by Brett Larner
Update: Click here for start lists. Noguchi is not listed as a starter for Sysmex.
The biggest race of the year for professional Japanese women takes place this Sunday on a new course in Sendai, the six-stage, 42.195 km National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships. The highlight of this year's edition looks like a possible showdown between Japan's two best hopes for the London Olympics marathon, marathon national record holder Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex) and half-marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal). In the overall team competition the Corporate Championships debut of 1500 m national record holder Yuriko Kobayashi makes 2008 champion Team Toyota Jidoshokki the favorite, but defending champion Team Tenmaya and East Japan rivals Team Daiichi Seimei and Team Sekisui Kagaku are not far behind. The race will be broadcast live on TBS beginning at 11:50 a.m. Japan time on Sunday, Dec. 18. Overseas viewers should be able to watch online via Keyhole TV. JRN will be doing live English-language commentary via Twitter @JRNLive.
In honor of the victims of March's disasters in the National Championships' new home of Sendai, this year any team that ran under 2:30 in one of the three standardized six-stage, 42.195 km regional qualifiers was eligible to run this year's Nationals. Thirty-four teams made the grade, of which nine ran competitive sub-2:20 times. Team Toyota Jidoshokki comes to Nationals with the fastest qualifying time, 2:16:50. Shortly after the disasters in March, the team left its base in Chiba and longtime coach Yoshio Koide to relocate westward to Aichi. The team celebrated its arrival in the Central Japan region by blasting the course record at the regional qualifier, winning by nearly 5 minutes, four of its six runners setting new stage records and the other two winning their stages. Kobayashi, free of the ban from corporate league competition that she has faced faced since high school for enrolling in university while on the Toyota payroll, kicked things off with a First Stage record of 21:38 for 6.8 km, a minute faster than the next-best woman in the field. Her presence makes all the difference and could be the deciding factor in setting up the win for her team.
East Japan region teams make up six of the nine sub-2:20 squads. Team Daiichi Seimei won the East Japan qualifier by only 3 seconds in an exciting come-from-behind 2:17:21 win over Team Sekisui Kagaku thanks to a stage-record anchor run by 2009 World Championships silver medalist Yoshimi Ozaki. Either team could contend with Toyota Jidoshokki, but with Daiichi Seimei's reliance on Ozaki, still recovering from her disappointment at the Yokohama International Women's Marathon in late November, the scales may tip in favor of the more uniformly stable Sekisui Kagaku, which features talented ekiden specialist Yuko Shimizu. Koide's other team, Universal Entertainment, was also under 2:18 and could be in contention, particularly if Kenyan ace Felista Wanjugu can improve upon her relatively weak 7th-place stage finish at Regionals.
The West Japan reiongal qualifier also had a very close, come-from-behind finish, with defending national champion Team Tenmaya catching the Noguchi-led Team Sysmex on the anchor stage after subpar runs by Sysmex big guns Megumi Seike and Seika Nishikawa and winning by 5 seconds in 2:18:31. Both Tenmaya and Sysmex need to make up at least a minute to have a chance of contending with Toyota Jidoshokki, Daiichi Seimei or Sekisui Kagaku, but while Tenmaya's runners all appeared to have run to ability at Regionals, Sysmex still has a margin of headroom. With even modest improvements by either Seike or Nishikawa Sysmex will get the nod as the favorite from West Japan. Team Wacoal, which finished only 10th at the West Japan qualifier in 2:22:14 deserves a special mention as it was missing star Fukushi, who had just run the Chicago Marathon. Fukushi's win at last weekend's Kumamoto Long Distance Time Trials 5000 m shows that she is back, and it is reasonable to think that over the 10 km stage she is likely to run at Nationals she could make up 3 minutes over teammate Tomoka Inadomi's performance at Regionals. That wouldn't be enough for the win, but it would put Wacoal into sub-2:20 territory and position Fukushi to be in the hunt for Noguchi, who is likely to be put on the same stage and should start ahead of Fukushi. If they are close it could be one of the best races of the year.
2011 National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships - Top Teams
click here for complete field listing with qualification times and rankings
Team Toyota Jidoshokki (Central Japan) - 2:16:50
Team Daiichi Seimei (East Japan) - 2:17:21
Team Sekisui Kagaku (East Japan) - 2:17:24
Team Universal Entertainment (East Japan) - 2:17:56
Team Panasonic (East Japan) - 2:18:07
Team Tenmaya (West Japan) - 2:18:31
Team Sysmex (West Japan) - 2:18:36
Team Starts (East Japan) - 2:19:00
Team Hokuren (East Japan) - 2:19:51
Team Wacoal (West Japan) - 2:22:14
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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