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Tokai University Wins First National University Ekiden Title in Sixteen Years

After a rough start to the season last month at the Izumo Ekiden, Tokai University lived up to its #1 ranking as it held off defending national champion Aoyama Gakuin University on the anchor stage of the National University Men's Ekiden to win its first national title in 16 years.

In a lot of ways it was one of the more chaotic major university ekidens in recent memory, with almost every team that ended up on the eight-deep podium suffering at least one disastrous stage that saw one of its runners finish in the double digit placings on stage time. But over Nationals' full eight-stage, 106.8 km course these seemed to cancel each other out, the expected top nine teams all landing in the top ten with one unexpected interloper.

A bizarrely slow First Stage, 15:20 through 5 km, resulted in a predictably blazing last 4.5 km, with last year's Second Stage winner Tomoya Ogikubo (Josai Univ.) getting away to hand off in 1st in 27:49 almost 10 seconds up on top two-ranked Komazawa University and Tokai. The top Japanese man at 5th overall in 1:02:34 at last weekend's Hakone Ekiden qualifier, Tatsuhiko Ito (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.) had another brilliant run with a 31:17 course record for the 11.1 km to put the Hakone qualifier-winning TKU into 1st in its Nationals debut. Komazawa held steady in 2nd, but Tokai dropped to 6th.

Starting far back in 11th for top 3 favorite Toyo University, Akira Aizawa delivered the performance of the day on the 11.9 km Third Stage. Splitting 13:44 at 5 km and under 27:40 at 10 km, Aizawa passed every competitor ahead of him to put Toyo 39 seconds into the lead over Josai and Tokai. His time of 33:01 took well over a minute off the stage record set just last year, an historic performance that solidified his position as the dominant runner of his generation and the one most likely to lead it in the marathon. Even if he, like most of the others in the race, were wearing the magic shoes.

Despite Aizawa's incredible run Toyo head coach Toshiyuki Sakai kept his poker face on, knowing that the race was less than a third of the way done. Toyo held on to the lead through the 11.8 km Fourth Stage, but with a 33:54 stage win Takeshi Nishida brought Tokai within 30 seconds of them. Behind them their major expected rivals AGU and Komazawa struggled, AGU falling to 8th and Komazawa off the podium to 10th. In their place, three teams that ran last weekend's Hakone qualifier, Josai, who didn't make the cut, 9th-placer Waseda University and winner TKU all surprisingly occupied podium positions, Josai in 3rd, Waseda in 4th and TKU in 7th.

The longer stages in the second half of the race started to bring things back into alignment, with Tokai taking over the lead from Toyo, AGU moving up to 7th and Komazawa to 9th on the 12.4 km Fifth Stage. KGU's Yuto Aoki ran a CR 38:09 to move the Izumo champs into 4th. They stayed there on the 12.8 km Sixth Stage, but around them things continued to shake up. A course record 37:28 by Takahiro Gunji put Tokai nearly a minute ahead, while AGU moved into 3rd, Toyo fell to 5th, and Komazawa broke back onto the podium in 8th.

Back from studying in New Zealand, AGU's Keita Yoshida seemed set to pull off a repeat of last year's Nationals where AGU ran down Tokai on the second-to-last stage for the win. But Tokai's Junnosuke Matsuo had other ideas, fighting back after getting caught and dropped by Yoshida and retaking the lead. In the end Yoshida had the stronger kick and handed off to anchor Takayuki Iida with a lead of just 2 seconds. Toyo's Shun Sadakata had another good run to move Toyo into 3rd less than 30 seconds behind the lead duo, but the stage best title went to Komazawa's star rookie recruit Ren Tazawa, winning the 17.6 km stage in 52:09 in his first-ever road race over 10 km to put Komazawa into 4th.

And with that the expected top four were in place for the 19.7 km anchor stage, the only question being their final order. Tokai anchor Ryota Natori took his time catching up to Iida, but when he did less than 5 km into the stage he wasted none in surging ahead. Natori ran the rest of the way unchallenged by anyone but himself, delivering the 5th-fastest time ever on the National anchor stage by a Japanese man, 57:46, to give Tokai the national title to add to its wins at the last Hakone Ekiden and at Izumo the season before.

For a while Iida looked in danger of being caught by Toyo anchor Hayato Miyashita, but when Miyashita faded the real danger came in other forms. Building on his team's late-race momentum, Komazawa anchor Ichitaka Yamashita ran the next-fastest time on the stage after Natori, bearing down on Iida in the final kilometer but coming up five seconds short. Iida held on to 2nd with Yamashita 3rd. Behind him, TKU anchor Luka Musembi dropped a 57:14 to overtake Toyo's Miyashita for a surprising 4th just a week after TKU's Hakone qualifier win.

Toyo was 5 seconds back in 5th, with Waseda exceeding expectations even more than TKU at 6th, 30 seconds up on Izumo winner KGU in 7th. The 8th spot went to Teikyo University, digging its way out of a deep hole early on to set up anchor Ryota Komori for a last-sprint duel with Juntendo University's Yuto Suzuki for the final spot on the podium. In 2nd at the start of the Seventh Stage, Juntendo simply lacked the half marathon credentials to match its competition over the two longest stages.

With fifteen teams in the field representing the Kanto Region it's rare to see a team from another part of the country break into the top fifteen at Nationals, but this time around Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University, 6th at Izumo, was up to the task. Spending most of the race hovering around 10th place, Ritsumeikan ended up 12th ahead of Kanto teams Josai, Nittai University, Meiji University and Takushoku University.

As the top non-Kanto team in the country Ritsumeikan now turns toward the Tango University Ekiden, the season-ender for its region. The 11 teams ahead of it and those just behind now build toward January's Hakone Ekiden, where they will need 10 men capable of racing a half marathon. Winning without four of its best runners, Tokai looks to be in a good position for a Hakone title defense. AGU is clearly down on strength, but it got close enough to overtaking Tokai this time that it has to be a threat. Komazawa and Toyo were shakier than expected, Toyo in particular showing the same struggle with depth that has held it back in recent years. TKU success was the most unforeseen development, going from a qualifier win last weekend to 4th in its first time ever running Nationals. It's unlikely that it has the resources to pull of a Hakone win, but at the very least TKU looks to be in a good position to make the Hakone podium for the first time.

51st National University Men's Ekiden Championships

Nagoya-Mie, 11/3/19
27 teams, 8 stages, 106.8 km
complete results

Top Team Results - top 8 qualify for 2020 Nationals
1. Tokai Univ. - 5:13:15
2. Aoyama Gakuin Univ. - 5:14:59
3. Komazawa Univ. - 5:15:04
4. Tokyo Kokusai Univ. - 5:15:35
5. Toyo Univ. - 5:15:40
6. Waseda Univ. - 5:17:04
7. Koku Gakuin Univ. - 5:17:34
8. Teikyo Univ. - 5:19:38
9. Juntendo Univ. - 5:19:46
10. Chuo Gakuin Univ. - 5:20:06
11. Hosei Univ. - 5:20:14
12. Ritsumeikan Univ. - 5:21:21
13. Josai Univ. - 5:21:29
14. Nittai Univ. - 5:21:46
15. National Select Team - 5:22:54
16. Meiji Univ. - 5:23:51
17. Takushoku Univ. - 5:24:06
18. Kwansei Gakuin Univ. - 5:29:51

Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage (9.5 km) - Tomoya Ogikubo (Josai Univ.) - 27:49
Second Stage (11.1 km) - Tatsuhiko Ito (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.) - 31:17 - CR
Third Stage (11.9 km) - Akira Aizawa (Toyo Univ.) - 33:01 - CR
Fourth Stage (11.8 km) - Takeshi Nishida (Tokai Univ.) - 33:54
Fifth Stage (12.4 km) - Yuto Aoki (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 38:06 - CR
Sixth Stage (12.8 km) - Akihiro Gunji (Tokai Univ.) - 37:28 - CR
Seventh Stage (17.6 km) - Ren Tazawa (Komazawa Univ.) - 52:09
Eighth Stage (19.7 km) - Luka Musembi (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.) - 57:14

© 2019 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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dadsweb said…
You kind of missed Tokyo Kokusai in your predictions!
Brett Larner said…
Definitely didn't expect them to bounce back so hard a week after the Yosenkai. They've got momentum.

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