University men's ekiden season kicks off Monday with the Izumo Ekiden, the first race in the three-month buildup to January's Hakone Ekiden main event. Last year four-time Hakone champ Aoyama Gakuin University outran up-and-coming Tokai University at both Izumo and November's National University Ekiden but fell short of stopping Tokai at Hakone. This year AGU is significantly down on strength, while Tokai is stronger than ever. But while Tokai is the clear favorite, it's got a serious challenge coming from at least one, maybe two familiar faces.
The average stage length for Izumo's six stages is about 7.5 km, requiring a balance between 5000 m and 10000 m skills. Despite missing captain Ryoji Tatezawa Tokai leads the way in both departments, its top six 5000 m average of 13:47.22 the fastest among the seven schools with sub-14 minute averages and its 10000 m average of 28:39.35 likewise leading the way among the six sub-29 programs. Half marathon credentials don't play into Izumo as much as at Nationals or Hakone, but while we're at it Tokai has the best six-man half marathon average too, 1:02:37. It's Tokai's race to lose.
Its strongest competition on paper is Komazawa University, alma mater of MGC Race Olympic marathon trials winner Shogo Nakamura and turning up with its best lineup in many years. On balance between 5000 m and 10000 m credentials Komazawa is the only team within 10 seconds per runner of Tokai, but while it might be able to put up a good challenge this time both it and Tokai could also be at threat from last year's runner-up Toyo University, always a better ekiden performer than it looks from its entry list. Toyo and AGU are almost evenly-matched and AGU also tends to be greater than the sum of its parts in the key ekidens, so despite Tokai's dominant roster we could be in for a very good race up front indeed.
Ranked 5th, the minor Koku Gakuin University team is surprisingly close to Toyo and AGU and well ahead of the next trio of teams, Teikyo University, Chuo Gakuin University and Juntendo University. CGU should be a top five contender but is missing several of its key people and will do well to make the eight-deep podium.
Rounding out the teams likely to make the top ten are Hosei University, Ritsumeikan University and Takushoku University. Izumo's field includes ten teams from the Kanto Region, home of the Hakone Ekiden, and as a result teams from outside Kanto almost never make the top ten. This year Kyoto's Ritsumeikan has what's probably its best-ever lineup, giving it a realistic chance of going as high as 9th. The American Ivy League Select Team has the seventh-best 5000 m average in the field, but with its members lacking experience at longer distances it comes in ranked only 12th. Anything better would be a pretty good day.
The Izumo Ekiden will be broadcast live on Fuji TV starting at 13:00 local time on Monday, Oct. 14. If you're overseas you might be able to get a live stream here or here. @JRNLive will also be covering the action live.