by Brett Larner
The first race of the year kicks off just hours into the first day: the Japanese corporate men's national championship New Year Ekiden. 100 km split into seven stages, the New Year Ekiden is broadcast live nationwide. Now in its 54th year, it has become the main focus of the year for professional Japanese men, with October and November's regional qualifying ekidens taking the place of a fall marathon and, this year, the drive to promote team sponsors pushing the New Year Ekiden ahead of the great Fukuoka International Marathon.
Questionable as this may be, the New Year Ekiden is where you see the peak performances happening. On the ekiden's longest leg, the 22.3 km Fourth Stage on the current course, top men such as Keita Akiba (Team Komori Corp.), Takayuki Matsumiya (Team Konica Minolta) and Yu Mitsuya (Team Toyota Kyushu) have run times equivalent to a sub-hour half marathon, well ahead of the official national record. You rarely see the big Japanese names turn in such performances elsewhere, but this race shows their true quality.
Many teams feature Kenyan or Ethiopian ringers brought in specifically to give the team an advantage in the New Year Ekiden. Last year the powers that be made the decision to minimize this advantage by shortenening the Second Stage to 8.3 km, by far the shortest, and restricting non-Japanese runners to this single stage. As a result this year you will be able see sub-27 minute men Josephat Ndambiri (Team Komori Corp.) and Martin Mathathi (Team Suzuki), sub-hour half marathoner Gideon Ngatuny (Team Nissin Shokuhin) and more going head-to-head and all-out. Whether they will be around much longer is another question, so enjoy the battle while you can.
Last year's race came down to a tight three-way sprint finish between the venerable Team Asahi Kasei, the powerful Team Nissin Shokuhin, and the unexpected contender Team Fujitsu. All three teams finished within one second of each other, with Fujitsu's Ryuji Matsushita gaining a stride on Nissin's Yuzo Onishi and Asahi Kasei's Tomoya Adachi for the win. This year don't look for that to happen: after carefully building a team of fresh young talent over the last few years Nissin added the final ingredient this spring: 27:38 man Yuki Sato.
Sato was the most dominant runner in the country throughout high school and university, challenged at the end of his student career only by Kensuke Takezawa (Team S&B). Injury wiped out most of his senior year and his chance for Beijing, but Sato returned in April with a 27:38.25 PB in the 10000 m just weeks after joining Nissin. He's been up and down since then, but his stunning run at November's East Japan Jitsugyodan Ekiden regional qualifier made one thing clear: if he is on, nobody will touch Nissin on New Year's day. Between him, Ngatuny, second-year team members Satoru Kitamura and Bene Zama, East Japan anchor Kosaka Hoshina and whichever of Nissin's older members fill in the gaps, Nissin is far and away the class of the nation. If Sato is off, well then, things will get interesting.
Team Fujitsu was a weak 9th in the East Japan qualifier, so it's unlikely they will be in a position for a repeat win. Team Honda and Team Konica Minolta were close together in 2nd and 3rd, strong but a minute and a half behind Team Nissin Shokuhin. Konica Minolta's Takayuki Matsumiya, the 5000 m and 30 km national record holder, has been out of form since Beijing, but if Sato falters either team could be there to pick up the lead.
Looking elsewhere in the country, Team Asahi Kasei is again the strongest on paper, but all three of its strongest runners, 10000 m national champion Yuki Iwai, Olympian Ryuji Ono and World Championships marathoner Tomoyuki Sato had injury problems this year. If they are not back to full strength Asahi Kasei will not be up front. Samuel Wanjiru's former team Toyota Kyushu, led by 27:41 man Yu Mitsuya, Hakone Ekiden uphill star Masato Imai and half marathon specialist Yukinobu Nakasaki, make a return after failing to qualify last year, but with only six strong men on the team they need one of their junior members to step up with a big run to be in contention. Team Toyota, Team Komori Corp. and Team Toyota Boshoku are all strong possibilities for the top five.
TBS' six hour New Year Ekiden broadcast begins at 8:30 a.m. Japan time on New Year's Day. Overseas viewers should be able to watch live online using Keyhole TV. JRN will provide live English commentary via Twitter on JRNLive.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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