Friday, January 22, 2010

National Interprefectural Men's Ekiden Preview

by Brett Larner

The 15th National Interprefectural Men's Ekiden takes place this Sunday, Jan. 24 in Hiroshima. A seven-stage, 48 km race between teams from each of Japan's 47 prefectures, like last weekend's Interprefectural Women's Ekiden the Men's Ekiden features an interesting format in that each team is made up of top runners of all levels from junior high school to seasoned pro. It's one of the only opportunities to see the university-aged Hakone Ekiden stars go up against the top pros, and the junior high school and high school stages frequently provide the first glimpse of future stars. This is the race where Ryuji Kashiwabara first made his name in 2008 as a high school student by taking down national champion Yuki Yagi, and the one where Akinobu Murasawa came to attention last year by setting a stage record of 23:55 for 8.5 km.

Murasawa's native Nagano Prefecture is the undisputed king of the hill, with five wins in the last six years including a course record of 2:18:43 last year. Nagano looks strong again this year, with three members of top high school Saku Chosei, Murasawa and 27:38 man Yuki Sato on board. Not unstoppable, but very formidable.

The only team to beat Nagano in the last six years is Hyogo Prefecture. With a 2nd place finish last year and a 3rd place finish in 2008 the team is reliably tough, and with Olympian Kensuke Takezawa on anchor they should again be a challenge to Nagano despite a lack of otherwise big names.

Fukushima Prefecture is usually in the top ten, and this year with the combination of Kashiwabara and half-marathon national record holder Atsushi Sato on anchor they may have a shot for top three. Hiroshima Prefecture is not usually among the top teams but with high school star Ikki Takeuchi and young pro ace Naoki Okamoto running this year they could be the darkhorse of the day.

NHK will broadcast the 2010 National Men's Interprefectural Ekiden live nationwide and commercial-free beginning at 12:15 p.m on Jan. 24. 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.

Final start lists will not be available until race morning, but if the entry lists are at all accurate the Third and Seventh Stages should have some spectacular matchups. The Second Stage and Sixth Stage are both 3 km and feature top junior high school runners. The 7 km First Stage, 5 km Fourth Stage and 8.5 km Fifth Stage are high school sections. Hiroshima's Ikki Takeuchi, who set the Fourth Stage best at December's National High School Ekiden as a member of champions Sera H.S., should control the First Stage, while Nagano's Sugeru Osako, who set stage bests the last two years at Nationals as a member of 2008 champions Saku Chosei H.S., should have the Fifth Stage wrapped up. But, as the then-unknown Kashiwabara showed in 2008, anything can happen.

The 8.5 km Third Stage has a great lineup. Coming after only 10 km of competition the runners should still be in range of each other for the most part, meaning what will probably be the most intense head-to-head racing. Both Kashiwabara and Murasawa, the two most promising university runners in the country, are slated to run. It will be their first matchup on the roads as university runners and one fans across the country are no doubt dying to see. Kashiwabara's former teammate Tomoya Onishi of Gifu Prefecture, now a pro with Team Asahi Kasei, is also scheduled to run the Third, along with Miyagi's Takuya Noguchi, who beat Kenyan Cosmas Ondiba to set the best time on the Third Stage of this year's Hakone Ekiden, and Niigata's Yusuke Hasegawa, currently holder of the fastest 10000 m PB among Japanese university students.

There is no doubt, however, that the 13 km anchor stage is the main event. There is too much talent on the entry list to discuss in detail, but almost every stage best winner from the New Year Ekiden, most members of New Year Ekiden victor Team Nissin Shokuhin, several top Hakone aces and assorted other stars are scheduled to battle it out. After 35 km of racing the teams will probably be widely dispersed and we won't see much direct competition, but if even a few of these names are in sight of each other it should be a great stage. The most notable names are listed below along with their recent achievements.

Arata Fujiwara (Nagasaki Pref.) - 2nd, 2008 Tokyo Marathon
Kosaku Hoshina (Miyagi Pref.) - 2010 Team Nissin Shokuhin New Year Ekiden member
Kazuhiro Maeda (Fukuoka Pref.) - 2nd, 2009 Tokyo Marathon
Yuki Matsuoka (Tokushima Pref.) - joint Interpref. Ekiden 1st Stage record holder with Yuki Sato
Naoki Okamoto (Hiroshima Pref.) - Stage Best, 2010 New Year Ekiden 5th Stage
Hiroyuki Ono (Gunma Pref.) - Stage Best, 2010 New Year Ekiden 7th Stage
Atsushi Sato (Fukushima Pref.) - Stage Best, 2010 New Year Ekiden 4th Stage - 1:03:11 for 22.3 km (plug that into a calculator and see what you get for the half marathon)
Yuki Sato (Nagano Pref.) - Stage Best, 2010 New Year Ekiden 3rd Stage
Yusuke Takabayashi (Mie Pref.) - Stage Best, 2010 Hakone Ekiden 9th Stage
Kensuke Takezawa (Hyogo Pref.) - New Stage Record, 2009 Hakone Ekiden 3rd Stage
Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Tochigi Pref.) - Stage Best, 2010 Nat'l Univ. Ekiden 2nd Stage
Bene Zama (Kanagawa Pref.) - 2010 Team Nissin Shokuhin New Year Ekiden member

(c) 2010 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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