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Osaka Outkicks Kyoto on the Track for National Women's Ekiden Win

by Brett Larner
video highlights courtesy of race broadcaster NHK

2012 National Women's Ekiden champion Osaka returned with a vengeance, running down defending champion Kyoto on the anchor stage to win the 2015 national title by one second with fast-closing rivals Hyogo and Aichi coming in within the next two seconds.

The National Women's Ekiden features teams from all 47 of Japan's prefectures, each team made up of its territory's best J.H.S., H.S., university and pro runners.  Kyoto got off to a rough start when its opening runner Nanako Kanno, 2nd on the 6.0 km First Stage last year, tripped and fell mid-stage, handing off in 10th 25 seconds behind leader Yuka Ando of Shizuoka.  Osaka was even rockier, last year's First Stage winner Natsuki Omori 8 seconds behind Kanno in 15th.  Undefeated in nearly a year, high schooler Azusa Sumi just missed the course record on the 4.0 km Second Stage to move the Aichi team into 1st by 3 seconds over Kagoshima.  The strong Hyogo team advanced to 3rd, Kyoto and Osaka climbing to 6th and 7th just over 30 seconds off the lead.

Last year's 3.0 km Third Stage winner Tomomi Musembi Takamatsu, the younger sister of 2014 Youth Olymipcs 3000 m gold medalist Nozomi Musembi Takamatsu, ran down all the competition but Aichi as she won again to move Osaka within 12 seconds of the lead.  Kyoto inched forward one place, moving 1 second ahead of Saitama to 5th just 5 seconds behind Hyogo.  Takamatsu handed off to her older sister for the 4.0 km Fourth Stage, but while the older Takamatsu quickly closed the gap to Aichi's Kanayo Miyata she lost steam over the final kilometer of the stage and was fell to 6th.

Hyogo now in the lead after a tight sprint finish on the Fourth Stage, its next runner Misaki Minami, a 1st-year at Nishiwaki Kogyo H.S., did a great job of holding onto the lead on the 4.1075 km Fifth Stage as she shook off pro Miharu Shimokado of Saitama to hand off in 1st.  Kyoto was just 1 second back in 3rd thanks to a stage-winning run from high schooler Aki Manabe, but Osaka remained stuck in 6th.  Both Kyoto and Osaka ran big on the 4.0875 km Sixth Stage, Kyoto's Maako Konishi taking the lead with a stage-best 12:58 to move 6 seconds ahead of Saitama and Osaka's Rino Maeda tying her on time to advance to 5th.

39-year-old mother Mari Ozaki, one of Japan's all-time greats, ran brilliantly on the 4.0 km Seventh Stage, outrunning the high schoolers in pursuit of her position to hand off with the same 6-second lead.  Osaka's Ena Kagayama, a member of 2014 National High School Ekiden champion Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S., ran 15 seconds faster to move up to 2nd but could not crack Ozaki's lead.  Kagoshima's Haruka Shimizu overtook Osaka's Rina Ohara for 2nd on the 3.0 km Eighth Stage, closing to 5 seconds behind leader Kyoto's Ayaka Murao by stage's end.  Further back, last year's Eighth Stage winner Nozomi Tanaka of Hyogo, daughter of 2013 Kobe Marathon course record-setter Chihiro Tanaka, did it again with a 9:58 stage win to move into 4th.

At the start of the 10.0 km Ninth Stage, the last of the race, Kagoshima, Osaka, Hyogo, Saitama and Aichi were all within exactly one minute of Kyoto.  In training for her marathon debut later this month, Kyoto's Yukiko Okuno ran steadily without signs of trouble.  By halfway she had opened 12 more seconds on Kagoshima's Ayano Ikemitsu but unexpectedly found company from Osaka anchor Mizuki Matsuda.  The two regional rivals ran side-by-side the rest of the way, never slowing but still saving up for the last lap of the track.  But they were not alone.

Behind them, Hyogo's Misaki Hayashida moved up to 3rd and began to close.  Further back, Aichi's Ayuko Suzuki, sub-9 for 3000 m last year and one of Japan's highest-potential talents, reeled Hayashida in on her own.  At 8 km Hayashida was 13 seconds behind and Suzuki another 8 seconds back.  Just before 9 km Suzuki went by into 3rd, just 8 seconds behind the lead pair with 1 km to go.  As Okuno and Matsuda went onto the track they slowed, saving up for the last 200 m and not realizing Suzuki was coming up fast behind them with Hayashida in tow.

Going into the back corner the gap was down to 2 seconds before it turned into an all-out sprint.  Matsuda couldn't get by Okuno until the home straight but got far enough away to point to the Osaka logo on her chest and shoot her hands defiantly into the air as she crossed the finish line for the win in 2:17:26.  Okuno held onto 2nd for defending champion Kyoto in 2:17:27, while Hayashida surprisingly came back with a major kick to overtake Suzuki by one second for an excellent 3rd for the Hyogo team in 2:17:28.

Even more surprisingly, Suzuki did not take the stage best title.  Starting back in 10th, collegiate marathon national record holder Sairi Maeda outran Suzuki's time by 11 seconds, running 32:14 to put Kumamoto into the final podium position in 8th in 2:18:44.  Altogether it was a classic ekiden full of turnover, exciting to the very end.  The men get their chance to live up to the same level next weekend at the final race of championship ekiden season, the Jan. 18 National Men's Ekiden in Hiroshima.  Follow @JRNLive for live coverage.

33rd National Women's Ekiden
Kyoto, 1/11/14
47 teams, 9 stages, 42.195 km
click here for complete results

Top Team Results
1. Osaka - 2:17:26
2. Kyoto - 2:17:27
3. Hyogo - 2:17:28
4. Aichi - 2:17:29
5. Kagoshima - 2:17:51
6. Gunma - 2:17:52
7. Saitama - 2:18:06
8. Kumamoto - 2:18:44
9. Shizuoka - 2:19:13
10. Oita - 2:19:41

Top Stage Performances
First Stage (6.0 km)
1. Yuka Ando (Shizuoka) - 19:15
2. Miyuki Uehara (Kagoshima) - 19:19
3. Yuka Takashima (Yamaguchi) - 19:23
4. Miho Shimada (Yamanashi) - 19:24
5. Ayumi Sakaida (Hyogo) - 19:28

Second Stage (4.0 km)
1. Azusa Sumi (Aichi) - 12:13
2. Nana Kuraoka (Kagoshima) - 12:28
3. Kanami Sagayama (Osaka) - 12:29
4. Reia Iwade (Hyogo) - 12:35
4. Yuka Miyazaki (Fukuoka) - 12:35

Third Stage (3.0 km)
1. Tomomi Musembi Takamatsu (Osaka) - 9:24
1. Ema Hayashi (Gunma) - 9:24
3. Mika Moribayashi (Nagasaki) - 9:34
3. Helena Mei Lindsey (Kanagawa) - 9:34

Fourth Stage (4.0 km)
1. Michi Numata (Saitama) 12:45
2. Kotona Ota (Hyogo) - 12:50
2. Hiromi Katakai (Gunma) - 12:50
4. Mao Kiyota (Shizuoka) - 12:52
5. Kureha Seki (Kyoto) - 12:53

Fifth Stage (4.1075 km)
1. Aki Manabe (Kyoto) - 13:07
2. Yurie Fujita (Okayama) - 13:12
3. Miharu Shimokado (Saitama) - 13:13
3. Yumika Miura (Yamanashi) - 13:13

Sixth Stage (4.0875 km)
1. Maako Konishi (Kyoto) - 12:58
1. Rino Maeda (Osaka) - 12:58
3. Haruka Tobimatsu (Kagoshima) - 13:00

Seventh Stage (4.0 km)
1. Ena Kagayama (Osaka) - 12:37
2. Runa Akiyama (Shizuoka) - 12:44
3. Madoka Mitsueda (Kagoshima) - 12:46
4. Mari Ozaki (Kyoto) - 12:52
4. Reina Shinozaki (Gunma) - 12:52

Eighth Stage (3.0 km)
1. Nozomi Tanaka (Hyogo) - 9:58
2. Arisu Fuwa (Gunma) - 10:05
3. Haruka Shimizu (Kagoshima) - 10:15

Ninth Stage (10.0 km)
1. Sairi Maeda (Kumamoto) - 32:14
2. Ayuko Suzuki (Aichi) - 32:25
3. Misaki Kato (Oita) - 32:34
4. Yuika Mori (Gunma) - 32:43
5. Yukari Abe (Yamagata) - 32:45
6. Yuki Mitsunobu (Saga) - 32:53
7. Misaki Hayashida (Hyogo) - 32:54
8. Hanae Tanaka (Tokyo) - 32:58
9. Keiko Nogami (Nagasaki) - 32:59
10. Risa Takenaka (Shiga) - 33:04

(c) 2015 Brett Larner
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