translated by Brett Larner
With 28 teams on the starting line for the six-stage, 38.6 km National University Women's Ekiden Championships on Oct. 28 in Sendai, defending national champion Ritsumeikan University celebrated the championships' 30th anniversary by running 2:06:05 to take a record-setting seventh national title. Rival Bukkyo University was relegated to the runner-up position for the second-straight year, 1:05 behind Ritsumeikan, while Tsubuka University was 3rd in its first Nationals appearance in nine years, making the seeded top six for the first time in ten years.
Ritsumeikan sat in 4th at the end of the First Stage, 13 seconds behind the lead before junior Akane Yabushita took over with a stage-best run to put Ritsumeikan into the lead. The team sustained the lead through the Third Stage and was unchallenged all the way to the finish. After starting the Second Stage in the lead. Bukkyo senior Shiho Takechi fell behind late in the stage. Her teammates were unable to make up the deficit on the remaining stages. Osaka Gakuin University and, returning from a DNF last year, Daito Bunka University, made it into the seeded bracket for the first time, while five-year-straight 3rd-placer Meijo University was only 7th, its first time ever not earning a seeded spot.
Pre-race, Ritsumeikan coach Miyuki Tokura had predicted, "The Second Stage, with the highest concentration of fast runners, will be the key." After having been mostly out of competition since January with knee problems, captain Yabushita's performance on the Second Stage was crucial to the team's win. Yabushita, whose credentials include a 2nd-place finish in the 1500 m at last year's National Track and Field Championships, was nervous about racing, saying, "I didn't really know how far I had recovered my strength yet." With a 13-second gap to Bukkyo rival Takechi, Yabushita took the lead with 700 m to go before the handoff and opened an 8-second lead, winning the stage for the third year in a row. Yabushita passed on her momentum to Third Stage runner Mai Tsuda who likewise won her stage to all but seal the overall win for Ritsumeikan.
With four-time Nationals team members Hanae Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei), Risa Takenaka (Team Shiseido) and others having graduated last spring, Ritsumeikan's strength this year was to be found among its sophomores and juniors. A month ago at the Kansai Regional University Ekiden Championships with Yabushita still injured and Tsuda suffering from fatigue Ritsumeikan was crushed by Bukkyo, finishing an all-but unthinkable 4th. "Everybody was nervous going into that race," said Yabushita, "but what happened there got us all focused and ready to come here and win." Having worked together to overcome their problems, all members of this year's winning team will return next year. Another era of the Ritsumeikan dynasty may be just getting underway.