by Brett Larner
Izumo Ekiden winner Aoyama Gakuin University went one step closer to becoming just the fourth school in Japanese history to win the Big Three University Ekiden triple crown, running down unexpected challenger Waseda University on the anchor stage to win its first-ever National University Men's Ekiden Championships title.
Defending champ Toyo University came out swinging, putting its best runner, Hazuma Hattori, on first. Hattori put Toyo 11 seconds out front, but without the talent this year to follow that up Toyo fell to 6th on the Second Stage and spent the rest of the eight-stage race struggling to stay in the six-deep bracket of teams that would score places at next year's Nationals.
Waseda, the last team to pull off the triple crown back in the 2010-11 season, was the next team into the first exchange zone 11 seconds behind Toyo, while heavy favorite Aoyama Gakuin was another 19 seconds back in 8th as its leading runner Yuta Shimoda struggled. Aoyama Gakuin's Kazuki Tamura turned it around on the Second Stage, running its fastest individual time to put Aoyama Gakuin into 1st by just a single second at the second exchange.
Aoyama Gakuin now out front, from there it should have been a blowout. But nothing is ever 100%. Just 8th at Izumo, Waseda pulled away from Aoyama Gakuin on the Third Stage, Yohei Suzuki opening a 14 second lead. Fourth man Hiroki Nagayama scored Waseda's only individual stage title, extending Waseda's lead over Aoyama Gakuin to 1:07. Over the next three stages Waseda's advantage waxed and waned, and at the start of the 19.7 km anchor stage it was 49 seconds up on the favorites.
But it wasn't enough. On anchor Aoyama Gakuin had fourth-year Tadashi Isshiki, with PBs ranging from 13:39.65 for 5000 m to 2:11:45 for the marathon arguably Japan's best all-around current university runner. Quickly Isshiki cut down the distance to Waseda's Yuichi Yasui, passing with confidence and turning a 49 second deficit around into a 56 second margin of victory. Aoyama Gakuin's problems on the First and Third Stages showed in its 5:15:15 winning time, 2 1/2 minutes slower than Komazawa University's course record from 2012. But a win is a win, and with better half marathon credentials than any other team there's little doubt that Aoyama Gakuin can pull off the Hakone Ekiden victory come January to complete its triple crown.
Despite the disappointment of an anchor stage loss after leading most of the race, Waseda outperformed all expectations for its solid runner-up finish. Kenyan 2nd-year Dominic Nyairo did the expected for Izumo runner-up Yamanashi Gakuin University, moving them up from 5th to 3rd on the anchor stage. Its #1 man Keisuke Nakatani still out with injury, course record holder Komazawa was 4th, a day they should feel good about. Chuo Gakuin University repeated its miraculous performance at Izumo, brilliantly exceeding its 13th-place ranking to take 5th. Toyo held on to the final seeded spot in 6th, an improvement on its 9th-place finish at Izumo but still far down on last yea's winning run.
The young Tokai University team was the unlucky 7th-placer, its large contingent of talented 1st and 2nd-years not quite able to handle the longer distances at Nationals yet. But in another year or two that they will be the favorite to replace Aoyama Gakuin on top of the hill.
The Tokyo-area Kanto Region pulls in most of the high school talent from across the country, the season-capping Hakone Ekiden limited to Kanto universities. Fifteen Kanto Region teams ran Nationals, and unsurprisingly they took the top fifteen spots. The Tokai Region University Select Team was the 16th team across the line, almost 2 1/2 minutes behind Kanto last-placer Daito Bunka University. Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University was the top non-Kanto university team, outrunning cross-town rivals Kyoto Sangyo University for 17th.
From here it's nearly two months until the last of the Big Three, Hakone. In the meantime most top teams will line up at the Ageo City Half Marathon in two weeks to help solidify their coaches' picks for the lucky few who will make their Hakone rosters.
48th National University Men's Ekiden Championships
27 teams, 8 stages, 106.8 km
click here for complete results
Top Team Results - top six seeded for 2017
1. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:15:15
2. Waseda University - 5:16:11
3. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:16:50
4. Komazawa University - 5:17:41
5. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:19:36
6. Toyo University - 5:19:49
7. Tokai University - 5:20:55
8. Takushoku University - 5:21:16
9. Koku Gakuin University - 5:22:11
10. Teikyo University - 5:22:30
11. Meiji University - 5:23:19
12. Nihon University - 5:23:45
13. Nittai University - 5:23:51
14. Kokushikan University - 5:27:02
15. Daito Bunka University - 5:27:46
Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage (14.6 km)
1. Hazuma Hattori (Toyo Univ.) - 43:34
2. Rintaro Takeda (Waseda Univ.) - 43:45
3. Naoki Kudo (Komazawa Univ.) - 43:47
Second Stage (13.2 km)
1. Kazuki Tamura (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 38:07
2. Kazuma Taira (Waseda Univ.) - 38:27
3. Workneh Derese (Takushoku Univ.) - 38:41
Third Stage (9.5 km)
1. Ryoji Tatezawa (Tokai Univ.) - 27:15
2. Yohei Suzuki (Waseda Univ.) - 27:28
3. Shogo Hata (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 27:30
Fourth Stage (14.0 km)
1. Hiroki Nagayama (Waseda Univ.) - 40:37
2. Tomofumi Uda (Takushoku Univ.) - 40:54
3. Taichi Takasago (Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 41:00
Fifth Stage (11.6 km)
1. Yuji Onoda (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 35:07
2. Shiki Shinsako (Waseda Univ.) - 35:12
3. Taiju Nakashima (Meiji Univ.) - 35:26
Sixth Stage (12.3 km)
1. Homare Morita (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 35:39
2. Reo Kuniyuki (Tokai Univ.) - 35:54
3. Shigeki Fujiwara (Waseda Univ.) - 36:04
Seventh Stage (11.9 km)
1. Masaya Komachi (Nittai Univ.) - 34:54
2. Ryota Sato (Teikyo Univ.) - 34:55
3. Tomoki Ota (Waseda Univ.) - 35:05
Eighth Stage (19.7 km)
1. Dominic Nyairo (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 56:43
2. Tadashi Isshiki (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 57:48
3. Shohei Otsuka (Komazawa Univ.) - 58:03
© 2016 Brett Larner
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