by Brett Larner
click here for video highlights of the first 19 years of the National Men's Ekiden
Ekiden season rolls on for a few weeks more, but Sunday's 20th anniversary National Men's Ekiden marks the end of the month-long run of national championship ekiden races. Teams made up of the best J.H.S., H.S., university and pro runners from each of Japan's 47 prefectures race over 48.0 km in 7 stages through the streets of Hiroshima, with NHK's live commercial-free broadcast showing many of Japan's future stars to a national audience for the first time. Follow @JRNLive for live coverage starting at 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 18.
There's so much growth happening right now in Japanese men's distance running that there's almost no point filling a preview with details about which teams are packed with talent. Most of them are. Hometown Hiroshima is not fooling around with its lineup, featuring 27:38.99 man Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Asahi Kasei), 2015 Hakone Ekiden Ninth Stage winner Takuya Fujikawa of Hakone champion Aoyama Gakuin University, and four members of Sera High School's 2014 National High School Ekiden champion team. The favorite? Maybe.
Defending champion Nagano, with 6 national titles the winningest in National Men's Ekiden history, is solid, with its two-time anchor stage winner Keigo Yano (Nissin Shokuhin) back for more fronting a team that includes three members of 2014 National High School Ekiden runner-up Saku Chosei H.S. 2014 2nd-placer Saitama looks even stronger, led by Honda team members Yuta Shitara, Shota Hattori and Wataru Ueno and two members of National High School Ekiden 3rd-placer Saitama Sakae H.S. 4th-place Nagasaki includes sub-62 half marathon collegiate Hiroto Inoue (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.), talented ekiden specialist Takehiro Deki (Chugoku Denryoku) and sub-14 high schooler Hiroyuki Sakaguchi (Isahaya H.S.).
2012 and 2013 winner Hyogo finished only 10th last year, but its lineup this year includes two of its past stage winners, Kensuke Takezawa (Sumitomo Denko) and Keisuke Nakatani (Komazawa Univ.). Runner-up behind Hyogo both of those years, Tokyo was also down on its luck last year in a dismal 24th. Keita Shitara (Konica Minolta), the brother twin of Saitama's Shitara, leads this year's team which should be in contention to climb back into the top 10. The Shitaras may have split up, but their rivals to the claim of being the world's best twins, Kenta Murayama (Komazawa Univ.) and Kota Murayama (Josai Univ.) are both on the roster for Miyagi and should bring some fireworks even if the Miyagi team is not strong enough for them to feature up front.
In terms of what to watch for in the development of the race, the 7.0 km First Stage features only high school runners, with many star runners who never got to run the National High School Ekiden making their national debuts. The top two or three placers almost always end up making a big impact at the Hakone Ekiden later, so catch them now. Likewise for the 3.0 km Second Stage featuring most of the top J.H.S. runners. Top university and pro runners square off on the 8.5 km Third Stage where some of the heaviest turnover of the race usually takes place, especially late in the stage. High School runners fill the 5.0 km Fourth Stage and 8.5 km Fifth Stage, where the contenders for the win usually separate themselves from the rest of the field for good. More J.H.S. runners populate the 3.0 km Sixth Stage before the handoff to the 13.0 km anchor stage for one more matchup between the best university and pro talent on the way to finish line in front of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial commemorating the victims of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima 70 years ago this year. Kicking off 50 years after the bombing, in its 20th edition the National Men's Ekiden promises some of the best action yet in its history.
(c) 2015 Brett Larner
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