by Brett Larner
Monday's 22nd Izumo Ekiden kicks off Japan's fall season, with some of the top university teams from the Kanto region squaring off against the best from the rest of the country over shorter distances than in any of the other major road events. An all-star team of American Ivy League alum also makes an appearance each year to add a bit of international color. The race will be broadcast live online on Fuji TV on Oct. 11 from 1:00 to 3:25 p.m. Japan time, and thanks to the miracle of modern computer technology overseas viewers can watch live online through Keyhole TV. That's midnight Sunday night for Ivy Leaguers, 9 pm on the West Coast, or, unfortunately, 5 a.m. Monday morning in London. Click here for more details on watching online. JRN will be doing live English commentary via Twitter on JRNLive.
It looks like a foregone conclusion that the race is going to be a battle between two of the big powerhouse universities: Komazawa and Waseda. The Hakone Ekiden's race announcers like to talk about the number of sub-14 5000 m and sub-29 10000 m guys different schools have, but at the Izumo Ekiden where the six stages range from 5.8 to 10.2 km it's a more meaningful statistic. There has been a noticeable upswing in the number of guys hitting those marks in the last two years, and both Komazawa and Waseda bring squads that to say the least stack up favorably against the best American NCAA Div. I teams. What makes Komazawa's notable is that they are all frosh and sophomores. Take a look at the two schools' entry lists, from which each will select a starting lineup of six (click to enlarge):
Apart from Nittai University with four men sub-14 no other school comes close to these two teams' quality, so although neither has won Izumo since the mid-90's it should come down to Komazawa, 2nd in 2008, and Waseda, 4th last year. Komazawa head coach Hiroaki Oyagi has a far more reliable record than Waseda head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe, Oyagi having produced the most dominant school in recent Hakone Ekiden history and Watanabe having produced a string of teams deep in talent and completely unable to put it together on race day. All things considered, despite Waseda looking better on paper Komazawa gets the JRN call for the win.
Looking at the competition, most of the other top schools are not able to field their best. Nittai looks like the strongest based on their entry list, but captain Takuya Noguchi has been far from his peak performances all year. Two-time defending Izumo champion Nihon University blew this year's Hakone Ekiden and has to run next weekend's Yosenkai 20 km to re-qualify, the same situation Komazawa was in last year. Nihon will follow Komazawa's strategy from last year, putting its A-squad into the Yosenkai and signing off on Izumo with a young B-squad. Last year's runner-up Yamanashi Gakuin University may do well if Kenyan Cosmas Ondiba and 61 minute half marathoner Muryo Takase are fit, but the school lacks any depth to compete with the two favorites. 2009 3rd-placer and two-time defending Hakone Ekiden champion Toyo University has a reliable, solid squad, but with its key weapon, junior Ryuji Kashiwabara, out with injury it's unlikely that Toyo will factor into the top three again this year.
Daiichi Kogyo University is the only school from outside the Kanto region to reliably challenge the top positions, having finished 3rd in 2008 on the strength of a pair of Kenyans. Its ace Kiragu Njuguna returns, but much will depend on the performance of Moroccan frosh Alhamli Mohammed. Last year's 6th and 7th placers, Ritsumeikan and Kyoto Sangyo, each feature a sub-14 ace, in Kyoto Sangyo's case freshly-minted National University 5000 m champion Hiroki Mitsuoka. Strong team showings could put either into the top five.
The Ivy League team typically finishes in the bottom third of the field, unable to beat even a single school from the Kanto region. In a perfect world we'd instead see a top NCAA team or two, say Oregon or Stanford, taking on schools like Komazawa and Waseda, which are at least their equals, in Izumo where the distances are ones to which American university runners are more accustomed. That would all be a lot of money and red tape away, but what a race it would be to see the best from the world's two great university systems running together.
(c) 2010 Brett Larner
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