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Japan Takes Final Yokoyama International Women's Ekiden

by Brett Larner

Click here for an extensive set of photos from the ekiden and after-party courtesy of NTV.

To the surprise of none, a crack Japanese national team made up of most of the country's best current distance runners easily dispatched six foreign and seven regional domestic teams to win the final edition of the Yokohama International Women's Ekiden on Feb. 22. Among the foreign teams, on paper only the Kenyan and Russia squads stood a chance of competing with the hosts' loaded national team, which covered the six-stage, 42.195 km course in 2:15:05 to take its 10th win in the ekiden's history. Kenya was a distant 2nd in 2:16:58, while Russia fell victim to two of the regional Japanese teams, finishing 5th in 2:19:20.

The Japanese national team's three big guns, Yuriko Kobayashi (Team Toyota Jidoshokki), Yuri Kano (Second Wind AC) and Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) all took stage best titles, while Japan's other three runners were all 2nd on their stages. Kano's former Second Wind teammate Ruth Wanjiru took one of Kenya's two stage best titles, the other picked up by Caroline Cheptonui Kilel. The final stage best title went to Russia's Natalia Medvedeva. Complete results for the final Yokohama International Women's Ekiden are available here.

With the advent of the Tokyo Marathon, which will introduce an elite women's field at next month's third running, the city of Tokyo opted to eliminate the Tokyo International Women's Marathon following last year's 30th edition. A new Yokohama International Women's Marathon will take place this November to replace the Tokyo race, but this new elite marathon comes at the expense of the Yokohama International Women's Ekiden. The sole remaining major international ekiden in Japan is now November's International Chiba Ekiden, which two years ago showed possible signs of financial trouble when it halved the number of invited runners by combining the separate men's and women's events into a single mixed-team format. As the race with the best graphic design in Japan the Yokohama International Women's Ekiden will be missed.

Stage-by-Stage Report
1500 m national record holder Yuriko Kobayashi, who set the record on the 5 km 1st stage at last year's ekiden, was expected to lead straight from the gun. It was suprising to see her sitting back in the pack during the first km and even more surprising when the entire field except for Finland's Maija Oravamaki hit the kilometer mark in a quick 3:04. Kobayashi moved to the front and then took off, clocking 3:01 for the second km with only Kenya's Lydiah Njeri Mathathi and Russia's Olesya Syreva trying to keep pace. Beijing Olympics marathon gold medalist Constantina Tomescu-Dita was unable to sustain the quick tempo, dropping off and eventually finishing 13th of 14 on the stage. Kobayashi clocked 15:21, with Syreva overtaking Mathathi for 2nd in 15:35 and the Kenyan 3rd in 15:37. A large pack was 14 seconds further back.

Kobayashi handed off to Yuri Kano, a likely member of the national team for this summer's World Championships women's marathon after her 2nd place finish at November's Tokyo International Women's Marathon. Although Kano has reportedly been suffering Achilles tendon problems lately, she appeared smooth and relaxed on the 10 km 2nd stage. Kenyan Magdalene Syombua Mukunzi initially made up ground on Kano but then began to slip back away. At 5.3 km Russian Olympian Inga Abitova was overtaken by Kyushu's Natsumi Tomonaga and Kanto-Tokyo's Aya Nagata, the latter of whom anchored Team Toyota Jidoshokki's national champion ekiden team. The trio stayed together, overtaking Mukunzi at 8.5 km but unable to make up ground on Kano. The Japanese team came through in 47:26, with Russia 2nd in 48:06, Kanto-Tokyo just behind in 48:09, Kyushu slipping slightly in 48:13, and Kenya 5th in 48:20.

Yuko Shimizu, winner of the 6000 m at last week's Chiba International Cross-Country meet and a member of the Japanese team at last year's International Chiba Ekiden, took over from Kano for the 6 km 3rd stage, already so far ahead that being caught was unlikely barring an accident. Kenya's Caroline Cheptonui Kilel did her best, overtaking the Kyushu, Kanto-Tokyo and Russian teams, the latter featuring Beijing Olympics 10000 m 5th place finisher Maria Konovalova. Cheptonui scored the stage best time with a 19:19 run but still finished 43 seconds behind Shimizu. Konovalova, a regular in Japan's international ekidens, had a rare off day and finished another 22 seconds back.

Japan's top university runner Kazue Kojima (Ritsumeikan Univ.) began the return trip on the 6 km 4th stage running alone and unchallenged. Russia's Natalia Medvedeva gradually edged towards Kenya's Caroline Chepkorir, overtaking her at 5.4 km and taking Russia's only stage best title with an 18:59 clocking. It was a rare ekiden stage loss for Kojima, who was 2nd on the stage in 19:01 but kept Japan in the lead by 1:03. Chepkorir brought Kenya through 3 seconds behind Russia in 3rd.

Two-time World Student Games silver medalist Ryoko Kisaki, nearing the end of her first year of professional running, handled the 10 km 5th stage. Kisaki passed halfway in 16:10 and finished in a creditable 32:39 stage 2nd-best. Outrunning her was Kenya's Ruth Wanjiru, a longtime resident of Japan and a teammate of Yuri Kano at Second Wind AC. Wanjiru, who hopes to run on the Kenyan team in the World Championships marathon off her 2:27:38 performance at last month's Osaka International Women's Marathon, was remarkably aggressive, immediately passing Russia's Tatiana Aryasova, clocking 15:52 for the 5 km split, and closing in a stage best 32:31. Aryasova struggled and was overtaken by the Kanto team's Shoko Mori at 6 km and Kyushu's Mariko Nakao at 8.6 km. The U.S.A.'s Melissa White had the best showing of the day for her team, 3rd on the stage in 32:42 and advancing Team America from 8th to 6th.

Starting the 5.195 km 6th stage 58 seconds behind Japanese anchor Yoko Shibui, Kenya's Jane Wamucii Murage had little hope of pulling off an upset victory. Shibui reported being out of shape after taking a few easy weeks following her win at January's Osaka International Women's Marathon but still ran a stage-best 16:29 to bring Japan in to its 10th Yokohama win. Shibui said afterwards that she hadn't been confident about running the anchor leg at all, but thanks to the good position in which the rest of the team had put her it had been no problem. Murage had an impressive sprint finish to bring Kenya home 2nd, while Kanto-Tokyo's Mizuho Nasukawa and Kyushu's Akane Sueyoshi held their 3rd and 4th place positions ahead of Russia's Elena Zadorozhnaya, who landed in 5th.

A detailed breakdown of the results is available here.

2009 Yokohama International Women's Ekiden
Stage Best Performances
1st Stage (5 km) - Yuriko Kobayashi (Japan) - 15:21
2nd Stage (10 km) - Yuri Kano (Japan) - 32:05
3rd Stage (6 km) - Caroline Cheptonui Kilel (Kenya) - 19:19
4th Stage (6 km) - Natalia Medvedeva (Russia) - 18:59
5th Stage (10 km) - Ruth Wanjiru (Kenya) - 32:31
6th Stage (5.195 km) - Yoko Shibui (Japan) - 16:29

Team Results
1. Japan - 2:15:05
2. Kenya - 2:16:58
3. Kanto / Tokyo - 2:17:45
4. Kyushu - 2:18:43
5. Russia - 2:19:23
6. Kinki - 2:20:00
7. U.S.A. - 2:20:27
8. Hokkaido / Tohoku - 2:21:06
9. Chugoku / Shikoku - 2:21:10
10. China - 2:22:42
11. Kanagawa - 2:23:42
12. Tokai / Hokuriku - 2:24:34
13. Romania - 2:26:03
14. Finland - 2:36:42

(c) 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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