by Brett Larner
Less than a month after her disappointing loss at the Yokohama International Women's Marathon, 2009 World Championships marathon silver medalist Yoshimi Ozaki bounced back to put Team Daiichi Seimei ahead on the First Stage of the National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships. The team never relinquished its frontrunning position, riding the lead all the way to the end as rookie anchor Tomomi Tanaka won her stage to bring Daiichi Seimei back in 2:17:17 in the Championships' first running in its new home of Sendai. East Japan region teams dominated the day, taking the top three spots.
Despite a challenging, uphill course with a prevailing headwind, the upper end of the field shaped up very closely to the pre-race rankings, with three of the top four running within 8 seconds of their times at the regional qualifiers. Daiichi Seimei was 4 seconds faster, runner up Team Panasonic was 8 seconds slower, and 4th-place Team Tenmaya only 1 second slower than its winning time at the West Japan regional qualifier. Pre-race favorite and Central Japan region winner Team Toyota Jidoshokki, was never in the race as its leading two runners both seriously underperformed, and East Japan 3rd-place Team Universal Entertainment also lost out on front-pack contention after its first runner Mizuho Nasukawa suffered a bad fall midway through the stage. West Japan runner-up Team Sysmex had a major setback when ace Mizuki Noguchi, the marathon national record holder, was a surprise and unexplained DNS, like Toyota Jidoshokki and Universal Entertainment never in the leading edge of the race.
In Daiichi Seimei's wake, Panasonic, Team Sekisui Kagaku, Team Denso and Team Starts were locked in a four-way battle for 2nd throughout much of the ekiden. The ace Third Stage, at 10.9 km the Championships' longest, saw Team Wacoal and Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo move up to join the chase pack on the strength of good runs from half-marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi and 10000 m national record holder Yoko Shibui, but both teams' later runners were dropped in the infighting between the other four teams. In a virtual first, Fukushi was actually dropped late in the stage by 10000 m national champion Kayo Sugihara (Team Denso), who took the stage best in a strong 35:43.
Despite broadcaster TBS' best efforts to avoid giving screen time to the seven African athletes restricted to the 3.6 km Fourth Stage, the race's shortest, Daiichi Seimei's Miharu Shimokado came close to losing the lead as she was nearly run down by both Kenyan Grace Kimanzi (Team Starts) and Ethiopian Betelhem Moges (Team Denso). The team's Fifth Stage runner, World Championships marathoner and former pro XC skiier Azusa Nojiri, managed to pull away again to give anchor Tanaka a clear run to the finish, but the chase pack in turn was hauled in over the final two stages by defending champion Tenmaya's Risa Shigetomo, who ran 32:51 for the stage best on the 10.0 km Fifth Stage, and anchor Naoko Sakamoto, next-best on the final leg after Tanaka. Behind Daiichi Seimei, Panasonic, Sekisui Kagaku, Tenmaya and Denso, Wacoal was 6th in 2:18:44, as expected picking up roughly 3 minutes on its regional qualifier time thanks to the addition of Fukushi who missed Regionals after running October's Chicago Marathon.
As usual, the race brought to light many of the top women's marathon plans for the rest of the winter season, particularly important this year in Japan's Olympic selection cycle. Most notably, Fukushi announced that she will run January's Osaka International Women's Marathon, where she will likely face Noguchi in a head-to-head race for an Olympic team spot. Nojiri and Tenmaya's Shigetomo and Sakamato also will compete in Osaka, with Ozaki a possible entry to March's Nagoya Women's Marathon despite saying she would not run there after finishing 2nd in Yokohama. Former marathon national record holder Shibui and Tenmaya's Yurika Nakamura will also line up in Nagoya. Expect a full entry list for Osaka within the next day.
2011 National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships
six stages, 42.195 km, 33 teams
click here for complete results
Stage Best Performances
First Stage (7.0 km) - Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei) - 22:17
Second Stage (3.9 km) - Riko Matsuzaki (Team Sekisui Kagaku) - 12:17
Third Stage (10.9 km) - Kayo Sugihara (Team Denso) - 35:43
Fourth Stage (3.6 km) - Felista Wanjugu (Team Univ. Ent.) - 11:29
Fifth Stage (10.0 km) - Risa Shigetomo (Team Tenmaya) - 32:51
Sixth Stage (6.795 km) - Tomomi Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei) - 21:06
Top Team Performances
1. Team Daiichi Seimei - 2:17:17
2. Team Panasonic - 2:18:15
3. Team Sekisui Kagaku - 2:18:25
4. Team Tenmaya - 2:18:32
5. Team Denso - 2:18:40
6. Team Wacoal - 2:18:44
7. Team Daihatsu - 2:18:55
8. Team Kyocera - 2:19:15
9. Team Starts - 2:19:40
10. Team Universal Entertainment - 2:19:41
11. Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo - 2:19:50
12. Team Toyota Jidoshokki - 2:20:26
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
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