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5th-Ranked Koku Gakuin Pulls Off Last Km Upset to Win First-Ever Izumo Ekiden Title

In the modern era of systematic mass-production of quality by dominant teams like Tokai University and Aoyama Gakuin University it has been years since an underdog came through with a surprise win on Japan's university men's ekiden circuit, but that's just what happened at today's Izumo Ekiden to kick off the 2019-20 Big Three University Ekiden season.

The race was expected to be between defending champ Tokai and Buddhist powerhouse Komazawa University, with threats from AGU and fan favorites Toyo University. Like last year Tokai struggled a bit to get on its feet, lagging as a core leading quartet coalesced over the first half of the race's six stages. Running better than expected, #5-ranked Koku Gakuin University was right up in it along with AGU, Komazawa and Toyo, its second and third men Taiga Nakanishi and Yuhei Urano taking 3rd on their stages and Urano one of six men on the Third Stage to break its course record.

The leading quartet broke up into two pairs on the Fourth Stage, with AGU's Yuta Kanbayashi and Komazawa's Ayumu Kanbayashi dropping Toyo's Hayato Miyashita and KGU's Yuto Aoki and racing each other under the course record. Tokai's Tomoki Ichimura was also under the course record as he made up ground on Miyashita and Aoki and put Tokai in range of a comeback.

Komazawa hadn't won Izumo in six years, and on the Fifth Stage its runner Taisei Nakamura broke free of AGU's Naoto Takeishi to put Komazawa into the lead alone for the first time. With just its anchor, this year's World University Games half marathon silver medalist Taisei Nakamura, no relation, left to hold down the final 10.2 km stage it looked like Komazawa a return to the top down. But history had something else in mind.

Heading into and coming out of the final handoff Tokai, AGU and KGU formed a chase trio in pursuit of Toyo's Shun Sadakata in 2nd. Sadakata looked like he was making up ground on leader Nakamura, but as he neared halfway Nakamura began to pick it up and pull back away. Tokai anchor Takushi Nishida pushed the pace and dropped AGU's Tomoya Nakamura, but KGU's Hidekazu Hijikata was right there with him and, as they approached Sadakata, began to lay down some pace of his own. Ahead, Komazawa's Nakamura suddenly started to wince, and all the strength seemed to drain out of his form.

Hijikata and Nishida caught Sadakata to form a chase trio, but as Nakamura quickly came back into range Hijikata accelerated faster and faster. Nishida and Sadakata were no longer an issue, the only question being the rapidly shrinking gap to Nakamura and the equally rapidly shrinking stretch of road left ahead until the finish line. With 600 m to go he pulled even, but Nakamura had nothing left to answer and watched as Hijikata sailed by to give KGU its first-ever Izumo win in 2:09:58, his time of 29:05 the fastest-ever by a Japanese-born athlete on Izumo's anchor stage. Which is saying a lot.

Sadakata looked to be in range of doing the same, but Nakamura held him off to bring Komazawa in a disappointed 2nd in 2:10:06 just 3 seconds up on Toyo. Favorites Tokai were 4th in 2:10:18, with last year's winner AGU falling to 5th in 2:10:51. With ten schools in the field from the Kanto Region it's rare to see one from elsewhere in Japan make the top ten. Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University was ranked 9th this year and punched above its weight the entire way, running down Teikyo University in the late going to finish a school record 6th. Ranked 12th, the Ivy League Select Team overcame a slow first half to move up in the second half, anchor Daniel Nestor turning in the team's best performance of the day at 7th on his stage to give the Ivies a 13th-place finish.

With the season opener on the books the top teams now turn their attention to November's National University Ekiden Championships. With good half marathon credentials KGU has a chance of staying competitive against the more established programs at Nationals, but its biggest challenge both there and at January's Hakone Ekiden main event is depth. With just 6 stages at Izumo KGU could pull off this kind of upset win, but Nationals will require 8 starters and Hakone will take 10. Toyo has struggled with just that problem the last few years, and whether KGU will be able to cope with the massive stables of talent at Tokai and AGU remains to be seen. But that's another day, and for today at least both they and the fans can be happy with having been part of one of the most exciting finishes on the university circuit in years.

31st Izumo Ekiden

Izumo, Shimane, 10/14/19
21 teams, 6 stages, 45.1 km
complete results

Top Team Results
1. Koku Gakuin Univ. - 2:09:58
2. Komazawa Univ. - 2:10:06
3. Toyo Univ. - 2:10:09
4. Tokai Univ. - 2:10:18
5. Aoyama Gakuin  Univ. - 2:10:51
6. Ritsumeikan Univ. - 2:13:11
7. Teikyo Univ. - 2:13:49
8. Juntendo Univ. - 2:14:04
9. Takushoku Univ. - 2:14:18
10. Hosei Univ. - 2:14:20
13. Ivy League Select Team

Individual Stage Results

First Stage (8.0 km)
1. Lawrence Ngure (Hokkaido Select Team) - 23:07
2. Ichitaka Yamashita (Komazawa Univ.) - 24:23
3. Akira Akasaki (Takushoku Univ.) - 24:26
4. Yuichiro Nishikawa (Tokai Univ.) - 24:28
5. Kota Fujiki (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 24:29
15. Jordan Mann (Ivy League) - 24:47

Second Stage (5.8 km)
1. Hironori Kishimoto (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 16:16
2. Shun Osawa (Toyo Univ.) - 16:20
3. Taiga Nakanishi (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 16:21
4. Sota Ito (Komazawa Univ.) - 16:26
5. Shinya Kojima (Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 16:32
19. Tim Gordon (Ivy League) - 17:53

Third Stage (8.5 km)
1. Akira Aizawa (Toyo Univ.) - 23:45 - CR
2. Ren Tazawa (Komazawa Univ.) - 23:54 (CR)
3. Yuhei Urano (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 23:57 (CR)
4. Keita Yoshida (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 23:58 (CR)
5. Razini Lemeteki (Takushoku Univ.) - 24:08 (CR)
6. Kiseki Shiozawa (Tokai Univ.) - 24:09 (CR)
14. Chris Hatler (Ivy League) - 26:01

Fourth Stage (6.2 km)
1. Yuta Kanbayashi (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 17:24 - CR
2. Tomoki Ichimura (Tokai Univ.) - 17:29 (CR)
3. Ayumu Kobayashi (Komazawa Univ.) - 17:30 (CR)
4. Hayato Miyashita (Toyo Univ.) - 17:43
5. Yuto Aoki (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 17:45
12. Connor Clark (Ivy League) - 18:28

Fifth Stage (6.4 km)
1. Haruka Onodera (Teikyo Univ.) - 17:54
2. Shunsuke Imanishi (Toyo Univ.) - 17:59
3. Taisei Nakamura (Komazawa Univ.) - 18:03
4. Shota Onizuka (Tokai Univ.) - 18:12
5. Daigo Mohara (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 18:21
11. James Randon (Ivy League) - 18:57

Sixth Stage (10.2 km)
1. Hidekazu Hijikata (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 29:05
2. Takeshi Nishida (Tokai Univ.) - 29:23
3. Shun Sadakata (Toyo Univ.) - 29:40
4. Taisei Nakamura (Komazawa Univ.) - 29:50
5. Tomoya Nakamura (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 30:02
7. Daniel Nestor (Ivy League) - 30:25

Alternates' 5000 m
1. Yohei Komatsu (Tokai Univ.) - 13:59.49
2. Akihiro Gunji (Tokai Univ.) - 14:00.85
3. Shunsuke Kanbe (Komazawa Univ.) - 14:01.12

 © 2019 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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