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Komazawa Breaks Course Record in Anchor Stage Turnaround to Win Best-Ever National University Men's Ekiden

About three quarters of the way through the 52nd running of the National University Men's Ekiden broadcast commentator Yasuyuki Watanabe, head coach of the Sumitomo Denko corporate team, former Waseda University head coach, and one of the all-time greats of the university ekiden world, said, "I've been doing race commentary for five years now, and this is the best race I've ever seen." And he was right. It was.

It was a strange fluke that defending champion Tokai University and the three favorites, Juntendo University, Aoyama Gakuin University and Komazawa University, got off to very rocky starts. Two stages into the day's eight Komazawa was in 9th, Juntendo 10th after leading the first stage, AGU a dismal 14th, and Tokai an unthinkable 17th in a field of 25. The door was open for some of the ambitious teams ranked in the middle of the field to take advantage of the situation, and teams like #7-ranked Josai University, #8-ranked Meiji University, and #14-ranked Waseda did just that over the middle part of the race.

Along the way there were so many incredible performances I don't know how you'd pick an MVP for the day. Juntendo first-year Ryuji Miura, already the U20 NR holder for 3000 m steeplechase and half marathon, running a 27:07 CR on the 9.5 km First Stage. Kogakkan University fourth year Shoya Kawase passing 17 people to win the 11.1 km Second Stage in 31:24. Third year Yuhi Nakaya giving Waseda a big lead on the 11.9 km Third Stage. Tokai first year Shotaro Ishihara breaking the 11.8 km Fourth Stage CR in 33:16, and AGU first year Issei Sato turning around and doing the same to the 12.4 km Fifth Stage CR in  35:47.

The force is strong with this year's first years across the board, no doubt, but while the shoes mean you shouldn't read too much into the course record times it was obvious that everyone, everyone, showed up hungry to race, from the first years who didn't get to debut at the canceled Izumo Ekiden to the fourth years on the teams that didn't make Hakone, hoping to end their university careers with something big.

Ishihara, Sato, and Komazawa's fifth man Ryota Sakai all played key roles in turning their teams around, AGU moving up to 2nd by the end of the Fifth Stage, Komazawa to 3rd, and Tokai to 7th, with Juntendo likewise moving up to 6th. The strongest team on paper, apart from Miura's brilliant opening leg Juntendo seemed to still be tired from its win at the Hakone Ekiden qualifier two weeks ago and never moved up higher than 6th again, ultimately taking the last place on the eight-deep podium.

Tokai moved past Waseda and Meiji into 1st on the 12.8 km Sixth Stage thanks to a 37:22 CR by third year Shunsuke Nagata, bumping Komazawa down to 4th and AGU to 6th. But on the 17.6 km Seventh Stage AGU' fourth year Yuta Kanbayashi turned in a stage-winning run to put last year's runners-up into 1st with a 37-second lead over defending champ Tokai and another 2 seconds up on Komazawa. It's hard to stress how unusual and exciting the race's development was up to this point, with six different teams taking the lead and only Waseda able to sustain it for longer than a single stage. The top six teams all in striking distance of each other, no clear leader, no clear outcome. The way you'd hope an ekiden would be near the end.

With a 1:01:46 half marathon best AGU's final runner Keita Yoshida was the fastest man in the anchor stage field, but head coach Susumu Hara's insistence that they needed a lead of at least 30 seconds suggested Yoshida wasn't at his best. Elite ekidens almost never come down to the anchor stage, and it was an unlucky break for Yoshida that Tokai anchor Ryota Natori and Komazawa's Ren Tazawa started almost together, working together to cut down his lead over the first half of the stage. 

It's a common ekiden strategy for the leader to relax in the first half of a stage while those chasing him burn themselves trying to catch up, then turn it on and run away over the second half. But when Natori and Tazawa caught him Yoshida had no response. There was a short stretch near 10 km when all three ran side-by-side in the lead and the possibilities seemed limitless for how the race might play out. But not long afterward Yoshida started to lose touch and drift back from them. Natori kept the hammer down once he was in the lead as Tazawa shifted focus from Yoshida to him, but as hard as he tried Tazawa was right there, listening to coach Hiroaki Oyagi's directions to make one and only one decisive move for the win. 

It came just over 1 km from from the finish. Tazawa kicked hard, instantly dropping Natori and opening a 23-second lead. He broke the tape in 5:11:08, over two minutes under AGU's old record, the first national title for Komazawa since 2014 and its 13th in 27 appearances at Nationals, more than any other school. Tokai was 2nd in 5:11:31 and also under the older record. To his credit, in his post-race interview Tazawa said, "I didn't know if I could make up the 30 seconds to Yoshida, but I owe it all to Natori. He made it happen."

Yoshida didn't seem to be struggling but was clearly not at 100%, finishing only 11th on individual stage time. Meiji anchor Kiyoto Suzuki, a 1:01:56 half marathoner, reeled him in and surged by to give Meiji 3rd in 5:12:24, AGU taking 4th in 5:12:42, its first time outside the top three since 2013. Waseda held off Toyo University for 5th in 5:13:04 to Toyo's 5:13:15, while a good second half by Teikyo University put it in 7th ahead of Juntendo. With the top eight earning a return trip to Nationals next year, 2019 Izumo Ekiden winner Koku Gakuin University was the unlucky 9th-placer, 33 seconds outside the cut in 5:15:16. Last year's 12th-placers Ritsumeikan University were again the top non-Kanto Region team, beating Kanto's Josai to take 15th in 5:22:26.

Of the six teams that ran the Hakone qualifier half marathon two weeks ago, all performed well below their pre-race rankings, #1-ranked Juntendo taking 8th, #6-ranked Chuo Gakuin University 11th, #9-ranked Nittai University 12th, #4-ranked Yamanashi Gakuin University 13th, #11-ranked Nihon University 14th, and #7-ranked Josai 16th. Two weeks just didn't look like enough time to recover and deliver another A-level performance for any of them, but along with the early struggles from the favorites it made for some chaotic and massively entertaining viewing. It was also notable that of the five teams with Kenyans, not a single one made the podium, and none won their stage. The level has come enough that the days when just having a Kenyan on board was enough to make the difference may be done and gone.

With no other road racing on the schedule most of the teams will head back to the track for the next few months. But for the lucky few there remains one more race, the biggest of them all. Hakone. There have been lots of fears that Hakone will be called off, mostly over fears that its usual massive crowds would turn out along the course. Crowds at Nationals were probably bigger than the organizers would have liked, but if there's no spike in cases in two weeks then Hakone should be safe. If there is, there will be dominoes leading all the way to the Olympics. Hope for the best.

52nd National University Men's Ekiden

Nagoya-Mie, 1 Nov. 2020
25 teams, 8 stages, 106.8 km

Top Individual Stage Results
First Stage - 9.5 km
1. Ryuji Miura (1st yr., Juntendo Univ.) - 27:07 - CR
2. Takuma Sunaoka (3rd yr., Josai Univ.) - 27:10 (CR)
3. Atsushi Kato (4th yr., Komazawa Univ.) - 27:13 (CR) 

Second Stage - 11.1 km
1. Shoya Kawase (4th yr., Kogakkan Univ.) - 31:24
2. Shunya Kikuchi (4th yr., Josai Univ.) - 31:37
3. Yohei Ikeda (4th yr., Nittai Univ.) - 31:39

Third Stage - 11.9 km
1. Yuhi Nakaya (3rd yr., Waseda Univ.) - 33:42
2. KIseki Sbiozawa (4th yr., Tokai Univ.) - 33:45
3. Yuito Nakamura (2nd yr., Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 33:46

Fourth Stage - 11.8 km
1. Shotaro Ishihara (1st yr., Tokai Univ.) - 33:16 - CR
2. Naoki Ota (3rd yr., Waseda Univ.) - 33:23 (CR)
3. Yusaku Nomura (2nd yr., Juntendo Univ.) - 33:34 (CR)

Fifth Stage - 12.4 km
1. Issei Sato (1st yr., Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 35:47 - CR
2. Ryota Sakai (2nd yr., Komazawa Univ.) - 36:02 (CR)
3. Shun Osawa (4th yr., Toyo Univ.) - 36:12

Sixth Stage - 12.8 km
1. Shunsuke Nagata (3rd yr., Tokai Univ.) - 37:22 - CR
2. Kaishi Daiho (4th yr., Meiji Univ.) - 37:27
3. Sora Masuda (4th yr., Teikyo Univ.) - 37:43

Seventh Stage - 17.6 km
1. Yuta Kanbayashi (4th yr., Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 51:17
2. Charles Ndungu (2nd yr., Nihon Univ.) - 51:49
3. Paul Onyiego (3rd yr., Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 51:57

Eighth Stage - 19.7 km
1. Ren Tazawa (2nd yr., Komazawa Univ.) - 57:34
2. Luka Musembi (2nd yr., Tokyo Kokusai Univ.) - 57:54
3. Ryota Natori (4th yr., Tokai Univ.) - 57:59

Team Results - top 8 seeded for 2021
1. Komazawa University - 5:11:08 - CR
2. Tokai University - 5:11:31 (CR)
3. Meiji University - 5:12:24 (CR)
4. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:12:42 (CR)
5. Waseda University - 5:13:04 (CR)
6. Toyo University - 5:13:15
7. Teikyo University - 5:14:40
8. Juntendo University - 5:14:43
9. Koku Gakuin University - 5:15:16
10. Tokyo Kokusai University - 5:17:05
11. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:19:25
12. Nittai University - 5:19:35
13. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:20:03
14. Nihon University - 5:20:41
15. Ritsumeikan University - 5:22:26
16. Josai University - 5:23:29
17. Kogakkan University - 5:27:25
18. Kwansei Gakuin University - 5:27:35
19. Biwako Gakuin University - 5:29:35
20. Hiroshima Keizai University - 5:32:03
21. Kyoto Sangyo University - 5:32:33
22. Shinshu University - 5:36:25
23. Sapporo Gakuin University - 5:36:56
24. Nippon Bunri University - 5:38:04
25. Tohoku University - 5:47:38

© 2020 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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