th.

Completely ignored by race broadcasters, Aomori Yamada's Felista Wanjugu, the winner of last year's first stage, delivered the performance of the ekiden, passing 18 runners to put Aomori Yamada into 14th with an incredible 15:04. Her time broke the existing anchor stage record by 27 seconds, a fact which received little more than passing mention. Race commentator, 1991 World Championships marathon silver medalist and Team Daiichi Seimei head coach Sachiko Yamashita came the closest to acknowledging the apparent efforts at this year's championships to minimize and hide the presence of foreign runners, commenting on air, "It would've been nice to see some of her run."

NHK's excellent race website includes complete team results along with a detailed breakdown of individual stage performances. A selection of photo highlights is also available here.

2008 All-Japan High School Girls Ekiden
Stage Best Performances
1st Stage (6.0 km) - Rei Obara (3rd yr., Kojokan) - 19:33
2nd Stage (4.0975 km) - Nanaka Izawa (2nd yr., Toyokawa) - 12:54
3rd Stage (3.0 km) - Natsuki Kawakami (3rd yr., Suga Gakuen) - 9:28
4th Stage (3.0 km) - Waka Shimomura (1st yr., Toyokawa) - 9:14
5th Stage (5.0 km) - Felista Wanjugu (3rd yr., Aomori Yamada) - 15:04 - new stage record

Top Team Results
1. Toyokawa (Aichi Pref.) - 1:07:37
2. Kojokan (Okayama Pref.) - 1:07:41
3. Ritsumeikan Uji (Kyoto Pref.) - 1:07:49
4. Suma Gakuen (Hyogo Pref.) - 1:08:24
5. Tokiwa (Gunma Pref.) - 1:08:31
6. Chikushi Gakuen (Kita Kyushu) - 1:08:50
7. Chiharadai (Minami Kyushu) - 1:09:00
8. Isahaya (Nagasaki Pref.) - 1:09:04
9. Kamimura Gakuen (Kagoshima Pref.) - 1:09:19
10. Kumamoto Shinai (Kumamoto Pref.) - 1:09:26


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