Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Watch the New Year Ekiden Live Online

International viewers should be able to watch the Jan. 1 New Year Ekiden live online through this site. The race broadcast begins at 8:30 a.m. Japan time on TBS. Happy new year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2009 Osaka International Women's Marathon Elite Field Announced

by Brett Larner

The Osaka International Women’s Marathon has released the list of elite entrants for its 2009 running on Jan. 25, a competition which doubles as the second selection race for the Japanese national team at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. At the top of the field are former Japanese national record holder Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) and Ethiopian Worknesh Tola, both of whom clocked 2:25 times in their best marathons of 2008. While Tola’s time came in a 2nd-place finish at the Paris Marathon in April, Shibui’s came in a 4th-place meltdown after she attempted to run under 2:20 at November’s final Tokyo International Women’s Marathon.

Aside from a potential challenge from two-time World Championships marathoner Yumiko Hara (Team Kyocera), Osaka would likely end up a match race between Shibui and Tola were it not for the presence of marathon debutantes Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren) and Peninah Arusei (Kenya). Both women ran low-1:08 half marathons in 2008, making a sub-2:23 debut entirely realistic. Barring another spectacular crash from Shibui, such a time will be necessary for Akaba to have a shot at winning or even simply taking the top Japanese position to secura a spot on the Berlin team. Yoshio Koide-coached Akane Wakita, a member of the 2007 World Championships 10000 m team, will also make her marathon debut but is less likely to figure into the front pack.

A solid pack of women in the 2:23-2:28 range fill out the Osaka field, including veteran Lidia Simon (Romania) and aging domestic stars Hiromi Ominami (Team Toyota Shatai) and Mari Ozaki (Team Noritz). Of the women at this level, Team Juhachi Ginko’s Madoka Ogi is best poised for potential improvement. Ogi debuted at the 2008 Osaka in 2:26:55, and with improved self-confidence and experience either could pull off a surprise victory in the style of Tokyo International Women’s Marathon winner Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei), who won in 2:23:30 after debuting in 2:26:19. March’s Nagoya International Women’s Marathon. Shibui’s teammate Miki Ohira would be another contender for a breakthrough were it not for her evident lack of fitness at the National Jitsugyodan Women’s Ekiden earlier in December.

For a complete listing of the 2009 Osaka International Women’s Marathon field, please click here.

2009 Osaka International Women’s Marathon Elite Field
Worknesh Tola (Ethiopia) - SB: 2:25:37 (Paris '08); PB: 2:25:37 (Paris '08)
Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) – SB: 2:25:51 (Tokyo Int’l ’08); PB: 2:19:41 (Berlin ’04)
Miki Ohira (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) – SB: 2:26:09 (Osaka ’08); PB: 2:26:09 (Osaka ’08)
Madoka Ogi (Team Juhachi Ginko) – SB: 2:26:55 (Osaka ’08); PB: 2:26:55 (Osaka ’08)
Yumiko Hara (Team Kyocera) - SB: 2:27:14 (Nagoya '08); PB: 2:23:48 (Osaka '07)
Lidia Simon (Romania) - SB: 2:27:17 (Osaka '08); PB: 2:22:54 (Osaka '00)
Mika Okunaga (Team Kyudenko) – SB: 2:27:52 (Osaka ’08); PB: 2:27:52 (Osaka ’08)
Aki Fujikawa (Team Shiseido) – SB: 2:28:06 (Osaka '08); PB: 2:27:06 (Nagoya ’04)
Gulnara Vygovskaya (Russia) – SB: 2:30:03 (Berlin '08); PB: 2:28:22 (Paris ’07)
Kaori Yoshida (Second Wind AC) – SB: 2:30:58 (Nagoya ’08): PB: 2:30:58 (Nagoya ’08)
Dulce Maria Rodriguez (Mexico) - SB: 2:33:23 (Torreon '08); PB: 2:28:54 (Chicago '06)
Akemi Ozaki (Second Wind AC) - SB: 2:39:25 (Izumisano '08); PB: 2:28:39 (Tokyo Int'l '07)
Mari Ozaki (Team Noritz) - SB: 2:24:39 (Osaka '07); PB: 2:23:30 (Osaka '03)
Hiromi Ominami (Team Toyota Shatai) – SB: 2:26:37 (Rotterdam '07); PB: 2:23:26 (Berlin ’04)
Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren) – debut; half-marathon PB: 1:08:11 (Jitsugyodan ’08)
Peninah Arusei (Kenya) – debut; half-marathon PB: 1:08:20 (New Delhi ’08)
Akane Wakita (Team Toyota Jidoshoki) – debut; half-marathon PB: 1:09:57 (Kobe ’08)

© 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Saturday, December 27, 2008

2009 Hakone Ekiden Preview - updated with video

by Brett Larner

Click here for video highlights of Day One and Day Two of the 2008 Hakone Ekiden.

Less than a week remains until the 85th Hakone Ekiden, a 2-day championship relay race on Jan. 2-3, 2009 between the top university men's teams in the Tokyo-centric Kanto region of Japan. Last year Japan Running News published a detailed history of the Hakone Ekiden. To summarize, Hakone is the most popular and thrilling race of the year. It's hard to imagine that a regional university men's distance running championship could attract mass popularity, but in Japan Hakone has at the very least the stature of the Super Bowl or World Series among the general public. Tens of millions watch both on TV and along the course, which consists of 10 stages of about half marathon distance each stretching from downtown Tokyo to the mountaintop resort of Hakone and back. 19 school teams and a select team made of ace runners from universities which failed to qualify usually take part, but this year in commemoration of the event's 85th running organizers have allowed an extra 3 teams to be included. Following is a preview of some of the teams and runners worth watching for this year.

The Contenders

Komazawa University
Click here for video profiles of Komazawa's captain Soji Ikeda (4th yr.) and Tsuyoshi Ugachi (3rd yr.).

There is no doubt that defending champion Komazawa University will win again. Komazawa head coach Hiroaki Oyagi is completely focused upon Hakone and has led the school to victory 6 times in the last 9 years. His strategy is simple. Oyagi does not develop star runners, but raises a large stable of extremely tough guys who can attack when they are tired. He has the numbers to not have to rely upon the abilities of only 1 or 2 exceptional athletes, a crucial element of success in always-unpredictable Hakone. This year for the first time he also has real speed on his team.

6 Komazawa runners, 5 of them 3rd-years, have run 5000 m times under 14 minutes this year. With this combination of speed, depth, and a legacy of victory it would take either a disaster or a truly epic performance by one of the 2 or 3 teams remotely approaching Komazawa's abilities for the school to go down. Its 3rd-straight National University Ekiden title in November shows that Komazawa is ready to go.

Waseda University and Kensuke Takezawa (4th yr.)
Click here for video profiles of Waseda's Kensuke Takezawa (4th yr.), Sota Kato (3rd yr.) and Yuki Yagi (1st yr.).

Waseda is one of the all-time Hakone greats, with 12 victories in the ekiden's history and many of the nation's greatest marathoners, including Toshihiko Seko and Atsushi Sato, gracing its halls. Waseda fell on hard times in the 90's but has recovered in the last few years thanks to the combination of new head coach and former Waseda great Yasuyuki Watanabe and 4th-year Kensuke Takezawa.

Takezawa, along with Tokai University's Yuki Sato, profiled below, has the potential to become Japan's best distance runner ever if he can overcome the injuries which have destroyed most of his 2008 season. Last year he ran 27:45.59 for 10000 m and 13:19.00 for 5000 m, the latter putting him into the all-time Japanese top 3. This year Takezawa comes to Hakone as the first Japanese university student Olympian to run the ekiden in the modern era after having run the 5000 m and 10000 m in Beijing, but since Beijing he has suffered stress fractures and Achilles problems which hampered his performances in the Izumo and National University ekidens.

Waseda finished 2nd behind Komazawa at November's Nationals thanks both to a gutsy run from Takezawa despite his stress fractures and to breakthrough performances by two of its crop of star 1st-year recruits, Yuki Yagi and Yusuke Mita. Waseda pulled off a coup this year, recruiting the national top 4 graduating men from the 2008 high school class, but until November none of the new recruits had performed up to potential. At Nationals Yagi and Mita finally made the transition to university running's longer distances, placing highly on their stages. To defeat Komazawa they will need comparable performances and a fully-operational Takezawa, but the chances of all of this coming together look very slim. Waseda will likely be battling for 2nd.

Yamanashi Gakuin University and Mekubo Mogusu (4th yr.)
Click here for a video profile of Yamanashi Gakuin's Mekubo Mogusu (4th yr.).

Yamanashi Gakuin is one of 2 schools which rely heavily upon the presence of Kenyan 'exchange students.' For the past 3 years the school has been virtually propped up by the exceptional Mekubo Mogusu. Mogusu, who went to high school in Japan and gave up going straight to the professional level in order to have the chance to run Hakone, ran sub-hour half marathons by himself 3 times in 2007 before setting the coveted stage record on Hakone's 2nd leg. He has had a very mixed year since, performing poorly in his international debuts at the Ras Al Kaimah Half Marathon and World Half Marathon, and losing both the National University Track and Field Championships 5000 m and 10000 m to Nihon University's Daniel Gitau, but lowering his 10000 m PB to 27:27.64, winning the Sapporo International Half Marathon for the 2nd straight year, and defeating Gitau to set a new stage record on the 14.0 km 4th leg of November's National University Ekiden. Having realized his dream with the 2nd stage record at the 2008 Hakone the only pressure on him this year is to lead the team to a performance at least on a par with its 3rd-place finish at Nationals.

Since Hakone's rules prohibit a single team from fielding more than one foreign runner, standing in should Mogusu be unable to run will be Kenyan 1st-year Cosmas Ondiba. Ondiba is still in development but has run well in track meets and ekidens throughout the year. His biggest test came on the 19.7 km anchor leg of the National University Ekiden, where he ran a stage-best 58:33 and brought Yamanashi Gakuin home in 3rd place only 53 seconds behind Waseda. With Mogusu running a longer stage in Hakone than at Nationals, Yamanashi Gakuin will be in an excellent position to bridge the gap to 2nd, and, if he or Ondiba deliver something truly special, to Komazawa.

Nihon University and Daniel Gitau (3rd yr.)
Nihon is another of the great legacy schools, like Waseda holding 12 Hakone titles. In the last 5 years it finished in the top 3 an impressive 4 times before sinking to 9th at the 2008 Hakone Ekiden, barely making the seeded top 10 positions. Nihon won October's Izumo Ekiden, the first of the Big Three fall university ekidens, but its victory was due chiefly to a stage-record run by anchor Daniel Gitau who overtook Komazawa's Tsuyoshi Ugachi to take the win. The Izumo Ekiden's stages are relatively short compared to Hakone's, so one strong runner has a larger effect there than in other ekidens. In November's National University Ekiden, in which the stage lengths are closer to Hakone's, Gitau's abilities as a ringer could not make up the larger accumulated deficit created by his Japanese teammates and Nihon finished only 6th. The combination of relative weakness over longer distances and possible early-season peaking means Nihon will have a tough time in Hakone, but it is never wise to count the school out of the top 3.

The Hopefuls

Josai University
Josai was until this year the newest school to make Hakone, first qualifying in 2004 after recruiting former star university and pro ekiden runner Jun Hiratsuka and 1-hour national record holder Seiji Kushibe as its coaching staff. After a slow start the school's performances steadily improved but then stalled, Josai finishing 11th for the last 3 years. The top 10 teams each year are seeded for the following year's Hakone, a mark of prestige which frees up their fall seasons by removing October's Yosenkai 20 km Hakone-qualifying race (click for video) from their schedules. After falling just short 3 times in a row Josai is desperate to break into the top 10 and mark itself as a true distance running power. Josai won the Yosenkai race for the 2nd consecutive year this season led in large part by 3rd-year Yuta Takahashi, but the team's intense training regimen has reportedly resulted in many injuries this year and it may miss the mark again.

Aoyama Gakuin University
Click here for a video profile of Aoyama Gakuin's Yuya Masaki (4th yr.).

Aoyama Gakuin has never been a Hakone power, its best-ever placing only 7th. The school's last appearance was in 1976, well before the birth of any of the current team members. In that running the team's anchor collapsed 150 m from the finish and could not get up, eliminating Aoyama Gakuin from the race. Never since have they qualified.

During the last few years a talented group of runners has come together at Aoyama Gakuin and the school has gotten close to making the last qualifying spot at the Yosenkai several times, each time coming away empty-handed. This time the team just squeezed in, taking the 13th position and qualifying through the grace of the extra 3 positions race organizers added in honor of Hakone's 85th edition. The team's roar of joy and pride when it was announced as a qualifier was the loudest of any at the Yosenkai.

Aoyama Gakuin's trustees held a ceremony to present the team with the tasuki, or sash, from the 1976 Hakone Ekiden, asking them to make sure the new tasuki would reach the finish. Aoyama Gakuin will not be a contender for even the top 10, and in fact anything other than a last-place finish would be a triumph, but the team's pride at having the honor of bringing its school colors back to Hakone is an example of what makes Hakone so captivating.

Jobu University
Click here for a video profile of Jobu's Mao Fukuyama (3rd yr.).

Jobu University is the most fascinating element of this year's Hakone. There is everything to love about them. The team is straight out of every underdog-makes-good American sports movie ever made, and hopefully one will be made about them some day.

5 years ago a small group of runners at Jobu, a school without a running program, were dreaming of somehow making Hakone and decided to try to find a coach. One of them got hold of the email address of Katsuhiko Hanada, a retired former star Waseda runner and 2-time Olympian, and wrote to him, explaining the students' dream and asking him very simply if he would become their coach. Hanada, looking for a way back into the business, sought the advice of his former mentor, legendary marathoner Toshihiko Seko, who told him that if the runners had the passion, the school was willing to support them, and Hanada believed in them, then anything was possible. Hanada accepted, Jobu agreed to fund the team, and together Hanada and the students began building an elite running program from absolute zero.

In its 1st season Jobu fielded a team at the Yosenkai 20 km Hakone qualifier. Only the top 9 teams at the Yosenkai race advance to Hakone, along with a select team made up of top finishers from non-qualifying schools. Jobu was a distant 19th. In its next 2 seasons it progressed steadily, finishing 16th and 13th. Last year the team again finished 13th, but the dreams of the now-graduated founding team members were partially realized when 2nd-year Mao Fukuyama was named to the select team. Running in a Jobu singlet, Fukuyama distinguished himself when he passed 5 runners to finish 3rd on Hakone's most famous stage, the nearly 900 m elevation gain 5th leg.

Fukuyama's performance galvanized the team, and at this year's Yosenkai race Jobu was the class of the field. Running against Josai and powerhouses Nittai, Tokai and Juntendo, it was the first school to land its 10 scoring runners, all of whom covered the 20 km course between 1:01:11 and 1:01:50. Jobu's 11th and 12th men were only seconds behind. Lacking a star runner to bring its aggregate time down Jobu finished 3rd behind Josai and Tokyo Nogyo University, but the overall high level and depth of the team's results brought instant national recognition and comparisons to Komazawa to both Jobu and Hanada. Hanada's coaching methods were strongly validated and Jobu will undoubtedly find itself attracting top high school talent in coming years.

How far can Jobu go at Hakone? In the cornier type of American sports movie the team overcomes all odds and wins. In the slightly less corny movie, they run their best, finish in a decent position back in the middle of the field, and are happy with just having made it to the big leagues. Like Komazawa, Jobu's depth will help it against teams more reliant on individual stars, but realistically the team will probably be battling to make it into the top 10 to be seeded for next year. Even this would be an incredible achievement in only 5 years of existence, but no matter what the result Jobu's 2009 Hakone run is a completely unironic triumph of dreams coming true.

Last Run

Along with Takezawa and Mogusu, 4 other exceptional seniors are making their final appearances at this year's Hakone Ekiden.

Yuki Sato (4th yr., Tokai University)
Click here for a video profile of Sato.

Yuki Sato may become the greatest distance runner Japan has yet produced. A star in high school, his university career has been even more stellar with new stage records in all 3 of his Hakone runs to date, a 10000 m mark of 27:51.65, and a 5000 m mark of 13:23.57. Together with Tokai's Hideaki Date, Sato has propelled Tokai into becoming one of the very best running schools, but this year things have come apart. Following Date's graduation in March, the pair went to California for Stanford University's Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational. Sato began well, situating himself among comfortably among the other 27-minute runners, but he soon dropped back through the field, then out of the race. Since then he has struggled with injury for the first time in his career. He missed the National Track and Field Championships and the Beijing Olympics, where he would have been a teammate of Waseda's Takezawa.

Sato ran well on the anchor leg of October's Izumo Ekiden, but the extend to which Tokai needed both Sato and Date was made clear when it finished 6th. 6 days later Tokai ran the Yosenkai 20 km Hakone qualifier. Sato ran up front as expected but again dropped back, stopping and walking several times before finishing deep down in the field. Tokai was 7th. He was absent from November's National University Ekiden, where Tokai was 12th, suggesting his injuries had returned. At a 10000 m track race in late November he was 5th in only 29:03.54, making his prospects of a 4th stage record or even of a final run worthy of his achievements to date look very slim.

Following graduation Sato will join Tokyo-based Team Nissin Shokuhin, one of the best in the country. Beijing Olympics men's marathon gold medalist and half marathon world record holder Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya said in a recent interview that he is looking forward to Sato's future marathon debut, a superb endorsement of his abilities.

Masato Kihara (4th yr., Chuo Gakuin University)
Click here for a video profile of Kihara.

Masato Kihara has been overshadowed his entire university career in the media's attention to Yuki Sato and Kihara's high school teammate Kensuke Takezawa, but while the 2 stars have had their ups and downs Kihara has reliably worked his way up to the very top of Japanese university men's running.

As an unknown 1st-year at the unknown Chuo Gakuin he destroyed the best that Komazawa, Waseda and the other big schools could offer on his way to winning Hakone's 1st stage. Later in the year he ran a 1:01:50 half marathon, the 2nd-best student mark. Since then he has developed a special relationship as Mekubo Mogusu's Japanese adversary, sparring at every available chance. He attempted to stay with Mogusu during the Kenyan's stage-record run at the 2008 Hakone Ekiden, dropping off but taking the top Japanese position on the highly competitive 2nd stage. At June's Sapporo International Half Marathon Kihara again went with Mogusu, pressuring his rival into running world record pace through 5 km. Kihara dropped back but finished seconds off his PB as top Japanese ahead of national record holder Atsushi Sato and was selected for the national team for October's World Half Marathon in Rio.

Two weeks later Kihara led the National Track and Field Championships 10000 m most of the way, finishing 6th in a PB of 28:06.48 as the only student runner in the top 10. His run in the World Half was a rare failure as he finished 83rd, but soon afterwards he was back in form, running just 1 second off the stage record on the 2nd stage of the National University Ekiden and beating Takezawa's time by 1 second. If he runs up to this potential in his final Hakone then it is unlikely any Japanese runner in the field could beat Kihara. With his efficient, energetic stride Kihara will be a top-class marathoner.

Hiroyuki Ono (4th yr., Juntendo University)
Click here for a video profile of Ono.

Hiroyuki Ono will always be remembered for his junior-year run in the 2008 Hakone Ekiden. The images of him struggling to stand, running again, then falling less than 500 m from the finish are unforgettable. Ono was one of the star members of Juntendo's 2007 Hakone-winning team and the school's chosen replacement for its magical Masato Imai, the undisputed king of the 900 m elevation gain 5th stage who graduated in 2007. Juntendo's 2008 squad was nowhere near the same level as its 2007 team, and by the time Ono took the tasuki on the 5th stage the defending champions were far behind the leaders. The accumulated pressure forced him to attack the dangerous uphill course recklessly as he ran close to Imai's untouchable course record pace. By the time he hit the steep downhill after 20 km he was barely on his feet, and when he reached the relatively flat final kilometer he had literally nothing left.

The run could have ended Ono's career, psychologically if not physically, but he recovered and was soon back to lead Juntendo as the team's captain in his senior year. He had solid performances at May's Kanto Regional University Track and Field Championships, then in June ran a masterful 10000 m at the National University Ekiden qualifying race, clocking a 58-second final lap and just missing catching Nihon's Daniel Gitau by 1 second. Ono has led Juntendo through the fall ekiden season, but despite his best efforts he has not been able to carry the squad, which limped into the 2009 Hakone Ekiden through the good luck of the extra 3 slots this year after finishing 12th at the Yosenkai race. As the team's best runner Ono will likely run either the 2nd or 5th stage, and in his final Hakone appearance he will no doubt seek to leave an image which will erase that from last year's race.

Tomoya Onishi (4th yr., Toyo University)
Like Kihara, Onishi is a compact, efficient runner with a bright future as a marathoner. He has been one of Toyo's top men throughout his career, the only runner to go after Yuki Sato during Sato's stage record run on the 1st leg of the 2007 Hakone Ekiden. This year he has dominated the ekiden circuit, with a 2nd-place finish at June's National University Ekiden qualifying race, a stage 2nd-best on the 3rd leg of the Izumo Ekiden in October, a 1:00:05 victory at the Takashimadaira 20 km road race a week later, and the stage best title on the 1st leg of the National University Ekiden in November. He tied 5000 m national record holder Takayuki Matsumiya's time on the 5th stage of the International Chiba Ekiden, then at the end of November ran 28:54.02 to win a track 10000 m, a mark which surprisingly enough was a new PB.

Onishi's season has been pointing toward an excellent last run in Hakone, but in early December Toyo head coach Shinji Kawashima resigned his position after a member of the school's track team was alleged to have molested a high school girl on a commuter train. The incident and Kawashima's resignation resulted in the temporary cancellation of team practice, leading to doubts about the condition and focus of Onishi and other Toyo athletes coming into the 2009 Hakone Ekiden. With any luck Onishi will still be able to put together the run he has been rehearsing all season.

The New Man in Town

While Yamanashi Gakuin's Cosmas Ondiba and Waseda's Yuki Yagi, Yusuke Mita and other 1st years will garner much attention in their Hakone debuts, one runner stands out as the most important newcomer.

Ryuji Kashiwabara (1st yr., Toyo University)
Click here for a video profile of Kashiwabara.

Kashiwabara was a good but undistinguished high school runner until his very last race, when he ran a 5000 m PB of 14:01 to tie that of national high school champion Yuki Yagi. He has rapidly progressed since then. In January's National Interprefectural Ekiden he surprised all by beating Yagi to win the 1st stage by almost 10 seconds. In May he outkicked 3 of Komazawa's Big Six to finish 3rd in the Kanto Regional University Track and Field Championships 10000 m behind Mekubo Mogusu and Daniel Gitau in a PB of 28:44.42. At June's National University Ekiden qualifying race he frontran from the beginning, beating teammate Onishi to take the win.

In the fall Kashiwabara showed further development as the ekiden season began. At October's Izumo Ekiden he dueled with Kenyans Samuel Ganga and Kibet Kipngeno, taking the lead but ultimately finishing 2nd behind Ganga. At the National University Ekiden he outran Olympian Kensuke Takezawa to tie World Half Marathon team member Masato Kihara 1 second behind the stage record. The sole dark spot on his season was a disappointing run on the 1st stage of the International Chiba Ekiden, but regardless Kashiwabara looks poised for the most impressive Hakone debut since Kihara.

Toyo head coach Shinji Kawashima's resignation holds much more serious implications for the 1st-year Kashiwabara than for the soon-to-graduate Onishi. Kashiwabara is almost certainly the best runner of his generation and will need a talented coach to reach his full potential. Having lost one such coach in Kawashima it can only be hoped that Toyo is able to bring in a replacement who is capable of cultivating an athlete of Kashiwabara's caliber.

Race Broadcast
Click here for a video profile of Meiji University's Kodai Matsumoto (3rd yr.).

The 2009 Hakone Ekiden takes place Jan. 2-3 and will be broadcast live nationwide on NTV. A 1-hour preview program begins each day at 7:00 a.m., with the race beginning at 8:00 a.m. Japan time. Viewers outside Japan should be able to watch the race online through this site. NTV's outstanding race website includes video digests of the 1997-2007 Hakone Ekidens.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

2008 As Seen By JRN Readers

JRN's most-read articles of 2008 by month:

First-time winner Mara Yamauchi takes Osaka in 2:25:10 PB, Kayoko Fukushi 19th in debut.Jan. 27

Last run for Team Toshiba LSI: the Betsudai Marathon. - Feb. 2
Tokyo Marathon 2007 through foreign runners' eyes. - Feb. 4
Arata Fujiwara: an unknown contender for Beijing. - Feb. 19

Koide presecient: Yurika Nakamura wins Nagoya in 2:25:51 debut. - Mar. 9

30 hospitalized after honeybee attack at Saga Sakura Half-Marathon. - Apr. 8

Mekubo Mogusu sets Olympic A-standard 10000 m meet record at Kanto University track and field championships. - May 20

Sapporo International Half-Marathon preview. - June 11

Chisato Fukushima selected as first women's 100 m Olympian in 56 years. - July 6

Mizuki Noguchi considering dropping out of Olympics after hospitalization for fatigue. - Aug. 9
Chunxiu Zhou's Japanese coach Shinya Takeuchi seeks to make personal compensation to China for WWII. - Aug. 14
A 'good enough' mentality can never win. - Aug. 26

Nobuharu Asahara bows out to full house at Super Meet in Kawasaki. - Sept. 24

Nihon University's Gitau steals Izumo Ekiden victory from Komazawa.Oct. 14

Deeper and deeper goes the greatest half-marathon in the world - Ageo 2008. - Nov. 17

Tsegaye Kebede breaks Samuel Wanjiru's course record and Gert Thys' Japan soil record with 2:06:10 win in Fukuoka. - Dec. 7
Samuel Wanjiru shares the secret of training to win. - Dec. 24

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Friday, December 26, 2008

Noguchi and Fukushi Scheduled for National Training Camp in New Zealand

translated by Brett Larner

Mizuki Noguchi (30, Team Sysmex), who withdrew from the Beijing Olympics women's marathon with an injury to her right leg, is on the list released on Dec. 22 of runners scheduled to attend next year's Japanese National Women's Long Distance Training Camp in New Zealand.

Organized by Rikuren and the National Jitsugyodan Federation, the camp will take place in February and is scheduled to last for 20 days. It is intended both to give Rikuren officials a chance to see young, high-potential future marathoners in action and to give these young runners the chance to see what the life and practice routine of a top athlete is like. In this capacity, Noguchi is scheduled to appear as one of the 'instructors' in the camp. Noguchi has recovered from her injuries to the point that she is able to run faster than 3:30 per km in training and plans to run a comeback race in the spring. If all goes smoothly, the New Zealand training camp will also act as her base training.

Beijing Olympics 5000 m and 10000 m Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) is one of the runners listed as a participant in the training camp.

Entry Lists for National Interprefectural Women's Ekiden Released

translated by Brett Larner

On Dec. 22 the entry lists were released for the 47 prefectural teams which will compete at the 27th National Interprefectural Women's Ekiden on Jan. 11 in Kyoto. Beijing Olympics women's marathoner Yurika Nakamura (Okayama Pref.) will defend her stage best title from last year's 1st leg, while Beijing Olympics steeplechase runner Minori Hayakari (Kyoto Pref.) will take part in the ekiden for the 20th time. Sydney Olympics women's marathon 7th place finisher Eri Yamaguchi will act as head coach for the Okayama Prefecture team.

Athens and Beijing Olympian Kayoko Fukushi (Aomori Pref.) will be running for the first time in 3 years. In her last appearance Fukushi ran as anchor of the Kyoto Prefecture team, but due to a rule change at the 2008 edition of the ekiden will now be able to run for her hometown Aomori Prefecture team after a 5-year absence. Fukushi's Beijing 5000 m teammate Yuriko Kobayashi will return to run for the Hyogo Prefecture team after winning the 2nd leg stage best title last time.

2007 World Championships 10000 m runner Megumi Kinukawa (Tokyo) will run the Interprefectural Ekiden for the first time. Other members of the 2007 World Championships national team who will run the ekiden include Kayo Sugihara and Yoshika Tatsumi, both of Shimane Prefecture, 800 m specialist Ayako Jinnouchi (Saga Pref.), and women's marathon 6th place finisher Kiyoko Shimahara (Yamaguchi Pref.).

2008 Tokyo International Women's Marathon runner-up Yuri Kano (Hyogo Pref.) will make her first appearance in the ekiden in 4 years. Takako Yamada, formerly Takako Kotorida, (Hiroshima Pref.) will also return after a 4-year absence for childbirth.

The ekiden will feature many top student runners alongside the professionals. 2008 National University 10000 m champion Michi Numata (Kyoto Pref.) and other members of All-Japan University Women's Ekiden champion team Ritsumeikan University will take part, as will team members from national runner-up Bukkyo University and 3rd place Meijo University.

Four Japanese members of the Toyokawa High School team, which won its first national ekiden title at the Dec. 21 National High School Girls Ekiden, will run on the Aichi Prefecture team. 5 members of Toyokawa's rival Kojokan High School, including this year's National High School Girls Ekiden 1st stage winner Rei Obara, will run for the Okayama Prefecture team. Last year's Interprefectural Ekiden runner-up Hyogo Prefecture will include 7 members of National High School Girls Ekiden 4th place team Suma Gakuen High School on its squad. Top individual finishers in last week's National Junior High School Girls Ekiden will also run on many of the prefectural teams.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Samuel Wanjiru Shares the Secret of Training to Win

originally published in the 2008 Fukuoka International Marathon program

translated by Brett Larner with editorial assistance from Mika Tokairin

Click here for a Spanish-language translation of my English translation of the original Japanese article.

Translator's note: Fukuoka-based sportswriter Akio Harada of the Asahi Newspaper conducted this excellent interview with 2007 Fukuoka International Marathon winner Samuel Wanjiru prior to the 2008 race. Wanjiru, who lives part of the year in Fukuoka, won Kenya's first Olympic marathon gold medal in an Olympic record time of 2:06:32 in Beijing this past summer. Merry Christmas.

Q. You won Beijing by running an incredibly fast pace.

This was only my third marathon, so I thought I would just try to run it the way I've done the others so far. My first marathon was Fukuoka in December, 2007. The second time was London in April, 2008. In both of them I'd planned to run about 3 minutes per km, so I thought I should just run Beijing with the same idea in mind since this is a comfortable pace for me to run. I thought the best thing to do was to run a pace I'm used to. If the pace is too slow then I can't get into my rhythm and my body doesn't move properly.

Q. Unlike Fukuoka and London, Beijing was a summer marathon and one without any pacemakers. Weren't you worried at all?

Up until the day before the Olympic marathon I hadn't decided whether to go fast or hold back a bit and run a little conservatively. However the first half went, I wasn't sure what would happen in the second half and I was afraid of it. I couldn't sleep well at all the night before the race, and I discovered that I had forgotten my race shoes in Kenya. I had to run the race in my warmup shoes, but it was OK because they were marathon shoes too. Looking back now, I think I had a lot on my mind and was pretty nervous, but as soon as I started I forgot about it all. The only thing I thought was, "Who cares, let's go!"

Q. In the women's race Catherine Ndereba (Kenya) was too far behind and came 2nd because she didn't realize eventual winner Constantina Tomescu (Romania) was ahead of her.

I was travelling at the time so I didn't see that race. I heard about it later, and sure, it was on my mind that that kind of thing could happen, but I'm not the type of guy who runs behind someone else. I was going to run up front no matter what the pace was.

Q. After your race people said, "The summer marathon is never going to be the same."

That makes me happy to hear. I think the Olympics and World Championships are going to be high-pace races from now on. Athletes before now were probably too worried about heat and high humidity. Kenyans haven't won gold up until now because they've been too worried about just winning, too, and have let races become too slow-paced. Africans have the strength to run fast in the heat, and I think they learned from my race that running too slowly is bad. It's all mental. It was a big thing that I went over this wall.

Q. You ran world record pace until 25 km. Do you think you were able to do this because you're a daredevil?

No, of course I have fear. I didn't have any intention of running that fast. I planned to hit halfway in the 63-minute range, but we actually did it in 62:34. When I looked at my watch I thought, "That's a bit too fast," so I dropped back to the rear of the lead pack. I just wanted to rest and check out the other leaders, but Deriba Merga (Ethiopia) started pushing the pace again and so we ended up hitting 25 km in 1:13:58. That was 5 seconds faster than Gebrselassie's world record pace at the time, but when we were running I had no idea.

Q. Were there any tough points?

It got pretty hard after 37 km. I tried to get out on my own, but Jaouad Gharib (Morocco) just wouldn't go away. I watched a DVD of the race afterwards and saw that I looked back many times.

Q. The Olympic marathon was on August 24. What was the final phase of your training like in July and August?

OK, I'll give you a rough idea. I was just doing this kind of thing:

(1) July 9: 38 km cross-country at a slow pace around 4:30 per km
July 10: easy day
July 11: speedwork (400 m x 10)

(2) July 20: 30 km pace run on flat ground in around 1 hour 34 min.
July 21: easy day
July 22: easy day
July 23: speedwork (3000 m x 3)

(3) July 30: 38 km cross-country at a slow pace around 4:30 per km
July 31: easy day
August 1: speedwork (400 m x 10)

(4) August 10: 30 km pace run on flat ground in around 1 hour 34 min.
August 11: easy day
August 12: easy day
August 13: speedwork (3000 m x 3)

Numbers 1-4 are just examples of the 10-day cycle I use which mixes long distance and speedwork. Long runs are for getting rid of fear of the distance and for building your legs, so I do them slow. In Japan people usually do 40 km long runs, but 38 km is enough. It's no problem to keep going another 4 km in the real race. The really important point in doing this run is to do it at around 2400 m altitude somewhere like Goan in Kenya. Your body gets used to altitude without you noticing it. When I'm in Japan my hemoglobin count is around 13, but when I'm at altitude it goes up to 15. All this was what I did before I ran 2:05:24 at the London Marathon, so I wanted to do the same thing in the same place before Beijing.

Other than that, I run about 15 km at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning before I have breakfast. I'd say it's like jogging, or a buildup to something like a pace run. I start around 4 minutes per km, drop it down to 3:30 in the middle, then end up down at about 3 minutes 5 seconds. I always want to finish thinking, "Aaaaah, that felt great. I had a good run." I never do any strength training. You can get enough strength from running on cross-country-type courses. Sundays are off, and if it rains I also take the day off from training. If you train too hard in the summer it's bad for your body.

Q. Is that really it? Japanese runners train much more than that.

That's right, they do. They train way too much. For example, if they have a time trial scheduled and it's raining they do it anyway. If I were them I'd take the day off and wait to do the workout on a nice day. Doing it that way you can run a better time and leave with a better feeling about the workout. Japanese people are too serious about everything and don't like change. If training doesn't go 100% according to schedule or they don't run the times they are targeting they get all out of whack. When they go to do altitude training they try to do exactly the same training menu as when they're on low ground, too. It's bad for your health. At altitude you should run with a slower pace or just less. You should also train less in the summer and do it somewhere as cool as possible.

Q. Do you think Japanese runners can still compete at the world level?

If they train well then no problem. Japanese marathoners are tough. I know it all too well. Before Beijing I thought my biggest competition for the gold medal was going to be Atsushi Sato (Team Chugoku Denryoku). He's got speed, racing skills, and I thought he was good at summer racing.* There are some good university runners too. I can't wait for Yuki Sato (Tokai University) to start marathoning. He's fast and knows how to race.

Q. What are you planning after this?

I'm taking it easy until the end of the year. In terms of the marathon, I'm going to go for the world record either in London in April or Berlin in September. After that I'd like to run Fukuoka again sometime.

*Translator's note: Atsushi Sato finished last in the Beijing Olympics marathon in 2:41:08.

Japanese Distance Running in 2008

by Brett Larner

With 2008 at an end JRN takes a look back at some of its the highs and lows.

The new year began with Samuel Wanjiru's final major ekiden appearance in the aptly-named New Year Ekiden, but he passed almost unnoticed behind a legion of Kenyan stars shoehorned into one of the shortest legs of the Japanese professional men's ekiden championships. Rikuren officials justified this trend in the major ekidens by saying that Japanese fans don't like seeing foreign runners dominating home-grown athletes and that Africans are just physically superior, then later in the year attacked Japanese marathoners for their inability to keep up with exceptional performances by Africans in the Olympics and at the Fukuoka International Marathon. Wanjiru was 4th on the 11.8 km 3rd stage in 31:17, with Team Nissin Shokuhin's Masai Kenyan Gideon Ngatuny winning the stage in 30:59.

Team Konica Minolta returned to the winner's circle thanks in large part to a half marathon national record-level stage best performance on the 2nd stage by ace Takayuki Matsumiya. Wanjiru's teammate Yu Mitsuya likewise ran near the half marathon national record. Whether the two runners benefited by the absence of superior African competition and how this might affect their ability to face such competition in high-pressure marathons is a question best posed to Rikuren Long Distance Director Keisuke Sawaki. But more on him later.

Overshadowing the New Year Ekiden was the Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2 and 3. The most thrilling, dramatic and emotional race of the year, Hakone is a cultural phenomenon. Komazawa Univ. won after a three-year drought, tiny Chuo Gakuin Univ. placed 3rd, and there was the usual share of stellar individual performances. Kenyan Mekubo Mogusu of Yamanashi Gakuin Univ., who passed up four years of professional running and the concomitant financial rewards for the chance to reap Hakone glory, final set a stage record on the 2nd leg, Hakone's most competitive. Tokai Univ.'s incredible Yuki Sato set his third consecutive stage record, Chuo Gakuin's steeplechase national champion Jun Shinoto set an unexpected stage record on the 9th leg, and unknown Ryuta Komano of Waseda brushed the 'untouchable' stage record of Juntendo's legendary Masato Imai on Hakone's famous uphill 5th leg. But the defining image of the 2008 Hakone is that of Imai's successor Hiroyuki Ono less than 500 m from the end of the 23.4 km 5th stage, falling down over and over but each time getting back on his feet to try to reach the finish until finally being stopped by race officials out of fear for his health. The powers that be have unfortunately removed videos of Ono's run from Youtube, but nobody who saw it can forget what was one of the greatest performances in the world this year. Along with Ono's disqualification, two other schools had runners collapse, making for the first time in the ekiden's 84 year history that three schools failed to finish and raising questions about whether Hakone is becoming too big and too much pressure upon the university student runners.

A few weeks after Ono, another Japanese runner made waves for falling when 3000 m, 5000 m and half marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi reluctantly made her marathon debut at the Osaka International Marathon. Fukushi admitted she had not trained sufficiently but went out fearlessly at sub-2:20 pace, slowly slightly before hitting halfway in 1:10:32 nearly two minutes ahead of eventual winner Mara Yamauchi. The marathon exacted its toll for Fukushi's early cavalier attitude, and the result was an epic. By the end she was down to more than 6 minutes per km, falling at least three times in the final 400 m of the race, bleeding from her knees, arms and nose as she finished in 2:40:54. She was injured throughout much of the rest of the year and only delivered one performance up to her usual standard.

Lastly for January, Rikuren ended a nearly year-long saga by banning women's 1500 m national record holder Yuriko Kobayashi from competing in professional races. Kobayashi set the national record while in high school, then joined the professional Team Toyota Jidoshoki in April, 2007. Shortly afterwards she decided to simultaneously enroll in university, a violation of Rikuren regulations. The administrative body put her career on hold while it reviewed the case, ultimately ruling in January that she was not elligible to compete professionally out of fears that it would encourage corporate teams to recruit top talent by promising to pay for their university educations. In other words, in the lead-up to the Olympics the officials in Rikuren saw fit to limit one of their most promising young women's opportunities to race to time trials and the odd overseas meet or international ekiden.

February began with one of the biggest race weekends of the year, but a freak snowstorm wiped out most events in central and northern Japan. Local boy Tomoya Adachi won the elite Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon and first-year pro Masaki Shimoju won the Kumanichi 30 km Road Race, both on the southern island of Kyushu, but women's marathon national record holder and defending Olympic marathon gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi showed the first glimmer of what was to come in the summer, cancelling a planned 30 km world record attempt in the Kumanichi race.

The biggest news of February was the second running of the Tokyo Marathon. Unlike the previous year's inaugural running, which saw freezing rain, complaints about lost income from taxi drivers and local businesses, and a general anxiety about the logistics of pulling off a 30,000-person event from zero, the second running had gorgeous, sunny weather, an improvement in the few problems from the previous year, and a sense of community and civic pride about the event unusual in Japanese society. In a land which embraces superficial surface change, this felt like something deeper. The race itself included a symbol of this change, as unknown 2:38 marathoner Arata Fujiwara ran a spectacular race against 2007 World Championships bronze medalist Viktor Rothlin of Switerland and Kenyan Olympic track runner Julius Gitahi, finishing 2nd in 2:08:40 despite severe leg cramps which almost caused him to fall. It was an incredible, dreamlike performance which put the no-name Fujiwara onto the shortlist for the Beijing Olympics and won him fans worldwide.

Unfortunately for Fujiwara, his Olympic came to an end two weeks later when Satoshi Osaki ran 2:08:36 at the Biwako Mainichi Marathon, the final men's selection race for the Beijing Olympic team, beating Fujiwara's time by a hairsbreadth and eliminating him from consideration for the team. Rikuren favored, with much justification, Atsushi Sato's 2:07:13 performance from the previous December's Fukuoka International Marathon, and, with far, far less justification, veteran Tsuyoshi Ogata's merely decent 5th place finish at the 2007 World Championships. Fujiwara was named alternate, but as events transpired, this was in name only.

A week after Biwako was the final women's selection race, the Nagoya International Women's Marathon. After a media frenzy around her preparations for Nagoya, 2000 Sydney Olympics marathon gold medalist and former world record holder Naoko Takahashi ran an amateur-quality 2:44:18. She afterwards admitted that she had had surgery late the previous summer and that her training had not been what she hoped. First-time marathoner Yurika Nakamura of Team Tenmaya won and was selected for Beijing over her teammate Tomo Morimoto, who had run a faster time in Osaka in January but had finished 2nd overall.

In the last major race of the Japanese 2007-2008 fiscal year, Mizuki Noguchi again withdrew, this time from the National Corporate Ekiden Championships. Yukiko Akaba stepped up to fill the gap, breaking Noguchi's course record with a 1:08:11 win in her first half marathon since giving birth in Aug., 2006.

Japan sent four teams to the World XC Championships. The senior teams had undistinguished showings, the women's team 1oth of 12 and the men 13th of 15, but the junior teams fared better, with the men's team 4th and the women 3rd.

Back in Japan, an amateur-level half marathon in Saga Prefecture was the site of a freak bee attack. 30 people were hospitalized after a swarm of bees from a nearby illicit beekeeping operation began agitated and attacked the passing runners.

While many other countries' Olympic marathoners lineup up in London, Boston or other major races, most of Japan's team ran the Beijing Pre-Olympic Test Marathon to get a feel for the course. Women's team alternate Tomo Morimoto was an exception, placing 2nd in the Vienna Marathon. Aging men's national record holder Toshinari Takaoka also turned up in Europe, placing 16th in the Paris Marathon. Samuel Wanjiru finished 2nd in London in a stellar 2:05:24 and was named to the Kenyan Olympic team.

The month began with Mizuki Noguchi's return to action after dropping out of two other Olympic tune-up races. Noguchi won the Sendai International Half Marathon in a strong 1:08:25, seemingly back on top of her Olympic preparations. Later in the month she ran the final race of her 20's, anchoring a 4x400 m relay for her corporate team Sysmex at a track meet in Kansai.

Sumie Inagaki, the reigning world record holder in the women's 48-hour ultramarathon, broke her own record at the Surgeres Ultramarathon in France. Running on a 300 m loop course, Inagaki ran 382.718 km to set the new world record. Ryoichi Sekiya won the men's race with a distance of 401.416 km.

Mekubo Mogusu of Yamanashi Gakuin University dominated the Kanto University Track and Field Championships, winning the 1500 m, 10000 m and half marathon. Mogusu ran an Olympic A-standard 27:27.64 in the 10000 m and hoped to be selected for the Kenyan Olympic team.

The Tokyo Marathon announced that it would be adding world-class prize money and an elite women's field to the 2009 edition of the race. The changes came about in response to the IAAF awarding the event only a silver label rather than the gold label accorded to top-level international events.

Teenaged prodigy Megumi Kinukawa, who ran the women's 10000 m at the 2007 World Championships after setting the junior national record, revealed that she had been suffering from a series of illnesses and injuries since December and was unable to train. Doctors said that Kinukawa's condition stemmed from a mystery virus she had undoubtedly contracted while out of Japan.

Fellow young hopeful Masato Kihara of Chuo Gakuin University showed the glimmer of possible greatness at the Sapporo International Half Marathon when he tried to run against sub-hour half marathoner Mekubo Mogusu without regard for the consequences. The two went through 5 km at world record pace before Kihara gave up and backed off, going on to finish just off his PB of 1:01:50 but beating many of the professional Kenyans and every Japanese runner in the field, including national record holder Atsushi Sato. Mogusu won, and both runners were selected for their national teams for October's World Half Marathon. All three of Japan's Olympic marathon men were in the field, but of them only Tsuyoshi Ogata ran well, Satoshi Osaki and Atsushi Sato finishing well down in the field. Yuri Kano won the women's race in a large PB of 1:08:57 but declined to join Noguchi and Akaba on the women's World Half team as she intended to run November's Tokyo International Women's Marathon.

The biggest event of the month was June's National Track and Field Championships, which doubled this year as the Japanese Olympic Trials. 5000 m national record holder Takayuki Matsumiya won the men's 5000 m and 10000 m to make the Olympic team, joined by Waseda University's talented Kensuke Takezawa, who made a surprise appearance in the 5000 m after 6 months off with injury. Women's 1500 m national record holder Yuriko Kobayashi gave up on trying to qualify in the 1500 m, instead winning the 5000 m to make the team alongside national record holder Kayoko Fukushi and Yuriko Kobayashi.

The women's 10000 m was the highlight of the meet, and possibly the greatest race of the year by a Japanese runner. Akaba and Fukushi faced off with national record holder Yoko Shibui, who had failed to qualify in the marathon after losing to Mizuki Noguchi at last November's Tokyo International Women's Marathon. Akaba set the early pace, but Shibui soon took over and led until the final 2000 m when Fukushi dashed ahead. From then until the finish the lead changed repeatedly, the three runners hammering each other until Akaba broke away with 300 m to go. Shibui followed but Fukushi was left behind. Coming around the last corner Shibui drew even with Akaba and inched barely ahead, winning her first national title in the 10000 m in 31:15.07, the 2nd-fastest time of her career after her national record of 30:48.89. Akaba was 2nd in a PB of 31:15.43, with Fukushi a short distance behind in 31:18.79. All three broke the previous National Championships record and all were selected for Beijing.

Rikuren began the month by announcing that it was adding women's 100 m national champion Chisato Fukushima to the Beijing Olympic team, making her the first Japanese woman to make the Olympic team in an individual sprint event in 56 years. Women's 3000 m steeplechase national champion Minori Hayakari, already on the Beijing team, made further headlines when she broke her own national record with a 9:33.93 performance in Heusden, Belgium.

Coaching staff for Fukushima and Hayakari's Olympic teammate Atsushi Sato announced that Sato, the fastest man on the Japanese marathon team, had cancelled a planned altitude training camp in St. Moritz, Switzerland out of overtraining fears. Sato qualified for Beijing after running 2:07:13 at December's Fukuoka International Marathon while racing Fukuoka-based Samuel Wanjiru. Wanjiru had news of his own, sending lawyers to tell his corporate sponsor team Toyota Kyushu that he was quitting and would not be back after his Olympic preparations in Kenya. Wanjiru thanked the team and coach Koichi Morishita but said he wished to focus on the marathon rather than having to spend his time running ekidens.

On July 22 the Tokyo Marathon opened entries for its 3rd running on Mar. 22, 2009. The number of entries exceeded the field size of 30,000 within less than 48 hours.

Following the Tokyo Marathon's announcements concerning its new prize money structure, field size, and the addition of an elite women's field came the news that a new Yokohama International Women's Marathon would be inaugurated in 2009 following the final running of the Tokyo International Women's Marathon. The good news was tempered by the additional news that Yokohama would no longer host the Yokohama International Women's Ekiden as a consequence of the new event.

But it goes without saying that the big news of the month was the Beijing Olympics, and most of the news was bad. The details are all familiar; Mizuki Noguchi, Satoshi Osaki and Reiko Tosa dropping out with injuries, Atsushi Sato breaking down from stress and finishing last, Yurika Nakamura and Tsuyoshi Ogata running mediocre 13th place finishes, and Rikuren and the JOC failing to have any contingency planning in place and not even having designated alternates Tomo Morimoto and Arata Fujiwara registered as such. It was Japan's worst Olympic marathon showing of modern times and was perhaps indicative of deep problems with the country's previously-successful system. Japanese-coached foreigners had much better results, with China's Chunxiu Zhou winning bronze in the women's marathon and Kenya's Samuel Wanjiru scoring the country's first-ever men's marathon gold medal.

Japan's track runners did not fare much better than its native marathoners even though none of the track team was ever considered in serious contention for a medal. Only Kayoko Fukushi had something approaching a good performance, looking as though she would challenge Yoko Shibui's national record but fading to a finish 10 seconds off her PB with 31:01.14.

The sole bright moment for Japanese track and field fans came when the Japanese men's 4 x 100 m team won the bronze medal, the first-ever track medal for Japanese men and the country's first medal in a track event in 80 years. It was deeply touching to watch 36 year-old anchor Nobuharu Asahara run against guys close to half his age and finally bring his team home to success after years of near-misses.

Unsurprisingly, following the Olympics Mizuki Noguchi announced that she was withdrawing from Japan's World Half Marathon team. Nobuharu Asahara, also unsurprisingly, announced his retirement, running a final race in front of a sold-out crowd at the Seiko Super Meet in Kawasaki. 100 m world record holder and Beijing gold medalist Usain Bolt made a surprise appearance to pay tribute to Asahara. Sellout crowds continued as the application window for the 2009 Tokyo Marathon closed with 260,000 applying for the 30,000 available spots.

The month of September did include a few surprises. Saku Chosei High School teacher and assistant ekiden coach Masaru Takamizawa won the men's race at the hot and humid Hokkaido Marathon, while the tiny 19 year-old Yukari Sahaku, coached by Yoshio Koide, won the women's race. Also still a teenager, Megumi Kinukawa resurfaced from her health problems with a solid run at the National Corporate Track and Field Championships.

October saw three members of Tokyo-based Second Wind AC, a group of defectors from Team Shiseido, race well overseas. Kaori Yoshida won the first Casablanca Marathon, Yuri Kano won the Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon in San Jose, California, and Kiyoko Shimahara finished 3rd in a hot Chicago Marathon ahead of Beijing Olympics gold medalist Constantina Tomescu-Dita of Romania. Men's Beijing team alternate Arata Fujiwara also ran Chicago in an attempt to make an international debut, but finished in 2:23:10.

The same day as Chicago, Mekubo Mogusu and Masato Kihara also had terrible showings at the World Half Marathon Championships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Mogusu dropping out and Kihara finishing 83rd out of 86. Women's team leader Yukiko Akaba had a merely decent 10th place finish. The best Japanese performance came from newcomer Yusei Nakao, the son of Japan's first man to break 2:20 in the marathon. Nakao ran just seconds off his PB of 1:02:00, finishing 5th overall.

Also the same weekend, Megumi Kinukawa showed she was back to her full powers, breaking her own junior national record and defeating Kayoko Fukushi in 31:23.21. Sendai Ikuei High School head coach Takao Watanabe, who discovered and developed Kenya's Samuel Wanjiru and made Sendai Ikuei into the top distance running high school in Japan shortly announced that he was quitting in order to become Kinukawa's personal coach. Kinukawa, who graduated from Sendai Ikuei last year, intends to move up to the marathon in 2010 and clearly hopes to become Japan's next marathon great. The pair's announcement came shortly before former marathon great Naoko Takahashi, who won the 2000 Beijing Olympics marathon gold medal and became the first woman to break 2:20 in the marathon, announced her retirement from professional running.

The university ekiden season entered full swing as Nihon University won the prestigious Izumo Ekiden thanks to a stage-record anchor run by Kenyan Daniel Gitau and Ritsumeikan University won its third straight National University Women's Ekiden championship. Waseda Univeristy, expected to challenge Komazawa University's Hakone Ekiden supremacy, looked shaky as its star Kensuke Takezawa was clearly still suffering from injuries and its four star first-years were unremarkable. Toyo University's first-year Ryuji Kashiwabara dominated the first stage in Izumo.

In only its fifth year of existence as a team, Jobu University shocked ekiden fans across the nation by placing 5th in the Hakone Ekiden Qualifying 20 km Road Race, its top ten runners finishing between 1:01:10 and 1:01:50 with two more team members just seconds behind. The school's performance makes it one of the most eagerly anticipated features of January's Hakone Ekiden. Tokai University's Yuki Sato, who suffered from injuries throughout the summer, ran well in Izumo but was reduced to a walk in the Hakone Qualifier, raising questions about his condition.

Following Yukari Sahaku's performance in Hokkaido in September, another Koide-coached athlete, Mai Tagami, had marathon success, winning the Athens Classic Marathon, while Megumi Seike, a teammate of Mizuki Noguchi, won the Shanghai Half Marathon. Beijing Olympics men's marathon winner Samuel Wanjiru capitalized on his success with a $3 million sponsorship deal with sports supplement maker Savas.

Sponsorship was also in the news with regards to one of Japan's most prestigious elite marathons, March's Biwako Mainichi Marathon. Biwako's main sponsor Rohm announced that it would end its patronage following next year's edition of the race, meaning that unless Biwako can secure another major sponsor it will come to an end. The Tokyo International Women's Marathon did come to an end this month following the Tokyo government's shift in support to the Tokyo Marathon. In only her second marathon, Yoshimi Ozaki became the final champion of the original women-only elite marathon, running a race of genius to come from behind and pass Yuri Kano, Mara Yamauchi and Yoko Shibui in the final kilometers. Both Kano and Yamauchi ran PB performances but were no match for Ozaki's finish.

In ekiden news, Ethiopia set a new course record in the mixed-format International Chiba Ekiden. Komazawa won its third-straight National University Ekiden, looking utterly dominant and very much the favorite to win Hakone. Toyo's Ryuji Kashiwabara again drew major attention, running one second off the stage record on the 2nd leg and tying World Half Marathon team member Masato Kihara of Chuo Gakuin University for the stage best time. Both runners beat Waseda's Kensuke Takezawa by one second, but it was revealed that Takezawa was running with a stress fracture in one of his legs. While his condition for Hakone looks doubtful, Waseda's first-years stepped up with solid performances which make the school's chances for at least a top-three finish in Hakone look good.

The teams which will compete in Hakone sent their complete squads minus aces to the Ageo City Half Marathon to battle for places on their schools' Hakone teams. The 100th place finisher ran 1:05:28, and 408 runners broke 70 minutes. Chuo University's Yuichi Tokuichi won in 1:02:50. A week later, Team Nissin Shokuhin's Masai Kenyan Gideon Ngatuny made his first move up to longer distances, winning the Nagoya Half Marathon in a course record 1:00:11, following up 2 weeks later with a 45:15 win in the Kumamoto Kosa 10 Miler. The Tokyo-based Ngatuny may be preparing to step up to the marathon in March's Tokyo Marathon.

The month began with a series of events not directly related to racing. Shinji Kawashima, a member of the Sydney Olympics men's marathon team and head coach of Toyo University's ekiden team, resigned after a steeplechase runner on the school's track team allegedly sexually assaulted a high school girl on a morning commuter train. Kawashima blamed his lack of leadership for the incident and took full personal responsibility. The Kanto University Track and Field Association debated barring Toyo from January's Hakone Ekiden but chose to allow the school to participate with financial penalties.

Rikuren announced a series of changes designed to try to modernize and improve the Japanese distance running system following the debacle in Beijing. One of the foremost changes was the appointment of former 5000 m and 10000 m national record holder Keisuke Sawaki as the head of a new Long Distance and Road Racing Special Committee. Sawaki's first public act was to attack the performances of the Japanese men at the Dec. 7 Fukuoka International Marathon. Fukuoka winner Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia, the Beijing bronze medalist, set a course and Japanese-soil record of 2:06:10 after running a 14:17 5 km split from 30 to 35 km to leave his Japanese competitors far behind. 2nd place finisher Satoshi Irifune finished in a PB of 2:09:23 after having run a PB of 2:09:40 in February's Tokyo Marathon, but was a major target of Sawaki's tirade.

Escaping Sawaki's wrath were marathoners Kiyoko Shimahara and Kaori Yoshida, who continued their strong overseas showings from October with a 1-2 finish in the Honolulu Marathon. Yoshida ran as Shimahara's pacemaker after a 4th place run in the first Great Australian Run. The pair's performances solidified Second Wind AC's standing as the only Japanese team to consistently send its athletes out of the hothouse to face overseas competition.

In the final major ekidens of the year, Yoshio Koide-coached Team Toyota Jidoshoki staged a shock victory over the dominant Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo at the National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championship, breaking Mitsui Sumitomo's lead on the very final stage. Bukkyo University came 3 seconds from doing the same after finishing 2nd last year at the National University Women's Invitational Ekiden. Bukkyo anchor Kasumi Nishihara started well back from five-time defending champion Ritsumeikan University and came close to catching Ritsumeikan anchor Michi Numata but ran out of time, settling for another 2nd place team finish as Ritsumeikan took its sixth title.

The 2009 season begins right away with the Jan. 1 New Year Ekiden, the national corporate men's ekiden championship. Team Nissin Shokuhin looks prepared to take the national title away from perpetual winners Team Konica Minolta and Team Chugoku Denryoku. Following the New Year Ekiden is the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden, the de facto university men's ekiden championship and the most exciting Japanese race of the year.

Beyond these races, Japan's focus will shift to the remaining selection races for the 2009 Berlin World Championships marathons. Many questions about the current system in Japan arose in 2008, questions which must at least be addressed in 2009 if Japan is to reverse the slide in its standing as a worldwide marathon power. The continuing development of the Tokyo Marathon also promises to have repercussions though the Japanese marathon world and potentially worldwide as it seeks to become a recognized and accepted major event.

In the next week I will publish a preview of the 2009 Hakone Ekiden along with a series of profiles of Japanese runners to watch in 2009.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wanguru Wins Sprint Finish at Sanyo Women's Road Race

translated and edited by Brett Larner

Team Kyudenko's Pauline Kiragu Wanguru won a five-way sprint finish at the 2008 Sanyo Women's Road Race half marathon to win in a PB of 1:10:54. A hilly course, cold temperatures and strong winds in the second half made for an overall tactical race. Five runners remained together with 400 m to go, meaning the race would go to the strongest kicker. Wanguru pulled ahead by a step to beat Team Sysmex's Megumi Seike, who came fresh from winning the Nov. 30 Shanghai Half Marathon, and Second Wind AC newcomer Ruth Wanjiru. Team Tenmaya's Yuka Izumi was 4th in a PB of 1:10:58, with Wanjiru's teammate Akemi Ozaki a short distance behind in 5th.

Second Wind AC head coach Manabu Kawagoe commented that the race was excellent preparation for Ozaki and Wanjiru's planned run in next month's Osaka International Women's Marathon, but that Ozaki was feeling in top condition and would have to be careful with her peaking. Ozaki and Wanjiru are scheduled to leave Dec. 24 for a training camp in Kagoshima Prefecture.

2008 Sanyo Women's Road Race Top Finishers
1. Pauline Kiragu Wanjiru (Team Kyudenko) - 1:10:54 - PB
2. Megumi Seike (Team Sysmex) - 1:10:55
3. Ruth Wanjiru (Second Wind AC) - 1:10:55
4. Yuka Izumi (Team Tenmaya) - 1:10:58 - PB
5. Akemi Ozaki (Second Wind AC) - 1:11:02
6. Yumiko Ando (Team Daiichi Seimei) - 1:11:41

Ritsumeikan Women Hang On to National Ekiden Dynasty By a Thread

by Brett Larner

Bukkyo University anchor Kasumi Nishihara came within 3 seconds of breaking titan Ritsumeikan University's domination of the national ekiden circuit at the 6th All-Japan University Women's Invitational Ekiden Championship in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, delivering a new stage record for the anchor leg but coming up just short of catching Ritsumeikan's star first-year Michi Numata, the 2008 National University 10000 m champion.

While both the men's and women's university ekiden circuits hold their national championships at the end of October or beginning of November, the true peak of the men's season comes at the Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2-3. The All-Japan University Women's Invitational Ekiden, a six-stage, 30.67 event a short distance northeast of Tokyo, began five years ago as a way of giving university women's distance running the year's-end holiday season national coverage accorded to men.

Kyoto-based Ritsumeikan has dominated the event since its inception, winning all five editions along with the last three titles at October's National University Women's Ekiden. At this year's Invitational Ekiden the school fielded a team made up of five first-years and superstar third-year Kazue Kojima, Japan's #1-ranked university woman distance runner. There was little doubt of the outcome, but perfect conditions yielded an unexpected crop of records.

After Ritsumeikan's 1st and 2nd stage runners Risa Takenaka and Naomi Komai handed off a step behind 1st place, Kojima delivered a performance which exceeded even her own expectations. In her third time running the 5.5 km 3rd stage, Kojima ran 17:07, breaking her own stage record by a stunning 36 seconds to put Ritsumeikan into a 24-second lead. At the end of her third year of university Kojima remains undefeated, with stage best times in every ekiden she has run.

4th stage runner Hanae Tanaka widened Ritsumeikan's lead to 29 seconds, but 5th leg runner Machiko Iwakawa struggled in the final kilometer of her 6.0 km stage, losing ground to rival Bukkyo. Bukkyo's 5th leg runner, first-year Hikari Yoshimoto, began in third a short distance behind Meijo University's powerful fourth-year Eri Sato, quickly make up the distance, and the pair charged ahead after Iwakawa running dangerously fast. Sato initially dropped behind, then retook Yoshimoto and moved ahead, only to be dropped again as the Bukkyo first-year surged ahead.

Ritsumeikan's 10000 m national university champion first-year Michi Numata began the anchor stage with a 20-second lead and ran without problem, looking strong and composed throughout the 7.67 km stage, but behind her Bukkyo's anchor, second-year Kasumi Nishihara, was on the attack. After finishing 2nd as anchor last year, Nishihara was desperate to catch Numata and break Ritsumeikan's streak. Bit by bit she narrowed the gap, moving within less than 10 seconds of Numata with two kilometers to go. Numata responded, accelerating just enough to keep the gap constant. The two runners entered the track for a final lap 7 seconds apart. Nishihara had the stronger last kick, cutting the distance to the lead step by step but running out of room and finishing 3 seconds behind, collapsing to the track in devastation. Both runners broke Ritsumeikan's course record by nearly a minute, with 3rd place Meijo tying the old record of 1:39:33.

Kojima will return next year for her final season, and Ritsumeikan's stellar crew of first-years will be around for years to come to continue the school's dynasty. It will be up to Bukkyo, Meijo and other top schools to step up their own performances to meet Ritsumeikan's level.

2008 All-Japan University Women's Invitational Ekiden
Stage Best Performances
1st Stage (5.0 km) - Megumi Ito (1st yr., Kyoto Sangyo Univ.) - 16:06
2nd Stage (3.0 km) - Yurina Urakawa (1st yr., Meijo Univ.) - 9:25 - new stage record
3rd Stage (5.5 km) - Kazue Kojima (3rd yr., Ritsumeikan Univ.) - 17:07 - new stage record
4th Stage (3.5 km) - Hanae Tanaka (1st yr., Ritsumeikan Univ.) and Chizuru Ideta (4th yr., Bukkyo Univ.) - 11:12 - new stage record
5th Stage (6.0 km) - Hikari Yoshimoto (1st yr., Bukkyo Univ.) - 19:38
6th Stage (7.67 km) - Kasumi Nishihara (2nd yr., Bukkyo Univ.) - 24:31 - new stage record

Top Team Results
1. Ritsumeikan Univ. (Kyoto) - 1:38:33 - new course record
2. Bukkyo Univ. (Kyoto) - 1:38:36 - new course record
3. Meijo Univ. (Nagoya) - 1:39:33 - tied course record
4. Nihon Univ. (Tokyo) - 1:41:53
5. Josai Kokusai Univ. (Chiba) - 1:42:12
6. Tokyo Nogyo Univ. (Tokyo) - 1:42:17
7. Josai Univ. (Saitama) - 1:42:27
8. Tamagawa Univ. (Tokyo) - 1:42:29
9. Nittai Univ. (Kanagawa) - 1:43:01
10. Kansai Select Team (Kansai) - 1:43:17

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Monday, December 22, 2008

Saku Chosei Defeats Sendai Ikuei in All-Japan High School Boys' Ekiden

by Brett Larner

Click photo for video highlights courtesy of NHK.

Following the All-Japan High School Girls Ekiden Championships, the seven stage, 42.195 km Boys Ekiden took place Dec. 21 in Kyoto. While conditions in the morning had been warm and sunny for the girls' race, an approaching storm front brought clouds and increasing rain for the afternoon boys' race. Defending champion Sendai Ikuei High School, alma mater of greats including Samuel Wanjiru and Daniel Njenga, was presented with a tough battle against rivals Saku Chosei High School and Sera High School, facing on one hand the mid-season loss of head coach Takao Watanabe, who quit the school to become future marathon great Megumi Kinukawa's personal coach, and on the other a new rule designed partly to minimize the efficacy of non-Japanese runners in ekidens. Government sponsored-broadcaster NHK's otherwise excellent live, commercial-free nationwide coverage of the Boys Ekiden was seriously marred by its promotion of the new rule without explanation of the reasons for the change and by a pervading politely but unabashedly xenophobic tone to the live race commentary.

1st Stage - 10.0 km
As the 59th All-Japan High School Boys Ekiden got underway, race announcers Yasuyuki Onozuka and Shigeru Soh, the latter one of Japan's most revered marathoners, proudly proclaimed the first stage to be Japanese-only for the first time in 16 years, claiming that the absence of foreigners on the first stage would make the race more interesting. As with the girls' race, the first kilometer was far slower than last year's in the absence of Kenyan fearlessness, 3:00 versus last year's 2:47. 2 km passed in 6:00 with the entire field still in attendance.

The close-quartered conditions brought a series of collisions and falls approaching 3 km, which the pack reached in 9:05. The two most talented runners in the field, 2007 runner-up Saku Chosei's Kenta Chiba and defending champion Sendai Ikuei's Wataru Ueno, refused to take the lead as the pack reached 4 km all together in 12:08. Not until into the fifth kilometer did any change take place, as a dozen of the weaker runners fell away from the pack. Approaching 5 km the runners at the front of the pack were exchanging glances, waiting for someone to make a move. 5 km came in 15:15.

Chiba ran just off the shoulder of Saitama Sakae's Kensuke Gotoda at the front of the pack, biding his time. Approaching 6 km Ueno moved into position just behind Chiba. Just after 7 km Gotoda put on a spurt to break up the field. Chiba and a handful of other runners including Dai Nakahara of powerhouse Sera followed him, but Ueno was left adrift in no-man's land. After Gotoda relaxed Ueno regained contact, then at 8 km he took off, stringing out the leaders and pursued closely by Chiba. Chiba moved up next to Ueno just before 9 km, then attacked around a sharp lefthand corner. Ueno followed as the pair's lead widened. With 500 m to go Ueno attacked again, opening a 3-second lead over Chiba. Oita Tomei's Ikuto Yufu came in 3rd, just ahead of Omuta's Kyohei Nishi. Nakahara fell to 9th.

Ueno showed remarkable maturity in his racing and looks poised to be both the top recruit in this year's graduating high school class and a major university runner. In a post-race interview he nonchalantly said that he had been looking forward to racing Saku Chosei's star Akinobu Murasawa, but that since Saku Chosei had only put up Chiba against him he knew he had to win the stage.

2nd Stage - 3.0 km
Oita Tomei's Koshu Ozaki went out aggressively, closing the gap on Saku Chosei's Takumi Matsushita within 700 m even as Matsushita caught Sendai Ikuei's Yuta Yokoyama. At 1 km Omuta's Yusuke Nakayama joined the leaders, and the four ran together for just over a kilometer until Nakayama, spent from playing catchup, lost contact and slipped away. Behind him Sera's Kazuki Takeuchi advanced rapidly through the field. Matsushita attacked first, dropping Ozaki, but Yokoyama had the stronger kick and passed off to Kenyan ace Paul Kuira a step ahead. Takeuchi overtook Nakayama to move into 4th.

3rd Stage - 8.1075 km
Kuira ran easily, effortlessly widened his lead over Saku Chosei's Akinobu Murasawa. Kuira, the 2008 national high school 5000 m champion, had the stage best time on the 3rd leg last year and dominated again as he chased Sendai Ikuei alumnus Samuel Wanjiru's stage record of 22:40 from the 2004 championships. Saitama Sakae's Shota Hottori overtook Sera's Kaido Kita and Omuta's Ko Takajo, forming a chase pack of three pursued closely by a larger pack of five led by last year's 3rd place finisher Nishiwaki Kogyo. Hottori continued past into 4th, with Kita and Takajo fading into their followers. At halfway Kuira had a lead of 13 seconds over Murasawa. Oita Tomei's Shunsuke Yuji was another 27 seconds back.

Hottori continued to move up on Yuji, but Nishiwaki Kogyo's Fuminori Shikata broke from the chase pack and simultaneously advanced on him, making for a three-man race for 3rd. Hottori gained contact first, moving past Yuji as 6.5 km. Shikata stalled and was caught by Kyushuze, as Takajo and Kita hung a short distance behind.

Kuira finished in 23:07, well short of Wanjiru's record, but Murasawa ran 23:38, the fastest time ever on the stage by a Japanese runner as announcers Onozuka and Soh quickly pointed out. Hottori was a clear 3rd, but a mad scramble for the finish saw Yuji 4th, Kyushuze 5th, Kita 6th and Shikata 7th. Kuira said afterwards that he had trouble moving, not due to the weather, but was still happy with his performance.

4th Stage - 8.0875 km
Sendai Ikuei's Takashi Saito seemed relatively secure from Saku Chosei's Shota Hiraga with a lead of over 30 seconds, but back in the chase pack Sera's Kenyan Bitan Karoki, who won the 1st stage last year, advanced through the ranks after starting 1:33 back from the lead. Hiraga ran with impeccably beautiful form, gradually shortening the gap to Saito, but behind him Karoki became larger and larger. At halfway Hiraga was only 11 seconds behind the laboring Saito. Karoki was 27 seconds behind Hiraga, meaning he had already cut almost a minute off the lead.

With two kilometers to go Hiraga was 4 seconds back, Karoki less than 20 seconds further back. Saito picked up his pace, gasping and crying out with the effort, and it became unclear whether Hiraga could finish closing the gap and if so whether it would happen before Karoki came for him. With 1 km left the answer was no. Saito had pulled away another 2 seconds, and Karoki was right behind Hiraga. Karoki took 2nd with 670 m to go, 7 seconds behind Saito and well on pace to break Saku Chosei superstar alumnus Yuki Sato's stage record. With 500 m Saito launched a desperate last kick to try to hold off Karoki and prevent Sera from taking the lead, his face red, eyes bulging and mouth wide. It worked. He finished 7 seconds ahead of the Kenyan, who in turn finished 12 seconds ahead of Sato's stage record in 22:32.

5th Stage - 3.0 km
Saku Chosei's Tsubasa Fujii immediately retook 2nd from Sera`s Takuya Fujikawa as he tried to take the lead. Like Hiraga, he showed beautiful form as he narrowed the gap. Just before 800 m he flew past Sendai Ikuei's Kento Sato to give Saku Chosei its first clear lead of the ekiden. After 2 km he had created a 9-second lead, and although he didn't have much of a last sprint he finished 18 seconds ahead in 8:24, just shy of the stage record of 8:22. Sato was 18 seconds behind the lead in 3rd. Saitama Sakae's Kentaro Yano also just missed the stage record with an excellent 8:26 to move his team back into the top five.

6th Stage - 5.0 km
Saku Chosei captain Hiroyuki Sasaki began extremely strong, again running with beautiful form. At 1 km he was 30 seconds ahead of Sendai Ikuei's Takashi Nagazawa, who appeared relaxed and unhurried. At halfway it became clear that Saku Chosei was potentially on course record pace for a school with only Japanese runners. Sera's Hiromu Yamazaki was likewise running strong in pursuit of Nagazawa, but behind him Saitama Sakae's Kento Tabe and Aomori Yamada were pushing each other further ahead.

Race announcers Onozuka and Soh continually stressed the impending 'Japanese-only' course record aspect of Saku Chosei's performance as Sasaki continued to run strongly toward the final handoff zone. With 1 km to go he had a lead of 1:06, and Saku Chosei's victory looked all but certain. He finished in 14:14, a new stage record by 2 seconds. Nagazawa struggled to the finish in 2nd, 1:14 behind. Tabe tried his best to catch 3rd but finished just short, one second behind Yamazaki. Yamada Aomori stayed ahead of Oita Tomei's Kotaro Sato to take 5th.

7th Stage - 5.0 km
With no realistic chance of a challenge from Sendai Ikuei, Saku Chosei's anchor Suguru Osako had the primary task of bringing the school home to its first-ever victory as the rain became heavier and heavier. The announcers mentioned that Saku Chosei's team trained up to 50 km a day in preparation for the championships and that one of its assistant coaches, Masaru Takamizawa, won this past summer's Hokkaido Marathon after doing the majority of his training with the team. The intensive workload payed off as Osako finished in 2:02:18, the 3rd-fastest time ever on the course and the best mark for a team without non-Japanese runners, 46 seconds shy of the actual record.

Although announcer and legendary marathoner Shigeru Soh mentioned the fact that the all-Japanese Saku Chosei team missed breaking the overall record due to the relatively lazy pace of the runners on the new all-Japanese first stage, he failed to state the corollary that the first stage pace was slow this year because of the lack of foreign runners, or to make the logical connection that the elimination of fast non-Japanese runners from the first stage might therefore have prevented Saku Chosei from setting an actual new record. Instead, he and co-announcer Onozuka celebrated the 'Japanese-only' record, their message to the high school runners and television audience and that of the administrative bodies responsible for the rule changes this year seeming to be that Japanese runners are not good enough to face foreign competition but that this is OK. Actually winning and becoming the best doesn't matter as long as you are the top Japanese. To facilitate this you will not be put in a situation where you might lose to non-Japanese athletes. This seems to be in contradiction to statements made by Japanese officials following the Olympics and Fukuoka International Marathon, but words and actions are different things. The solution of creating a Japanese winner by eliminating foreign competition is certainly a creative alternative approach.

Sendai Ikuei's Naoya Sugawara faired gamely but could not bridge the impossible gap. Sendai Ikuei, national high school record holder and owner of the two fastest-ever times on the course, finished 2nd in 2:04:10, losing its title but still achieving a respectable result considering the coaching change partway through this year's season.

Saitama Sakae's Takumi Taguchi quickly caught Sera`s Tomoyasu Matsui, the two running together in a tight battle for 3rd. Entering the stadium together, Taguchi had the stronger finish, coming in 3rd in 2:04:46 to Matsui's 2:04:50 4th place mark.

Aomori Yamada's Ryo Kurokawa and Oita Tomei's Ryosuke Baba likewise came in together, Baba outkicking his rival to take 5th place and Oita Tomei's best-ever finish, well ahead of its top-8 goal. Nishiwaki Kogyo, 3rd last year, was a disappointing 7th. Early contender Omuto ended 10th.

NHK's race website offers complete team results, individual stage performances, a photo gallery, and other highlights.

2008 All-Japan High School Boys Ekiden Championships
Stage Best Performances
1st Stage (10.0 km) - Wataru Ueno (3rd yr., Sendai Ikuei) - 29:50
2nd Stage (3.0 km) - Akihiro Fujiwara (3rd yr., Kyushu Gakuin) - 8:17
3rd Stage (8.1075 km) - Paul Kuira (3rd yr., Sendai Ikuei) - 23:07
4th Stage (8.0875 km) - Bitan Karoki (2nd yr., Sera) - 22:32 - new stage record
5th Stage (3.0 km) - Tsubasa Fujii (3rd yr., Saku Chosei) - 8:24
6th Stage (5.0 km) - Hiroyuki Sasaki (3rd yr., Saku Chosei) - 14:14 - new stage record
7th Stage (5.0 km) - Suguru Osako (2nd yr., Saku Chosei) - 14:11

Top Team Performances
1. Saku Chosei (Nagano Pref.) - 2:02:18
2. Sendai Ikuei (Miyagi Pref.) - 2:04:10
3. Saitama Sakae (Saitama Pref.) - 2:04:46
4. Sera (Hiroshima Pref.) - 2:04:51
5. Oita Tomei (Oita Pref.) - 2:05:17
6. Aomori Yamada (Aomori Pref.) - 2:05:17
7. Nishiwaki Kogyo (Hyogo Pref.) - 2:05:23
8. Kyushu Gakuin (Kumamoto Pref.) - 2:05:43
9. Kobayashi (Miyazaki Pref.) - 2:06:01
10. Omuta (Fukuoka Pref.) - 2:06:39

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Toyokawa Takes Its First-Ever All-Japan High School Girls Ekiden Title

by Brett Larner

Click photo for video highlights courtesy of NHK.

The All-Japan High School Ekiden Championships took place Dec. 21 in Kyoto, broadcast nationwide and commercial-free on government-sponsored NHK Television. A widespread heatwave brought warm, sunny conditions for the first race of the day, the five-stage, 21.0975 km High School Girls Ekiden. In only its third appearance in the championship ekiden, Toyokawa High School of Aichi Prefecture overcame a new rule intended partly to limit the effectiveness of its Kenyan ace Wysela Wylim to take its first national title. Defending champion Ritsumeikan Uji High School finished 3rd, a fantastic performance by anchor Ikumi Natsuhara not quite enough for her to catch rival Ai Kuboki of Kojokan High School, who finished in 2nd just 4 seconds back from Toyokawa's Wylim.

1st Stage - 6.0 km
A new rule this year in both the girls' and boys' races followed a nationwide trend in championship ekidens by banning non-Japanese runners from the longest, most competitive stages, in this case the 6.0 km 1st stage. No rationale for the change was presented to the television audience. Perhaps as a consequence of this elimination of runners unafraid to race from start to finish, the first kilometer was a very slow 3:23, 11 seconds slower than last year's race when two Kenyan 'exchange students' led the way. A pack of four made up of defending champion Ritsumeikan Uji, last year's 2nd and 3rd place teams Kumamoto Chiharadai and Kojokan, and newcomer Toyokawa pulled away from the rest of the field. Kojokan's Rei Obara took the lead in the final third of the stage, giving Kojokan a 10 second lead.

2nd Stage - 4.0975 km
Kojokan's Aika Tsutsumi widened her team's lead to 18 seconds, but with 1 km to go Toyokawa's Nanaka Izawa burst from the chase pack, picking up 11 seconds on the leader to finish just 7 seconds back.

3rd Stage - 3.0 km
Toyokawa's national 3000 m champion Asami Kato moved up on Kojokan's Mahiro Akamatsu, while Tokiwa's Mayuka Sekiguchi led a chasing group of three schools including Ritsumeikan Uji. Kato gradually inched closer, and almost even with 400 m to go, but Akamatsu attacked on a final uphill and pulled away to maintain a slim lead for Kojokan's. Ritsumeikan Uji's Nanase Arai dropped the other chasers for 3rd, Tokiwa landed 4th, and Suma Gakuen overtook Chiharadai for 5th.

4th Stage - 3.0 km
Kojokan's Rie Toda rocketed away from Toyokawa's Waka Shimomura. At 1 km Toda's lead was up to 12 seconds, while further back Suma Gakuen's Minami Naka-Arai overtook Tokiwa and Ritsumeikan Uji.

By 2 km Toda paid the price for early aggression, slowing dramatically as Shimomura came back with a vengeance and passed Toda with 660 m left. Toda tried to hang on and Shimomura gradually applied more pressure, but Toda was tenacious and once again pulled even. With 250 m to go Toda again moved into the lead, and with her last sprint opened a gap on Shimomura. In battling each other the two widened the lead over Suma Gakuen to 20 seconds.

5th Stage - 5.0 km
The race was over almost as soon as the race began, as Toyokawa's Kenyan anchor, Wysela Wylim, barred this year from repeating last year's brilliant 1st stage run, sailed effortlessly past Kojokan's Ai Kuboki to take the lead. However, by halfway Kuboki started to narrow the gap reeling Wylim back in. In the distance, Ritsumeikan Uji's Ikumi Natsuhara was overtaking Suma Gakuen's Akane Abushita in the race for 3rd, passing her at 3 km. Ahead, by 3 km Wylim's lead was down to 8 seconds and she looked to be struggling. At 3.5 km her lead was 5 seconds. At 4 km it was 4 seconds. Who had the stronger kick?

Kuboki was on fire as she tried to chase down the Kenyan, who looked back for the first time just before entering the stadium and realized how close she was to losing the race. As Wylim tried to stay ahead of the charging Kuboki, from out of nowhere Nasuhara came into the stadium just behind. In a dramatic sprint finish Wylim held on, reaching the goal line in 1:07:37 to give Toyokawa its first-ever victory. Kuboki was 2nd in 1:07:41, with Nasuhara 3rd in 1:07:49, outrunning Wylim by 17 seconds and just missing the stage record by 4 seconds. Suma Gakuen was 4th and Tokiwa 5th.

Completely ignored by race broadcasters, Aomori Yamada's Felista Wanjugu, the winner of last year's first stage, delivered the performance of the ekiden, passing 18 runners to put Aomori Yamada into 14th with an incredible 15:04. Her time broke the existing anchor stage record by 27 seconds, a fact which received little more than passing mention. Race commentator, 1991 World Championships marathon silver medalist and Team Daiichi Seimei head coach Sachiko Yamashita came the closest to acknowledging the apparent efforts at this year's championships to minimize and hide the presence of foreign runners, commenting on air, "It would've been nice to see some of her run."

NHK's excellent race website includes complete team results along with a detailed breakdown of individual stage performances. A selection of photo highlights is also available here.

2008 All-Japan High School Girls Ekiden
Stage Best Performances
1st Stage (6.0 km) - Rei Obara (3rd yr., Kojokan) - 19:33
2nd Stage (4.0975 km) - Nanaka Izawa (2nd yr., Toyokawa) - 12:54
3rd Stage (3.0 km) - Natsuki Kawakami (3rd yr., Suga Gakuen) - 9:28
4th Stage (3.0 km) - Waka Shimomura (1st yr., Toyokawa) - 9:14
5th Stage (5.0 km) - Felista Wanjugu (3rd yr., Aomori Yamada) - 15:04 - new stage record

Top Team Results
1. Toyokawa (Aichi Pref.) - 1:07:37
2. Kojokan (Okayama Pref.) - 1:07:41
3. Ritsumeikan Uji (Kyoto Pref.) - 1:07:49
4. Suma Gakuen (Hyogo Pref.) - 1:08:24
5. Tokiwa (Gunma Pref.) - 1:08:31
6. Chikushi Gakuen (Kita Kyushu) - 1:08:50
7. Chiharadai (Minami Kyushu) - 1:09:00
8. Isahaya (Nagasaki Pref.) - 1:09:04
9. Kamimura Gakuen (Kagoshima Pref.) - 1:09:19
10. Kumamoto Shinai (Kumamoto Pref.) - 1:09:26