by Brett Larner
Ekiden season never really ends, but championship season hits its peak this weekend and next with the Jan. 11 National Women's Ekiden in Kyoto and Jan. 18 National Men's Ekiden in Hiroshima. Both races feature teams from each of Japan's 47 prefectures, made up of the best pro, collegiate, high school and junior high school runners from each region, and both are broadcast live and commercial-free nationwide by NHK. Follow @JRNLive for live coverage of both starting at 12:30 each day.
At the 33rd running of the National Women's Ekiden defending champion Kyoto comes in with seven wins in the last ten years and home ground advantage on the nine-stage, 42.195 km course. Its team is missing its magic ingredient, last year's Fourth Stage course record setter Ryoko Kizaki (Team Daihatsu), but features veteran Mari Ozaki (Team Noritz) and 2011 Tokyo Marathon winner Noriko Higuchi (Team Wacoal) along with 2014 National University Ekiden winner Ritsumeikan University's Nanako Kanno and four members of 2014 National High School Ekiden runner-up Ritsumeikan Uji H.S. including stage winners Fukiko Ando and Maako Konishi.
The last team to beat Kyoto, Kanagawa, had to run a course record 2:14:55 to do it in 2013. This year's Kanagawa team is a good one, led by pros Rui Aoyama (Team Univ. Ent.) and Asami Kato (Team Panasonic) supported by top-level collegiate Maki Izumida (Rikkyo Univ.) and several strong high school and junior runners, but it doesn't look like it has the potential to outrun Kyoto or the other top competition.
Chief among those is 2012 national champion Osaka. Led by Sayuri Oka of 2014 National Corporate Women's Ekiden runner-up Daihatsu and Ritsumeikan University's Natsuki Omori, Osaka's lineup includes six members of 2014 National High School Ekiden champion Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S. including 2014 Youth Olympics 3000 m gold medalist Nozomi Musembi Takamatsu, and her younger sister, last year's Third Stage winner Tomomi Musembi Takamatsu (Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin J.H.S.). With a combination like this Osaka looks like the favorite to stop a Kyoto repeat.
The other big competition comes from last year's runner-up Gunma, which features four members of 2014 National Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd-placer Yamada Denki including stage winners Yuika Mori and Sakiho Tsutsui, and five members of 2014 National High School Ekiden 3rd-placer Tokiwa H.S. including prestigious First Stage winner Harumi Okamoto.
(c) 2015 Brett Larner
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