The 30th Kitakyushu Women's Invitational Ekiden took place Jan. 20 with a 32.7 km course divided into 5 stages for the open division and 6 for the high school division and a start and finish in front of Kitakyushu City Hall. Tenmaya took the top spot in the open division for the first time in 6 years in 1:46:32, while 2018 National High School Ekiden champion Kamimura Gakuen H.S. won the high school division in 1:47:41, its first win in 16 years.
Since the start of the year Tenmaya's star runner Rei Ohara has been suffering back pain and came to Kitakyushu undertrained as a result. That didn't stop her from running the fastest time on the anchor stage, covering the 11.4 km leg in 36:33. "Once I got started it was a lot easier to move than I'd expected," she said post-race. "Our first four runners ran really well, and thanks to them I was able to be the one to break the tape at the finish line."
A relieved Tenmaya head coach Yutaka Taketomi commented, "She held her pace all the way to the end." But with Ohara scheduled to run the Jan. 27 Osaka International Women's Marathon he expressed concern, saying, "I'm still thinking about how to deal with the two weeks of training she missed."
In the high school division the big story was Kamimura Gakuen first-year Cynthia Baire. In the blink of an eye, just before 1 km into the Second Stage the Kenyan exchange student's long legs and dynamic stride carried her past Suma Gakuen H.S. into the top position. "It was hard at the end, but I was confident," she said afterward. Baire covered the 5.9 km stage in a course record 18:07, almost a minute faster than the fastest woman in the open division and opening a huge lead.
Kamimura Gakuen first-year Hana Torii was also making her ekiden debut, picking up from Baire on the Third Stage. "I wasn't going to give up 1st place," she said. Torii handed off safely to team captain Ayumi Hirata, whose stage-winning run extended Kamimura Gakuen's lead to almost three minutes and set up the team's last two runners for the win.
The national title that Kamimura Gakuen won in December was the first in school history and one it had long hoped for. But the team's members weren't content with just that. Baire trained with the junior high school and high school boys from Kagoshima's National Men's Ekiden team, while the Japanese athletes focused on training hard with the members who weren't picked for the Nationals roster in December. "I definitely wanted to be part of the team this time to make up for the disappointment of not getting to run at the National race," Torii said.
After a time trial on Jan. 16 four runners who weren't part of December's lineup including Torii were picked for the Kitakyushu team, giving a boost to the Kamimura Gakuen program as a whole. Ending the season undefeated, the younger teammates gained both confidence and experience. "We saw some good material here," said head coach Tetsuzo Arikawa. "We can make a new start." The nation's top ekiden programs will be taking notice.
30th Kitakyushu Womens Invitational EkidenKitakyushu, Fukuoka, 1/20/19
20 teams, 6 stages, 32.7 km
Top Team Results - Open Division
1. Tenmaya - 1:46:32
2. Universal Entertainment - 1:48:11
3. Panasonic - 1:48:43
4. Osaka Gakuin University - 1:51:57
5. Kagoshima Ginko - 1:53:17
Top Team Results - High School Division
1. Kamimura Gakuen H.S. - 1:47:41
2. Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S. - 1:50:05
3. Sera H.S. - 1:51:07
4. Kitakyushu Municipal H.S. - 1:51:54
5. Ritsumeikan Uji H.S. - 1:52:01
Top Individual Stage Results
First Stage (4.3 km) - Hikari Onishi (Suma Gakuen H.S.) - 13:48
Second Stage (5.9 km) - Cynthia Baire (Kamimura Gakuen H.S.) - 18:07 - CR
Third Stage (5.1 km) - Akari Muramatsu (Ritsumeikan Uji H.S.) - 17:01
Fourth Stage (6.0 km) - Mai Shinozuka (Universal Entertainment) - 19:14
Fifth Stage (H.S. - 4. 8 km) - Chihiro Sato (Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S.) - 16:30
Sixth Stage (H.S. - 6.6 km) - Haruka Takada (Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S.) - 21:47
Sixth Stage (open - 11.4 km) - Rei Ohara (Tenmaya) - 36:33
translated and edited by Brett Larner