It feels good to type that headline. Canceled in 2020 amid the pandemic, the Izumo Ekiden is back to kick off university men's ekiden season this Sunday. Fuji TV will broadcast the race live starting at 12:00 noon local time, with English live tweeting @JRNLive.
Short and fast by Japanese standards, Izumo has 18 university teams from across Japan and 2 regional select teams facing off over 6 stages averaging 7.5 km apiece. That skews the necessary skill set closer to 5000 m than the half marathon distance critical at November's National University Ekiden and January's Hakone Ekiden, and with few half marathon racing opportunities over the last year and a half it's immediately noticeable when you look at the entry lists how much coaches have been focusing on the track instead of the road. Taken together than could mean a very fast race this year.
10 teams in the field are from the Tokyo-area Kanto Region, home of Hakone. 9 of those have top 6 averages under 14 minutes for 5000 m and under 29 minutes for 10000 m, and the only team that doesn't, Toyo University, just misses with averages of 13:51.95 and 29:01.07. Last time around in 2019 only 4 teams did. 2021 Hakone champ Komazawa University is the undisputed heavyweight, with top 6 averages of 13:39.07 and 28:09.43, and in a break from the norm Komazawa, along with a lot of the other schools, doesn't even have 6 men among its 10 entries who have official half marathon times to their names. Shoe tech is part of the high average level, but it's also a partial answer to the question of what would happen if the Japanese men's university system changed its main focus from the half to the 1500 m to 5000 m range like the U.S.A.'s NCAA.
Despite shaken morale after the arrest of Hakone anchor Takuma Ishikawa earlier this season, Komazawa is the favorite, led by 3rd-year Ren Tazawa and 2nd-year power duo Mebuki Suzuki and Takumi Karasawa. It's a young team, with only one 4th-year, Kohei Tsukuda, making the entry roster.
Waseda University, Japan's University of Oregon, is Komazawa's strongest rival, with 3 men, 4th-years Yuhi Nakaya and Naoya Ota and 3rd-year Ryuto Ikawa, all having broken 28 minutes for 10000 m and 2 more, 4th-year Ryunosuke Chigira and 1st-year Taishi Ito, under 13:40 for 5000 m. Right there with Waseda is last year's Hakone Ekiden Qualifier winner Juntendo University, led by 3000 mSC national record holder and Olympic 7th-placer Ryuji Miura. But both teams will need to make up a deficit of over 10 seconds per runner in ability to catch Komazawa.
In the next tier are 2019 Izumo winner Koku Gakuin University, 2018 winner Aoyama Gakuin University, the ascendant Tokyo Kokusai University, and 2017 winner Tokai University. KGU, whose 2019 anchor Hidekazu Hijikata went on to run 2:06:26 at Lake Biwa earlier this year, is Waseda's equal over 10000 m, but with weaker 5000 m credentials it may struggle on the shorter stages. AGU always performs better than its credentials on paper would suggest, so expect it to take a serious shot at winning and to be in it for at least top 3. TKU is heavily dependent on 2021 Hakone MVP Vincent Yegon, who has confidently predicted he can make up over 2 minutes on the 10.2 km anchor stage. Tokai is missing star 2nd-year Shotaro Ishihara, enough to knock it out of serious contention for the win but still with enough quality people to give it a chance at top 3.
Rounding out the top 10 are Teikyo University, Toyo, and Hakone runner-up Soka University. Like AGU, all 3 tend to perform better in the big ekidens than they look on paper. Toyo in particular this time has some buzz around it, with former 5000 m high school national record holder Kosuke Ishida set to make his collegiate debut just a week after losing his record.
The black hole of Japanese collegiate men's long distance, Hakone tends to pull almost all the high school talent to the greater Tokyo area for university. That means that any time a program from another part of the country beats even one of the Kanto Region schools at Izumo or Nationals it's news. It hardly ever happens, and this time Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University looks to have the best chance among the 12 non-Kanto schools. But with a 24-second deficit per runner behind Soka on paper it would take a perfect day from Ritsumeikan and/or a blowup from one of the Kanto teams for Ritsumeikan to make the top 10. In its favor is the absence of the American Ivy League Select Team, sitting Izumo out for the second year in a row due to Japan's rigid pandemic-era immigration restrictions.
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