by Brett Larner
January 1 means it's time for the National Corporate Men's Ekiden Championships, the New Year Ekiden. The New Year Ekiden is the focus of the year for professional runners in Japan, seven stages making up 100 km with the African ringers who prop up many of the best teams shoehorned into 8.3 km and Japanese aces stretching out over 22 km. More than the marathon, this is what Japan's top runners are peaking for, and the result is the highest-level racing of the year. Overseas viewers can watch TBS' 6-hour live broadcast online for free beginning at 8:30 a.m. Japan time on New Year's Day via Keyhole TV, available here. That's 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 on the west coast of the U.S., 6:30 p.m. on the east coast, or 11:30 p.m. in London. JRN will be doing live English commentary via Twitter @JRNLive. Should the feed max out we will switch over to @NewYearEkiden. For a course map click here. For complete entry lists click here.
Turning to the action, it promises to be a repeat of 2009, when three teams battled for the national title in a sprint finish after 100 km. Defending champion Team Nissin Shokuhin looks vulnerable after finishing 4th in the East Japan qualifier, with aces Gideon Ngatuny, Yuki Sato and Satoru Kitamura losing out to rivals in subsequent races. Team Honda, featuring 2008 World Jr. XC champion Ibrahim Jeilan and 2010 Tokyo Marathon winner Masakazu Fujiwara unexpectedly won East Japan and should be one of the main contenders. Close behind Honda, Team Kanebo, with 2010 27-minute men Masato Kihara and Tsuyoshi Makabe, and Team Konica Minolta, home of both 5000 m national record holder Takayuki Matsumiya and sub-62 half marathoner Tsuyoshi Ugachi, round out the main contenders from East Japan.
If the main criterion is 27-minute men then Kyushu qualifier winner Team Asahi Kasei must be considered the favorite. The all-Japanese Asahi Kasei team sports four men with times under 28 minutes, including the 2010 #1-ranked 10000 m and half marathon runner Tomoya Onishi, 2010 Komazawa University grad Takuya Fukatsu, and, returning to form with strong runs at last month's Kyushu Isshu Ekiden, Olympian Ryuji Ono and World Championships track runner Yuki Iwai.
Hiroshima-based Team Chugoku Denryoku is a perpetual force at the New Year Ekiden, but despite winning the Chugoku qualifier with ace Atsushi Sato absent from competition since his 3rd-place finish at February's Tokyo Marathon its chances look diminished. A better bet may be Chubu qualifier winner Team Toyota, which includes 27-minute runners John Thuo, Yoshinori Oda and Yusuke Takabayashi.
Team Sagawa Express unexpectedly won the Kansai qualifier and could surprise with a strong showing in the main event. Team YKK won the Hokuriku qualifier but, with Hokuriku being the weakest region by a wide margin, is unlikely to be in contention.
(c) 2010 Brett Larner
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