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Aoyama Gakuin On the Way to the Triple Crown - National University Men's Ekiden Championships Preview

by Brett Larner

University men's ekiden season gets into full swing at Sunday's National University Men's Ekiden Championships, the second of the Big Three University Ekidens.  Last year Aoyama Gakuin University looked set to become just the fourth team in history to win the Izumo-Nationals-Hakone ekiden triple crown, but Toyo University put on a performance that head coach Toshiyuki Sakai tearfully described as "180%" to stop Aoyama Gakuin dead and score its first-ever national title. This year, with a solid win at the season-opening Izumo Ekiden behind it Aoyama Gakuin looks ready to do what it couldn't last year.

The top 16-ranked teams at Sunday's 48th National University Men's Ekiden. Click to enlarge.

Aoyama Gakuin is far and away the favorite, leading the field in average 5000 m, 10000 m and half marathon bests among its top eight men.  With the Nationals course featuring eight stages between 9.5 km and 19.7 km and averaging 13.35 km 10000 m and half marathon bests matter the most, and no other team can match Aoyama Gakuin's credentials.  Last year's 3rd-placer Komazawa University comes closest over the half marathon with an eight-man average of 1:02:51 to Aoyama Gakuin's 1:02:49, but to get that average Komazawa is heavily dependent on fourth-year Keisuke Nakatani and third-year Naoki Kudo, both of whom are coming off injuries and unlikely to be near peak shape.  Komazawa will probably be fighting for 2nd some way back as Aoyama Gakuin scores its own first-ever national title.

Both defending champ Toyo and last year's 4th-placer Waseda University are down on strength this year, finishing 9th and 8th respectively at Izumo last month.  Both look weaker over Nationals' longer distances, and if they can make the six-deep seeded bracket for 2017 then it will be a pretty successful day for them.

As at Izumo, Aoyama Gakuin's closest competition overall should be last year's 5th-placer Tokai University and 7th-placer Yamanashi Gakuin University.  At Tokai former national champion Saku Chosei H.S. head coach Hayashi Morozumi has been building a machine to challenge the systematic approach of Aoyama Gakuin's Susumu Hara. Where Aoyama Gakuin this season has fifteen men with PBs under 14 minutes for 5000 m, under 29 for 10000 m and/or sub-1:03 for the half marathon, Tokai now has seventeen with the same quality marks.    Eight of them are first-years with little 10000 m experience and less-to-none for the half marathon, so Aoyama Gakuin has a clear advantage this year.  But in 2017-2020, look out.

Yamanashi Gakuin missed out on the seeded bracket by 5 seconds last year, but thanks in large part to Kenyan second-year Dominic Nyairo it ran down Tokai for 2nd at Izumo just 31 seconds behind Aoyama Gakuin.  Tokai outranks it on 5000 m and 10000 m credentials, but with a more experienced team and Nyairo running the 19.7 km anchor stage Yamanashi Gakuin will probably find itself in a similar position as at Izumo at Nationals.

Meiji University was the team that shut Yamanashi Gakuin out of the seeded bracket last year.  This year it is in position to make the seeded bracket again alongside Nittai University, Nihon University and Koku Gakuin University.  Chuo Gakuin University is ranked only 13th, but with an unexpectedly brilliant 4th-place finish at Izumo look for it to be in contention for the seeded bracket as well.  Likewise for #10-ranked Daito Bunka University, the winner at last month's Hakone Ekiden Qualifier 20 km road race.

The season-capping Hakone Ekiden is limited to teams from the Tokyo-area Kanto Region, a fact which draws in almost all top-quality high school talent from across the nation.  As a result, teams from everywhere else are far weaker and are lucky if they can pick off even a single Kanto team.  At Izumo there were ten teams from Kanto.  The first non-Kanto team, Kyoto Sangyo University, was 11th.  Up against fifteen Kanto Region teams at Nationals last year Kyoto Sangyo managed an excellent 11th place finish, and as the top ranked non-Kanto team again this year it will be looking to try to crack the top ten.

The National University Men's Ekiden Championships will be broadcast live on TV Asahi starting at 8:00 a.m. Japan time on Nov. 6.

© 2016 Brett Larner
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