by Brett Larner
While the popularity and prestige of the Hakone Ekiden has concentrated Japan's university men's distance talent within the Tokyo-centered Kanto Region, women's university runners are more geographically dispersed. If there is one stronghold it must be the Kansai Region around Kyoto and Osaka, home of the dominant Ritsumeikan University women's team and their cross-town rivals Bukkyo University. The two schools meet again this weekend at the six-stage, 38.6 km Morinomiyako Ekiden, the first of the season's two national university women's ekidens.
Ritsumeikan is the three-time defending Morinomiyako champion and has qualified more than any other school in the field, running in the last twenty of Morinomiyako's twenty seven editions. Ritsumeikan's winning streak exactly coincides with the career of its ace runner Kazue Kojima. Kojima is the best university runner of her generation, a multiple national champion who has never lost an ekiden stage. Now a senior, she is preparing to lead Ritsumeikan on to a fourth title supported by talented younger teammates Michi Numata, Risa Takenaka and others. After a flat spring and summer Kojima comes to the Morinomiyako Ekiden having won the national university 10000 m title in September, but she isn't going to simply walk away with her crown untarnished. Also in the field is Bukkyo University star Kasumi Nishihara.
Nishihara has been on a steady upward trajectory over the last year. After an impressive ekiden season last year, in the spring she cracked Kojima's 5000 m PB, took World Championships marathoner and Ritsumeikan alumna Yuri Kano's 5000 m meet record away at the Kansai Regional University Track and Field Championships and won the Kyoto City Half Marathon. She then went on to win the gold medal in the half marathon at the summer's World University Games before beating Kojima out for silver in the World University Games 5000 m. She beat Kojima again to win the national university 5000 m in September. The list goes on and on, but the point is that she is ready to go. Bukkyo will be hard-pressed to bridge the 1:15 gap to Ritsumeikan from last year's Morinomiyako Ekiden, but Nishihara is no doubt focused on doing her part. In a perfect race the two would race head to head, but Ritsumeikan tends to put Kojima on the longest leg, at Morinomiyako the 9.1 km 3rd stage, wheres Bukkyo uses Nishihara almost exclusively as anchor.
If another team is going to be a factor it will likely be Meijo University. Last year Meijo was 3rd, only 39 seconds behind runner-up Bukkyo. Tamagawa University is the best bet for a contender from the Kanto Region thanks to the re-emergence of team leader Takumi Komiya from a year of injury. Question marks rest upon Nihon University and Josai University, which are heavily dependent on the strengths of their ringers Natsuko Goto and Yui Sakai. Goto has been strong all year, but the talented Sakai has struggled and been a non-factor since last winter.
The Morinomiyako Ekiden takes place Sunday, Oct. 25 in Sendai and will be broadcast live nationwide on Nihon TV from 11:45 a.m. to 2:35 p.m. Nihon TV will also show a special one-hour preview program on Saturday the 24th at 10:30 a.m. International viewers should be able to watch online for free through the site linked here.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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