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National Men's Ekiden Wraps Up Championship Ekiden Season This Sunday

by Brett Larner

This Sunday's 19th National Men's Ekiden in Hiroshima brings Japan's 2013-2014 national championship ekiden to a close with one of the most entertaining races of them all. Teams from each of Japan's 47 prefectures made up of junior high school, high school, university and pro runners race over 7 stages and 48 km, one of the few chances of the year to see the best of the corporate league's New Year Ekiden men duel with the university circuit's Hakone Ekiden stars and often the first glimpse of upcoming stars running young.  It's all broadcast live nationwide and commercial-free on NHK starting at 12:30 p.m.  As usual, JRN will cover the race live on Twitter @JRNLive.

This year university runners seem to outweigh the pros, with many of the Hakone stage winners and upper-echelon men taking the top positions on a number of teams.  That may in part be due to this year's World Half Marathon Championships being held in March and the National Corporate Half Marathon Championships, usually held mid-March, being bumped back to mid-February as a consequence.  The new Okukuma Half Marathon, of which more later, could also be playing a role.

Whatever the reason, defending champion Hyogo returns with a quality lineup led by London Olympics marathoner Ryo Yamamoto (Team SGH Group Sagawa) and Hosei University ace Kazuto Nishiike.  Nishiike suffered a minor injury at the end of December and was unable to run Hakone, but if he is not ready to start in Hiroshima team alternate Keisuke Nakatani of Hakone runner-up Komazawa University, the only Komazawa man to win his stage at Hakone, is a more than suitable replacement.  High school powerhouse Nishiwaki Kogyo H.S. also fields two members, giving Hyogo a good shot at a title defense.

Fukushima fields an exceptionally strong team including 5000 m national champion Sota Hoshi (Team Fujitsu) and Toyo member Norihisa Imai.  With a 5000 m best of 14:01.63 its leading runner Masaki Takamoto (Gakuho Ishikawa H.S.) is one of the fastest on the First Stage, so look for Fukushima to be in the action from the early going.

Yamanashi's team is stacked with four members of 2013 national champion Yamanashi Gakuin Prep H.S. including sub-14 high schoolers Ryotaro Ichitani and Kenta Ueda, but its chances will be largely up to sub-28:40 collegiate Kazuma Tashiro (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) and late-career pro Norio Kamijo.  Nagano is likewise stacked with four members of National High School Ekiden 5th-placer Saku Chosei H.S., former 1500 m and 5000 m national champion and Saku Chosei alum Yuichiro Ueno (DeNA RC) and Hakone Ninth Stage winner Keigo Yano (Nittai Univ.).  Following the same pattern, Hiroshima's team features four people from High School Ekiden 4th-place Sera H.S. backing former collegiate 10000 m national record holder Tetsuya Yoroizaka and New Year Ekiden ace Fourth Stage 4th-place Naoki Okamoto (Team Chugoku Denryoku), a lineup that should be enough for it to be near the front of the race.

One of Hyogo's strongest challengers could be last year's 4th-placer Saitama, which includes Hakone Fifth Stage top two Keita Shitara (Toyo Univ.) and Shota Hattori (Nittai Univ.) as its two main members and Third Stage winner Yuta Shitara (Toyo Univ.) as alternate.  Much depends on how its high school men perform, and with 14:06.73 man Kazuki Takeshita (Tokyo Nogyo Prep #3 H.S.) on board they could have that angle covered.

Saitama's most famous runner, Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) is giving the National Men's Ekiden a pass in favor of the new Okukuma Road Race half marathon the same day in Kumamoto.  Having just started last year, Okukuma is already establishing itself as a top drawer-race.  Alongside Kawauchi the field includes defending winner Hayato Ideue, New Year Ekiden Fourth Stage runner-up Masato Imai, Seventh Stage winner Ryuji Watanabe and 2013 Tamana Half Marathon winner Daichi Kato (all four of Team Toyota Kyushu), members of most of the top ten teams at Hakone, and a few dozen other elite university and corporate league men.  Imai, Watanabe and Kato have all beaten Kawauchi in half marathons in the last year, and with an unexpected loss behind him last weekend at the Tanigawa Mari Half Kawauchi will no doubt be going for payback.  Ideue's 1:04:31 course record from last year should fall by a wide margin.

Although the women's national championship ekiden season wrapped up last weekend with the National Women's Ekiden in Kyoto, across Kyushu from Kumamoto there's one more for the road as the Kita-Kyushu Invitational Women's Ekiden celebrates its 25th anniversary.  Kita-Kyushu gives some of the country's top high schools the chance to take a shot at top pro and university teams, with the 32.8 km event's longest stage divided into two for the high schoolers.  2013 winner Ritsumeikan Uji H.S., which became the first high school in event history to beat every corporate league team as it set the course record last year, returns to take on the two best corporate teams it outran, Tenmaya and Kyudenko. Last weekend London Olympics marathoner Risa Shigetomo won the National Women's Ekiden's 10 km anchor stage in 31:50 with Kyudenko anchor Misaki Kato 4th in 32:28.  Their rematch here should be one of the day's highlights.

Check back over the weekend for coverage of these and other road action.

(c) 2014 Brett Larner
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