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Team Fujitsu Wins 3-Way Sprint Finish at New Year Ekiden

by Brett Larner

Team Fujitsu anchor Ryuji Matsushita won a spectacular three-way sprint finish over Team Nissin Shokuhin's Yuzo Onishi and Team Asahi Kasei's Tomoya Adachi to bring Fujitsu home in 4:51:55 to its first New Year Ekiden win in ten years on a windy Jan. 1 morning in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture. Both Nissin Shokuhin and Asahi Kasei clocked 4:51:56, with Matsushita a step ahead and Onishi outleaning Adachi at the line.

Team Fujitsu ran in the second pack for the first three of the 100 km ekiden's seven stages. Former marathon national record holder Atsushi Fujita started the 22.3 km fourth stage in 4th place, passing all three runners ahead of him but being outkicked by one second by Team Komori Corp.'s Keita Akiba. Akiba clocked the stage-best performance in 1:03:04, with Fujita taking a creditable stage-3rd best, putting Team Fujitsu in 2nd place.

Team Fujitsu's 5th stage runner Takayuki Ota likewise clocked a stage-3rd best, running 47:42 for the uphill 15.9 km leg to cross the handoff zone just centimeters ahead of Team Nissin Shokuhin's Bene Zama. 6th stage runner Shoji Akutsu improved with a stage-2nd best, putting Fujitsu in the lead over Nissin by one second, Team Asahi Kasei just steps behind in 3rd.

Team Fujitsu anchor Ryuji Matsushita ran together with Team Nissin Shokuhin anchor Yuzo Onishi, a 2:08 marathoner, for the 3.3 km of the 15.7 final stage before the pair were joined by 2008 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon winner Tomoya Adachi of Team Asahi Kasei. Adachi pressed the others, but after a brief lead by Onishi the pace slowed and the trio hit 10 km in 30:00. Matsushita and Onishi began looking back in worry that the slow tempo would allow another runner to catch them, but neither made an attempt to push the pace. At 11.5 km Adachi had a sudden attack of stomach cramps but responded by pushing his lead.

Just past 12 km Matsushita attacked, but despite the sudden increase in pace he failed to gain any ground on Onishi and Adachi. He relaxed at 13.5 km and dropped behind his two rivals, but as soon as he was out of the lead the pace dropped drastically. The tension built as all three runners waited for someone to make a move. The 'one km to go' mark came and went with no reaction. Finally, with 300 m left Onishi began to sprint. Adachi stayed even with him as Matsushita, initially slow to react, came back in contact. Matsushita acted next, passing Adachi and challenging Onishi, who upped his own pace. Adachi drifted away as the finish line approached, Matsushita and Onishi running abreast until Matsushita found a final gear and leapt away to take the win. Adachi likewise found something left with which to retake Onishi right on the line, but he was a breath shy of pulling ahead.

The win was Team Fujitsu's first in ten years and only the second in its history. Team Nissin Shokuhin finished 2nd, seeing its hopes of a first New Year victory dashed at the last moment after being in or within steps of the lead for the entire ekiden. Nissin will be forced to wait another year, but its chances of a 2010 win will be strong with the impending addition of top-ranked university runner Yuki Sato to its lineup. Team Asahi Kasei was 3rd, but this time the all-Japanese team owed a great deal of its high placing to a new rule which reduced the 2nd stage to 8.3 km, the ekiden's shortest by over 3 km, and restricted non-Japanese runners to this new leg. Among the motives for this change was a desire by organizers to reduce the advantage of teams which have the resources to hire talented non-Japanese runners and to level the field for teams which either cannot afford or, in the case of Team Asahi Kasei, choose not to employ non-Japanese.

Defending champion Team Konica Minolta was a distant 4th place, with expected challenger Team Honda fading to 8th after a strong first half thanks in large part to Ethiopian ace Yakob Jarso. 2007 winner Team Chugoku Denryoku was never a factor, running the early stages far behind the lead and never advancing higher than its final 7th place. Chugoku Denryoku head coach Yasushi Sakaguchi admitted that the team will be weak for several years as its aces Tsuyoshi Ogata and Shigeru Aburaya fade with age and its new blood Naoki Okamoto and Hideaki Date continue to develop.

For complete team and stage-by-stage results including a graph of each team's position throughout the ekiden click here.

2009 New Year Ekiden
Top Team Results
1. Team Fujitsu - 4:51:55
2. Team Asahi Kasei - 4:51:56
3. Team Nissin Shokuhin - 4:51:56
4. Team Konica Minolta - 4:53:34
5. Team Toyota - 4:53:45
6. Team Toyota Boshoku - 4:54:15
7. Team Chugoku Denryoku - 4:54:29
8. Team Honda - 4:54:31
9. Team Yakult - 4:56:17
10. Team Komori Corp. - 4:56:17

Stage Best Performances
1st stage (12.3 km): Ryuji Ono (Team Asahi Kasei) - 35:59
2nd stage (8.3 km): Josephat Ndambiri (Team Komori Corp.) - 21:54
3rd stage (13.7 km): Yuki Iwai (Team Asahi Kasei) - 38:14
4th stage (22.3 km): Keita Akiba (Team Komori Corp.) - 1:03:04
5th stage (15.9 km): Satoru Sasaki (Team Asahi Kasei) - 47:26
6th stage (11.8 km): Tomo Tsubota (Team Konica Minolta) - 34:37
7th stage (15.7 km): Seigo Ikegami (Team Honda) - 47:26

(c) 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


TokyoRacer said…
Akiba (4th stage) was amazing. That's a 60:15 half marathon. The commentators said he runs well in this race every year. What the heck does he do the rest of the year? He should run some big races!
Brett Larner said…
Agreed, he was one of the highlights. I have to admit I had never heard of him before, but he was great, like Mitsuya last year. It's a great shame that guys like these almost never translate these fantastic ekiden runs into equivalent performances in races which matter.

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