by Brett Larner
Japan wastes no time getting the 2012 racing season off to a start, with the New Year Ekiden national corporate men's championships kicking off this Sunday, Jan. 1 at 8:30 a.m. With 100 km split into seven stages broadcast live to a nationwide TV audience the New Year Ekiden is one of Japan's biggest and most popular races, featuring the best Japanese pro runners and Japan-resident Africans, including 10000 m world champion Ibrahim Jeilan (Team Honda), World XC silver medalist Paul Tanui (Team Kyudenko) and Fukuoka International Marathon winner Josphat Ndambiri (Team Komori Corp.). Overseas viewers up for the task should be able to catch TBS' broadcast live via Keyhole TV, with English-language splits and commentary coming to you live @JRNLive starting at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 on the west coast of North America, 6:30 p.m. on the east coast, or 11:30 p.m. in London. If JRNLive maxes out commentary will continue @JRNHeadlines.
2010 New Year Ekiden winner Nissin Shokuhin was only 3rd last year, but this year the team comes in as the favorite. Ace Yuki Sato set a massive stage record on the first leg of the East Japan regional qualifier, and new member Yoshihiro Wakamatsu, a refugee from the suspended TEPCO team, likewise broke the record on the fifth leg. Nissin won East Japan, the most competitive region, by nearly a minute and, as the only team to average under 2:55/km in any of the five regional qualifiers, it will be up to the others to stay with them.
Last year the Toyota team took its first-ever national title, winning the New Year Ekiden by one second in a sprint finish against 2009 champion Fujitsu. Toyota easily won the Chubu/Hokuriku regional qualifier in November while missing two of its best men, Yoshinori Oda and Yusuke Takabayashi, both of whom were out with Achilles problems. Oda has since returned to sub-29 shape and should be able to compete. Takabayashi remains a question, but into his place has stepped 20-year-old Chihiro Miyawaki, who ran 27:41.57 four weeks ago. Taken altogether, Toyota should be in the top five throughout the race and challenging for the win. Fujitsu, the East Japan region, is difficult to read as it only runs the regional qualifier hard enough to qualify, not win, and hides its true strength for New Year's main event, but its 5th-place showing at the regional ekiden was good enough that it should be in the hunt again this year.
East Japan runner-up Konica Minolta had two men, Paul Kuira and Tsuyoshi Ugachi, run under 27:41 last month, and with 5000 m national record holder Takayuki Matsumiya also on the roster they are a solid bet for a challenger. East Japan 3rd and 4th placers Kanebo and Honda were not far back, with Kanebo men Masato Kihara and Yuki Nakamura taking stage bests and Honda anchor Masakazu Fujiwara likewise taking the stage best title, so either team could also be in competition for the top five. Honda's Jeilan was only 4th on his stage at East Japan, so look for him to be aiming for revenge on the New Year Ekiden's Second Stage where he will face the other African talent.
Sagawa Express and Chugoku Denryoku won the Kansai and Chugoku regions, but it is difficult to see them competing against defending champ Toyota or East Japan's top five. The only remaining true contender is the proudly all-Japanese Kyushu region winner, Asahi Kasei. Asahi Kasei, which includes World Championships marathoner Hiroyuki Horibata, set a course record on the difficult Kyushu region course, slower than Nissin or Konica Minolta's average pace but impressive given the mountainous secitons in Kyushu. Ace Tomoya Onishi has been injured virtually since last year's New Year Ekiden and Horibata had a very bad run four weeks ago at the Kumamoto Kosa 10-Miler, but while this may raise questions about the team's condition its enormous roster gives it room to manoeuver that other teams lack.
Below is a guide to the top teams in each of the five regional qualifier ekidens. For a guide to the complete lineup of 37 teams entered in the New Year Ekiden including uniform colors, click here. See you on Jan. 1.
East Japan Regional Corporate Ekiden Qualifier
seven stages, 77.5 km
1. Nissin Shokuhin - 3:44:56 (2:54/km)
2. Konica Minolta - 3:45:53 (2:55/km)
3. Kanebo - 3:46:43 (2:56/km)
4. Honda - 3:47:19 (2:56/km)
5. Fujitsu - 3:47:53 (2:56/km)
Chubu/Hokuriku Regional Corporate Ekiden Qualifier
seven stages, 82.9 km
1. Toyota - 4:04:28 (2:57/km)
2. Toyota Boshoku - 4:07:42 (2:59/km)
3. Aichi Seiko - 4:07:56 (2:59/km)
Kansai Regional Corporate Ekiden Qualifier
seven stages, 80.45 km
1. Sagawa Express - 4:02:16 (3:01/km)
2. NTT Nishi Nihon - 4:03:17 (3:01/km)
3. Otsuka Seiyaku - 4:03:28 (3:02/km)
Chugoku Regional Corporate Ekiden Qualifier
seven stages, 82.8 km
1. Chugoku Denryoku - 4:07:00 (2:59/km)
2. JFE Steel - 4:11:59 (3:03/km)
3. Mazda - 4:15:36 (3:05/km)
Kyushu Regional Corporate Ekiden Qualifier
seven stages, 78.8 km
1. Asahi Kasei - 3:50:53 - CR (2:56/km)
2. Kyudenko - 3:52:28 (2:57/km)
3. Toyota Kyushu - 3:52:42 (2:57/km)
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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