Riding a wave of rapid improvement since the start of the season, Kanagawa University pulled off a perfect race to beat favorites Tokai University and Aoyama Gakuin University and win its first National University Men's Ekiden Championships title since 1997 in one of the fastest times in event history.
Tokai beat defending national champion AGU at last month's Izumo Ekiden, and today's race was expected to be another head-to-head. But on the opening stage both were far from the front-end action. Likewise for #3-ranked Yamanashi Gakuin University, still on the mend from injuries to many of its best runners. In the absence of the three favorites, #4 through #7-ranked teams Komazawa University, Kanagawa, Waseda University and Toyo University formed a leading group from which 2015 national champion Toyo emerged as the front runner.
Tokai and AGU spent the next three stages working up to the lead group before both lost ground on the Fifth Stage and had to try to regain their footing over the final three stages. Despite a solid lead at halfway Toyo's lack of depth caused by the absence of all of its fourth-years with injury was clear as it dropped back over the second half to ultimately end up 5th. Likewise for Waseda which fell to 7th, knocked off the six-deep podium by #9-ranked Chuo Gakuin University.
2011-2014 national champion Komazawa University looked like it might have a turn back on top, but a brilliant stage winning run from second year Kenta Koshikawa brought Kanagawa into 2nd just before Tokai's Reo Kuniyuki put his team into 1st. Tokai occupied that position by a slim margin over Kanagawa for the next two stages, its hopes of winning its second of this season's Big Three university ekidens resting on anchor Kazuto Kawabata, winner of last month's Takashimadaira 20 km over London World Championships marathon 9th-placer Yuki Kawauchi.
But with 19.7 km ahead of him Kawabata had to contend with Kanagawa anchor Kengo Suzuki, the 2017 National University Half Marathon champion. And Suzuki showed what he was made of, running one of the fastest times ever by a Japanese athlete on the Nationals anchor stage, 57:24 for 19.7 km, equivalent to a 1:01:28 half marathon. Kawabata was no match as Suzuki blew by to bring Kanagawa home in 1st by a margin of well over a minute, just 4 seconds off the overall course record.
The last time Kanagawa won the national title was 1997, before many of its team members had even been born. Along with Tokai's first-in-a-decade Izumo Ekiden victory and Meijo University's first National University Women's Ekiden title in 12 years this season, Kanagawa's unexpected win was a welcome antidote to the kind of dynasties and Big Three domination that have been the norm over the last ten years. Likewise for the rare royal flush of individual stage wins, with each stage won by a runner from a different school. Combined with the overall steady rise in quality since 2013 it's a sign that things are alive and kicking on a widespread scale and not just the product of one or two good coaches.
Tokai and especially AGU both ran less than perfect races, their chances for the most prestigious of titles, the Hakone Ekiden overall win, now facing a threat from an unexpected quarter. Traditionally powerful Komazawa, Toyo and Waseda will need to patch the holes in their sails to keep up with the three newcomers who have passed them by. The talented YGU squad faces an even harder journey on the road to realizing its potential at Hakone, only managing to claw its way up to 9th today at Nationals. The next stop on that road comes in two weeks at Saitama's Ageo City Half Marathon.
49th National University Men's Ekiden ChampionshipsNagoya-Ise, 11/5/17
27 teams, 8 stages, 106.8 km
click here for complete results
Top Team Results - top six seeded for 2018
1. Kanagawa University - 5:12:49
2. Tokai University - 5:14:07
3. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:15:22
4. Komazawa University - 5:15:59
5. Toyo University - 5:16:29
6. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:17:59
7. Waseda University - 5:19:08
8. Teikyo University - 5:19:39
9. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:20:32
10. Hosei University - 5:20:59
Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage (14.6 km) - Akira Aizawa (Toyo Univ.) - 43:24
Second Stage (13.2 km) - Kazuki Tamura (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 38:04
Third Stage (9.5 km) - Ryoji Tatezawa (Tokai Univ.) - 27:02
Fourth Stage (14.0 km) - Masahiro Kan (Josai Univ.) - 40:09
Fifth Stage (11.6 km) - Kenta Koshikawa (Kanagawa Univ.) - 33:52
Sixth Stage (12.3 km) - Daisuke Horiai (Komazawa Univ.) - 35:57
Seventh Stage (11.9 km) - Hiroki Abe (Meiji Univ.) - 34:08 - CR
Eighth Stage (19.7 km) - Dominic Nyairo (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 57:06
© 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved