Skip to main content

A Battle of Past Champions - 2015 New Year Ekiden Preview

by Brett Larner

The New Year Ekiden national championship road relay is the raison d'être for Japan's corporate league men, the key race around which the entire year revolves.  37 teams battle it out over 100 km divided into 7 stages with a 6 1/2 hour live nationwide broadcast to millions of fans.  Most of the top corporate men in Japan, both Japanese and African, will be there, and you can follow highlights of the action via @JRNLive.

Two-time defending champion Konica Minolta comes in strong.  Stronger than ever, in fact, with a major boost from rookie Keita Shitara, sub-28 and sub-62 while at Toyo University where he won the 2014 Hakone Ekiden's uphill Fifth Stage before graduating this year.  Konica's chances largely rest on the recovery of star Tsuyoshi Ugachi from the Fukuoka International Marathon earlier this month, his third marathon in his first year taking on the distance.

Ready to take over from Konica Minolta is 2012 winner Nissin Shokuhin.  Already featuring World XC junior medalist Leonard Barsoton and sub-27:40 man Yuki Sato, Nissin, 3rd last year, has a major influx of talent this year from 3000 m national record holder and Nike Oregon Project quasi-member Suguru Osako and 2014 Hakone Ekiden Ninth Stage winner Keigo Yano.  With its star recruit last year Akinobu Murasawa showing signs of finally rounding into good form after two years of injury trouble Nissin is looking like the favorite.  Fans will be happy to see Murasawa, Osako, Sato and Yano, all graduates of 2014 National High School Ekiden runner-up Saku Chosei H.S., all on the start list.

The toughest competition for Konica and Nissin from outside East Japan is Chubu region winner Toyota, the 2011 New Year Ekiden champion.  Komazawa University anchor stage specialist Shinobu Kubota joined Toyota this year and has brought it the kind of advantage it needs to improve on its 7th-place finish last year.  Splitting its team into two squads at the Chubu qualifier Toyota's A squad featuring Kubota won by a five-minute margin.  Its B-squad, headed by injured star Chihiro Miyawaki, was good enough for 3rd even though its results did not count in New Year Ekiden qualifying.  With both squads combined and Miyawaki anywhere close to his form over the last two years Toyota would be a major threat to both Konica and Nissin.

Last year's runner-up Toyota Kyushu has picked up Toyo's solid Kento Otsu, but without top two Masato Imai and Ryuji Watanabe finished only 4th at the Kyushu regional qualifier.  If both are back then the Koichi Morishita-coached Toyota Kyushu should be a solid top three contender.

Likewise, 4th-placer Asahi Kasei, on paper the best all-Japanese team, was only 5th in Kyushu and will need things in better alignment to finish near the front of the field again.  But regardless of how AK plays out this time the rest of the field, and AK's current older members, should be worried.  Asahi Kasei has pulled off a recruiting coup and will pull in most of the best members of the 2015 university graduating class including Kenta Murayama (Komazawa Univ.), his twin Kota Murayama (Josai Univ.), twins Hiroshi and Takashi Ichida (Daito Bunka Univ.), 2014 National University Ekiden stage winners Yuki Arimura (Meiji Univ.) and Shuho Dairokuno (Meiji Univ.) and more.  Nationalistic Asahi Kasei leader Takeshi Soh's fantasy of putting together an all-Japanese team capable of winning the New Year Ekiden before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics looks like it could come true next year just with the incoming new members.

The Honda team picked up two solid recruits this year, Keita Shitara's twin Yuta Shitara and 2013 Hakone Ekiden champion Nittai University captain Shota Hattori and finished 3rd at the East Japan qualifier behind Konica Minolta and Nissin Shokuhin.  Honda assistant coach Satoshi Ogawa tells JRN that Honda's current focus is on the marathon rather than the ekiden, but with even an only decent performance Honda is top five material.  Other top teams include Kansai region winner Otsuka Seiyaku, Chugoku region winner Chugoku Denryoku, Kyushu region winner Kyudenko and Hokuriku region winner YKK.

In terms of individual racing, most of the top Japanese athletes will feature on the 12.3 km First Stage, the 13.6 km Third Stage, and especially the 22.0 km Fourth Stage.  But it's no secret that the best runners in the race will run its shortest leg, the 8.3 km Second Stage to which non-Japanese athletes are restricted.  With a relatively close start after just one stage before them the Second Stage features the likes of sub-27 Kenyans Bedan Karoki (DeNA) and Paul Tanui (Kyudenko), world level medalists Leonard Barsoton (Nissin Shokuhin) and Jonathan Ndiku (Hitachi Butsuryu), emerging 1500 m talent Ronald Kwemoi (Team Komori Corp.) and many, many more, all chasing one another down for the lead and stage best honors.  Look for detailed coverage of this stage and the rest of the race on @JRNLive and here on JRN.  Course details, start lists and more are available here via broadcaster TBS.

(c) 2014 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Comments

Most-Read This Week

Daniel and Kawauchi Win Saitama International Marathon

After missing a medal by 3 seconds at August's London World Championships, defending champ Flomena Cheyech Daniel (Kenya) made it two in a row as she won a tight battle against Shitaye Habtegebrel (Bahrain) to win the Saitama International Marathon in 2:28:39.

With the onus on Japanese women Reia Iwada (Dome) and Kaori Yoshida (Team RxL) to break 2:29:00 in order to qualify for Japan's new-format 2020 Olympic trials race, the pair of them did most of the heavy lifting for the first two-thirds of the race. Yoshida led the early kilometers before Iwade took over, and through strong head and tailwinds, over rolling hills and around sharp turns Iwade kept things moving just under target pace, shaking the pack down to just her, Daniel, Habtegebrel and relative unknown Bekelech Daba (Ethiopia) by 15 km.

Little changed up front until after the lead group hit the start of the hilliest 10 km on the course after 25 km. For the first time Iwade slipped to the rear of the pack, and on a …

Ekiden Weekend Roundup

Ekiden season is in full swing, and across the country it was another busy weekend. Although there were four major ekidens nationwide, the best action came as runners from high school to the pros tuned up for the string of national championship ekiden races stretching from the end of this month to mid-January. At Kanagawa's Nittai University Time Trials meet, two-time steeplechase junior world champion Jonathan Ndiku (Hitachi Butsuryu) pipped 5000 m junior world championships bronze medalist William Malel (Honda) at the line in the 10000 m A-heat, winning in 27:22.73 to Malel's 27:22.79. Four other Kenyans including Ndiku's junior teammate Richard Kimunyan broke 28 minutes as their coaches eye who to run at the Jan. 1 New Year Ekiden.



Evans Yego of the tiny Sunbelx supermarket team won the more conservative 5000 m A-heat in 13:48.04, a race most notable for high schoolers Luka Musembi (Sendai Ikuei H.S.), Masato Suzuki (Suijo H.S.) and Reito Hanzawa (Gakuho Ishikawa H.S.) …

Breaking Down the Best-Ever Japanese Marathon Times By Country

Japanese marathoners these days have the reputation of rarely racing abroad, and of rarely racing well when they do. Back in the day that wasn't true; Japanese marathoners have won all the World Marathon Majors-to-be except New York, and two of the three Japanese men to have run 2:06 and all three women to have run 2:19 did it outside Japan. Whatever the extent to which things did turn inward along the way, the last few years have seen an uptick in Japanese runners going farther afield and running better there than any others before them.

The lists above and below show the fastest times run by Japanese athletes in different countries to 2:20:00 for men and 2:45:00 for women. Japanese men have run sub-2:20 marathons in 37 countries around the world including Japan, with Japanese women having cleared 2:45 in 33 countries including at home. Breaking it down by IAAF label times, more Japanese men have run label standard times abroad, but women have typically performed at a higher label…