by Brett Larner
update: Alternates have been confirmed for the final start list. As expected, Komazawa's Kenta Murayama will be on First Stage and Toyo's Yuma Hattori on Second (see below).
The weekend's biggest race next to the TCS New York City Marathon is Sunday's National University Men's Ekiden, an 8-stage, 106.8 race from Nagoya to Ise pitting the 14 best universities in the Kanto Region against the 12 best from the rest of the country in the second stop on the Big Three University Ekiden tour that leads to Japan's biggest sporting event, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden. With the first of the Big Three, October's Izumo Ekiden, having been cancelled this season thanks to a major typhoon and big performances at the Yosenkai 20 km Hakone qualifier, where the field set new world records for depth and Josai University senior Kota Murayama ran the fastest-ever time there by a Japanese athlete, 58:26, it's safe to say that the millions of college distance running fans across the nation are pumped for Sunday's live broadcast on TV Asahi. Overseas fans will have to look for live coverage on @JRNLive starting at 8:00 a.m. Japan time on Nov. 2.
And they're going to get something good. Komazawa University set the course record last year in winning its third-straight Nationals, its eleventh national title under head coach Hiroaki Oyagi. This year Komazawa goes for one more to try to make it an undefeated record for its two star seniors, 2014 Copenhagen World Half Marathon team members Kenta Murayama and Shogo Nakamura. On paper Komazawa is the heavy favorite, but there are cracks. Nakamura has been injured, and Murayama, the identical twin of Josai's Kota, was sick late in the summer and has not raced yet this fall. Nakamura is listed to run the 14.0 km Fourth Stage, where Murayama set the astounding stage record of 39:24 last year, while Murayama is currently listed as an alternate. With both of them at full strength Komazawa will be almost untouchable. If either or both are missing it will be a wild and unpredictable race.
Komazawa's toughest competitors in the last five years, 2014 Hakone Ekiden winner Toyo University and previous Nationals course record holder Waseda University, have both fallen in strength this year and would need Murayama or Nakamura missing to compete. Waseda has good depth but lacks the star power it has had in people like Suguru Osako and Kensuke Takezawa in recent years, while Toyo is currently in the opposite situation of its overall strength dropping as its star brothers Yuma and Hazuma Hattori continue to get better and better. Yuma Hattori has struggled since setting the 30 km national university record of 1:28:52 and like Komazawa's Murayama is listed as an alternate. Toyo's chances depend largely on what happens to him.
Meiji University is solid on paper but is missing its top man Genki Yagisawa and has often underperformed in the big ekidens, meaning that Komazawa's toughest competition is likely to come from Aoyama Gakuin University, steadily ascending from nothing over the last five years under head coach Susumu Hara toward being a legitimate contender for the win. It has at least six men with sub-14 and sub-29 bests on the track, numbers only Komazawa can match, and has solid credentials over 20 km and the half marathon. What's key is its depth of quality, its next tier of men far exceeding Komazawa's and giving it a modularity that always proves important in overcoming injuries to key team members. If Komazawa is missing Murayama or Nakamura it will be a major blow, but if AGU leaves out its best runners like sophomore Tadashi Isshiki or junior Yusuke Ogura it has another half dozen who can fill their places without a major loss to its overall quality.
Surprise Yosenkai winner Kanagawa University is also at Nationals, but given the competition a top five placing would be a great day for it. Yamanashi Gakuin University was the favorite for the Yosenkai win but placed only 4th, not running any of its large group of first-years recruited from 2013 National High School Ekiden champion Yamanashi Gakuin Prep H.S. YGU should be stronger than they looked at the Yosenkai, but whether they have pulled it together over the last two weeks remains to be seen.
Schools from outside the Kanto Region can rarely compete with Kanto's best, especially over longer distances like the 13.35 km average stage length at Nationals, but Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto Sangyo University and Chukyo University will be giving it a shot at taking down Kanto's bottom end. The biggest feelgood story of this year's Nationals is the academically elite Kyoto University, sort of the Yale of Japan, qualifying for the first time in 42 years with exactly the sort of ragtag bunch of misfits you see in the typical underdog-makes-good sports movie: self-coached nonconformist star Kentaro Hirai, 2013 World Youth Championships racewalk gold medalist Toshikazu Yamanishi, grad students and more. Hirai, who beat all but one of the Kanto stars for 2nd in the 10000 m at this year's National University Track and Field Championships, is a legitimate talent and should do big things on his stage, but even if the rest of Kyoto isn't good enough to do much at Nationals it's always nice to see a team with a story and personality make it to the big game.
Hirai is entered on the 14.6 km First Stage where most of the big names will run. Coaches do use the alternate list to keep their cards close to their chest until the deadline for final changes, but based on the current entry list Hirai will face many of the runners already mentioned, including Yosenkai winner Kota Murayama (Josai Univ.), Hazuma Hattori (Toyo Univ.) and Tadashi Isshiki (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.), along with the likes of 2013 Ageo City Half Marathon winner Takashi Ichida (Daito Bunka Univ.) and Kenyan John Kariuki (Daiichi Kogyo Univ.).
The 13.2 km Second Stage also has a solid lineup including 2014 Hakone Ekiden Second Stage winner Koki Takada (Waseda Unv.), sub-13:40 sophomore Keisuke Nakatani (Komazawa Univ.), and arguably the most talented runner at AGU, Kazuma Kubota. 2014 Copenhagen World Half Marathon Championships teammates Shogo Nakamura (Komazawa Univ.) and Hiroto Inoue (Yamanashi Gakuin University) lead the 14.0 km Fourth Stage along with Waseda captain Shuhei Yamamoto.
Most of the rest of the big names are entered for the final and longest leg, the Eighth Stage which at 19.7 km is the only one to approach the 21.7 km average stage length at Hakone. 2014 National University 1500 m and 5000 m champion Enock Omwamba (Kenya/Yamanashi Gakuin University), sub-58 for 20 km at last year's Yosenkai, leads the way for Masaya Taguchi (Toyo Univ.), Shuho Dairokuno (Meiji Univ.), Daichi Kamino (Aoyama Gakuin University) and more.
Sub-61 half marathoner Kenta Murayama (Komazawa Univ.) and 30 km national university record holder Yuma Hattori (Toyo Univ.) are the biggest names on the alternate list and will have major impacts if they are put into play. In Murayama's case the 14.6 km First Stage, where Komazawa has the relatively inexperienced Kenya Sonota entered, looks like the most obvious place. Given that his twin brother Kota is entered on the First Stage for Josai that is something everybody would like to see. Hattori is harder to read, with Toyo already having solid runners entered on First, Fourth and Eighth. If he runs the 13.2 km Second Stage seems like the most likely place given the presence of Nakatani, Takada and Kubota on that stage.
2014 National University Men's Ekiden Championships Entry List
click here for complete entry lists
1. Komazawa University (Tokyo)
2. Toyo University (Saitama)
3. Meiji Universiy (Tokyo)
4. Waseda University (Tokyo/Saitama)
5. Yamanashi Gakuin University (Yamanashi)
6. Aoyama Gakuin University (Tokyo)
7. Sapporo Gakuin University (Hokkaido)
8. Tohoku University (Iwate)
9. Nittai University (Kanagawa)
10. Kanagawa University (Kanagawa)
11. Juntendo University (Chiba)
12. Tokai University (Kanagawa)
13. Jobu University (Gunma)
14. Daito Bunka University (Saitama)
15. Josai University (Saitama)
16. Chuo Gakuin University (Chiba)
17. Shinshu University (Nagano)
18. Chukyo University (Aichi)
19. Ritsumeikan University (Kyoto)
20. Kwansei Gakuin University (Hyogo)
21. Kyoto Sangyo University (Kyoto)
22. Osaka Keizai University (Osaka)
23. Kyoto University (Kyoto)
24. Hiroshima Keizai University (Hiroshima)
25. Daiichi Kogyo University (Kagoshima)
26. Tokai Region University Select Team (Tokai)
(c) 2014 Brett Larner
all rights reserved