For decades the New Year in Japan has been the best three days of racing n the year, with the New Year Ekiden corporate men's national championships on Jan. 1 and the university men's season-capping Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2 and 3. In the last few years it's gotten even better thanks to the Mount Fuji Women's Ekiden, the university women's season ender, moving to Dec. 30.
Last year Ritsumeikan University overcame a loss to Meijo University at October's Morinomiyako Ekiden to claim a fifth-straight Mount Fuji national title. This year the top three at Morinomiyako were the same as last time around, Meijo in the top spot and Daito Bunka University just edging out Ritsumeikan for 3rd with Tokyo Nogyo University, 2nd at Mount Fuji last year, just a few seconds behind Ritsumeikan in 4th. With all four teams returning we're pretty likely to see them all out front again, the main question being whether Meijo can translate its early-season success into a national title this year or whether Ritsumeikan's proven peaking ability is just too much to overcome. Watch live on Fuji TV starting at 10:00 a.m. on Dec. 30.
Dec. 31 is a day off from racing, but with sunrise on Jan. 1 it's back to work for the country's top corporate men at the New Year Ekiden. Old-school Asahi Kasei has two national titles behind it and is looking to make up for problems with its marathoners with a third. Its chances look pretty good. It's never easy to compare the different regional qualifying races, but in Asahi Kasei's win at November's Kyushu Corporate Men's Ekiden its average pace of 2:53.6 was the fastest among the different regional winners by more than a second, a pretty comfortable advantage over the New Year Ekiden's 100 km. East Japan winner Fujitsu was next at 2:54.9/km and last year's New Year 3rd-placer Toyota next with a pace of 2:55.1/km for its Chubu Region win. In the East Japan region Kanebo, Subaru and last year's New Year runner-up Honda were also strong, so there should be thick competition up front. TBS' broadcast of the New Year Ekiden starts at 8:30 a.m. Japan time on Jan. 1.
Saving the best for last, the Hakone Ekiden spans two days over Jan. 2 and 3, an out-and-back from central Tokyo to the mountain town of Hakone. Aoyama Gakuin University is trying to become the third school in Hakone's 95-year history to win it five times in a row and comes in off the momentum of wins at the season's other two big ekidens, October's Izumo Ekiden and November's National University Ekiden. On paper AGU's lineup is only the fourth-best in the field, but that didn't stop it from easily running down #1-ranked Tokai University on the two longest stages at Nationals, where runners covered the same kind of half marathonish distances as on all ten of Hakone's stages.
Tokai, qualifying race winner Komazawa University and dark horse Teikyo University all have better credentials than AGU, especially over the half marathon, but it's just not that simple to overcome the system that head coach Susumu Hara devised to take AGU from non-starters to unbreakable in the course of a decade. For a more detailed look at the four favorites and the rest of the field read JRN's earlier breakdown of the Hakone entry lists. NTV will broadcast both days of Hakone starting at 7:00 a.m. local time.
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