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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
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