by Brett Larner
100 km came down to a lean at the tape as Team Toyota won its first-ever New Year Ekiden corporate men's national championship title in a thrilling sprint finish over 2009 champion Team Fujitsu and 2010 champion Team Nissin Shokuhin. With an unusual number of teams losing key players to injury Toyota's chances looked good pre-race as it held the largest number of sub-28 10000 m, the fruition of several years under the leadership of head coach Toshinobu Sato who had previously turned Team Konica Minolta into one of the country's best. After two good opening stages Third Stage runner Yusuke Takabayashi set a new stage record of 38:02 for the 13.6 km course to put Toyota into the lead, and it remained in the top pack of four throughout the next three stages.
Toyota anchor Takeshi Kumamoto started in 3rd and, when quickly overtaken by defending Seventh Stage winner Hiroyuki Ono of defending champion Nissin Shokuhin, latched on to close the small gap to leaders Makoto Tobimatsu (Team Yasukawa Denki) and Makoto Fukui (Team Fujitsu). When they made contact Ono continued to push ahead, dropping Tobimatsu from the proceedings just over 5 km into the stage. Ono continued to do all the work, with 1500 m specialist Fukui applying pressure by occasionally coming up on Ono's shoulder. Kumamoto remained at the rear of the lead trio, biding his time and never appearing to work. In the final kilometers Ono surged twice to break away but could not escape.
800 m from the finish Kumamoto went to work, launching a definitive last kick. Fukui came after him but the gap grew and it looked like Kumamoto had it. But Fukui then began to close, and less than 100 m from the finish he drew even. Had Kumamoto timed his kick too soon? As Fukui inched ahead with the final meters slipping by Kumamoto somehow found what he needed and gave it one last push, retaking the lead and breaking the tape by just centimeters. Fukui was 2nd, with Ono giving the injury-decimated Nissin squad a credible 3rd-place finish. Veteran Tobimatsu hung on to give Yasukawa Denki 4th, well exceeding the team's goal of making the top 8. Missing two of its sub-28 men, pre-race favorites Team Asahi Kasei could do no better than 5th.
Great head-to-head races happened not only on the anchor stage but throughout the race, with six of the seven Japanese men to break 28 minutes for 10000 m in 2010 taking part. On the First Stage, Yoshihiro Wakamatsu (Team Tokyo Denryoku) battled in a sprint finish against 2010's #1-ranked 10000 m and half marathon runner Tomoya Onishi (Team Asahi Kasei). Wakamatsu and Onishi were former teammates as member of Toyo University's 2009 Hakone Ekiden-winning squad and ran together as Japan's national team in the half marathon at the 2009 World University Games. Both clocked the same time, with Onishi taking 1st just a step ahead.
Both all-Japanese squads, Asahi Kasei and Tokyo Denryoku dropped behind on the "international" Second Stage, at 8.3 km the New Year Ekiden's shortest and the only on which foreign athletes are allowed to run. The stage featured an incredible array of African talent, including 2008 World XC Jr. champion Ibrahim Jeilan (Ethiopia/Team Honda), 2010 World XC Jr. runner-up Clement Langat (Kenya/Team Subaru), 2010 Kenyan XC champion Paul Tanui (Team Kyudenko), 2008 Kenyan XC champion Gideon Ngatuny (Team Nissin Shokuhin), 2007 Kenyan 10000 m champion Josephat Ndambiri (Team Komori Corp.), marathon great Daniel Njenga (Kenya/Team Yakult) and on and on. Jeilan took a quick lead for Honda, running on stage record pace and splitting 13:15 for 5 km. As Ngatuny and Ndambiri, the top Japan-based Africans of the last few years, worked to catch up after weak runs by their teams' First Stage men, newcomer Langat pulled into 2nd and then began to run down a fading Jeilan. If the stage had been closer to 10 km he might have succeeded, but Jeilan kept it together well enough to keep the lead and take the stage best.
As mentioned, Takabayashi, a 2010 graduate of Komazawa University, set the only new stage record of the day on the Third Stage, but he was unexpectedly accompanied much of the way by Hisanori Kitajima of minor team Yasukawa Denki. Kitajima, another Toyo University grad, ran well enough to take the second-best time on the stage and put Yasukawa Denki into the race. Behind them, Takabayashi's fellow 2010 Komazawa grad Takuya Fukatsu (Team Asahi Kasei) made up a lot of ground with the third-best stage time.
The Fourth Stage, at 22.0 km the New Year Ekiden's longest, was the setting for most teams' best Japanese runners. Defending champs Nissin Shokuhin's Yuki Sato, a 27:38 10000 m runner, took his first turn as the team's official ace, setting out on pace for a sub-58:30 half marathon. Sato made contact with leader Yoshinori Oda (Team Toyota), but on the uphill final 5 km running into a stiff headwind he faded and Oda pulled away to maintain Toyota's lead. Further back, former Hakone Ekiden Fifth Stage uphill star Masato Imai (Team Toyota Kyushu) excelled again on the uphill finish, running just 5 seconds slower than Sato to take an unexpected second-best on the stage despite having run the Fukuoka International Marathon less than a month ago.
The Fifth and Sixth Stages were largely three-way pack runs between Nissin Shokuhin, Toyota and Yasukawa Denki, a classic battle between the defending champ, the strongest team on paper, and an underdog taking a swing at the top. On the Sixth Stage 2009 New Year Ekiden national champion Fujitsu unexpectedly appeared, joining the leaders thanks to a stage best run by Shoji Akutsu.
The anchor Seventh Stage was a virtual replay of the 2009 New Year Ekiden, when Fujitsu won out in a tight multi-team sprint finish. This time the push between Nissin's Ono, Fujitsu's Fukui and Toyota's Kumamoto led all three to take the three best times on the stage, but as described above it was the patient and decisive Kumamoto who emerged the winner. Under head coach Sato's leadership Toyota has produced three sub-28 men so far, and now with a national title to its name it looks set to emerge as a leading team in coming years.
2011 New Year Ekiden - Top Results
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Individual Stage Results
1st Stage (12.3 km)
1. Tomoya Onishi (Team Asahi Kasei) - 36:01
2. Yoshihiro Wakamatsu (Team Tokyo Denryoku) - 36:01
3. Yuya Konishi (Team Toyota Kyushu) - 36:04
2nd Stage (8.3 km)
1. Ibrahim Jeilan (Ethiopia/Team Honda) - 22:14
2. Clement Langat (Kenya/Team Subaru) - 22:17
3. Gideon Ngatuny (Kenya/Team Nissin Shokuhin) - 22:30
3rd Stage (13.6 km)
1. Yusuke Takabayashi (Team Toyota) - 38:02 - CR
2. Hisanori Kitajima (Team Yasukawa Denki) - 38:31
3. Takuya Fukatsu (Team Asahi Kasei) - 38:35
4th Stage (22.0 km)
1. Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) - 1:03:25
2. Masato Imai (Team Toyota Kyushu) - 1:03:30
3. Naoki Okamoto (Team Chugoku Denryoku) - 1:03:53
5th Stage (15.8 km)
1. Keita Akiba (Team Komori Corp.) - 46:41
2. Kenichi Jiromaru (Team Nissin Shokuhin) - 46:46
3. Bunta Karoki (Team Yasukawa Denki) - 46:48
6th Stage (12.5 km)
1. Shoji Akutsu (Team Fujitsu) - 36:45
2. Rui Yonezawa (Team Chugoku Denryoku) - 36:56
3. Masayuki Obata (Team Yasukawa Denki) - 37:07
7th Stage (15.5 km)
1. Takeshi Kumamoto (Team Toyota) - 45:55
2. Hiroyuki Ono (Team Nissin Shokuhin) - 46:01
3. Makoto Fukui (Team Fujitsu) - 46:12
Top Team Performances - 100.0 km
1. Toyota - 4:51:56
2. Fujitsu - 4:51:57
3. Nissin Shokuhin - 4:52:05
4. Yasukawa Denki - 4:52:49
5. Asahi Kasei - 4:54:15
6. Chugoku Denryoku - 4:54:31
7. Honda - 4:54:38
8. Toyota Kyushu - 4:54:39
9. Konica Minolta - 4:54:44
10. Toyota Boshoku - 4:56:35
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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