by Brett Larner
National Championship ekiden season starts this Sunday, over a month's worth of the year's best racing with no less than eleven major races, almost all of them televised nationwide. The action starts with the 23rd edition of the National Junior High School Ekiden in Yamaguchi, separate boys' and girls' races marking the national-level debuts for a lot of future talent, many of whom will feature again a month later in the season's final major ekiden. Simultaneously, the National Corporate Women's Ekiden starts far to the north in Sendai, the main event of the year for the women's corporate league teams in a revised format this year. Gone are the November regional qualifier ekidens that prevent so many of Japan's runners from racing fall marathons in other countries, replaced with a seeded bracket for top-placing teams at Nationals with a single nationwide qualifying race for the second-tier teams.
A week later Kyoto hosts the National High School Ekiden Championships, once again featuring a luxurious commercial-free nationwide broadcast thanks to government broadcaster NHK. The boys' race is of special note this year with defending champion Sera H.S., all-time #4 last year in 2:02:39 for the 7-stage, 42.195 km Kyoto course, looking ready to challenge the legendary 2:01:32 course record set in 2004 by the Samuel Wanjiru-era Sendai Ikuei H.S.
The Mt. Fuji Women's Ekiden, the season-ending national champion race for university women, is the last major race of 2015 in Japan, with a new date of Dec. 30 that puts it into the massively popular New Year's holiday ekiden-watching window. With an exciting uphill course in the foothills of Mt. Fuji it's bound to keep getting more and more popular.
After a day's break championship ekiden season continues bright and early on Jan. 1 with the New Year Ekiden national corporate men's ekiden. The New Year Ekiden has been riding a wave of quality and popularity with the influx in the last two years of the leading edge of the swell of talent at the university level. The Asahi Kasei corporate team pulled off a massive recruiting coup this year and could field an all-Japanese winning team made up almost entirely of first-year pros, most notably 22-year-old 10000 m national record holder Kota Murayama.
Overshadowing the New Year Ekiden is the biggest and best of them all, the two-day Hakone Ekiden university men's ekiden, nominally a Kanto region race but in reality a de facto national-level event given its universities' pull on high school talent, and on fans' love, across the country. This year looks set to be something special, the culmination of the long-term development plan of Susumu Hara, head coach of defending champion Aoyama Gakuin University. Hakone has been the core of JRN's work for the last eight years, the only English-language source for accurate background and coverage of one of the world's most important races, and you can expect more of the same this year.
After a breather the season comes to an end with the Jan. 17 National Women's Ekiden in Kyoto and Jan. 24 National Men's Ekiden in Hiroshima. Both races feature teams from every Japanese prefecture, each team made up of top junior high school, high school, university and corporate league runners, a great format where kids get the priceless experience of handing off to Olympian teammates running for the honor of being able to call their home prefecture the capital of Japanese long distance for the year to come. A lot of future stars make their big breakthroughs here, especially on the men's race's high school-only leading stage, and like the National High School Ekiden it's all broadcast live and commercial-free.
Also on the 24th, the Kitakyushu Invitational Women's Ekiden forms a coda for the women's season, another cool format that pits top high school, university and corporate teams from across the country against each other with the longest stage divided in two for the high school teams so that they can compete with the university and pro women. A men's equivalent would be very, very popular.
Look for detailed coverage of all these races on JRN in the weeks to come.
(c) 2015 Brett Larner
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