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Kenyan-Powered Nihon Takes National University Ekiden Title

by Brett Larner

Less than a month after winning the 2009 Izumo Ekiden, Nihon University returned for a surprise win at a wild and unpredictable 2009 National University Ekiden Championships in Nagoya on Nov. 1. Running both of its Kenyan aces, first-year Benjamin Gando and fourth-year anchor Daniel Gitau, Nihon succeeded where it failed last year in stepping up to the longer stage lengths at Nationals and succeeded in taking down 2009 Hakone Ekiden champion Toyo University, surprise leader Meiji University and perpetual contender Waseda University. Three-time defending champion Komazawa looked to have the race safely under control thanks to an outstanding run by 2nd Stage ace Tsuyoshi Ugachi but fell from grace after a complete breakdown by another of its strongest runners, 4th Stage runner Sota Hoshi.

Nihon was as low as 12th place in the field of 26 due to weak performances by its first two runners. 3rd Stage runner Naohiro Domoto put Nihon into 9th place before Gando went to work to move Nihon into 4th. The team remained within the top three for the remaining four stages. Gitau was 1:53 behind Meiji University anchor Yusuke Hosokawa at the start of the anchor leg but was as far ahead of the average as Hosokawa, a replacement for Meiji's injured star Kodai Matsumoto, was behind it. Gitau passed Hosokawa after only 7 km and ran the rest of the race alone. The stage record set last year by Yamanashi Gakuin University's Mekubo Mogusu was never within reach due to unseasonable temperatures of 26 degrees, but Gitau brought Nihon home with a margin of victory of over 3 1/2 minutes. With Izumo and National titles in hand this season Nihon faces a tough challenge to take the triple crown with a Hakone Ekiden victory in January.

2009 Hakone winner Toyo was the most stable team in the field, 2nd at the end of Stage One thanks to another gutsy run from star Ryuji Kashiwabara, 2nd at the finish and never lower than 4th. Toyo was 3rd at Izumo behind Nihon and Yamanashi Gakuin, another team with a Kenyan member. With Nihon's advantage reduced to a single Kenyan in Hakone, where the longer distances and larger number of stages tend to minimize the effects of a single ringer, Toyo's young, reliable squad could well mop the road with the National champions come January.

Toyo narrowly beat Waseda University at both Hakone and Izumo. The two schools again battled all morning at Nationals, and again Waseda came up short, finishing 4th. The team's set of four strong second-years has been bolstered by two members of 2008 high school national champion Saku Chosei's squad, Hiroyuki Sasaki and Shota Hiraga, but head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe doesn't seem to be able to get everyone on the starting line at 100% and as a result Waseda just can't win.

Meiji University was the big surprise of the day. Despite missing its best runner, Kodai Matsumoto, the little-regarded Meiji squad steadily advanced through the field from 10th and took the lead on the 5th Stage after an outstanding stage best run by Masamichi Yasuda. Meiji maintained the lead until Gitau took it away from anchor Hosokawa, but had Matsumoto been on the stage the story may have been different. Meiji still finished an unexpected 3rd, but despite this strong showing it's clear the team is short of the full complement of ten runners it will need to translate the success into an equivalent at Hakone.

The other big surprise of the day was Komazawa University. Komazawa was all over the road. Ace first-year Wataru Ueno ran a mediocre 1st Stage, followed by fourth-year Tsuyoshi Ugachi delivering the perfomance of the day, a brutal battle of surges against Tokai University's spectacular first-year Akinobu Murasawa, another Saku Chosei graduate. After being caught by Ugachi while in the process of taking the lead, Murasawa, running with a cold, began hammering his older rival with surge after surge. Although he beat Ugachi by 45 seconds two weeks ago at the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai 20 km, this time Ugachi came out on top as he launched a snarling attack of his own with one km to go that left Murasawa tumbling through the turbulence. All looked well for Komazawa's bid for a fourth-straight title after a good debut by 3rd leg first-year Kenta Chiba, yet another member of Saku Chosei's 2008 squad.

4th leg runner Sota Hoshi, one of Komazawa's most talented aces, then lost it. Having suffered a stress fracture in his hip in late spring, Hoshi missed most of Komazawa's rigorous summer training. Head coach Oyagi opted to give him a chance but Hoshi faded beyond the normal sense of the word, dropping from the lead to 13th. It was all Komazawa's remaining runners could do to claw their way back up to the top six in hopes of scoring a seeded position for next year. Fourth-year Yusuke Takabayashi ran a stage best on the 6th leg to put Komazawa into 7th, putting anchor Takuya Fukatsu into position for the seeded bracket. Fukatsu ran as expected, picking off runners ahead and working his way into 5th, but then abruptly dropped off. He could only watch helplessly as Chuo University anchor Minato Oishi came from nowhere in the final two kilometers to snatch the ticket away by 12 seconds. Komazawa's confidence in its ability to make up for its disaster at the 2009 Hakone Ekiden is surely shaken as it looks toward January.

For a detailed blow-by-blow account of this year's Nationals, click here for part one of JRN's live commentary and here for part two.

2009 National University Ekiden - Top Individuals
click here for complete results
1st Stage - 14.6 km
1. Kiragu Njuguna (Daiichi Kogyo Univ.) - 42:47
2. Ryuji Kashiwabara (Toyo Univ.) - 43:08
3. Yo Yazawa (Waseda Univ.) - 43:55

2nd Stage - 13.2 km
1. Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Komazawa Univ.) - 37:50
2. Akinobu Murasawa (Tokai Univ.) - 38:25
3. Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Meiji Univ.) - 38:51

3rd Stage - 9.5 km
1. Takahito Watanabe (Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 27:38
2. Hiroyuki Sasaki (Waseda Univ.) - 28:10
2. Imasaki (Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 28:10
2. Naohiro Domoto (Nihon Univ.) - 28:10

4th Stage - 14.0 km
1. Benjamin Gando (Nihon Univ.) - 41:12
2. Ishikawa (Meiji Univ.) - 41:50
3. Shota Hiraga (Waseda Univ.) - 42:06

5th Stage - 11.6 km
1. Masamichi Yasuda (Meiji Univ.) - 34:51
2. Takaaki Tanaka (Tokai Univ.) - 35:08
3. Taniguchi (Nihon Univ.) - 35:11

6th Stage - 12.3 km
1. Yusuke Takabayashi (Komazawa Univ.) - 36:09
2. Sho Matsueda (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 36:53
3. Sato (Toyo Univ.) - 36:54

7th Stage - 11.9 km
1. Toshihiro Endo (Meiji Univ.) - 36:06
1. Tanaka (Toyo Univ.) - 36:06
3. Sasaki (Chuo Univ.) - 36:20

8th Stage - 19.7 km
1. Daniel Gitau (Nihon Univ.) - 56:54
2. Minato Oishi (Chuo Univ.) - 1:00:26
3. Kobayashi (Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 1:00:47

2009 National University Ekiden - Team Results
top six teams seeded for 2010

1. Nihon Univ. - 5:21:04
2. Toyo Univ. - 5:24:40
3. Meiji Univ. - 5:24:54
4. Waseda Univ. - 5:25:46
5. Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. - 5:26:05
6. Chuo Univ. - 5:26:26
-----
7. Komazawa Univ. - 5:26:38
8. Chuo Gakuin Univ. - 5:26:53
9. Tokai Univ. - 5:27:18
10. Daiichi Kogyo - 5:30:35
11. Ritsumeikan Univ. - 5:30:53
12. Tokyo Nogyo Univ. - 5:31:27
13. Kyoto Sangyo Univ. - 5:33:08
14. Senshu Univ. - 5:34:18
15. Aoyama Gakuin Univ. - 5:36:22
16. Tokai Region Select Team - 5:37:42
17. Nippon Bunri Univ. - 5:39:34
18. Osaka Univ. of Econ. - 5:40:53
-----
19. Sapporo Gakuin Univ. - 5:42:22
20. Chukyo Univ. - 5:42:39
21. Fukuoka Univ. - 5:42:43
22. Shinshu Univ. -
23. Nagoya Univ. - 5:43:08
24. Tohoku Univ. - 5:44:14
25. Hiroshima Univ. - 5:44:24
26. Tohoku Fukushi Univ. - 5:46:16

(c) 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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