In one of the wildest elite-level ekidens in memory, half marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi ran her best race in almost 3 years to anchor the Wacoal team to the win at the Princess Ekiden, the qualifying race for next month's National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships.
The field of 27 teams raced 6 stages totaling 42.195 km for one of 14 spots at Nationals alongside last year's top 8. Things were complicated by the disqualification of 2017 national champion Universal Entertainment, which found itself back at the Princess Ekiden to requalify. Sayaka Sato got things off to a good start for Sekisui Kagaku, winning the 7.0 km First Stage in 22:36 just off the CR. 4 seconds back was Shiori Yano, whose Canon AC Kyushu team missed Nationals by a minute last year. and another 5 seconds behind was Miku Daido of the debuting Iwatani Sangyo team.
Coached by marathon national record holder Mizuki Noguchi's former coach Hisakazu Hirose, Iwatani Sangyo's next runner Rei Iida was late to the line, Daido standing forlornly looking for her in the exchange zone for several seconds as other teams caught up. When she started Iida settled in to a chase pack of eight behind leader Aoi Nomura (Sekisui Kagaku). But as the group bore down on Nomura in the final kilometer of the 3.8 km Second Stage Iida was nowhere to be seen. The camera shifted back to show her crawling on hands and knees and dragging her right foot.
For the last 200 m Iida crawled steadily as the competition flew by, the skin visibly tearing from her knees, a race official walking behind her checking if she was OK and calling out every 10 m with how much she had to go. Her waiting teammate Marie Imada wept openly watching her come to the handoff line in the final meters, taking the tasuki from Iida's outstretched hand the second she crossed the line in last place. Iida held her right foot out limp in the air behind her with blood running down both legs as she stood and sat on the curb where a coach was quick to come to her aid. Pure guts.
And it didn't end there. One of this year's top Japanese woman on the track, Harumi Okamoto (Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) quickly overtook the U.S.-based Riko Matsuzaki (Sekisui Kagaku) for the lead on the 10.7 km Third Stage, the day's longest. As the stage went by under crystal clear blue skies Okamoto looked strong and relaxed, her lead continuing to grow. But with 2 km to go something changed. Her arms started to swing higher and higher, above her shoulder, almost to her forehead. She swung her right hand as if swatting flies. Then, seemingly thinking she had already rounded the turnaround cone that waited still a few hundred meters away, she turned and started running back the way she had come.
Clearly disoriented and in serious trouble, Okamoto was quickly set straight by a race official in a car following her, but a few hundred meters later she did it again. While the official again sorted her out first Matsuzaki, then Mao Ichiyama (Wacoal) passed her, prompting Okamoto to throw down the water bottle the official had handed her and start running again. On the wrong side of the road, into the oncoming race traffic that had rounded the turnaround. A police motorcycle dodged her, then Matsuzaki, then Ichiyama, but Okamoto stayed on the wrong side all the way to the turnaround cone.
Drawing even with it she turned back and started running toward the exchange zone, but not having rounded the cone she would have been disqualified. After 100 m or so officials made that clear to her, and Okamoto turned around and went back. Well down in the field by the time she actually went around the cone, Okamoto fell once, staggered to the side of the road, smacked into a spectator, stopped her watch and collapsed onto the grass. Officials and medical staff were quick to reach her, carrying her off into the shade until an ambulance could get there.
From there until the 10.4 km Fifth Stage Sekisui Kagaku held onto its lead over Wacoal, but there Sekisui's Honoka Yuzawa faltered, overtaken by Wacoal's Kotomi Tsubokura and runners from the Kyudenko and Kyocera teams. With just the 6.695 km anchor stage left it was up to the final Sekisui, Kyudenka and Kyocera women to try to contend with Fukushi for the win.
Now 36, Fukushi's last truly great run was her 2:22:17 win at the January, 2016 Osaka International Women's Marathon. Following the Rio Olympics she took time off to get married and seemed to lose some of the fire in her scattered race performances. But this time she was red-hot. Starting the stage only 3 seconds up on Kyocera's Rie Fujita, Fukushi looked like her old self as she blasted away, smiling as she opened the lead up to 1:11 and laughing as she brought Wacoal home in the top position in 2:19:16. Her time of 21:22 took 13 seconds off the stage record and was exactly 1 minute faster than the next-best woman on the stage. "I was trying to decide how to approach this as I was running," she said post-race. "I told myself to try to pass the TV camera motorcycle." It's a bit early to get too excited about her prospects for a full comeback for Tokyo 2020, but it's hard not to.
Kyocera held on to the #2 spot, with Kyudenko 3rd and Sekisui Kagaku 4th. Universal Entertainment moved up late in the race to 6th, just overtaking Route Inn Hotels who qualified for the first time thanks in part to a stage record run by 2018's 10000 m world leader Pauline Kaveke Kamulu. Edion, which was a DNF late in the race last year, successfully qualified this time at 9th overall.
The battle for the final qualifying spot is always one of the highlights, and this time turned into an anchor stage duel between Rui Nishida (Sysmex) and Kikuyo Tsuzaki (Noritz). Side-by-side in 14th for the first half of the stage, Nishida gradually turned the screws, opening a lead that grew at first by centimeters, then strides, then turned into a clear break. On the strength of her run Sysmex qualified in 14th, Tsuzaki cracking and overtaken by Megumi Hirai (Canon AC Kyushu) at the end of the stage.
Wacoal, Sysmex and the rest of the top 14 now head to Sendai on Nov. 25 to race in the National Championships. For Canon, Noritz and Mitsui Sumitomo it's another year before they try again.
4th Princess EkidenNational Corporate Women's Ekiden Qualifier
Munakata, Fukuoka, 10/21/18
27 teams, 6 stages, 42.195 km
Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage (7.0 km) - Sayaka Sato (Sekisui Kagaku) - 22:36
Second Stage (3.6 km) - Misaki Tanabe (Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 11:25
Third Stage (10.7 km) - Mao Ichiyama (Wacoal) - 34:23
Fourth Stage (3.8 km) - Pauline Kamulu (Route Inn Hotels) - 11:28 - CR
Fifth Stage (10.4 km) - Misaki Kato (Kyudenko) - 35:02
Sixth Stage (6.695 km) - Kayoko Fukushi (Wacoal) - 21:22 - CR
Top Team Results - top 14 qualify for Nationals
1. Wacoal - 2:19:16
2. Kyocera - 2:20:27
3. Kyudenko - 2:20:51
4. Sekisui Kagaku - 2:21:06
5. Denso - 2:21:24
6. Universal Entertainment - 2:21:57
7. Route Inn Hotels - 2:21:59
8. Higo Ginko - 2:22:24
9. Edion - 2:22:29
10. Starts - 2:22:58
11. Hokuren - 2:23:05
12. Kagoshima Ginko - 2:23:11
13. Otsuka Seiyaku - 2:23:16
14. Sysmex - 2:24:06
15. Canon AC Kyushu - 2:24:31
DNF - Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo
© 2018 Brett Larner