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Aoyama Gakuin Runs Down Tokai to Win National Unviersity Men's Ekiden

Favorites Aoyama Gakuin University and Tokai University made it a two-team race at the 50th edition of the National University Men's Ekiden in Sunday in Nagoya, with Tokai breaking away in the early going only to be run down near the race's end.

With a new course configuration that shortened the early stages and lengthened the seventh of its eight stages, Nationals this year put an emphasis on 10000 m speed early and half marathon stamina late. AGU's Hakone downhill specialist Yuji Onoda looked like he was going to set the example for his team with a hard surge 8 km into the 9.5 km First Stage, but he and the other Hakone Ekiden stars from the Kanto Region got a surprise when Yuki Ishii of the Kansai Region's Kwansei Gakuin University dropped them all to hand off in 1st.

Teikyo University was unexpectedly next at the exchange 3 seconds back, with AGU a step behind and Tokai another 2 seconds back. Other pre-race favorites Komazawa University and Toyo University got off to rockier starts, Komazawa in 7th 9 seconds back from Tokai and Toyo another 4 seconds behind in 10th. Tokai's Hayato Seki quickly moved the team into 1st, with AGU holding steady in 3rd, Komazawa in 4th and Teikyo dropping to 5th. Toyo fell even further to 14th when second-year Kazuya Nishiyama faltered. Again the stage best went to someone totally outside expectations, with Josai University third-year Tomoya Ogikubo outrunning Seki and all the other favorites.

Indoor mile national record holder and two-time 1500 m national champion Ryoji Tatezawa delivered Tokai's best run of the day on the 11.9 km Third Stage, winning it on time and extending Tokai's lead over AGU to 37 seconds. And that was as far as Tokai got. AGU's next three runners Takato Suzuki, Yuya Yoshida and Keita Yoshida all shaved precious seconds off Tokai's margin, with Keita handing off to seventh man Homare Morita just 11 seconds behind.

Morita caught up to Tokai captain Haruki Minatoya 3 km into the 17.6 km stage and spent the next few km catching his breath and preparing to go. When he did he opened nearly 20 seconds on Minatoya in the space of a kilometer, and that was pretty much that. By the end of the stage he was ahead by 1:58, which anchor Ryuya Kajitani stretched out to 2:20 by race's end. AGU took the national title in 5:13:11, averaging just under 2:56/km for the entire 106.8 km course. One of only four schools to ever win the Izumo, National and Hakone ekidens in one season, with the Izumo title already under its belt this season AGU is now one step away from becoming the first school ever to take the triple crown twice.

Tokai stayed steady even as it slipped further behind, but it came within 10 seconds of losing that position after Toyo's final two runners Shuji Yamamoto and Akira Aizawa made up the ground in a hurry. Yamamoto, younger brother of 2:08:48 marathoner Kenji Yamamoto, passed Teikyo to put Toyo into 3rd 1:09 behind Tokai. Aizawa won the 19.7 km anchor stage on time in 58:23 and came within 10 seconds of Tokai anchor Shun Yuzawa but couldn't close the gap before Yuzawa kicked away in the final kilometers.

Tokai and Toyo took 2nd and 3rd in 5:15:31 and 5:15:57, well out of reach of AGU. Hakone Ekiden Qualifier winner Komazawa seemed to still be showing signs of fatigue from its incredible performance there, running down Teikyo on the anchor stage to take 4th in 5:17:29. Dark horse Teikyo, whose best-ever previous team performance at Nationals was 8th, ended the day 5th in 5:18:34.

The National University Ekiden features an eight-deep podium, the top eight teams all scoring places at the following year's championships with 9th and lower having to re-qualify. Heading into the 19.7 km anchor stage just two minutes separated the 6th through 12th-place teams, more than enough room for the unexpected. 6th-place Koku Gakuin University passed the test safely, hanging on to 6th to finish on the podium for the first time. Behind them Hosei University quickly caught up to 7th-place Meiji University, while further back a chase trio made up of Nittai University, Kanagawa University and Josai University formed.

Hosei anchor Kazuma Ohata dropped Meiji's Daisuke Sasaki to put Hosei safely into 7th. Sasaki looked safe for 8th, but behind him Josai anchor Genki Kaneko had other ideas. Dropping Nittai and Kanagawa, Kaneko passed Sasaki with 500 m to go, putting Josai onto the podium for the first time and knocking Sasaki and Meiji back to the qualifier for next year by a margin of just 8 seconds. With 15 Kanto Region teams in the field, 10 from other regions and 2 select teams, Kanto teams took the top 15 spots. Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University was the first non-Kanto team at 16th overall, with the Nihon Select Team next at 17th.

Tokai, Toyo and Komazawa will have their work cut out for them to stop AGU from winning Hakone for the fifth year in a row. It'll take a flawless team performance for them to do it. On paper Tokai, which boasts 16 men with sub-14 bests for 5000 m, 9 with sub-29 PBs for 10000 m and 5 sub-1:03 for the half marathon, is a superior team to AGU, but head coach Hayashi Morozumi has yet to perfect translating that kind of mass production of quality into success in the big races the way that AGU's Susumu Hara has it down to a science. Toyo coach Toshiyuki Sakai is at least Hara's equal in bringing out his team's best, beating AGU on the first day of Hakone last year, but lacks the depth to do it over a larger number of stages. Based on its performance last month Komazawa could be the strongest contender to put a stop to AGU's streak if old school coach Hiroaki Oyagi can deliver the same kind of scintillation he did at the Hakone Ekiden Qualifier.

50th National University Men's Ekiden

Nagoya-Mie, 11/4/18
27 teams, 8 stages, 106.8 km
complete results

Top Individual Stage Results
First Stage (9.5 km) - Yuki Ishii (Nihon Select Team) - 27:25
Second Stage (11.1 km) - Tomoya Ogikubo (Josai Univ.) - 32:08
Third Stage (11.9 km) - Ryoji Tatezawa (Tokai Univ.) - 34:09
Fourth Stage (11.8 km) - Kazuya Shiojiri (Juntendo Univ.) - 33:48
Fifth Stage (12.4 km) - Yuya Yoshida (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 36:23
Sixth Stage (12.8 km) - Keita Yoshida (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 37:29
Seventh Stage (17.6 km) - Patrick Mathenge Wambui (Nihon Univ.) - 50:21
Eighth Stage (19.7 km) - Akira Aizawa (Toyo Univ) - 58:23

Top Team Results - top 8 seeded for 2019
1. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:13:11
2. Tokai University - 5:15:31
3. Toyo University - 5:15:57
4. Komazawa University - 5:17:29
5. Teikyo University - 5:18:34
6. Koku Gakuin University - 5:19:50
7. Hosei University - 5:20:21
8. Josai University - 5:20:29
9. Meiji University - 5:20:37
10. Kanagawa University - 5:21:06
11. Nihon University - 5:21:08
12. Nittai University - 5:21:39
13. Juntendo University - 5:22:14
14. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:22:18
15. Waseda University - 5:23:21
16. Ritsumeikan University - 5:24:46
17. Nihon Select Team - 5:26:50

© 2018 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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