by Brett Larner
Nagano anchor Aki Odagiri tries to hold off Kanagawa's Mika Yoshikawa with 450 m to go. Click photo for video highlights courtesy of Fukushima TV.
On Japan's busiest weekend of ekiden action, some of the best of it came at the first major event held in Fukushima since March's disasters, the East Japan Women's Ekiden, a regional version of January's National Women's Ekiden with 18 prefectural teams made up of runners ranging from junior high to pro.
2009 winner Nagano Pref.'s Yuko Shimizu took the race out hard, winning the 6.0 km First Stage by 18 seconds over Miyagi Pref.'s Hiroko Shoi as pre-race favorites Kanagawa Pref. and Chiba Pref. sat back in 7th and 14th. Kanagawa's second runner Hitomi Nakamura ran a stage best to bring her team with 13 seconds of the lead, but over the next two stages the gap grew again to 22 seconds. The remaining five stages were tense and dramatic as each of Kanagawa's runners in turn closed the gap only to have Nagano's runners outkick them in the final stretch of their stages. Seventh Stage runner Hitomi Sato managed to open a 2-second lead over Nagano's Hikari Yasuhara, but the lead returned to Nagano on the Eighth Stage.
Five-time 1500 m national champion Mika Yoshikawa started the 10 km anchor stage for Kanagawa one second behind Nagano's anchor, Meijo University junior Aki Odagiri. Within the first km she took the lead and opened a small lead over Odagiri, but the university runner soon matched pace and the gap remained steady until Odagiri hit a bad patch before halfway and fell back. Surprisingly, she rallied and gutted out a surge, passing Yoshikawa near 7 km and open a lead of nearly 30 m by the time the two entered the track for the final 500 m. Her face clenched as she tried to hang on to the lead, despite still running strong Odagiri fell victim to track specialist Yoshikawa's closing speed. Yoshikawa closed the gap and took the lead with 200 m to go, flying past to open 6 seconds on Odagiri.
The pair's exciting battle spurred both to break the course record, Yoshikawa bringing Kanagawa in for its first win in 7 years in 2:16:57 almost one minute faster than the old record. Odagiri also took Nagano under the record by more than 45 seconds, 2nd in 2:17:03. Chiba Pref. clawed its way up through the field after a slow start for 3rd in 2:18:55 thanks to a stage best from Fifth Stage runner Yurie Doi and a new course record of 12:44 for the 4.1075 km Sixth Stage by high schooler Sakiko Naito. Hosts Fukushima Pref. were an impressive 4th only 24 seconds behind Chiba. The Fukushima prefectural government was one of the principal sponsors of the East Japan Women's Ekiden. The TV broadcast was heavy on promotion of the area's natural sights, hot springs, and local delicacies with only passing mention of March's nuclear disaster in the east part of the prefecture. Each of the stage winners said in post-race interviews that they hoped their running would help inspire Fukushima residents. Coming eight months after the disasters, the prefectural team's excellent performance no doubt did much for local spirits.
2011 East Japan Women's Ekiden
nine stages, 42.195 km
click here for complete results
Stage Best Performances
First Stage (6.0 km) - Yuko Shimizu (Nagano Pref.) - 19:04
Second Stage (4.0 km) - Hitomi Nakamura (Kanagawa Pref.) - 12:58
Third Stage (3.0 km) - Haruka Wada (Saitama Pref.) - 9:58
Fourth Stage (3.0 km) - Yuka Kobayashi (Tochigi Pref.) - 9:18
Fifth Stage (5.0875 km) - Yurie Doi (Chiba Pref.) - 16:21
Sixth Stage (4.1075 km) - Sakiko Naito (Chiba Pref.) - 12:44 - CR
Seventh Stage (4.0 km) - Saki Nakayama (Saitama Pref.) - 13:01
Eighth Stage (3.0 km) - Yukine Oguchi (Nagano Pref.) - 9:15
Ninth Stage (10.0 km) - Mika Yoshikawa (Kanagawa Pref.) - 32:25
Top Team Results
1. Kanagawa Pref. - 2:16:57 - CR
2. Nagano Pref. - 2:17:03 (CR)
3. Chiba Pref. - 2:18:55
4. Fukushima Pref. - 2:19:19
5. Saitama Pref. - 2:19:22
6. Tokyo - 2:19:28
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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