by Brett Larner
With a live nationwide commercial-free TV broadcast, the National High School Ekiden Championships take to the air this Sunday, Dec. 23. The top teams from each of Japan's 47 prefectures square off in Kyoto, boys over seven stages and 42.195 km, girls over five stages and 21.0975 km. In-country fans can catch the action on NHK, the girls starting at 10:05 a.m. and the boys at 12:15 p.m. Overseas viewers can give it a go on Keyhole TV or follow @JRNLive for race coverage.
Why should you care about a Japanese high school race? Well, they're pretty good. Take a look at the top ten boys' and girls' teams.
As reader Bruce Carrick pointed out earlier this year, a lot of the boys' teams would do pretty well in NCAA DI. Top-ranked Toyokawa H.S. and #2 Nishiwaki Kogyo H.S. have better seven-man 5000 m averages than 2012 NCAA DI cross-country 3rd-place University of Colorado. The top nine high schools have a better average than 4th-place Northern Arizona University. When it comes to the women, considering that 2012 NCAA DI cross-country champion University of Oregon's best five women average of 9:28.08 would put it 10th among the top ten Japanese high schools it's pretty safe to say that they would find the quality of the circuit here challenging.
This year there's a faint hint of scandal lingering around favorite Toyokawa. Following last year's Nationals, Sendai Ikuei H.S., the national record holder that brought the world Samuel Wanjiru, lost its head coach Junichi Seino amid peculiar circumstances. Ten members of the school's boys' and girls' ekiden teams left shortly thereafter and transferred en masse to the powerhouse Toyokawa, the defending girls' national champion, citing both Seino's departure and concerns about their safety and well-being in the wake of the 2011 disasters. It was an unprecedented situation, but despite Toyokawa's appeal that it took the Sendai Ikuei students in on humanitarian grounds the transferees were suspended from competition for six months by the high school federation.
The suspension ended just in time for Toyokawa's boys' and girls' teams to clean up at the Aichi Prefecture qualifier. Already powerful before the infusion of talent from up north, the fully operational Toyokawa teams come in to Nationals ranked #1 on both average track times and qualifying time. On the boys' side Toyokawa features both the #1-ranked Kenyan, Jeremiah Karemi, and the #1-ranked Japanese, Hazuma Hattori, in the field. The only school that looks capable of challenging Toyokawa for the win is last year's 4th-placer Nishiwaki Kogyo, in pursuit of its first national title since 2002. Defending champion Sera H.S. is weaker following the graduation of Kenyan ace Charles Ndirangu and will likely be going up with little-known Iga Hakuho H.S., 2008 national champion Saku Chosei H.S. and Saikyo H.S. for 3rd. Sera's current Kenyan John Gathaiya has big shoes to fill, following in the legacy of Sera grads Ndirangu, Olympian Bitan Karoki and 2012 Fukuoka International Marathon winner Joseph Gitau. 2010 National High School Ekiden champion Kagoshima Jitsugyo H.S. is in the race but their stock has fallen and they will probably be aiming to make the top eight.
Despite no longer having a Kenyan on its starting roster Toyokawa's defending champion girls' team is the favorite. As in the boys' race they only really face one rival. Led by 9:11.13 ace Nanako Kanno, homeground Kyoto-based Ritsumeikan Uji H.S. returns from last year's 5th-place finish with its best lineup since winning the national title in 2007, its 3000 m average of 9:16.74 les than a second behind Toyokawa's average of 9:15.80. Hakuho Joshi H.S. is ranked 3rd but will battling six other schools including 2010 national champion Kojokan H.S. and last year's 4th-place Suma Gakuen H.S. to get there. Although Sendai Ikuei's boys' team did not qualify following the spring's exodus, the girls' team is in the race. One of the better individual duels to watch out for should be between their Mary Waithira and rival Rosemary Wanjiru of Aomori Yamada H.S., both sub-9 Kenyans, but with thirteen Japanese runners in the field holding bests of 9:15 or better the competition should be tough throughout the ekiden.
(c) 2012 Brett Larner
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