by Brett Larner
With the completion of the New York City Marathon earlier this month the worldwide road racing circuit has begun to wind down for the year. Everywhere, that is, except for Japan, where the best racing of the year still lies ahead.
November 15th features two major races in the greater Tokyo area, the Ageo City Half Marathon and the first edition of the Yokohama International Women's Marathon. The coaches of the 20 Tokyo-region university men's teams which have made January's Hakone Ekiden use Ageo as a selection race to pick which members of their squads will join the aces on their 10-man Hakone teams. The result is the deepest, most cutthroat half marathon in the world, with every man gunning strictly for himself and close to 200 men breaking 66 minutes each year. Yokohama replaces the now-defunct Tokyo International Women's Marathon and features the first certified loop course for an elite marathon in Japan. The organizers have brought aging Beijing Olympics medalists Constantina Dita and Catherine Ndereba in for the inaugural race, but the best competition may be between Russia's Inga Abitova and 2009 Hokkaido Marathon course record-setter Kiyoko Shimahara (Second Wind AC).
November 21 is the date of the 71st Biwako University Ekiden, the championship event for university men in western Japan who are outside the Tokyo-centric Kanto region and thus inelligible to run in the Hakone Ekiden. Daiichi Kogyo University, consistently the best non-Kanto school in the country thanks to its pair of Kenyans, will seek to defend last year's title. 2007 winner Ritsumeikan University, which beat Daiichi Kogyo at October's Izumo Ekiden, will be the main competition along with Kyoto Sangyo University.
November 22 sees the Kobe National Women's Half Marathon, one of the oldest and biggest all-women's half marathons in the world. This year's field is alarmingly second-tier and promises Mari Ozaki (Team Noritz) an easy victory. 2009 Copenhagen Marathon winner Chihiro Tanaka (Team Daitsu) is scheduled to run just a week after racing the Yokohama International Women's Marathon.
November 23, a public holiday in Japan, is the date of the International Chiba Ekiden, the last of the economic bubble-era international ekidens. As in its last victory in 2007 Japan has lined up an incredible team of the very best in the country, including Olympians Kensuke Takezawa (Team S&B), Atsushi Sato (Team Chugoku Denryoku), Yuriko Kobayashi (Team Toyota Jidoshoki), Yurika Nakamura (Team Tenmaya) and Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren). Details on which international teams will face the all-star Japanese squad have not been released as of this writing, but a Kenyan contingent has been confirmed and is rumored to include the great Gideon Ngatuny (Team Nissin Shokuhin). Also on November 23 is the Nagoya Half Marathon, won last year by Ngatuny in his half marathon debut. Details on this year's elite field have not yet been released. The tiny but competitve Fuchu Tamagawa Half Marathon also takes place on the 23rd. Komazawa University, the most consistently dominating team in Japan, sends its best runners to Fuchu each year rather than to Ageo.
The month rounds out with the third-tier Kawaguchiko Marathon on November 29. Long one of Japan's most popular amateur-level races, this marathon near the base of Mt. Fuji has only recently began to draw reasonably competitive athletes. 2001 World Championships marathoner Takayuki Nishida will run this year's Kawaguchiko in his first marathon since retiring from the professional world in March.
December kicks off with the famous Fukuoka International Marathon on the 6th. The last three years have seen the likes of world record holder Haile Gebrselassie and Beijing Olympics top four Samuel Wanjiru, Jaouad Gharib, Tsegaye Kebede and Deriba Merga toe the line along with three of Japan's all-time four fastest men, Toshinari Takaoka, Atsushi Fujita and Atsushi Sato. This year features the highly-anticipated marathon debut of Mekubo Mogusu, the former Yamanashi Gakuin University ekiden star who clocked three sub-hour half marathons as a student. The rest of the field has not yet been announced but it is a sure bet that organizers will be looking at World Championships medalists Abel Kirui and Emmanuel Mutai of Kenya at the very least. Japan's men have this last chance to add to the year's dismal haul of sub-2:10 performances. Also on December 6th, the Kumamoto Kosa 10-Mile Road Race, the world's most competitive 10-miler, features a deep field of pro Japanese runners tuning up for the New Year Ekiden national championships.
December 13th hosts the National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships, a 6-stage, 42.195 km competition featuring every well-known Japanese woman fit enough to stand. The fading titan Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo lost its crown last year to the ascendant Team Toyota Jidoshoki, and after destroying Mitsui again last week at the East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships it looks likely that Toyota will be the best again this year.
The December 20th Hofu Yomiuri Marathon is the last elite marathon of the year. A second-tier race which typically features up-and-coming pros and first-timers, Hofu has at times seen very strong performances including its course record of 2:08:16 set in 2002 by Hailu Negussie of Ethiopia. In honor of its 40th anniversary Hofu this year will extend its field to allow amateurs up to four hours to run. The 20th also sees the National High School Boys' and Girls' Ekiden Championships, highly competitive and nationally-televised events. Last year's boys' winner Saku Chosei H.S., which covered the 7-stage, 42.195 km course in 2:02:18, lost over half its squad to graduation and will be hard-pressed to fend off rival Sendai Ikuei H.S. and others. The girls' race should be a three-way battle between last year's winner Toyokawa H.S. and 2nd and 3rd placers Kojokan H.S. and Ritsumeikan Uji H.S., both of whom finished within 12 seconds of Toyokawa last year.
December 23rd is the date of the National University Women's Invitational Ekiden Championships, a relatively young championship event in only its 7th edition. Ritsumeikan University has won all 6 national titles so far, but despite running better than ever earlier this season at the Morinomiyako Ekiden Ritsumeikan lost summarily to cross-town rival Bukkyo University. Bukkyo's attempt to break Ritsumeikan's dynasty could make this year's Nationals one of the best races of the season. Also on the 23rd is the Sanyo Women's Road Race, another elite women's half marathon which includes a competitive 10 km event.
Techinically falling in 2010, the 2009 season wraps up with two major men's ekidens. The New Year Ekiden takes place logically enough on January 1st. As the National Corporate Men's Ekiden Championships, the New Year Ekiden is one of the biggest events of the year with a 7-stage, 100 km course and all of the best Japanese and foreign corporate men in the country lining up. Last year's race featured a stunning 3-way sprint battle to the finish with Team Fujitsu unexpectedly coming out the winner. This year Team Nissin Shokuhin is set for the win with the addition of 27:38 10000 m runner Yuki Sato to its lineup.
Overshadowing the New Year Ekiden on January 2-3 is the Hakone Ekiden, the university men's championships for the Kanto region. Hakone is the heart and soul of Japanese distance running, one of the world's greatest races. It goes beyond being just a race and has become a cultural institution in Japan, with viewer ratings of over 30% for the two-day broadcast and millions lining the course of the epic 10-stage, 216.4 km event, a museum, two websites, several magazines, novels, commemorative beer cans, and, this fall, a mainstream movie about a school trying to make Hakone for the first time. More than the Olympics, more than the World Championships, more than winning a major marathon, Hakone is what Japan's young men dream about from the day they first lace on their shoes.
It's been argued in recent years that the Hakone Ekiden has thus become a major part of the problems with Japanese men's marathoning, but while such criticism may have some truth we're all better for Hakone's existence. It's one of the tragedies of our sport that Hakone has been all but invisible outside Japan, but 2009 was the first year the race could be readily viewed online overseas. Those who tuned in were treated to one of the greatest runnings in Hakone's 85 editions as first-year Ryuji Kashiwabara led Toyo University to its first-ever Hakone title with a record-setting run of towering inspiration on the nearly 1 km-climb uphill 5th stage. Toyo looks to be in position for a repeat win this year as it builds momentum over the last stretch of the season. If you've never seen the Hakone Ekiden you owe it to yourself to watch at least once.
Most of the races listed above will be broadcast live nationwide and available for viewing online internationally via Keyhole TV. JRN will be offering on-site coverage and live English commentary whenever possible. Check back frequently for more details on both broadcast times and live commentary.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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