Two weeks after her public coming out as Japan's next big hope, 18-year-old Seira Fuwa anchored the Gunma team to a come-from-behind win at the East Japan Women's Ekiden. A smaller version of January's National Women's Ekiden with teams representing the 18 prefectures in northeastern Japan, each team made up of the best junior high school, high school, collegiate, club team and corporate league runners from that prefecture, East Japan returned this year after the first cancelation in its 36-year history last year. Two weeks ago Fuwa, a first-year at Tokyo's Takushoku University, set an incredible 28:00 course record for her 9.2 km stage at the National University Women's Ekiden. With her name on the list for the 10.0 km anchor stage at East Japan the entire race was about other teams trying to get as far ahead of Gunma as possible before the last of the marathon-length race's nine stages.
Gunma didn't make it easy for them. Its leading runner Harumi Okamoto ran an 18:44 stage record for the 6.0 km First Stage to give Gunma a 15-second lead right off the bat. It held that through the Fifth Stage, when it fell to 3rd behind 2019 winner Chiba and Miyagi, then to 4th on the Seventh Stage behind Nagano. At that point Gunma was 40 seconds behind leader Chiba. Anything more and Fuwa's chances of catching 1st would be diminished unless she got close to the 30:52 stage record.
Gunma's eighth runner Sana Koizumi had just what they needed, winning her 3.0 km JHS-only stage in 9:27 and cutting the team's deficit down to 38 seconds. Fuwa closed that up at exactly 5 km into the 10.0 km anchor stage, the longest distance she has ever raced so far, then seemed to back off a bit. Behind her, Nagano's Yuna Wada, winner of the Third Stage at the National University Women's Ekiden, moved up to 2nd and started to close the gap to Fuwa. But when Wada got within 5 seconds Fuwa changed gears and hammered the final kilometers to being Gunma home to the win by 23 seconds in 2:17:10.
Fuwa's time for the 10.0 km stage was 31:29, the third-fastest ever behind only the current and previous track 10,000 m national record holders. Wada, a 4th-year at national champion Meijo University, ran an impressive 31:40, making them only the fourth and fifth women ever to break 32 minutes on the stage. Wada has been working her way up the ladder through her high school and college careers and should be one of the leaders of the next corporate league generation after her graduation next spring, but let's hope that Fuwa backs off a bit on the double digit distances until she has a bit more development in her.
2019 winner Chiba was 3rd in 2:18:19, 37 seconds faster than its previous winning time but over a minute behind Gunma. Miyagi and hosts Fukushima both cleared 2:20 for 4th and 5th, with 2018 winner Tokyo only 6th after struggling to recover from a weak opening leg from marathoner Shiho Kaneshige.
36th East Japan Women's Ekiden
Fukushima, 14 Nov. 2021
18 teams, 9 stages, 42.195 km
Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage (6.0 km) - Harumi Okamoto (Gunma) - 18:44 - CR
Second Stage (4.0 km) - Haruko Hosaka (Tokyo) - 12:57
Third Stage (3.0 km) - Kanoko Nawa (Nagano) - 9:59
Fourth Stage (3.0 km) - Sayo Imanishi (Chiba) - 9:27
Fifth Stage (5.0875 km) - Nanaka Yonezawa (Miyagi) - 16:09
Sixth Stage (4.1075 km) - Minami Ito (Kanagawa) - 13:23
Seventh Stage (4.0 km) - Yuka Sato (Nagano) - 13:17
Eighth Stage (3.0 km) - Sana Koizumi (Gunma) - 9:27
Ninth Stage (10.0 km) - Seira Fuwa (Gunma) - 31:29
Top Team Performances
1. Gunma - 2:17:10
2. Nagano - 2:17:33
3. Chiba - 2:18:19
4. Miyagi - 2:19:32
5. Fukushima - 2:19:34
6. Tokyo - 2:20:01
7. Tochigi - 2:20:19
8. Kanagawa - 2:20:39
9. Shizuoka - 2:21:55
10. Hokkaido - 2:22:10
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