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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
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