translated and edited by Brett Larner
Last year's runner-up Team Honda took the win at the 49th East Japan Jitsugyodan Ekiden in Saitama Prefecture on Nov. 3, covering the new 7-stage 77.5 km course in 3:44:53. It was Honda's first win in 15 years and its 3rd win in the history of the event. The team, along with other top finishers, qualified for the Jan. 1 All-Japan Jitsugyodan Ekiden Championships, also known as the New Year Ekiden, in Gunma Prefecture.
Team Honda's Ethiopian ace Yakob Jarso, who finished 4th in the Beijing Olympics 3000 m steeplechase in an Ethiopian national record, passed 6 people on the 9.5 km 3rd stage to put Honda into 2nd place. Takashi Horiguchi took the lead on the 4th stage, and after 5th leg runner Seigo Ikegami clocked a stage best performance the team's victory was never in question. Honda had finished 2nd for the last 4 years, leading head coach Kiyoshi Akimoto to put the team through some of its most intense speed training ever in preparation for the current season. The benefits were clear to see, and the team's momentum may well carry it to a national title. "We're going to win All-Japan with the same kind of defiant spirit we had today," commented team captain Suehiro Ishikawa.
Current national champion Team Konica-Minolta made a late surge thanks to rookie Hirokatsu Kurosaki's anchor run but could not close the gap, finishing 8 seconds behind Honda in 2nd place. The team's star runner, Beijing Olympics 5000 m and 10000 m competitor Takayuki Matsumiya, finished a dismal 7th on the 2nd stage, setting a gloomy tone for the rest of the team which never sat higher than 2nd on any stage. Head coach Katsumi Sakai gave a critical evaluation of his team's performance, saying, "[Matsumiya's run] affected everyone after him. It might also be that since we already had a big win [at last year's New Year Ekiden] we were too complacent this time. I think rotating some of the runners who performed poorly today out of the lineup for the New Year Ekiden will give the others more motivation. I expect we'll be in much better shape as a team come All-Japan."
2-time East Japan defending champion Team Nissin Shokuhin led for the first 2 stages thanks to a stellar stage-best performance on the 1st leg by rookie and Senshu Univ. ace Bene Zama and fellow new member Satoru Kitamura, one of the best university runners in Japan while at Nittai Univ., finishing with the 2nd-best time on the highly competitive 2nd stage. In the later stages, however, Nissin fell behind, ending up in 3rd. Nissin Shokuhin head coach Teruoki Shirouzu commented, "The only reason we didn't win was that I didn't use our foreign runners. I wanted to give our young athletes a chance to get a little experience in a professional race before the New Year Ekiden. Zama's stage best and Kitamura's 2nd place mark were all I could have hoped for. We've got the New Year Ekiden win in hand."
On the ace 2nd stage, former marathon national record holder Atsushi Fujita of Team Fujitsu beat out Kitamura and Team Konica Minolta's Matsumiya to take the stage best time, advancing Fujitsu from the 8th to the 2nd position. "I won it," said Fujita of his stage title, "but more importantly it was the kind of running I can honestly say was really fast." Fujita, who set the former marathon record of 2:06:51 in 2000, is training for next March's Tokyo Marathon where he hopes to make the national team for the Berlin World Championships. A graduate of Hakone Ekiden titan Komazawa Univ., Fujita has been doing the majority of his training with the Komazawa team since 2004. This past spring, however, he stopped training with Komazawa and returned to Team Fujitsu's practices. "It seemed like there was some distance between me and the students," he explained. "These days I feel more team-oriented, and I find enjoyment in training hard together." Team Fujitsu ultimately ended in 5th position.
Further down the field, Team Tokyo Denryoku finished 13th to qualify for its first national championship ekiden. For the first 3 stages the team sat in the final qualifying position, 14th, but on the 4th stage it advanced to 13th and held its ground for the rest of the ekiden. Marathon legend Hiromi Taniguchi, who became Tokyo Denryoku's head coach this past spring, had mixed feelings on the team's performance. "Our finishing position an improvement over last time, but I think everyone could have tried harder," he told reporters. "Next time I hope to build on this result."
2008 East Japan Jitsugyodan Ekiden Championships - Results
Top Team Performances
1. Team Honda: 3:44:53
2. Team Konica Minolta: 3:45:01
3. Team Nissin Shokuhin: 3:46:10
4. Team Kanebo: 3:47:19
5. Team Fujitsu: 3:47:30
6. Team Yakult: 3:47:51
7. Team JAL Ground Service: 3:48:08
8. Team Komori Corp.: 3:48:32
9. Team Hitachi Cable: 3:49:50
10. Team JR Higashi Nihon: 3:50:02
11. Team Subaru: 3:51:14
12. Team Nissan Jidosha: 3:53:12
13. Team Tokyo Denryoku: 3:53:32
14. Self-Defense Forces Sports Academy: 3:55:47
The 15-26th place teams did not qualify for the All-Japan Jitsugyodan Ekiden Championships.
Stage Best Performances
1st stage (11.6 km) - Bene Zama (Team Nissin Shokuhin): 33:52
2nd stage (15.1 km) - Atsushi Fujita (Team Fujitsu): 43:28
3rd stage (9.5 km) - Josephat Ndambili (Team Komori Corp.): 25:46
4th stage (9.8 km) - Takashi Ota (Team Konica Minolta): 28:27
5th stage (7.4 km) - Seigo Ikegami (Team Honda): 21:25
6th stage (10.6 km) - Kazuyuki Maeda (Team Konica Minolta): 30:22
7th stage (13.5 km) - Kosaka Hoshina (Team Nissin Shokuhin): 39:22