Ladies and gentlemen, Hitomi Niiya is back.
You might remember Hitomi Niiya from the 2013 Moscow World Championships 10000 m, where she led the entire way only to get destroyed over the last lap and finish 5th in 30:56.70. That made her the third-fastest Japanese woman ever over that distance, but not long after that race she quit the sport entirely, getting an office job as far away from athletics as she could and not running for almost five years.
But the pull of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is strong, and, now 30, early this year she made the decision to try to make a comeback. Under the eye of former men's 800 m national record holder Masato Yokota she ran a 3000 m and two 5000 m time trials on the track between April and October before choosing the East Japan Women's Ekiden for her return to the roads and the longer distances.
The East Japan Women's Ekiden celebrated its 34th running Sunday, 9 stages totaling 42.195 km through the Fukushima countryside with teams from each of the 18 prefectures in the eastern half of Japan. The first half of the race saw Shizuoka and Nagano trading stage wins with Nagano mostly maintaining the lead and Chiba in the mix. Running anchor for Tokyo, pre-race Niiya had said that as long as she was within two minutes of the leader she could make it up over the 10 km anchor stage. By the end of the Fifth Stage Tokyo was 1:54 behind.
The team's chances looked iffy at best, but over the next three stages Tokyo scored two stage wins to cut the deficit down to 1:35 by the time Niiya took the tasuki. Her competition ahead included 2:23 marathoner Mao Kiyota and two-time National University Women's Ekiden champion Meijo University's Kanna Tamaki, but Niiya was relentless in cutting them all down. 2:55 for the first km. 15:22 at halfway, already just 34 seconds behind leader Tamaki by then. The announcers on the TV broadcast were giddy. You could hear it in their voices.
Past Tamaki into the lead at 8 km. Breaking the tape in 2:18:44, 23 seconds ahead. Combine that with how far behind she was at the start and she made up 1:58, exactly what she said she was going to do. And there's more. The course record for the anchor stage was 31:11. set in 2000 by the great Yoko Shibui a year and a half before she set the still-standing track 10000 m Japanese national record. Niiya ran 31:08. Just over a year and a half before Tokyo 2020. "People say that this race is where the next generation learns to fly," she said afterward. "I'm someone who already folded my wings and put them away once, but I want to try to spread them one more time."
34th East Japan Women's EkidenFukushima, 11/11/18
18 teams, 9 stages, 42.195 km
Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage (6.0 km) - Maho Shimizu (Shizuoka) - 19:19
Second Stage (4.0 km) - Narumi Kobayashi (Nagano) - 13:09
Third Stage (3.0 km) - Izumi Takamatsu (Nagano) - 10:03
Fourth Stage (3.0 km) - Nanaka Yonezawa (Shizuoka) - 9:33
Fifth Stage (5.0875 km) -Yuna Wada (Nagano) - 16:38
Sixth Stage (4.1075 km) - Haruko Hosaka (Tokyo) - 13:28
Seventh Stage (4.0 km) - Kayo Aida (Tokyo) - 13:00
Eighth Stage (3.0 km) - Natsumi Yamanaka (Saitama) - 9:12
Ninth Stage (10.0 km) - Hitomi Niiya (Tokyo) - 31:08 - CR
Top Team Performances
1. Tokyo - 2:18:44
2. Nagano - 2:19:07
3. Shizuoka - 2:19:26
4. Chiba - 2:19:58
5. Kanagawa - 2:20:42
6. Gunma - 2:21:11
7. Saitama - 2:21:24
8. Ibaraki - 2:22:06
9. Miyagi - 2:22:18
10. Akita - 2:23:20
© 2018 Brett Larner, all rights reserved