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Fujitsu Wins First New Year Ekiden National Title in 12 Years

Last year's runner-up Toyota finally achieved its goal of stopping four-time defending New Year Ekiden champ Asahi Kasei from adding to its dynasty, beating it by 37 seconds thanks in part to the absence of new 10000 m national record holder Akira Aizawa from Asahi Kasei's starting roster. But Toyota again found itself in the runner-up position, both teams beaten in an almost flawless team run from East Japan region winner Fujitsu.

Right from the start all three teams were out front, Hiroki Matsueda (Fujitsu) taking the First Stage by a second over Keijiro Mogi (Asahi Kasei) and another second over Hideyuki Tanaka (Toyota). All three were run down on the mostly Kenyan second stage, Toyota falling to 4th after a surprisingly weak run from star Bedan Karoki, Fujitsu to 6th, and Asahi Kasei to 13th. Richard Kimunyan (Hitachi Butsuryu) and Stanley Waithaka (Yakult) ran brilliantly to take over the top two spots, but the real star of the stage was Bernard Koech (Kyudenko), who dropped the only new stage record of the windy day, 21:53 for the 8.3 km stage.

Asahi Kasei and Fujitsu fought back into 2nd and 3rd behind GMO on the Third Stage while Toyota fell to 8th after last year's course record breaker Yusuke Nishiyama struggled to a 14th-place finish. But on the 22.4 km Fourth Stage, the day's longest, the heavyweights disposed of the competition, with Fujitsu's Shogo Nakamura delivering the same kind of hard sustained finish that won him the Tokyo Olympics marathon trials to open an 18-second lead over sub-27:30 track 10000 m runner Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Asahi Kasei) and 2:06 marathoner Hiroto Inoue (Mitsubishi Juko). Toyota sat just over 30 seconds back by the end of the stage after a good run from the resurgent Shinobu Kubota, but the biggest run came from 34-year-old Yuki Sato, who made his debut in the SGH Group uniform by running just 3 seconds off the CR to move up from 20th to 6th and win the stage in 1:04:00.

Toyota being just back from Asahi Kasei set up yet another battle between Tokyo Olympics marathon team member Yuma Hattori and perpetual rival Kenta Murayama, Murayama outkicking him at the end but Hattori placing higher on total stage time. Hattori, who seemed to have recovered from the injury that kept him out of Fukuoka last month, closed 15 seconds on Fujitsu steepler Kazuya Shiojiri, but with just two stages to go the chances of running Fujitsu down were getting iffier and iffier. 

Kengo Suzuki (Fujitsu), Nakamura's domestique at the Olympic trials, pretty much put the nail in the coffin of any hopes of a late turnaround as he outran Toyota's Yuto Aoki and Asahi Kasei's Chihiro Ono, the stage record breaker last year, to add a few seconds to Fujitsu's lead. 36-year-old Kazuharu Takai (Kyudenko) rounded out his career with a 9th-place finish on stage time, moving up Kyudenko from 20th to 16th. Running the New Year Ekiden for the 20th time, 40-year-old former 5000 m NR holder Takayuki Matsumiya (Aichi Seiko) was a decent 23rd out of 36 on the same stage.

Suzuki left rookie Fujitsu anchor Yuhei Urano, a star of last year's Hakone Ekiden for Koku Gakuin University, with a 40-second margin for the 15.5 km to the finish line. And Urano didn't waste it, running the fastest time on the anchor stage by 7 seconds to bring Fujitsu home to its first national title since 2009, covering the complete seven-stage, 100.0 km course in 4:48:52. Toyota anchor Minato Oishi dropped Asahi Kasei's Takashi Ichida mid-stage to take 2nd in 4:49:55, the past champs taking 3rd in 4:50:32.

Hitachi Butsuryu came back strong on the anchor stage thanks to a great run from Shota Hattori, a transfer from the Honda team who ran down both Honda and Mitsubishi Juko to take 4th in 4:52:33. Last year's 4th-placer JR Higashi Nihon was 7th, anchor Natsuki Terada still showing signs of fatigue from his 3rd-place finish in Fukuoka.

With eight places on the podium, the last spot came down to a three-way battle between two members of 2020 Hakone Ekiden winner Aoyama Gakuin University, Yuya Yoshida (GMO) and Takato Suzuki (SGH Group), and 33-year-old Yuki Takamiya (Yakult). Yoshida, who rode incredible momentum last year to win in Fukuoka, kicked hard from 1 km out, but in the home straight Takamiya was the one who had what it took, beating Yoshida to the line by 3 seconds to close out the podium in 4:54:55.

In its New Year Ekiden debut the Saitama Ika Daigaku Group team of hospital workers hit its pre-race goal of making the top 20, taking 20th in 4:57:20 and beating fellow hospital team Hiramatsu Byoin, 31st in 5:02:14. Supermarket chain Sunbelx, 23rd in 4:57:45, also earned bragging rights by outrunning rival chain Comody Iida, 33rd in 5:03:39.

Having qualified for the New Year Ekiden for the first time in 21 years, the Nippon Seitetsu Setouchi team was last in 5:21:47. The team will be disbanded in March, making this its last run in its colors. But they made it where many other teams didn't, through the qualifying round, to the starting line, and then to the finish. There's no shame on rounding out their history like that. Good on them. Long live NSS.

2021 New Year Ekiden

65th Corporate Men's National Championships
Maebashi, Gunma, 01 Jan. 2021
36 teams, 7 stages, 100.0 km
complete results

Top Team Results
1. Fujitsu - 4:48:52
2. Toyota - 4:49:55
3. Asahi Kasei - 4:50:32
4. Hitachi Butsuryu - 4:52:33
5. Honda - 4:52:38
6. Mitsubishi Juko - 4:52:45
7. JR Higashi Nihon - 4:53:54
8. Yakult - 4:54:55
----- eight-deep podium
9. GMO - 4:54:58
10. SGH Group - 4:55:05
11. Toyota Kyushu - 4:55:10
12. Osaka Gas - 4:55:16

Top Individual Stage Results
First Stage (12.3 km)
1. Hiroki Matsueda (Fujitsu) - 35:28
2. Keijiro Mogi (Asahi Kasei) - 35:29
3. Hideyuki Tanaka (Toyota) - 35:30

Second Stage (8.3 km)
1. Bernard Koech (Kyudenko) - 21:53 - CR
2. Stanley Waithaka (Yakult) - 21:54 (CR tie)
3. Richard Kimunyan (Hitachi Butsuryu) - 22:03

Third Stage (13.6 km)
1. Kazuki Tamura (Sumitomo Denko) - 37:39 - CR tie
2. Shuho Dairokuno (Asahi Kasei) - 37:45
3. Kiyoshi Koga (Yasukawa Denki) - 37:52

Fourth Stage (22.4 km)
1. Yuki Sato (SGH Group) - 1:04:00
2. Hiroto Inoue (Mitsubishi Juko) - 1:04:14
2. Shogo Nakamura (Fujitsu) - 1:04:14

Fifth Stage (15.8 km)
1. Yuma Hattori (Toyota) - 46:23
2. Ryoma Aoki (Honda) - 46:24
3. Kazuya Shiojiri (Fujitsu) - 46:38

Sixth Stage (12.1 km)
1. Kengo Suzuki (Fujitsu) - 35:33
2. Yuto Aoki (Toyota) - 35:36
3. Chihiro Ono (Asahi Kasei) - 35:37

Seventh Stage (15.5 km)
1. Yuhei Urano (Fujitsu) - 46:35
2. Shota Hattori (Hitachi Butsuryu) - 46:42
3. Hidekazu Hijikata (Honda) - 46:48

© 2021 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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TokyoRacer said…
Koech's time averages out to 2:38 per km, 13:12 per 5k.
j said…
Scary thing is that Koech is consistent, he passed 21 guys and ran 21:55 last time, 23 guys and 21:53 this time
Geoff Burns said…
There’s something that just feels right about Yuki Sato putting up a great run. A lovely dose of normalcy to kick off the year.

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