In what appears to have been his final ekiden appearance, 5000 m and 30 km national record holder and former 30 km world record holder Takayuki Matsumiya brought pre-race favorite Team Konica Minolta home to its first New Year Ekiden title since 2008, winning the seven-stage, 100.0 km national corporate men's championship event in 4:51:32 by a margin of over a kilometer. After a relatively slow start Konica Minolta took the lead on the race's longest stage, the 22.0 km Fourth Stage with a stage-second run by captain Tsuyoshi Ugachi, and with stage wins on the remaining three legs its lead was never threatened. Samuel Wanjiru's former team Toyota Kyushu was an unexpected 2nd, its best-ever finish, thanks to three strong middle-stage runs including a Fourth Stage record by Masato Imai and a superbly-timed kick by anchor Takuya Sakai to win a seven-way sprint finish for the remaining podium spots behind Konica. Running without 2011 10000 m world champion Ibrahim Jeilan, Team Honda appeared to take 3rd by a second as anchor Masakazu Fujiwara outleaned Yuki Nakamura of Team Kanebo, but the results were later amended to give 3rd to Kanebo. The next four teams came in within seven seconds. Defending champion Team Nissin Shokuhin and the powerful Team Asahi Kasei were only 9th and 10th as their top men Yuki Sato and Hiroyuki Horibata both faltered.
While the First Stage has tended to be a relatively dull pack race with a sprint finish, 2012's top Japanese man over 10000 m and the half marathon, Chihiro Miyawaki (Team Toyota), came back from injuries to take it out hard. Hard enough to overtake the camera cars and motorcycles and have to put his hand out to avoid being bumped by a car full of photographers on the first corner. The only runner to go with him was 2010's top Japanese man over 10000 m and the half marathon, Tomoya Onishi (Team Asahi Kasei), in his first major run since winning the First Stage at the 2011 New Year Ekiden. In a mirror of the 2007 Hakone Ekiden First Stage where Onishi was the only runner to chase future Olympian Yuki Sato on his way to the course record, Miyawaki and Onishi rapidly opened a lead of more than 30 seconds over the rest of the field which placidly stayed bunched together for most of the stage. Late in the run Miyawaki shook free of Onishi to open a lead of 28 seconds, with Onishi nearly run down by the front end of the advancing pack.
The reliable John Thuo (Kenya/Team Toyota) kept Toyota's lead on the 8.3 km "International Stage," the shortest of the day, just holding off stage winner Patrick Mutunga (Kenya/Team Toyota Boshoku) by two seconds. Behind them there was radical turnover in the field as teams without African runners including Asahi Kasei and Toyota Kyushu faded. Mutunga was very impressive, running with an unusually Japanese-style form as he outran all but Thuo. Two-time world junior 3000 mSC champion Jonathan Ndiku, appearing in the new Hitachi Busuryu uniform after the team's transfer of sponsors this year, was only one second off Mutunga's time of 22:24 to put Hitachi into a good position. One notable blowup came from former Sera H.S. star Charles Ndirangu, who opened his Team JFE Steel debut with a 2:35 km only to fade dramatically and lose eight places.
Just two seconds back from the lead at the start of the 13.6 km Third Stage, Toyota Boshoku's Yoshihiro Yamamoto surprisingly ran down leader Yusuke Takabayashi (Team Toyota), last year's anchor stage winner, to put the Chubu region winners into the lead. Takabayashi was only 31st on the stage, crushing Toyota's hopes of duplicating its 2011 national title. Further back, Takuya Fukatsu (Team Asahi Kasei), Yuya Konishi (Team Toyota Kyushu), Hisanori Kitajima (Team Yasukawa Denki) and others advanced through the field to set up an incredible Fourth Stage.
Toyota Boshoku's Tomohiro Shiiya, a former member of the now-defunct TEPCO team, inherited a slight lead over London Olympics marathon 6th-place Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki) and 2:08:24 marathoner Hiroyuki Horibata (Team Asahi Kasei), who in turn had a small lead over World Half Marathon team members Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta) and Masato Kihara (Team Kanebo). Further back lay former Hakone Ekiden Fifth Stage star Imai of Toyota Kyushu. Up front Nakamoto made short work of catching Shiiya, while Horibata almost immediately began to show signs of fatigue from Fukuoka less than a month ago. Kihara and Ugachi opened the 22.0 km stage with sub-28 clockings through 10 km. Behind them Imai was going even faster. There was too much action to recount, but the stage eventually shook down to Imai running down Shiiya and Ugachi in a sprint finish. Ugachi handed off a step ahead of Imai, but it was Imai who took the stage best. And the record, breaking Yuki Sato's year-old mark of 1:02:51 by one second. After a great fall season you have to hope Imai has a marathon on the calendar soon.
Although the margin between them grew steadily as the field turned into a strong headwind, Konica Minolta and Toyota Kyushu's positions remained constant at 1st and 2nd all the way to the finish. Tomoya Shirayanagi (Team Toyota Boshoku) lost touch with the lead pair on the 15.8 km Fifth Stage, and Yu Mitsuya (Team Toyota Kyushu) soon followed suit as Konica Minolta rookie Masaki Ito clocked a stage best to get away safely into 1st. Konica's Sixth Stage runner Ryotaro Nitta also ran his stage's best time to bump Konica's lead to over 2 1/2 minutes at the final handoff. London track Olympian Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) and, in his pro debut, Hakone Ekiden superstar Ryuji Kashiwabara (Team Fujitsu) both underperformed, picking up one or two places but not cracking the top three on stage time. Judging from the nonstop ovation to greet him along the course, at least in Kashiwabara's case none of his fans cared.
Being completely unchallenged did not stop Konica anchor Matsumiya from running like a national record holder, extending the team's lead by over a minute and claiming the stage best by 19 seconds. Race announcers first said that Matsumiya is scheduled to run next month's Tokyo Marathon, then suggested that this would be his last New Year Ekiden before retiring. If true on the one hand it is unfortunate as despite being the former 30 km world record holder it took until last spring for him to figure out what he was doing with the marathon. On the other, what better way to see one of the country's greats wrap up his career than with a masterful run to give his team its first national title in five years?
Behind him, a chase group of five solidified, while another group of five gunning for the final two podium spots also came together. As 2010 Tokyo Marathon winner Masakazu Fujiwara (Team Honda) lead the front pack, local Yuya Shiokawa (Team Subaru) and 2011 World Championships marathoner Yoshinori Oda (Team Toyota) broke free of the second chase pack to catch the front pack with 2 km to go and make it a seven-man race for seven podium positions. Virtually all seven took shots at the lead over the last 600 m, but it was the most unknown of them, Toyota Kyushu's Sakai, who emerged the hero to give his unranked team its best-ever placing. Fujiwara appeared to get over the line ahead of Kanebo anchor Nakamura, but judges reversed the placing shortly after the race to give 3rd to Kanebo.
With East Japan teams taking three of the top four and five of the top ten spots it will stand to pick up two more qualifying places for 2014, with the Kyushu and Chubu regions each losing one place for having two teams in the bottom seven. The change in the regional balance is sure to affect the smaller regions in the spring track and fall ekiden season. In the interim, look for many of the top men to run for their home prefectures in three weeks at the National Men's Ekiden. Many will also line up two weeks later at the Marugame International Half Marathon or Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon. For the best, the Tokyo Marathon and Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon await.
2013 New Year Ekiden
National Corporate Men's Ekiden Championships
37 teams, 7 stages, 100.0 km
Maebashi, Gunma, 1/1/13
click here for complete results
Top Stage Perfomances
First Stage (12.3 km)
1. Chihiro Miyawaki (Team Toyota) - 34:48
2. Tomoya Onishi (Team Asahi Kasei) - 35:16
3. Ryo Kiname (Team Mitsubishi Juko Nagasaki) - 35:19
Second Stage (8.3 km)
1. Patrick Mutunga (Kenya/Team Toyota Boshoku) - 22:24
2. Jonathan Ndiku (Kenya/Team Hitachi Butsuryu) - 22:25
3. Edward Waweru (Kenya/Team NTN) - 22:29
Third Stage (13.6 km)
1. Takuya Fukatsu (Team Asahi Kasei) - 38:15
2. Yuya Konishi (Team Toyota Kyushu) - 38:23
3. Hisanori Kitajima (Team Yasukawa Denki) - 38:45
Fourth Stage (22.0 km)
1. Masato Imai (Team Toyota Kyushu) - 1:02:50 - CR
2. Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta) - 1:03:20
3. Naoki Okamoto (Team Chugoku Denryoku) - 1:03:21
Fifth Stage (15.8 km)
1. Masaki Ito (Team Konica Minolta) - 46:33
2. Yu Mitsuya (Team Toyota Kyushu) - 46:58
3. Hidehito Takamine (Team Fujitsu) - 47:12
Sixth Stage (12.5 km)
1. Ryotaro Nitta (Team Konica Minolta) - 37:31
2. Kazuki Onishi (Team Kanebo) - 37:34
3. Ryosuke Fukuyama (Team Honda) - 37:44
Seventh Stage (15.5 km)
1. Takayuki Matsumiya (Team Konica Minolta) - 46:46
2. Yuya Shiokawa (Team Subaru) - 47:05
3. Yoshinori Oda (Team Toyota) - 47:08
Top Team Results
1. Konica Minolta (East Japan) - 4:51:32
2. Toyota Kyushu (Kyushu) - 4:55:24
3. Kanebo (East Japan) - 4:55:25
4. Honda (East Japan) - 4:55:25
5. Chugoku Denryoku (Chugoku) - 4:55:28
6. Subaru (East Japan) - 4:55:30
7. Toyota Boshoku (Chubu) - 4:55:31
8. Toyota (Chubu) - 4:55:32
9. Nissin Shokuhin (East Japan) - 4:55:54
10. Asahi Kasei (Kyushu) - 4:56:10
------- Teams 31st or lower impact their region's number of qualifying spots for 2014.
31. Kurosaki Harima (Kyushu) - 5:05:22
32. Toenec (Chubu) - 5:05:45
33. Chuo Spring (Chubu) - 5:07:09
34. Nishitetsu (Kyushu) - 5:07:36
35. Shikoku Denryoku (Kansai) - 5:07:55
36. Chudenko (Chugoku) - 5:11:24
37. Omokawa Lumber (Hokuriku) - 5:17:25
(c) 2013 Brett Larner
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