The university men's ekiden season is already well underway, but for women the first of the season's national-level university ekidens takes place this Sunday with Sendai's Morinomiyako Ekiden, the National University Women's Ekiden Championships.
Starting in 2003 Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University became an almost unstoppable force, winning ten national titles and three 2nd-place finishes in thirteen years including five-straight from 2011 to 2015. Last year they were knocked back to 2nd by first-time national champion Matsuyama University but came back with a season-ending win over Matsuyama and 3rd-placer Meijo University at the Mt. Fuji Women's Ekiden.
All three schools are back and feature as the three favorites, Matsuyama led by fourth-year Anju Takamizawa, a 2016 Rio Olympian in the 3000 m steeplechase, and 2005 national champion Meijo led by first-year Rika Kaseda, runner-up in the 5000 m at September's National University Track and Field Championships. Ritsumeikan lacks the kind of top-level stars like Kazue Kojima and Risa Takenaka who boosted its past champion teams, but with fourth-year Kotona Ota and second-year Naruha Sato making the top four in the 5000 m and 10000 m at Nationals it looks strong enough to have a shot at getting back on top.
One of the things that sets the national-level university women's circuit apart from the men's is that it is truly national. The existence of the Hakone Ekiden, Japan's biggest sporting event and a university men's race reserved exclusively for schools in the Kanto Region, means that the national-level Izumo Ekiden and National University Men's Ekiden Championships are watered down with far weaker programs from other parts of the country outside the Tokyo-area Kanto Region.
The women's National Championships are truly national. All three of the favorites hail from different regions, Matsuyama from Chugoku-Shikoku, Ritsumeikan from Kansai, and Meijo from Tokai. There was a time when Kanto Region universities' heavy investment in their men's programs for Hakone meant that all the good women's teams were form Kansai and elsewhere, but that has changed in the direction of greater equality. Three of the eight seeded teams this year are from Kanto, and all, Daito Bunka University, Nittai University, and Toyo University, have men's teams that are Hakone regulars. Of the six other Kanto Region schools to qualify half, Josai University, Juntendo University, and Chuo University, will also have men's teams at Hakone this season.
Of these Daito Bunka has been the strongest in recent years, taking 5th overall as the highest-placing Kanto team last year. It's down on strength this year and could cede that spot to Chuo, whose star 2nd-year Rino Goshima was the top Kanto finisher in the 5000 m at September's Nationals. Juntendo also comes in strong, fourth-year Saori Imamura having won the 10000 m.
The best bet for a breakthrough is last year's 6th-placer Osaka Gakuin University. Fourth-year Maho Shimizu won the 5000 m at Nationals, with third-year Hitomi Mizuguchi and second-year Aina Takatani taking 9th and 10th to make OGU the only school with three finishers in the top ten. Shimizu also took 2nd in the 10000 m to position her as the top individual in the field, and with the added depth provided by Mizuguchi and Takatani OGU arrives in Sendai in a strong position.
The Morinomiyako Ekiden will be broadcast live on NTV starting at 12:00 local time on Sunday. 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