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Rio Olympian Anju Takamizawa Leads Matsuyama University to First National Title

by Brett Larner

Rio de Janeiro Olympics 3000 m steeplechase runner Anju Takamizawa, the first Japanese university woman to ever make an Olympic team in a distance event, led Matsuyama University to take down five-time defending national champion Ritsumeikan University and become the first school from the Chugoku-Shikoku Region to ever win the National University Women's Ekiden Championships title Sunday in Sendai.


3rd last year, Matsuyama lined up against Ritsumeikan, Kanto Region champ and 2015 runner-up Daito Bunka University and 23 other teams at the Morinomiyako Ekiden, as Nationals are popularly called.  Ritsumeikan got off to a rocky start, its lead runner Nanako Kanno eight seconds behind 1500 m national university champion Natsu Hashimoto (Kyoto Sangyo Univ.) in 6th, but for Matsuyama and Daito Bunka the First Stage was a disaster. Matsuyama senior Ayumi Uehara, one of its three best runners, was only 14th, 40 seconds behind Hashimoto.  Daito Bunka's Soyoka Segawa was another seven seconds back in 15th.  For both schools it was going to be a tough race to catch back up to Ritsumeikan and the other leaders.

Matsuyama's second runner Misaki Ogata was up for the challenge. Delivering Matsuyama's first-ever individual stage win, Ogata ran down Ritsumeikan's Ayano Ikeuchi to move up into 3rd overall, 14 seconds behind new leader Meijo University.  Matsuyama moved into 2nd on the Third Stage but Meijo, one of only two schools to have beaten Ritsumeikan for the national title in the last 13 years, unexpectedly expanded its lead to 33 seconds thanks to a stage best run from Honoka Yuzawa.  A new stage record from Matsuyama's fourth runner, Riho Takamizawa, wasn't enough to break Meijo's lead, Meijo handing off to the 9.2 km Fifth Stage, the day's longest, still two seconds ahead.

It was up to Matsuyama's 5000 m national university champion Misuzu Nakahara to get the job done on the Fifth Stage.  Immediately catching Meijo's Yomogi Akasaka, Nakahara ran a steady pace for the first 3 km before throwing in a surge that dropped Akasaka.  Pushing on ahead, Nakahara opened a massive 1:04 lead coming up to the anchor stage handoff. Behind her, Akasaka fell victim to Ritsumeikan's Kureha Seki, who put the defending champs into 2nd but could do nothing but watch as Nakahara faded into the distance ahead.

Nakahara handed off to Olympian anchor Anju Takamizawa.  No relation to her younger teammate Riho, Takamizawa had 64 seconds to play with over just 5.2 km, pretty much an unbeatable lead even with Ritsumeikan's best runner Natsuki Omori behind her.  Takamizawa could have played it safe, but instead she went all in, breaking the anchor stage course record by three seconds to give Matsuyama University its first-ever national title.  With the Kansai and, to a lesser degree, Kanto Regions dominating the women's university landscape, it was the first win for a team from the relatively weak Chugoku-Shikoku Region.  Ritsumeikan anchor Omori was only four seconds off the anchor stage record, giving it everything but no match for Takamizawa. There were more stony faces than tears on the Ritsumeikan team as their five-year winning streak, the longest in Morinomiyako history, came to an end.

Meijo held on to 3rd, with early leader Kyoto Sangyo University 4th. Spending the entire race catching up after its weak start, Daito Bunka climbed back to 5th by race's end, well within the eight-deep bracket of seeded places at the 2017 Morinomiyako Ekiden.  Osaka Gakuin University and Nittai University comfortably took 6th and 7th, but the race for the 8th spot was close and painful.  Fukuoka University was unexpectedly strong this year, running as high as 2nd overall and staying within the top five for the first half of the race.  But on the Fifth Stage it fell to 9th behind Kansai University, six seconds from Kansai at the handoff to its anchor with Toyo University just three seconds behind.  Toyo anchor Izumi Yamaguchi quickly overtook Fukuoka's Chisaki Okamura, but it took until the final kilometer for her to catch Kansai anchor Ryoko Mori.  Flying around the last corner to the home straight, Yamaguchi brought Toyo in in 8th, three seconds ahead of Kansai and 11 seconds up on Fukuoka.  The race for the last seeded position is usually one of the highlights of the big championship ekidens, and this year's Morinomiyako finish was one of the best.

Morinomiyako Ekiden
34th National University Women's Ekiden Championships
Sendai, Miyazaki, 10/30/16
26 teams, 6 stages, 38.0 km
click here for complete results

Top Team Results - top 8 seeded for 2017
1. Matsuyama University - 2:03:56
2. Ritsumeikan University - 2:05:07
3. Meijo University - 2:05:48
4. Kyoto Sangyo University - 2:06:07
5. Daito Bunka University - 2:06:12
6. Osaka Gakuin University - 2:06:18
7. Nittai University - 2:06:50
8. Toyo University - 2:07:34
-----
9. Kansai University - 2:07:37
10. Fukuoka University - 2:07:45

Stage Best Performances
First Stage (6.4 km) - Natsu Hashimoto (Kyoto Sangyo Univ.) - 20:27
Second Stage (5.6 km) - Misaki Ogata (Matsuyama Univ.) - 17:56
Third Stage (6.8 km) - Honoka Yuzawa (Meijo Univ.) - 22:04
Fourth Stage (4.8 km) - Riho Takamizawa (Matsuyama Univ.) - 15:38 - CR
Fifth Stage (9.2 km) - Misuzu Nakahara (Matsuyama Univ.) - 29:49
Sixth Stage (5.2 km) - Anju Takamizawa (Matsuyama Univ.) - 17:03 - CR

© 2016 Brett Larner
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