by Brett Larner
The men's Big Three University Ekidens, the Izumo Ekiden, National University Ekiden and Hakone Ekiden, are some of Japan's most popular sports events, their live nationwide broadcasts drawing tens of millions of viewers. By comparison, the university women's ekiden season lags behind, down at one point to just October's Morinomiyako National University Women's Ekiden in Sendai but back up to two in the 2013-14 year with the relaunch of the discontinued National University Women's Invitational Ekiden on a new course as the Mount Fuji Women's Ekiden. This season a completely new event, the one-way massively uphill Nikko Irohazaka Women's Ekiden, brings things up to parity.
In a way. In profile the Nikko Irohazaka course is almost identical to that of Hakone's most famous stage, the Fifth Stage, with 875 m of non-stop climb over 23.4 km, the steepest section coming just after halfway before flattening out and dropping in the final kilometers. But where university men handle that stage on their own, the Nikko Irohazaka course is split into six stages from 3.0 to 5.2 km.
The disparity aside, the new race makes for an unusual but welcome addition to the calendar. 14 teams were entered for the first running, Tokyo Nogyo University fielding two squads and both Saitama University and Tokyo University putting in alumni teams rather than current students. Most schools were based in Kanto, the exceptions including Kansai region Osaka Geidai University and Kansai Gaikokugo University giving the event some claim to its ambitions to be a national race.
Top-ranked Kanto school Daito Bunka University's team included some of its best women like Shiho Yahagi, Mari Tayama and Eri Utsunomiya, but with a strong leadoff from ace Maya Iino, Tokyo Nogyo's A-team got off to a lead that never broke. Iino covered the 4.7 km First Stage 25 seconds faster than Kansai Gaikokugo's Saki Tokoro and 35 seconds faster than DBU's Utsunomiya, and with another stage win from second runner Manaka Kobori and all four of its remaining women making the top two on their stages TNU was never in any danger. Anchor Ruka Nakamura ran her 3.5 km stage 19 seconds faster than anyone else on the same leg to bring TNU home in 1:30:21, the benchmark time for future years.
One of the things that makes Hakone's Fifth Stage so exciting to watch is the unpredictable effect of the tough climb on runners, and while the shorter stages reduced that effect in Nikko the impact was still there to be seen. DBU see-sawed between 2nd and 5th from stage to stage, needing a solid run from anchor Atsumi Miyamoto to move up from 4th to 2nd in 1:32:43. Miyamoto overtook Osaka Geidai's Miku Kutsuwada just before the end of the stage, Kutsuwada ending up 10 seconds back in 3rd in 1:32:53. Kansai Gaikokugo University also handled itself well, taking 4th in 1:33:15 almost a minute and a half ahead of the best of the rest of the Kanto schools, 5th place Chuo University.
Building up the kind of popularity that Hakone has is almost an impossibility, but with a short-course format featuring heavy turnover as a major part of the racing the Nikko Irohazaka Women's Ekiden could catch on quickly with fans and athletes alike. With any luck next year's second running will feature perpetual national champion Ritsumeikan University and some of the other teams from the highly competitive western Japan.
1st Nikko Irohazaka Women's Ekiden
Nikko, Tochigi, 11/30/14
14 teams, 6 stages, 23.4 km, 875 m climb
click here for complete results
1. Tokyo Nogyo University A - 1:30:21
2. Daito Bunka University - 1:32:43
3. Osaka Geidai University - 1:32:53
4. Kansai Gaikokugo University - 1:33:15
5. Chuo University - 1:34:44
6. Toyo University - 1:37:18
7. Tokyo Nogyo University B - 1:38:12
8. Rikkyo University - 1:39:09
9. Kokushikan University - 1:39:20
10. Shoin University - 1:39:42
11. Tokyo Gakugei University - 1:40:08
12. Seitoku University - 1:42:41
13. Saitama University Alumni - 1:47:54
14. Tokyo University Alumni - 1:56:46
Stage Best Performances
First Stage (4.7 km, ~100 m ascent)
Maya Iino (Tokyo Nogyo Univ. A) - 16:45
Second Stage (5.2 km, ~200 m ascent)
Monami Ichimura (Chuo Univ.) - 18:49
Manaka Kobori (Tokyo Nogyo Univ. A) - 18:49
Third Stage (3.5 km, ~100 m ascent)
Kanami Koshimizu (Kansai Gaikokugo Univ.) - 14:54
Fourth Stage (3.0 km, ~100 m ascent)
Mari Tayama (Daito Bunka Univ.) - 13:05
Fifth Stage (3.5 km, ~400 m ascent)
Aya Higashimoto (Osaka Geidai Univ.) - 14:11
Sixth Stage (3.5 km, ~25 m descent)
Ruka Nakamura (Tokyo Nogyo Univ. A) - 11:53
(c) 2014 Brett Larner
all rights reserved