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Can the U.S. Crack the Top Three? 2012 Izumo Ekiden Preview

by Brett Larner

The best season of Japanese distance running is about to kick off.  The men's university ekiden season officially gets underway Monday, Oct. 8 with the first of the Big Three University Ekidens, the short and sweet Izumo Ekiden.  Oct. 20 sees the world's deepest 20 km road race, the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifier in Tokyo's Showa Kinen Park, where Kanto Region schools that didn't make the seeded cut at the last Hakone Ekiden try to pick up one of the nine remaining spots and individuals from smaller schools try to get in on the ten-man Select Team.  The seeded schools from Kanto and the best from the rest of the country square off at the National University Men's Ekiden Championships on Nov. 4.  Two weeks later the Ageo City Half Marathon, where teammates from the schools entered in Hakone square off against each other to try to make their coaches' A-roster for the main event.  Then, come Jan. 2-3, it is time for the big race, Japan's largest sporting event, with a two-day, 15-hour+ live broadcast and a TV audience in the tens of millions, the Hakone Ekiden.  It may be little-known at best outside Japan, but there is virtually nothing else in the sport to match the scale, popularity and sheer excitement of Hakone.

Top ten Izumo Ekiden teams by ave. 5000 m bests of their top six men.  Click to enlarge.

But it all gets going in Izumo.  At six stages and an average stage length of 7.4 km the Izumo Ekiden is an anomaly on the Japanese road scene, a short race with an emphasis on speed rather than stamina over the half marathon distance seen later in the season.  Ranking the entry lists by average 5000 m and 10000 m bests of each team's best six men, three Japanese schools emerge as favorites.  Last year's runner-up Komazawa University has the best credentials over both distances, with an average 5000 m best of 13:46.84 and a very impressive 10000 m average of 28:14.20.  Komazawa only lost last year due to a rocky collegiate debut from star first-year Kenta Murayama.  On paper they should be the hands-down favorite, but with the exception of last year's anchor stage winner Shinobu Kubota, who has taken his 10000 m best down from 28:23.61 to 28:07.01, few of Komazawa's best men have run well this year and the likelihood of another breakdown seems high.

2010 winner and course record holder Waseda University is next over both 5 and 10, with averages of 13:51.86 and 28:37.95 and leadership from junior Suguru Osako, the top Japanese man on the lead-off stage last year and holder of PBs of 13:31.27 and 27:56.94.  Second-year Shuhei Yamamoto has also improved dramatically this year to best marks of 13:42.17 and 28:14.49, but beyond this lead pair Waseda's numbers fall off rapidly with many of its good runners struggling with protracted setbacks.

Top ten Izumo Ekiden teams by ave. 10000 m bests of their top six men.  Click to enlarge.

Defending champion Toyo University, on the other hand, comes in hot.  After a scintillating course record win at this year's Hakone Ekiden Toyo lost star Ryuji Kashiwabara and several other key seniors to graduation, but in their place twins Keita and Yuta Shitara have dramatically stepped up to assume dual ace status, holding bests of 13:44:31/28:15.90 and 13:51.16/28:12.82.  Both Yuta and team captain Takanori Ichikawa won their stages last year, and at a time trial last weekend Ichikawa led half of Toyo's Izumo team to 5000 m bests, suggesting that they are ready for a repeat of last year's aggressive win.  The only cause for concern: both Shitara brothers were relatively flat in the time trial, with neither cracking fourteen minutes.

But, there is more.

The Izumo Ekiden has long hosted a team of American Ivy League alumni as part of its field.  The team has never really been part of the competitive end of the event, but last year when head coach Jack Fultz opened the team up to runners from other American schools the "Ivy League" team delivered its best-ever performance, making the eight-deep podium with a surprise 8th-place finish.  This year, with only two entry list members hailing from Ivy League schools but standouts including Stanford's Elliott Heath and Brendan Gregg and UCSB's Julian de Rubira, the "Ivy League" team looks to have a shot at a top three finish.  On average 5000 m PB the team is ranked #1 just a breath ahead of Komazawa, while it is #4 over 10000 m close behind defending champ Toyo.  If the Americans handle the travel well and run even passably they should be a lock for top five.  A good performance and they will be right there with Komazawa, Waseda and Toyo.  For a Japanese TV audience accustomed to seeing Kenyan ringers hammering their best it would be an unexpected thrill to have the "Ivies" right up in the game.  They'd never see it coming.

The Izumo Ekiden will be broadcast live on Fuji TV beginning at 1:00 p.m. Japan time.  Kashiwabara, now running for Izumo sponsor Fujitsu's ekiden team, will be a guest announcer on the TV broadcast.  Follow @JRNLive and @JRNHeadlines for detailed live coverage throughout the race.  Overseas viewers should also be able to watch live online via the sometimes-reliable Keyhole TV.

(c) 2012 Brett Larner
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