It's a busy weekend ahead with three important ekidens and road race action at home and abroad. Saturday features regional corporate men's ekiden championships in two of Japan's most competitive regions, East Japan and Kyushu. The Jan. 1 New Year Ekiden, the corporate men's ekiden championships, is one of the only national-level ekidens that doesn't feature a seeded bracket in which top-placing teams are guaranteed a place at the following year's edition. This means every team has to run its regional championships in November to requalify every year, a fact that has generally kept top Japanese men out of competitive marathons during the two months between Chicago and Fukuoka.
In the East Japan region half marathon national record holder Yuta Shitara leads last year's winner Honda ahead of planned appearances at the Ageo City Half Marathon and Fukuoka International Marathon. 10000 m national record holder Kota Murayama fronts two-time New Year Ekiden national champion Asahi Kasei in the Kyushu region as Asahi Kasei gets ready to go for a third-straight national title come Jan. 1.
Also Saturday, Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) looks to bounce back from a disappointing performance at Italy's Huawei Venice Marathon last weekend with a run at the low-key Nasu Shiobara Half Marathon in Tochigi. After having suffered an injury following her 2:35:40 PB at February's Tokyo Marathon, 2016 Osaka Marathon winner Yoshiko Sakamoto (YWC) returns to action Sunday with support from JRN at China's Nanjing Marathon, a race serving as China's national marathon championships.
But the weekend's biggest race is the second of the Big Three university men's ekidens, Sunday's 50th anniversary National University Men's Ekiden Championships. Still featuring the same eight-stage, 106. 8 km course from Nagoya's Atsuta Shrine to Mie's Ise Shrine, the exchange zones for the first seven stages have been redrawn this year to increase the length of the Seventh Stage to 17.6 km. The average stage length of 13.35 km remains unchanged, but with its final two stages now approaching the half marathon distances of the Hakone Ekiden, now more than ever Nationals favors teams from the Tokyo-centric Kanto Region.
Kanagawa University pulled off a surprise win at last year's Nationals, but with heavy losses to graduation it's a different team this year, placing only 3rd at last month's Hakone Ekiden qualifier. Fourth-year Atsushi Yamato leads the Kanagawa team with a 10000 m best of 28:35.41.
On paper last year's runner-up Tokai University looks like the favorite with an incredible 16 men on its roster holding 5000 m bests under 14 minutes, 9 of them with 28-minute 10000 m PBs and 5 under 1:03 for the half marathon. But at last month's season-opening Izumo Ekiden, where it was the defending champion, it placed only 3rd, unable to stop four-time Hakone Ekiden winner Aoyama Gakuin University from taking the top spot.
AGU's roster doesn't quite match Tokai's in strength, with 11 men sub-14, 5 sub-29 and 3 sub-1:03, but head coach Susumu Hara has so far done a better job of translating that strength into ekiden success than Tokai coach Hayashi Morozumi. With the momentum of an Izumo win behind it AGU will be hard to beat.
Toyo University was 2nd at Izumo, head coach Toshiyuki Sakai doing a characteristically great job of bringing out the team's best when it counts. Toyo's roster has only 5 men sunder 14 minutes, 5 sub-29 and 2 under 1:03, but look for it to be more of a threat to AGU than the numbers might suggest.
Unstoppable at Nationals a decade ago, Komazawa University has struggled to put the pieces together in recent years, finishing outside the seeded bracket at the last Hakone Ekiden and forced to run the Qualifier last month as a result. But there it delivered one of the best team performances in the history of the university men's ekiden circuit, its ten scoring men all finishing under 1:03:30 and averaging under 1:03 for the half marathon. If they are anywhere near that level at Nationals Komazawa should have the best chance of breaking AGU's hegemony.
It's rare to see a team from outside the Kanto Region make the top 10, let alone the 6-deep podium. The last time it happened was 2009, when the Kyushu Regions's Daiichi Kogyo University placed 10th, with the last podium placing a decade before that when the Kansai Region's Kyoto Sangyo University was 5th. With the Kanto Region teams like those above specializing primarily at the half marathon distance the new course configuration should favor them even more, but if any team is going to force its way in it will be Kansai's Ritsumeikan University. Up against 10 Kanto Region teams at Izumo last month Ritsumeikan placed 7th, just 3 seconds out of its goal of a podium finish. The competition at Nationals will be tougher, but with the same kind of team performance it could get into the top 10.
The National University Men's Ekiden will be broadcast live on TV Asahi starting at 7:45 a.m. on Sunday local time. International viewers should be able to watch on mov3.co. JRN will also cover the race on @JRNLive.
text and photo © 2018 Brett Larner