by Brett Larner
The 2009 National University Ekiden takes place this Sunday, Nov. 1. Twenty-five teams will line up in the eight-stage 106.8 km championships to try to take the crown away from three-time defending champion Komazawa University. TV Asahi will broadcast the ekiden live nationwide from 8:00 a.m. to 1:40 p.m. Japan time, and international viewers will be able to watch online by clicking here. For the first time ever, JRN will offer live English-language commentary on a major Japanese race broadcast. Click here to follow live raceday commentary via Twitter feed.
Komazawa is without a doubt the school to beat. By far the most dominant team in the country over the past ten years, Komazawa's poor performance at the 2009 Hakone Ekiden proved to be just a glitch as it returned in force earlier this month to win the Hakone Ekiden Qualifier 20 km where its top three runners broke one hour with several more less than 10 seconds off. Head coach Hiroaki Oyagi's priorities are squarely on Hakone, but he'll be looking to add a fourth straight national title to salve Komazawa's wounds from its 2009 Hakone meltdown.
Four schools, all of them seeded from 2008, offer potential challenges to Komazawa's hegemony. 2009 Hakone winner Toyo University returns most of its squad this year, led by second-year star Ryuji Kashiwabara. Toyo was 3rd at the Izumo Ekiden earlier this month and looks set to improve on its 4th place finish at Nationals last year. 2008 Nationals runner-up Waseda University narrowly lost out to Toyo in Izumo. Waseda is hurt by the graduation of the brilliant Kensuke Takezawa but appears able to make up the deficit through the continued development of its block of four powerful second-years, Yuki Yagi, Yusuke Mita, Yo Yazawa and Takuya Nakayama.
Nihon University pulled in another Izumo Ekiden win this year on the strength of its two Kenyans, Daniel Gitau and Benjamin Gando. The shorter stage distances in Izumo favor speed, but with the National Ekiden's individual legs approaching those of the Hakone Ekiden in length it becomes more difficult for an individual or two to carry the weight of an entire team. Last year Nihon won Izumo but only finished 6th at Nationals, a record it will no doubt try to avoid repeating this year. Izumo runner-up Yamanashi Gakuin University likewise beat out Toyo and Waseda thanks to Kenyan Cosmas Ondiba, but the team's Japanese members also made major contributions. Yamanashi Gakuin could well do better than last year's 3rd place mark at Nationals.
The top six teams at the National University Ekiden are seeded for the following year. The final seeded team this year, Chuo Gakuin University, got there thanks to its outstanding ace Masato Kihara. With Kihara's graduation the team is unlikely to repeat. Tokyo Nogyo University is the most likely bet to replace Chuo Gakuin in the seeded bracket after an excellent showing at the Hakone Ekiden Qualifier 20 km, but Izumo 5th placers Chuo University should also be in contention. Tokai University is in a rebuilding year and will not factor, but watch out for the team's first-rate first-year Akinobu Murasawa to make his mark on the national scene.
As mentioned above, the stage lengths at Nationals approach those of the Hakone Ekiden, ranging from 9.5 km to 19.7 km. This tends to favor schools in the Kanto region, who train for the half-marathon distance in preparation for Hakone, and work against those from other parts of the country. As a consequence it's very, very rare for a non-Kanto school to make the seeded positions. With two Kenyans Daiichi Kogyo University has the best chances, having finished 7th last year. Ritsumeikan University beat Daiichi Kogyo at the Izumo Ekiden and Kyoto Sangyo University gave another serious challenge, but it would be a major accomplishment for any of these schools to make the grade.
TV Asahi's ekiden website includes video highlights of the eight qualifying races for the 2009 National University Ekiden. Click here to watch the qualifier videos. TV Asahi's broadcast of Nationals will begin at 7:00 p.m. on Oct. 31, east coast U.S.A. time and 11:00 p.m. on the 31st London time.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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