Championship ekiden week is here, four days of road relay action spread across five days from Dec. 30 to Jan. 3, all broadcast live to millions of fans across the nation.
Last year Nagoya's Meijo University beat five-time champ Ritsumeikan University to win the Mount Fuji Women's Ekiden, the National University Women's Ekiden Championships invitational, in course record time. This season Meijo looked pretty well unbeatable at the mid-season Morinomiyako Ekiden, beating runner-up Daito Bunka University by over two and a half minutes and Ritsumeikan by more than three over Morinomiyako's six-stage, 38.1 km course. Mount Fuji's is more demanding, seven hilly stages totaling 43.4 km through the foothills of Mount Fuji. Last year Meijo, Daito Bunka and Ritsumeikan finished within two and a half minutes of each other, and with Meijo looking even better this season it'll be hard for either of its main rival teams, or any others, to close that gap up. Watch the Mount Fuji Women's Ekiden on Fuji TV from 9:50 a.m. to 12:40 p.m. on Dec. 30, Japan time.
After a break for New Year's Eve the action resumes at the New Year Ekiden, the National Corporate Men's Ekiden Championships. Asahi Kasei comes to the New Year Ekiden in the midst of a threepeat, and with its pride smarting from having failed to qualify even a single runner for September's MGC Race 2020 Olympic marathon trials it'll be extra-motivated to with a fourth-straight national title. No team has pulled that off since Asahi Kasei won it six times in a row from 1990 to 1995, around the time most of its current lineup was born.
3rd last year, Japan's #1 marathon program Toyota was the last team to win before Asahi Kasei's current dynasty. It looks like the main contender to stop the Asahi Kasei streak this time around, its A and B teams taking 1st and 3rd at the Chubu region qualifier ekiden in November and giving it more than enough depth to tackle the New Year Ekiden's seven-stage, 100 km course. Last year's runner-up MHPS was a distant 5th behind Asahi Kasei at the Kyushu region qualifier, with last year's 4th-place Fujitsu failing to make the cut this year at the East Japan region qualifier. 5th last year, Konica Minolta broke the East Japan course record and could also be a threat at the national level. Likewise for the Mazda team, 7th last year but breaking the Chugoku region qualifier course record in November. A potential dark horse in its New Year Ekiden debut is East Japan's GMO, packed with members of the Aoyama Gakuin University that won four-straght Hakone Ekiden titles.
Watch the New Year Ekiden and pre-race show on TBS from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 1. Another live streaming option is here. JRN associate editor Mika Tokairin will be with the Konica Minolta team throughout the day to cover the race from the inside, with live coverage in English also on JRNLive.
And then it's time for the king of them all, celebrating its 100th anniversary in the year the Olympics return to Japan, the world's biggest and best road race, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden. Due to the war it's not Hakone's 100th running, but it's a special year for a special race all the same. Tokai University is the clear favorite, following up its first-ever Hakone title last year with a win at November's National University Ekiden Championships without using a number of its key players. No other school can touch Tokai's depth of quality, and with ten stages of about a half marathon apiece over the course of two days to work with it's mostly a question of Tokai holding it together.
The previous Hakone champ, four-time winner Aoyama Gakuin University is down on strength this year, underperforming at Nationals and the season-opening Izumo Ekiden. At the same time it unloaded a crate of new 10000 m PBs at the Kanto Region Time Trials meet at the end of November, suggesting it is ready to peak for Hakone and its longer distances. Komazawa University has the makings of a great team and could be a danger if either Tokai or AGU get into trouble. If not, look for it to step up over the next two years.
That's about it for real contenders over the second day of Hakone, but this is a rare year where the first day looks really unpredictable. Along with the three favorites, last year's Day One winner Toyo University, Izumo winner Koku Gakuin University, last year's 5th-placer Teikyo University and one or two other teams have a shot at taking the Day One trophy. In KGU it's explicitly saying that is its goal this time. Throw in surprise Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifier winner Tokyo Kokusai University and it should be the most action-packed first day at Hakone in years.
The Hakone Ekiden broadcast, the best in the sport, is on NTV from 7:00 a.m. to 2:05 p.m. on Jan. 2 and is back the next day from 7:00 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. Another temporary option is on Youtube here. The NTV Hakone site will also streaming and cameras at exchange zones but might only be viewable in Japan. JRNLive will cover both days in their entirety, as always. Here's to the best days of the year coming just over the horizon.
© 2019 Brett Larner, all rights reserved