It's almost time for the weekend's biggest race, as university men's ekiden season kicks off at Monday's Izumo Ekiden. 21 university teams face off over 45.1 km split into six stages, the short stage lengths rewarding the teams with the best speed credentials. For the last few years that's been Aoyama Gakuin University, a program that rose from nearly zero to juggernaut status under talented head coach Susumu Hara, but this year AGU's time in the spotlight may be up.
Over the six years since taking over as head coach in 2011 Hayashi Morozumi has turned Tokai University into a program that can challenge AGU's depth and quality. With Morozumi having spent track season focusing his team on 1500 m speed Tokai now has fifteen men with 5000 m bests under 14 minutes, and ten of them make up Tokai's roster for Izumo. Led by second-year Hayato Seki with bests of 13:35.81 and 28:23.37, all of Tokai's best six made the cut, giving it six-man averages over 5000 m, 10000 m and half marathon that all surpass AGU's.
AGU has thirteen men under 14 minutes this season, but the absence of fourth-year Yuki Nakamura and second-year Takato Suzuki, both under 28:35 for 10000 m, from its Izumo roster hurts its chances. Last year Tokai and AGU went back and forth over the course of the race, Tokai building a lead but now-graduated AGU anchor Tadashi Isshiki running them down for the win. This year AGU is down in strength, but it will face a Tokai on the way up. Tokai is better, but the two teams are close enough that you can expect another head-to-header.
Toyo University should be the #3 seed, but with three of its best six out with injury it's going to have competition. Toyo does have five men with sub-29 bests for 10000 m on its entry list, more than Tokai, AGU or any other school in the field, but the missing members hurt its 5000 m credentials and put it in range of Juntendo University. Overall a weaker program, Juntendo is heavily dependent on Rio Olympian Kazuya Shiojiri and 28:19.89 fourth-year Wataru Tochigi for success, but on paper its Izumo roster is slightly ahead of Toyo's and should make for another close race for 3rd.
Last weekend in a single track race Kanagawa University put four men under 13:50 and another under 14:00, all for the first time, to suddenly shoot into the top tier. But with its best runner, 2017 National University Half Marathon champion Kengo Suzuki, missing from its Izumo lineup Kanagawa looks likely to be one of four teams competing for 5th place.
Waseda University, Nittai University and Chuo Gakuin University round out that group, Nittai in particular hurting from key members out with injury. In 2013 and 2014 Komazawa University had what were probably the best teams ever assembled for Izumo, but although its 2017 team is strong over 5000 m and half marathon its lack of proven 10000 m ability puts it back in 9th, from where it will be fighting to make the eight-deep podium.
Hosei University lucked into an Izumo spot when last year's runner-up Yamanashi Gakuin University blew up at the Hakone Ekiden, and will be fighting to hold off Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University for 10th. With ten schools in the field from the Tokyo-area Kanto Region it's always a mark of distinction when any non-Kanto team can crack the top ten, and if anyone can do it this year it should be the 11th-ranked Ritsumeikan.
In the last few years the American Ivy League Select Team has had some success in achieving that distinction, making the top ten and even top eight a few times. This year's lineup is in a similar position to Komazawa, solid over 5000 m with the 8th-best six-man average in the field but dragged down by a lack of experience over 10000 m. Beating Hosei and Ritsumeikan to make 10th would be a perfect day, and given history it's more likely that the Ivies will spend the race trying to fight off 13th-ranked Kwansei Gakuin University.
The Izumo Ekiden starts at 1:05 p.m. local time on Monday, Oct. 9 with a live nationwide TV broadcast on Fuji TV. JRN will cover the race live on @JRNLive. International viewers can try mov3.co for streaming, with other options to be found here.
© 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved