by Brett Larner
Sophomore Shota Hiraga brings Waseda University in for a course record win at the 2010 Izumo Ekiden.
With starting temperatures an unseasonable 27 degrees, Waseda University head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe finally put it together Oct. 11 with the biggest success of his career, a sleek and scintillating course record win at the 22nd Izumo Ekiden. Despite a slight edge on paper over rivals Komazawa University and Nittai University, Watanabe's history of drilling talented squads into the ground and arriving at important races in tatters stood against Waseda's chances.
The fears of another blowup were groundless. All six Waseda runners, juniors Yo Yazawa and Yuki Yagi, sophomore Saku Chosei HS grads Hiroyuki Sasaki and Shota Hiraga and star frosh recruits and 2010 World Jr. Championships teammates Suguru Osako and Fuminori Shikata ran perfectly, the first time in recent memory that can be said of a Waseda team. Yazawa pushed Kenyan Cosmas Ondiba (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) over the 8.0 km First Stage before dropping him easily in the last km. Osako, another Saku Chosei grad, ran with guts and grace in his university ekiden debut on the 5.8 km Second Stage despite an ankle sprain 3 weeks ago. Yagi, a high school national champion who has been flat and listless in his first two years of university, covered the 7.9 km Third Stage with a stage best time and delivered his first good race since arriving at Waseda, nearly bringing Waseda alum and marathon legend Toshihiko Seko to tears.
Sasaki was arguably the star of the ekiden, beauty in motion as he broke the 6.2 km Fourth Stage record by 39 seconds. That's over 6 seconds a km, nearly 10 seconds a mile. If there was a weak spot in Waseda's armor it was Shikata, who lost a few seconds on the 6.4 km Fifth Stage but delivered a comfortable lead to anchor Hiraga. Like Osako and Sasaki, Hiraga, the 2009 Ageo City Half Marathon champion with a 1:02:08 PB as a frosh, showed the classic smooth Saku Chosei form as he cruised to the win with a 30:00 stage best for the 10.2 km anchor leg to bring Waseda in to the win in 2:10:05 for the 44.5 km distance, breaking the course record by 2 seconds and giving Waseda its first Izumo win since 1996.
Komazawa University and to a lesser extent Nittai University were close to Waseda on paper and, in the case of a typical Waseda breakdown, should have been there to pick up the pieces. Nittai was up front from the start and thanks to a stage best run from sophomore Yutaro Fukushi on the Second Stage advanced to 2nd, where it remained for the rest of the race. Komazawa suffered from weak performances in the first half, particularly from star frosh Ikuto Yufu and sophomore Saku Chosei H.S. grad Kenta Chiba, and was running as low as 7th before frosh Shinobu Kubota and top sophomore Wataru Ueno turned things around, Ueno scoring a new stage record of 18:30 on the 6.4 km Fifth Stage. It came down to ailing Nittai anchor Takuya Noguchi to hold things together and keep away from charging Komazawa man Kazuhiro Kuga, and he did, just, taking 2nd by a 12-second margin over Komazawa.
Click to enlarge. A comparison of the 5000 m and 10000 m PBs for the members of the top three schools at the 2010 Izumo Ekiden. All six members of winner Waseda's team have 10000 m PBs under 29 minutes. It would be great to see some of the top U.S. schools such as Oregon, Stanford or CU go up against these and other top Kanto Region schools over these kinds of distances.
The biggest surprise was perhaps 4th-place Toyo University, the two-time defending Hakone Ekiden champion. Missing ace junior Ryuji Kashiwabara, the team ran only three members of its Hakone squad, opting to put in three frosh and see what happened. Identical twins Keita and Yuta Shitara delivered, both scoring top five marks on the first two stages to put Toyo into a stable 3rd. Only sophomore anchor Takanori Ichikawa slipped, overtaken by Komazawa anchor Kuga, but the 4th place finish exceeded expectations and suggests Toyo is in a good position to maintain its second-greatest asset, its depth of talent.
Yamanashi Gakuin University was 5th thanks in large part to a stage-second by anchor Muryo Takase, who earlier this year broke 62 minutes for the half marathon to become the #1-ranked university half marathoner in the country. The top school from outside the Kanto Region was Kyoto Sangyo University, only 9th despite a solid run from national university 5000 m champion Hiroki Mitsuoka.
Following the race Waseda coach Watanabe was calmly confident, predicting that Waseda would win the triple crown this season: Izumo, the National University Ekiden in November, and January's celebrated Hakone Ekiden. Big words with little to back them up. With this win he has finally shown that he is capable of bringing a talented group to a major race with all the key players in peak shape, but whether he can maintain that situation for another three months is another question entirely. In the last decade no team that has won Izumo has gone on to win Hakone, much less complete the triple crown. Is Watanabe overreaching in his ambition? We'll see. The biggest test will come at next month's Ageo City Half Marathon, where Watanabe will most likely give frosh Osako and Shikata their first tests over the longer distances that typify Hakone.
Update: Ivy League team member Jordan Kinley posted a great account of running this year's Izumo Ekiden. Read it here along with some pre-race posts.
2010 Izumo Ekiden Results
click here for complete results
Stage Best Performances
1st Stage (8.0 km) - Yo Yazawa (Jr., Waseda) - 23:07
2nd Stage (5.8 km) - Yutaro Fukushi (So., Nittai) - 16:45
3rd Stage (7.9 km) - Yuki Yagi (Jr., Waseda) - 23:15
4th Stage (6.2 km) - Hiroyuki Sasaki (So., Waseda) - 17:54 - CR
5th Stage (6.4 km) - Wataru Ueno (So., Komazawa) - 18:30 - CR
6th Stage (10.2 km) - Shota Hiraga (So., Waseda) - 30:00
Team Results - 44.5 km
1. Waseda Univ. - 2:10:05 - CR
2. Nittai Univ. - 2:11:16
3. Komazawa Univ. - 2:11:28
4. Toyo Univ. - 2:11:59
5. Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. - 2:12:09
6. Tokyo Nogyo Univ. - 2:13:04
7. Chuo Univ. - 2:13:20
8. Meiji Univ. - 2:14:19
9. Kyoto Sangyo Univ. - 2:14:25
10. Daiichi Kogyo Univ. - 2:14:28
11. Aoyama Gakuin Univ. - 2:15:34
12. Ritsumeikan Univ. - 2:16:07
13. Josai Univ. - 2:16:42
14. Chukyo Univ. - 2:17:57
15. Ivy League Select Team - 2:18:16
16. Hokkaido Select Team - 2:19:48
17. Tohoku Select Team - 2:20:09
18. Nihon Univ. - 2:20:29
19. Nippon Bunri Univ. - 2:21:28
20. Chugoku/Shikoku Select Team - 2:22:29
21. Hokuriku Select Team - 2:23:14
22. Hiroshima Univ. - 2:26:28
(c) 2010 Brett Larner
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