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2012 NCAA XC and 2012 National University Men's Ekiden Championships Top Five Teams Compared

by Brett Larner

Just under two weeks after the Japanese IUAU's Nov. 4 Japanese National University Men's Ekiden Championships, the American NCAA held its National Cross-Country Championships on Nov. 17.  Although different styles of racing and on different surfaces, the fall national championship events of the world's two leading university men's distance running systems focus on similar distances, the eight-man Japanese collegiate teams averaging 13.35 km and each of the seven men on the NCAA teams running 10 km.  With the athletes in both systems peaking at almost the same time for races of almost the same distance it's worth a look at how the top five teams in each national championship event compare.

Given the overall emphasis on longer distances in the Japanese collegiate system and on shorter distances in the American system evident in the tables below, 5000 m, the only distance at which almost all athletes from all ten schools have posted PB marks, allows for the best comparison.  The IAUA averages in the table below include seven of the eight starting members to give better equivalency to the seven-member NCAA teams.  No average is listed if fewer than four starting members have known PBs at a given distance.  Click to enlarge tables.

Despite the Japanese schools' Hakone Ekiden-driven primary focus on the half-marathon distance, including races such as the Nov. 18 Ageo City Half Marathon where over 150 Japanese collegiates ran sub-67, overall they possess better credentials over 5000 m than their U.S. counterparts in addition to their 10000 m and half-marathon credentials.

While all eight team members score at the National University Men's Ekiden Championships, only five of the seven members of NCAA teams score.  Restricting both teams to their five best members as per the U.S. system corresponds better to the actual finishing orders at the two championships and gives a better idea of the teams' relative levels. Viewed this way it becomes evident that if these ten teams were to meet over a distance similar to that of their national championships with the same kind of peaking, the question would be how many NCAA teams would finish among the top five.

A more detailed breakdown of the individuals on each team is given below. Corrections and additions are welcome. In another difference between the two systems illustrated below, none of the top five teams at the Japanese National University Men's Ekiden Championships included any athletes over age 22 or any foreign-born athletes. Four out of the top five NCAA teams included athletes of age 23 or 24, and likewise four out of five included athletes of foreign origin. NCAA winner Oklahoma State University appeared to have had only one American team member out of seven and none among its best five on paper.

Where the NCAA season winds down before heading into indoor track, the top Japanese colleges now ramp up their distance for the peak of their season, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden. More competitive and important than the National title, Hakone, with an average stage length of roughly a half-marathon, is the main event of the Japanese year.

(c) 2012 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


Kyle Schmidt said…
What you fail to mention is that many Americans focus on the mid-distance events and rarely if ever run the 5k and 10k while the Japanese focus on the longer distance races. For example, Rob Finnerty of Wisconsin has no impressive longer distance marks but would have beaten the best Japanese man of any age at the 1500 by a few seconds. Arguably, so would have Alex Hatz of the same team. Also, I'm impressed by the depth of these Japanese teams but how many universities are there in Japan? I feel as though the talent is much more concentrated there than in the States.
Brett Larner said…

Valid points, but the NCAA focusing on shorter distances was what I was talking about when I said, "Given the overall emphasis on longer distances in the Japanese collegiate system and on shorter distances in the American system..."

No doubt you're right that the NCAA runners who specialize in the 1500 m could easily beat any of the IAUA runners at that distance, but you would have to agree that the inverse is also true of the half-marathon and possibly even 10000 m. Considering that the athletes on both sides were racing distances around 10~13 km in their championship races neither of those extremes is as relevant as what they can do over distances closer to that length. 10000 m times would be the best comparison, but 5000 m looks like the most common intersection point even though there are many athletes on both sides who, as you point out, rarely seriously run track 5000 m races.

There are 25-30 universities in the Kanto region that are good enough to usually be in contention for a Hakone Ekiden place like the five detailed in this comparison, with another 20-30 in the same region having people good enough to hope to put some of them on the Hakone select team. Kanto is by far the best region due to the existence of Hakone but there are at least another dozen across the country that would still be considered good were they U.S.-based. Considering that the population is around half that of the U.S. and that there are about as many foreign student athletes in the entire collegiate system as on the NCAA-winning Oklahoma State team I don't think there is much basis for your feeling that things are significantly more concentrated here.

My purpose in making these comparisons is to raise awareness that has been largely been lacking until now outside Japan of the achievements of top IAUA coaches such as Komazawa's Hiroaki Oyagi and Toyo's Toshiyuki Sakai and to show that the general automatic assumption that the NCAA is the be-all end-all of worldwide university men's running is not necessarily justified. You could also say, as others have when I've compared the NCAA and IAUA before, that participation rates, recruitment, Title IX etc. might play roles in limiting the NCAA, but at some point it's worth simply giving credit where it is due.
Anonymous said…
As a Division I coach in America as well as someone that has followed JRN and the Japanese collegiate scene closely(especially Hakone) for the last 3 years, I think many of Brett's posts concerning the collegiate scenes on both sides are taken somewhat out of context. He isn't trying to say that the Japanese collegiate running scene is "better" than that of the United States. Rather, he is simply trying to highlight the amazing performances that are happening over there and using the top American Universities and results to provide context.

Comparing NCAA cross country with Japanese Ekiden is a near impossibility but I don't think anyone can argue that the performances on both sides are remarkable. The NCAA Cross Country Championships are a one of a kind experience and one of the most amazing footraces in the world. That said, anyone that has watched the Hakone Ekiden can not help but be moved and impressed with the performances each year.

Likewise, both competitions have come under recent scrutiny regarding their ability to develop domestic talent. Recently, many have argued against the internationalistic approach that many American Universities have adapted in cross country. Different but similarly, the collegiate Ekiden system has come under scrutiny in that many top Japanese performances are performed in Ekidens and away from track and marathon events, particularly the olympics.

I think both competitions are remarkable and I would encourage anyone that is even the most remote fan of competitive running to watch both the NCAA Cross Country Championships as well as the Hakone Ekiden. However, while Americans are left watching their championship online with terrible coverage, the Hakone Ekiden gets a national broadcast with unparalleled production values so they at least have us beaten there.
Joe said…
I really enjoy the comparisons made and can't help but be very impressed with the depth of Japanese collegiate running. Can't wait for Hakone! Thanks Brett.

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