Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Ritsumeikan University Unstoppable in Third-Straight Mt. Fuji Women's Ekiden National Title

by Brett Larner


Despite coming up short of replicating its perfect win, six stage titles and the overall victory, at October's Morinomiyako Ekiden, two-time defending champion Ritsumeikan University's dynasty proved unstoppable as it led start-to-finish to win the Mt. Fuji Women's Ekiden national university title for the third year in a row.

Having missed being part of the winning Morinomiyako team, Nanako Kanno, one half of Ritsumeikan's pair of top-level runners, led off with a 6-second lead on the steepest of the first four downhill stages, a lead that grew to 2:22 by the end of another strong run by second-year Kotona Ota, undefeated so far in her university ekiden career.  More dynamic racing happened further back in the field, where last year's runner-up Osaka Gakuin University, 4th-placer Meijo University and 5th-placer Matsuyama University exchanged places on almost every stage in a tight group pursuit.  Top Kanto region team Daito Bunka University, 3rd last year and expected to favor for the runner-up position this year, got off to a slow start when its top member Sakurako Fukuuchi finished only 9th on the First Stage, not gaining contact until late in the Third Stage.

On the almost flat 5.0 km Fifth Stage Ritsumeikan's lead grew to 2:57, but its superb Kotona Seki was unexpectedly outrun by 6 seconds on stage time by Maho Shimizu of Osaka Gakuin who overtook Matsuyama to put Osaka Gakuin in 3rd just 5 seconds behind Meijo.  At the end of the stage 46 seconds separated 2nd and 5th, Meijo, Osaka Gakuin and Matsuyama all with 14 seconds of each other and Daito Bunka lagging 32 seconds further back.  Heading onto the uphill on the Sixth Stage Ritsumeikan's Ena Kagayama stretched the lead out to 3:29, almost a kilometer, before handing off to anchor Shoko Sonoda.  Daito Bunka's Eri Utsunomiya succeeded in bridging the gap to the rest of the chasers, overtaking Osaka Gakuin to advance to 4th.

Faced with 164 m of climb over the 7.7 km Seventh Stage Ritsumeikan anchor Sonoda soon appeared to be in trouble, off-balance with a slight limp in her stride, but with a massive margin of safety behind her there was virtually no danger of her losing Ritsumeikan's lead.  Sonoda broke the tape in 2:21:50, the absence of Ritsumeikan's second star Natsuki Omori telling in the 1:30 gap behind its course record time last year but still in a different league from the rest of the field.

Further back, Matsuyama anchor Junna Matsuda quickly closed the 17 second gap to Meijo's Kanna Tamaki and the pair ran side-by-side as they attacked the toughest of the uphill.  Not wanting to leave it to a track finish, Tamaki chose her moment to attack, re-opening a gap on Matsuda that steadily grew.  Matsuda kicked hard in the last kilometer heading onto the track but was too far away.  Meijo took 2nd in 2:25:04, Matsuyama 12 seconds back in 2:25:16 for 3rd and both schools improving on last year and shutting the Kanto region out of the top 3.  Daito Bunka held on to 4th in 2:26:31, nearly caught by its Kanto rival Nittai University who was a surprise 5th in 2:26:40 after a brilliant run from anchor Ai Hosoda who put 50 seconds on Osaka Gakuin.  Stage best honors came at the very back end of the field where Kanoya Taiiku University anchor Rie Fujita topped Hosoda's time by 11 seconds as she went from last place to 17th, earning JRN's pick for the ekiden's MVP for showing some true fire.

For most teams Mt. Fuji meant the end of the season.  Many of the best runners in today's field will next be in action mid-January running for their home prefectures at the National Women's Ekiden in Kyoto, but for the top teams the true season-ender doesn't come until the Jan. 24 Kita-Kyushu Women's Invitational Ekiden, where they will race against the top high school and corporate teams in the country.

3rd Mt. Fuji Women's Ekiden
National University Women's Invitational Ekiden Championships
Shizuoka, 12/30/15
20 teams, 7 stages, 43.4 km, 50 m net climb
click here for complete results

Top Team Results
1. Ritsumeikan University (Kansai) - 2:21:50
2. Meijo University (Kansai) - 2:25:04
3. Matsuyama University (Chugoku-Shikoku) - 2:25:16
4. Daito Bunka University (Kanto) - 2:26:31
5. Nittai University (Kanto) - 2:26:40
6. Osaka Gakuin University (Kansai) - 2:27:30
7. Hakuoh University (Kanto)  2:27:56
8. Kyoto Sangyo University (Kansai) - 2:28:06
9. Fukuoka University (Kyushu) - 2:29:07
10. West Japan Select Team - 2:29:21

Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage (6.6 km, 78 m descent) - Nanako Kanno (Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 20:19
Second Stage (3.5 km, 25 m descent) - Ai Ikemoto (Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 10:49
Third Stage (4.4 km, 9 m descent) - Yukari Wada (Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 14:06
Fourth Stage (9.4 km, 0 m net change) - Kotona Ota (Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 30:03
Fifth Stage (5.0 km, 3 m descent) - Maho Shimizu (Osaka Gakuin Univ.) -15:49
Sixth Stage (6.8 km, 1 m ascent) - Ena Kagayama (Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 22:08
Seventh Stage (7.7 km, 164 m ascent) - Rie Fujita (Kanoya Taiiku Univ.) - 27:35

© 2015 Brett Larner
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