by Brett Larner
For the second year in a row #1-ranked Komazawa University returned from a shambolic performance at October's Izumo Ekiden to take the win at the National University Men's Ekiden Championships, anchor Shinobu Kubota running down Toyo University first-year Yuma Hattori to bring Komazawa home in a course-record 5:12:43 for the eight-stage, 106.8 km race between Nagoya and Ise. It was Komazawa's tenth national ekiden title under head coach Hiroaki Oyagi, an achievement which puts him solidly in the record books among Japan's all-time greats. Toyo, #3 on paper leading into Nationals, just missed the course record, running 5:13:32 for 2nd, while #2-ranked Waseda University was hit-and-miss as it took 3rd in 5:15:08. Nittai University, Meiji University and Nihon University rounded out the top six to make the seeded places for 2013's National Championships, but times were fast all around as the top eight all beat Waseda's 2011 3rd place time of 5:21:06 and the top eleven all cleared last year's seeded cutoff. Three of the eight stages saw new records alongside Komazawa's overall record, two of them with multiple runners going under the old marks.
Where last year Kubota, the #1-ranked Japanese collegiate half-marathoner with a best of 1:01:38, fought to hold off Toyo's star anchor Ryuji Kashiwabara, this year he was left trying to close a 1:07 gap to Toyo's Hattori over the 19.7 km anchor stage after Toyo led almost the entire race. Toyo's opening man Masaya Taguchi got off clear in first, with Second Stage runner Keita Shitara battling back and forth with 2012 Kanto Region 1500 m and 10000 m champion Enock Omwamba (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) before losing ground in the final stretch. Omwamba took 27:44 man Tetsuya Yoroizaka's course record with him, running 37:16 for the 13.2 km stage, with Waseda star Suguru Osako likewise clearing Yoroizaka's mark as he advanced from 12th to 4th.
Toyo rookie Jun Nobuto succeeded in retaking the lead on the Third Stage, but Komazawa's Ikuto Yufu ran a stage record to cut Toyo's lead from 41 to 17 seconds. Last year's Fourth Stage winner Wataru Ueno steadily made up the ground on Toyo's Yuta Shitara and looked set to take the lead, but once Ueno was within 10 seconds Shitara turned it on, widening Toyo's lead to 23 seconds by stage's end. Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Stage men Ryu Takaku, Takanori Ichikawa and Takeru Sakuma continued to build Toyo's lead to 1:07 by the start of the anchor stage, Ichikawa breaking the record on his leg and Sakuma, making his first leap from Toyo's C-team to its starting lineup, winning the Seventh Stage.
Toyo's lead over Komazawa heading into the anchor stage was within head coach Toshiyuki Sakai's pre-race objective of 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, a margin he hoped would be sufficient for star first-year recruit Hattori, untested over distances near the half marathon, to hold off Komazawa ace Kubota over 19.7 km. It was not to be. Kubota quickly made up the ground, catching Hattori at 13 km and shaking him off before 15 km as he went on to open a final margin of 49 seconds, an improvement over last year's 33-second margin of victory over Toyo. Waseda, only 6th in Izumo, took 3rd again this year despite running 38 seconds faster than Komazawa's 2011 winning time. Alongside Osako breaking the Second Stage record, Sixth Stage man Yuki Maeda also set a stage record of 35:30 for the 12.3 km leg.
Coach Sakai's decision to try out several inexperienced team members and his very risky and intriguing choice of Hattori for the anchor stage shows that he is working on developing the team as a whole rather than pinning his hopes on his two or three best men following the graduation of Toyo star Ryuji Kashiwabara last spring. Komazawa's win, not quite flawless but closer to the team's potential than it has been for several years, makes the leadup to January's main event, the Hakone Ekiden, all the more exciting.
Nittai, powered by a Fourth Stage win by captain Shota Hattori, nearly ran Waseda down as it finished 4th only 13 seconds back, while Meiji was a comfortable 5th. 6th place, the final 2013 seeded position, changed hands repeatedly. It looked as though last year's 6th-placer Jobu University had a good shot at repeating, but Nihon University anchor Benjamin Gandu, winner of last month's Hakone Yosenkai 20 km in 57:47, had other ideas. Starting the anchor stage in 9th place 3:02 down on 6th, Gandu ran a stage-winning 56:52 to haul in Yamanashi Gakuin University, Chuo University and Jobu and guarantee Nihon a spot at next year's Nationals.
The three remaining Kanto region schools in the field, Kanagawa University, Teikyo University and Tokai University, rounded out the top twelve. With twelve Kanto schools in the race the top placing by a team from elsewhere in Japan went to Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University, 13th in a distant 5:28:26. Of the fourteen non-Kanto schools at this year's Nationals, only Ritsumeikan and 14th-place Kansei Gakuin University avoided the white sash, given to teams that fall further than a specified amount of time behind the leader on each stage, demonstrating the impact that the Kanto-only Hakone Ekiden has on Japanese men's university distance running.
The best of the non-Kanto schools will reconvene Nov. 17 for the Biwako University Ekiden, while nineteen Kanto region schools will line up the next day at the 25th running of the Ageo City Half Marathon as their coaches prune their rosters with an eye toward January 2nd and 3rd. And further beyond: perhaps inspired by Izumo Ekiden winner Aoyama Gakuin University junior Takehiro Deki's 2:10:02 debut at last spring's Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, Komazawa junior Kubota is said to be planning to make his own marathon at Lake Biwa next March.
2012 National University Men's Ekiden Championships
eight stages, 106.8 km
click here for complete results
Top Team Results
1. Komazawa University - 5:12:43 - CR
2. Toyo University - 5:13:32
3. Waseda University - 5:15:08
4. Nittai University - 5:15:21
5. Meiji University - 5:17:09
6. Nihon University - 5:18:49
----- top six seeded for 2013
7. Jobu University - 5:20:17
8. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:20:33
9. Chuo University - 5:21:54
10. Kanagawa University - 5:23:23
Stage Best Performances
First Stage (14.6 km) - Masaya Taguchi (Toyo Univ.) - 43:17
Second Stage (13.2 km) - Enock Omwamba (Kenya/Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 37:16 - CR
Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.) - 37:25 also under old CR
Third Stage (9.5 km) - Ikuto Yufu (Komazawa Univ.) - 26:55 - CR
Fourth Stage (14.0 km) - Shota Hattori (Nittai Univ.) - 40:23
Fifth Stage (11.6 km) - Yuki Arimura (Meiji Univ.) - 33:48
Sixth Stage (12.3 km) - Yuki Maeda (Waseda Univ.) - 35:30 - CR
Takanori Ichikawa (Toyo Univ.) - 35:33 also under old CR
Seventh Stage (11.9 km) - Takeru Sakuma (Toyo Univ.) - 34:57
Eighth Stage (19.7 km) - Benjamin Gandu (Kenya/Nihon Univ.) - 56:52
(c) 2012 Brett Larner
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