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Universal Entertainment Claims First-Ever National Title

by Brett Larner

In its second year on a new course in Sendai, the National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships were again dominated by a team that led wire-to-wire.  #1-seeded Universal Entertainment of the East Japan region fought off a stomach virus that swept through the team last week and headwinds at times upwards of 50 kph to lead the entire race, winning just off last year's course record in 2:17:35 as three of its six members set new individual stage records.  Central Japan's Denso took an expected 2nd place after a sensational stage record run by anchor Mai Ishibashi, while defending champion Daiichi Seimei overcame the absence of 2009 Berlin World Championships marathon silver medalist Yoshimi Ozaki to run down West Japan champ Wacoal for 3rd on the last lap of the track.  Despite the headwinds on the point-to-point course, five of the six stages saw new records, most with multiple women cracking last year's times.

Universal's Rui Aoyama led things off on the hilly 7.0 km First Stage, outgunning last year's stage runner-up Yurie Doi (Team Starts) to break Ozaki's course record in 22:12.  Doi was also under Ozaki's record, with Ozaki's junior teammate and 2012 National Corporate Half Marathon champion Tomomi Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei) 3rd just off the record in 22:21.  Many of the other favorites including Denso, Wacoal and Daihatsu got off to slow starts far back in the pack.  Aoyama handed off to virtual unknown Moeno Nakamura for the 3.9 km Second Stage, and Nakamura did an outstanding job of strengthening Universal's position.  Running a stage record 12:04 she widened the lead from 4 to 11 seconds heading into the biggest and baddest stage of the day, the 10.9 km Third Stage.

The 10.9 km Third Stage featured most of the best runners of the day, including 5000 m national champion Hitomi Niiya (Team Univ. Ent.), 10000 m national champion Mika Yoshikawa (Team Panasonic), national record holders Yuriko Kobayashi (Team Toyota Jidoshokki), Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) and Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo), 2011 World Championships marathoners Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren) and Mai Ito (Team Otsuka Seiyaku), and many more.  Niiya, who led most of the London Olympics 10000 m before finishing 9th in an all-time #3 Japanese 30:59.19, was again comfortable frontrunning, clocking a 2:55 first km into the wind and ultimately extending Universal's lead to 35 seconds.  Behind her, the best racing of the day went down.

The Toyota Jidoshokki team started just seconds ahead of Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo and Wacoal, a dream scenario which meant that, with every standard distance national record from 1500 m to half marathon and, at one point, the marathon, between them, Kobayashi, Shibui and Fukushi all went head to head.  Fukushi and Shibui were smiling as Fukushi cracked jokes while the two closed the gap to Kobayashi.  Running as a trio they picked off the competition one by one until Shibui began to lose touch.  Kobayashi was next, leaving Fukushi alone heading into the wind.  Catching Niiya was unthinkable, but Fukushi advanced as far as 2nd and easily took the stage best in a new course record of 35:04 despite running almost entirely into the wind.  She was nearly 30 seconds faster than Niiya, who also broke the record.  After finishing Fukushi was her usual self, saying, "Oh yeah, I beat 'em.  Would've been nice to get those last four seconds, though.  And Niiya."  Asked about the wind she joked about Shibui's weight gain: "Well it was windy, but if there was one person it didn't bother it was definitely Shibui."

On the 3.6 km Fourth Stage, the "International Stage" to which all the non-Japanese athletes are restricted to minimize television time and the advantage of teams that can afford them, Universal's Felista Wanjugu tied her own course record of 11:29 to double the team's lead.  Some short-lived turnover happened behind her as other Kenyan-wielding teams made up ground, but the 10.0 km Fifth Stage played a more important role.  Much of Universal's fate lay in the hands of Mizuho Nasukawa, who finished 2nd at the Yokohama International Women's Marathon four weeks ago and came down with the stomach virus that wracked the team only last week.  Missing several days of training, she was only able to run at 4:00/km after returning to practice.  Despite the setback she set out at a steady pace and ultimately managed to increase Universal's lead by three seconds with the third-fastest time on the stage.  Further back, London Olympics marathoners Risa Shigetomo (Team Tenmaya) and Ryoko Kizaki (Team Daihatsu) went 1-2 on stage time, with marathon national record holder Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex) a minute slower and 12th on stage time in 34:22.

With a 94-second lead and 6.795 km to run Universal anchor Kaoru Nagao had a margin of error to work with, and as another Universal runner hit by stomach flu she needed it.  Slow and steady she went on toward the finish, never straining but never worried even as the competition came into sight behind her.  Running only 19th of 29 on time for the stage, she held on to give Universal the win by a margin of 52 seconds. Wacoal's Noriko Higuchi, declared winner of the 2011 Tokyo Marathon following the positive doping test of Russian runner Tatiana Aryasova, looked set to take the runner-up spot after dropping Toyota Jidoshokki's Sayuri Sento, but in a thrilling finish Denso's Mai Ishibashi, coming from seemingly nowhere, and Daiichi Seimei's Yuka Kakimi caught her on the last lap of the track, Ishibashi smoking a 20:48 stage record, the fastest by 26 seconds over Kakimi, to take 2nd.  Kakimi and Higuchi brought Daiichi Seimei and Wacoal home seconds later, with Sento and Toyota Jidoshokki nearly 10 seconds back to round out the top five.

Past national champion Tenmaya fell from 4th last year to 6th, while Otsuka Seiyaku and Shimamura had their best-ever placings, 7th and 8th.  Last year's 2nd and 3rd place teams Panasonic and Sekisui Kagaku limped into the top ten this year nearly three minutes behind Universal Entertainment.

One major road race remains for Japanese women this year, the Dec. 23 Sanyo Ladies Road Race half marathon and 10 km.  Top Nationals competitors including Akaba and Sally Chepyego (Kenya/Team Kyudenko) to line up.  In January comes the National Women's Ekiden, followed by the next big marathon on the Japanese calendar, the Osaka International Women's Marathon.  Look for Fukushi, scheduled to run last month's cancelled New York City Marathon, to take another stab at an Osaka that has thus far treated her harshly.  Noguchi and Shibui are reportedly planning to line up alongside her.

2012 National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships
Sendai, 12/16/12
6 stages, 42.195 km, 29 teams
click here for complete results

Top Team Results
1. Universal Entertainment (East Japan) - 2:17:35
2. Denso (Central Japan) - 2:18:27
3. Daiichi Seimei (East Japan) - 2:18:29
4. Wacoal (West Japan) - 2:18:32
5. Toyota Jidoshokki (Central Japan) - 2:18:41
6. Tenmaya (West Japan) - 2:19:15
7. Otsuka Seiyaku (West Japan) - 2:20:05
8. Shimamura (East Japan) - 2:20:10
9. Panasonic (East Japan) - 2:20:27
10. Sekisui Kagaku (East Japan) - 2:20:30

Stage Best Performances
First Stage (7.0 km) - Rui Aoyama (Team Univ. Ent.) - 22:12 - CR
Second Stage (3.9 km) - Moeno Nakamura (Team Univ. Ent.) - 12:04 - CR
Third Stage (10.9 km) - Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) - 35:04 - CR
Fourth Stage (3.6 km) - Felista Wanjugu (Kenya/Team Univ. Ent.) - 11:29 - CR
Fifth Stage (10.0 km) - Risa Shigetomo (Team Tenmaya) - 33:23
Sixth Stage (6.795 km) - Mai Ishibashi (Team Denso) - 20:48 - CR

(c) 2012 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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