by Brett Larner
It's no secret that this year's National University Men's Ekiden Championships, the second of the season's big three university men's ekidens following last month's Izumo Ekiden, is going to be between the top three finishers at last January's Hakone Ekiden: defending national champion and course record holder Waseda University, Izumo winner Toyo University, and titan Komazawa University. Both Waseda and Toyo had Japan's best-ever university squads last year, each with ten men sporting 10000 m PBs under 29 minutes. Waseda's team this year is at the same level on paper thanks in part to ace sophomore Suguru Osako's continued development and the recruitment of sub-29 first-year Shuhei Yamamoto, but the chronic Waseda injury cycle seems to have returned this fall as the team was far from 100% at Izumo and was easily beaten there by both Toyo and Komazawa. Toyo lost more to graduation this year than Waseda, but despite both this loss and stars Ryuji Kashiwabara and Keita Shitara being on the recovery from injuries the team came out hard at Izumo and handily beat Waseda thanks to solid runs by its rank and file athletes. With this momentum Toyo should be in good form for Nationals, where the longer stage lengths play more to Toyo's strengths than to Waseda's.
Which leaves Komazawa. Head coach Hiroaki Oyagi is arguably the most successful university coach working in Japan, and, somehow, in just one season he has answered the challenge of Waseda and Toyo's ten-men-under-29 lineups. Komazawa's current lineup goes up to eleven. With junior Toshiaki Nishizawa's 28:51.05 PB at last weekend's Nittai Univ. Time Trials, Komazawa now has eleven men with 5000 m PBs under 14 minutes, 10000 m PBs under 29 minutes, or both. The best among them, junior Hiromitsu Kakuage (13:50.85, 28:03.27, 1:02:34), sophomore Ikuto Yufu (13:42.09, 28:02.46) and first-year Kenta Murayama (13:47.19, 28:17.57), would be welcome on any pro team in Japan. It's no secret that Komazawa only lost to Toyo at Izumo after Murayama, the only first-year since Toshihiko Seko to win the National University T&F Championships 5000 m, faltered on the first stage in his university ekiden debut, finishing 14th. His 10000 m PB has come since then, so with even only a passable performance from him and good runs from the rest of the team it will be very hard for Waseda, Toyo, or anyone else to match them.
But part of what makes the university men's ekiden circuit so much more compelling than the pro circuit is the instability and unpredictability of the young and inexperienced but talented and motivated athletes. There are breakthroughs and blowups, and the runners' egos and personalities shine through in a way not true among the pros. Komazawa has crashed and burned before and they or anyone else could do it again. Meiji University or Tokai University could just as easily pull a big day and challenge the big three for the win. Luckily, TV Asahi is there to broadcast the entire 106.8 km and 5 1/2 hours of action live beginning at 8:00 a.m. Japan time on Sunday, Nov. 6. Overseas viewers should be able to watch online for free via Keyhole TV, available here. JRN will once again offer live English commentary on the championships via Twitter @JRNLive.
To aid your viewing experience, click here for a listing of participating schools by uniform via TV Asahi's ekiden website. The official race website features a clear and easy to follow course map, while the TV Asahi site includes a more detailed Google Maps version. Beyond the 27 teams battling for the national title, here are fifteen of the best athletes in the field, both those with track credentials and those with a history of ekiden dynamics. Check back closer to the race for a start list of who is running where to know who to watch for.
Top Individual Runners
Tetsuya Yoroizaka (4th yr., Meiji Univ.) - 13:29.11 / 27:44.30
Akinobu Murasawa (3rd yr., Tokai Univ.) - 13:34.85 / 28:00.78
Ikuto Yufu (2nd yr., Komazawa Univ.) - 13:42.09 / 28:02.46
Hiromitsu Kakuage (3rd yr., Komazawa Univ.) - 13:50.85 / 28:03.27
Benjamin Gandu (3rd yr., Nihon Univ./Kenya) - 13:41.99 / 28:03.43
Kenta Murayama (1st yr., Komazawa Univ.) - 13:47.19 / 28:17.57
Ryuji Kashiwabara (4th yr., Toyo Univ.) - 13:48.54 / 28:20.99
Shinobu Kubota (2nd yr., Komazawa Univ.) - 13:49.53 / 28:23.61
Kazuhiro Kuga (3rd yr., Komazawa Univ.) - 13:51.50 / 28:32.32
Suguru Osako (2nd yr., Waseda Univ.) - 13:31.27 / 28:35.75
Shota Hattori (2nd yr., Nittai Univ.) - 13:54.32 / 28:37.75
Shuhei Yamamoto (1st yr., Waseda Univ.) - 14:09.01 / 28:38.15
Takehiro Deki (3rd yr., Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 13:54.09
Takaaki Tanaka (4th yr., Toyo Univ.) - 14:02.95 / 28:46.92
Kiragu Njuguna (4th yr., Daiichi Kogyo Univ./Kenya) - 13:31.39 / 29:09.79
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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