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Suzuki Delivers on Anchor Stage for Aichi Prefecture's First-Ever National Women's Ekiden Win

by Brett Larner
video highlights courtesy of broadcaster NHK

One of the only bright lights for Japanese long distance at last summer's Beijing World Championships, 2015 national corporate 10000 m champion Ayuko Suzuki delivered an incredible anchor run in Kyoto on Sunday, making up more than a minute and a half over 10 km to give Aichi its first-ever National Women's Ekiden title.  The peak of the women's ekiden season, the National Women's Ekiden features teams from each of Japan's 47 prefectures all made up of top local junior high school, high school, university, club and pro runners.

The race got off the track start and onto the roads safely without any falls, but a few km into the 6.0 km First Stage Naoko Koizumi (Niigata), a stage record setter at last month's National Corporate Women's Ekiden, tripped in the front row and went down.  The lead pack went by before Koizumi could get to her feet, but she quickly shot back to the front row in time for the big move from last year's First Stage winner Yuka Ando (Shizuoka).  Fresh off a solid 1:09:51 half marathon debut a few weeks ago at the Sanyo Ladies Half, Ando had no trouble holding off the competition to put Shizuoka into the Second Stage in 1st.  Favorite Kyoto was 7 seconds back in 6th, with last year's winner Osaka 26 seconds behind in 21st amidst top-level teams Hyogo, Aichi and Gunma.

Kyoto's next runner Fukiko Ando put the team 3 seconds out front on the 4.0 km Second Stage, a lead that stretched out to 6 seconds on the 3.0 km Third Stage, but on the 4.0 km Fourth Stage Hyogo's Kotona Ota ran a stage best 12:52 to overtake Kyoto's Kureha Seki and take over the lead by a second.  Heading into the second half of the race Aki Manabe turned Kyoto's luck back around with a Fifth Stage win and a lead of 15 seconds over Hyogo, a lead that Kyoto's next three runners stretched out to 1:13 partly thanks to a stage record-tying run from junior high schooler Ayaka Murao on the 3.0 km Eighth Stage.

Kyoto anchor Yukiko Okuno started the 10.0 km Ninth Stage 5 seconds up on overall course record pace with a reasonable margin of safety, but behind her the race had set up for something dramatic.  Yamada Denki corporate teammates Shiho Takechi (Hyogo) and Kasumi Nishihara (Gunma) started three seconds apart, 2015 national 10000 m champion Nishihara quickly making up the gap and the two working together to try to cut down the 73-second distance to Okuno.  As the kilometers went by they were making up 10 seconds per km, but even when it was clear they were going to catch Okuno the race's outcome was getting less and less so.

Starting 21 seconds behind Nishihara, Suzuki was advancing on the two chasers even as they made up the ground to the leader.  Nishihara lost touch with Takechi and was immediately swallowed up by Suzuki who stared straight ahead with determination and focus.  At 8 km Suzuki went by Takechi, and 400 m later she flew past Okuno to take the lead.  Never looking back, she narrowly missed tripping over a spectator's dog heading onto the track but had no trouble pushing on to give Aichi its first-ever national title in 2:16:02, her time of 31:30 putting Suzuki at all-time #4 for the 10.0 km stage.

Takechi overtook Okuno for 2nd at 8.7 km and held that position the rest of the way, crossing the line in 2:16:22.  Okuno was next onto the track but was run down by a hard-kicking Nishihara who gave Gunma 3rd in 2:16:28, a disappointed Okuno coming through 7 seconds later.  The top six teams all beat last year's winning time of 2:17:26.  Tokyo moved up to 6th in 2:17:25 thanks to a sensational run from anchor Hanami Sekine, a teammate of Suzuki's at the young Japan Post corporate team.  As amazing as Suzuki's performance was Sekine was 12 seconds faster, replacing Suzuki at all-time #4 in 31:18.  The pair's domination of the stage had strong implications for Japan Post's future in the corporate leagues.

Further back on the anchor stage, Rio Olympics marathon team member Mai Ito ran 32:38, the 17th-fastest time in the 47-deep field, to bring Tokushima home in 32nd.  Amateur Hiroko Yoshitomi ran 34:03 to anchor the Saga team in 38th after having set a course record at the Ibusuki Nanohana Marathon last Sunday and then winning the Imari Half Marathon the next day on Monday's national holiday.

Some women will line up one more time next weekend at the Kita-Kyushu Women's Invitational Ekiden, but for most today's race marked the end of ekiden season before shifting focus to open road races through the end of March.  The men's counterpart race, the National Men's Ekiden, takes place next Sunday in Hiroshima with a live commercial-free broadcast on NHK.  JRN will cover the race live @JRNLive.

34th National Women's Ekiden
Kyoto, 1/17/16
47 teams, 9 stages, 42.195 km
click here for complete results

Top Team Results
1. Aichi - 2:16:02
2. Hyogo - 2:16:22
3. Gunma - 2:16:28
4. Kyoto - 2:16:35
5. Chiba - 2:16:59
6. Tokyo - 2:17:25
7. Fukuoka - 2:17:39
8. Nagasaki - 2:17:47
9. Kanagawa - 2:17:52
10. Shizuoka - 2:17:58

Top Individual Stage Results
First Stage - 6.0 km
1. Yuka Ando (Shizuoka) - 19:19
2. Yukari Abe (Saitama) - 19:24
3. Sae Hanada (Fukuoka) - 19:25

Second Stage - 4.0 km
1. Rika Kaseda (Chiba) - 12:36
1. Nana Kuraoka (Fukushima) - 12:36
3. Yuna Wada (Nagano) - 12:37
3. Fukiko Ando (Kyoto) - 12:37

Third Stage - 3.0 km
1. Aika Nishihara (Ehime) - 9:20 - all-time #7
1. Ririka Hinonaka (Nagasaki) - 9:20 - all-time #7
3. Shuri Ogasawara (Ishikawa) - 9:23
3. Yuki Kanemitsu (Okayama) - 9:23

Fourth Stage - 4.0 km
1. Kotona Ota (Hyogo) - 12:52
2. Risa Shibuya (Akita) - 12:55
3. Yuka Mukai (Hiroshima) - 12:55

Fifth Stage - 4.1075 km
1. Aki Manabe (Kyoto) - 13:03
2. Kumi Ogura (Aichi) - 13:16
3. Natsuko Goto (Chiba) - 13:18

Sixth Stage - 4.0875 km
1. Sakiho Tsutsui (Gunma) - 12:37 - CR
2. Yumika Katayama (Kyoto) - 12:50
3. Yumi Yoshikawa (Aichi) - 12:57

Seventh Stage - 4.0 km
1. Yukari Wada (Kyoto) - 12:31
2. Yuka Mukai (Aichi) - 12:36
3. Madoka Mitsueda (Kagoshima) - 12:39

Eighth Stage - 3.0 km
1. Ayaka Murao (Kyoto) - 9:41 - CR tie
2. Ayuka Kazama (Chiba) - 9:53 - all-time #5
3. Akari Yamamoto (Okayama) - 9:55 - all-time #10

Ninth Stage - 10.0 km
1. Hanami Sekine (Tokyo) - 31:18 - all-time #4
2. Ayuko Suzuki (Aichi) - 31:30 - all-time #5
3. Mao Kiyota (Shizuoka) - 31:55 

© 2016 Brett Larner
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