by Brett Larner
The 2009 International Chiba Ekiden takes place on Monday, Nov. 23. As economic times have continued to grow harder Japan's once-thriving international ekiden circuit has dwindled dramatically. When the Yokohama International Women's Ekiden took a bow in February this year it left Chiba as the lone representative of the format, and even it was scaled back in 2007 from separate men's and women's races to a single, six-stage 42.195 km race featuring mixed men's and women's teams. This wasn't necessarily a bad move, the mixed teams having proved to be popular and interesting.
Being the host country, Japan has tended to stack the deck in recent years. This year is no exception as the Japanese national team far outweighs any other in star power: men's half marathon national record holder Atsushi Sato (Team Chugoku Denryoku) and women's 1500 m national record holder Yuriko Kobayashi (Team Toyota Jidoshoki), 2009 men's 1500 m and 5000 m national champion Yuichiro Ueno (Team S&B), 2009 women's 10000 m national champion Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren), 2009 women's 5000 m national champion Yurika Nakamura (Team Tenmaya), Olympian and, as a university runner, 13:19 5000 m man Kensuke Takezawa (Team S&B) and the lesser-known Yusei Nakao (Team Toyota Boshoku) and Yuko Shimizu (Team Sekisui Kagaku). With two official alternates in the lineup it has become traditional for the two senior members not to run, but even without Sato and Akaba the Japanese team will be tough to challenge.
It goes without saying that the Kenyan team should be their strongest competition, but the relatively junior squad features only two well-known runners: marathon legend Catherine Ndereba and 2009 World Championships men's marathon champion Abel Kirui. Ndereba is a perpetual presence in Chiba, but fresh from last Sunday's Yokohama International Women's Marathon she seems unlikely to run or to factor in the action if she does. Kirui, on the other hand, should be one of Kenya's biggest weapons. His presence in Japan for the race strongly suggests he will headline the as-yet unannounced Fukuoka International Marathon field on Dec. 6. Whether the pair can rally the Kenyans to stay ahead of the hosts is a good question: a similar team in 2007 could not top the all-star Japanese lineup.
The Russians are always a factor in Chiba, and their team this year features ekiden regulars and 2009 national champions Maria Konovalova and Evgeny Rybakov. Rybakov's identical twin Anatoly will also be a solid component. Canada, the United States and Australia also have excellent teams lined up, the latter headlined by the return of 12:55 5000 m man Craig Mottram.
The best contender for 3rd, however, may be the Japanese University Select Team. Like the national team, the select team is stacked with top talent: Hakone Ekiden star Ryuji Kashiwabara (Toyo Univ.), women's university 10000 m national champion and unbeaten ekiden ace Kazue Kojima (Ritsumeikan Univ.), and three members of #1-ranked women's team Bukkyo University including 2009 World University Games 10000 m gold medalist and 5000 m silver medalist Kasumi Nishihara.
Even the team representing hosts Chiba Prefecture is full of the first-rate, including 2009 and 2007 Tokyo Marathon winners Mizuho Nasukawa (Team Universal Entertainment) and Hitomi Niiya (Team Toyota Jidosoki) and Niiya's teammate on national champions Toyota Jidoshoki Aya Nagata.
Other notable individuals in the field include 2008 Beijing Olympics women's marathon gold medalist Constantina Dita (Romania), like Ndereba and Kirui likely on the airfare-economizing tip following her Yokohama International Women's Marathon run, and 2004 Athens Olympics men's marathon gold medalist Stefano Baldini (Italy).
The 2009 International Chiba Ekiden will be broadcast live on Fuji TV from 1:00 p.m. to 3:25 p.m. Japan time on Nov. 23. International viewers should be able to watch online for free using the Keyhole TV software available here. JRN will be offering live English commentary on the broadcast -- check back for more details. Click here for a complete entry list. For a course map click here.
2009 International Chiba Ekiden - Team Entries
Japanese University Select Team
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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