Following October's season-opening Izumo Ekiden and world record-breaking Yosenkai 20 km, the university men's ekiden season continues Sunday with the National University Men's Ekiden Championships. 12 top regional teams from across the country will face off with the 15 best in the Tokyo-centric Kanto Region on an 8-stage course from Nagoya to Mie totalling 106.8 km. TV Asahi will broadcast the complete race starting at 7:00 local time on Sunday. International viewers can try mov3.co for streaming, with other options to be found here.
At Izumo the up-and-coming Tokai University squad took down defending champion Aoyama Gakuin University, head coach Hayashi Morozumi's cross-country-based methodology having overtaken the innovative systematic approach of AGU's Susumu Hara that had made AGU into the dominant team of the era. AGU is likewise the defending champion at Nationals, but the longer average stage lengths at Nationals play to Tokai's strengths and it will take a perfect run from AGU to defend their title.
No other team is in the same league as the two favorites, both of which have top eight 5000 m, 10000 m and half marathon averages under 14 minutes, 29 minutes and 63 minutes. On paper Yamanashi Gakuin University is a clear 3rd, but with a roster largely on the comeback from injuries earlier this year YGU was only 4th at the Yosenkai, the Hakone Ekiden qualifier for 2nd-tier teams. With Hakone the main prize expect head coach Masahito Ueda to prioritize peaking there. Making the six-deep podium and scoring a seeded spot in the 2018 Nationals field will be a good day for YGU.
6th, 7th and 9th at Izumo, Kanagawa University, Komazawa University and Waseda University make up the next tier of likely podium candidates. 2011-2014 national champion Komazawa's current lineup is solid over 5000 m and has good half marathon credentials, but its lack of quality 10000 m times hurts its chances at Nationals more than at Izumo. 2010 national champion Waseda is in the opposite situation, strongest over 10000 m with weaker 5000 m and half marathon marks, and should do better than its Izumo performance. Kanagawa is on the rise, the only team apart from Tokai and AGU with top eight averages under 14 minutes and 29 minutes for 5000 m and 10000 m, the only thing holding it back being a lack of achievement over half marathon. But with only the anchor stage approaching that kind of distance at 19.7 km Kanagawa could do very well indeed, especially if 2017 National University Half Marathon champion Kengo Suzuki is back from the injury that kept him on the bench at Izumo.
Seven other teams are within reach of the podium if any of the top six falters. 2015 national champion Toyo University leads this group, 3rd most of the way at Izumo before dropping to 5th on the anchor stage. Toyo is hurt by the absence of all but one of its fourth-years due to injury but is boosted by a strong younger contingent led by sub-29 first-years Kazuya Nishiyama and Hirotsugu Yoshikawa. Yosenkai runner-up Daito Bunka University is the other good bet to contend for top six, with Izumo surprise 4th-placer Juntendo University, led by Rio Olympian Kazuya Shiojiri, a solid pick for darkhorse. Yosenkai winner Teikyo University is strong over the half marathon but lacks the kind of 5000 m and 10000 m track record to be likely to factor into the main action at Nationals.
Shiojiri is the fastest man in the field over 5000 m with a best of 13:33.14. Five men, three of them from Tokai, have bests under 13:45.00. YGU's Kenyan Dominic Nyairo leads both the 10000 m and half marathon rankings, the only man entered to have broken 28 minutes or 61 minutes. AGU fourth-year Kazuki Tamura is the best all-around runner in the race, making the top ten lists over 5000 m, 10000 m and half marathon with PBs of 13:43.22, 28:18.31 and 1:01:56. With a new stage record to his name at Izumo and a win on the Second Stage at last year's Nationals look for him to play a key role in AGU's duel with Tokai.