by Brett Larner
The annual women's and men's National Interprefectural Ekidens are some of Japan's most interesting races. This year's women's race takes place tomorrow, Jan. 17, in Kyoto. Each of Japan's 47 prefectures fields a team of nine women ranging from junior high school students to top professional marathoners, running as one team representing their home ground. With nine legs totalling 42.195 km all but the 6 km First Stage and 10 km Ninth stage are under 5 km, making a faster-paced race than is often the case.
Part of what makes the Interprefectural Ekidens interesting is that rather than emphasizing the big names they are often the site of the national coming out of talented young athletes. Toyo University's Ryuji Kashiwabara was an unknown as a high school senior at the 2008 Men's Interprefectural Ekiden but grabbed attention for the first time by frontrunning against national high school champion Yuki Yagi (Waseda Univ.) on the First Stage and beating him easily. The star of last year's Women's Interprefectural Ekiden was without question Kyoto's Moe Kyuma, then a junior high school student. The great Naoko Takahashi and other race commentators laughed when Kyuma took off at what looked like a full sprint and clocked 2:58 for the first km on the 3 km Eighth Stage, but when Kyuma finished the uphill leg 12 seconds faster than the previous stage record of 9:53 Takahashi could only say, "She's going to be big. I can't believe this is a junior high school student!"
Now in high school, Kyuma, her twin sister Haruka, university star Kazue Kojima (Ritsumeikan Univ.) and other members of last year's Kyoto team are back. Having won the last five years straight including a course record of 2:14:58 in 2008, Kyoto's hometown squad is the team to beat. Okayama Prefecture, 3rd in 2008 and 2nd last year, and Hyogo Prefecture, 2nd in 2008 and 3rd last year, are the only other reliable contenders. Okayama is again led by Olympian Yurika Nakamura (Team Tenmaya), and with the exception of two junior high school student runners is fielding a strong team made up entirely of Tenmaya pros and women from top-ranked Kojokan H.S. It should be the biggest threat to Kyoto's reign. Hyogo is missing star Yuriko Kobayashi (Team Toyota Jidoshoki), and despite the presence of Kobayashi's Toyota teammates Yuika Mori and Akane Wakita along with three members of national high school runner-up Suma Gakuen H.S.' team its chances will suffer as a result.
Looking at stage-by-stage action, the 6 km First Stage features a great matchup between Yurika Nakamura (Okayama) and Kazue Kojima (Kyoto), with several other strong contenders including Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo's Miki Ohira (Ehime).
The 4 km Second Stage has probably the best field overall, with Moe Kyuma (Kyoto) going up against a tough field of pros and university runners including Hikari Yoshimoto (Kumamoto), Ryoko Kisaki (Osaka), Tomomi Yuda (Aichi), Risa Takenaka (Shiga) and more. Yoshimoto was one of the big news items of 2009 in Japanese women's distance running and should dismantle all competitors.
The 4 km Fourth Stage includes marathoner Mari Ozaki (Kyoto) and the strong Risa Shigetomi (Okayama) who by that point should be battling for the lead. Josai University's Yui Sakai (Fukui) should be star of the 4.0875 km Sixth Stage, but after over a year of injury problems it's questionable whether she is intact. Moe Kyuma's twin sister Haruka Kyuma (Kyoto) is the best runner on the 4 km Seventh Stage and should be able to pick up the lead should Kyoto have fallen behind.
The 10 km Ninth Stage features the remaining big names. Kayoko Fukushi (Aomori) is in a different class from the other 46 women on the stage but is unlikely to be in contention for the lead as Aomori is not generally strong. Berlin World Championships marathon silver medalist Yoshimi Ozaki (Kanagawa) and her WC teammate Yoshiko Fujinaga (Nagasaki) are also on the stage, along with notables Hitomi Niiya (Chiba) and Akane Wakita (Hyogo). The woman who should be the first to cross the finish line is 2009 World University Games 10000 m gold medalist Kasumi Nishihara (Kyoto), a great rival of Kyoto's First Stage runner Kazue Kojima on the university scene but now splitting duties as defending champ Kyoto's aces.
NHK will broadcast the 2010 National Women's Interprefectural Ekiden live nationwide and commercial-free beginning at 12:15 p.m on Jan. 17. NHK's availability on Keyhole TV is spotty at best, but interested overseas viewers should at least check come race time. JRN will offer live English commentary via Twitter on JRNLive. NHK's excellent race website includes course maps, detailed team listings, live splits times, and more.
(c) 2010 Brett Larner
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