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Toyo Takes Down Aoyama Gakuin for First-Ever National University Men's Ekiden Championships Title

by Brett Larner
photos and video by Ekiden News

"You never know unless you try."

 #4-ranked Toyo University outran all expectations, even their own, to take down heavy favorite Aoyama Gakuin University in a thrilling head-to-head battle over almost the entire 8-stage, 106.8 km course to win its first-ever National University Men's Ekiden Championships title.

At a public talk event last week Hiroaki Oyagi, head coach of four-time defending national champ Komazawa University grudgingly paid tribute to the fresh green Aoyama Gakuin uniform, saying, "We'd like to win a fifth title, but this year everything's gone green."  For his part, popular young Toyo head coach Toshiyuki Sakai, famed for transforming Toyo into the team that redefined the Hakone Ekiden, said simply, "You never know unless you try."  And try Toyo did.

From the first leg, Toyo's Yuma Hattori, the collegiate 30 km national record holder at 1:28:52, outran AGU's 2015 National University Half Marathon champion Tadashi Isshiki, Waseda University's Shinichiro Nakamura and Komazawa's Keisuke Nakatani to hand off to his younger brother Hazuma Hattori in 1st.

Hazuma, this year's National University 5000 m champion, mopped the roads with AGU's Yusuke Ogura, the 2015 World University Games half marathon gold medalist, opening a lead of over 20 seconds and winning the Second Stage.  Toyo's Ryo Kuchimachi, a stage winner at last month's season-opening Izumo Ekiden, put one more second onto the lead with Toyo's third-straight stage win just 3 seconds off the 26:55 record for the 9.5 km Third Stage..

AGU fought back on the Fourth Stage, with senior Kazuma Kubota repeating his sensational Izumo performance to quickly close the gap to Toyo's Shun Sakuraoka.  But where Kubota tore off into a race-making lead in Izumo, the little-known Sakuraoka tenaciously hung on, covering every surge Kubota threw in before delivering a death blow last surge of his own to keep Toyo in front at the handoff.  Kuchimachi won this year's Nationals MVP award but it was really Sakuraoka who was the key player in what was to come.

And what was to come was the ekiden at its absolute utter best.  On every stage, AGU tore it up to catch Toyo.  Both schools' runners pummeled each other all the way, both teams right on course record pace.  Every time, Toyo's runners, the lesser on paper, pulled out a last attack that left AGU reeling.  What more could you ask for?  If people around the world could see this kind of race they'd all be running ekidens.

Midway through the Seventh Stage Toyo's Tatsuhiko Hori, another relative unknown, began to edge away from AGU's Ryo Hashimoto to put Toyo around 25 seconds ahead of AGU at the handoff to the 19.7 km anchor stage.  AGU head coach Susumu Hara said pre-race that if AGU was within 30 seconds of the lead he was confident that captain Daichi Kamino, the biggest star in today's Japanese collegiate long distance after a sensational run at the last Hakone Ekiden, would be able to close the gap thanks to his 1:01:21 half marathon best.  The main question mark was Kamino's fitness in his first major race back after a spring stress fracture.

With a 1:02:58 half marathon best and better 5000 m and 10000 m times than Kamino Toyo anchor Kazuki Uemura was no slouch, and with the lead and the pressure from behind he ran with the same intent and focus as his teammates before him.  Kamino opened well, but Uemura first held the lead, then began to draw away.  Halfway through it was clear that he wasn't going to fade, and the only question left became whether he would take Komazawa's 5:12:43 course record.  It wasn't to be, but when he crossed the line in 5:13:04 it was still one of the fastest wins in the National University Men's Ekiden's 47-year history and the first time for Toyo to top the country.  Coach Sakai wept openly on nationwide TV in the team's post-win interview, totally unfeigned and no doubt doubling his and the team's fan base.

Kamino, clearly not back to 100% dropped more than a minute behind but held on to 2nd easily in 5:14:08.  #3-ranked Komazawa never fully recovered from leadoff runner Nakatani finishing 4th on his stage, spending most of the race in that position trying to catch #2-ranked Waseda for 3rd.  Anchor Shohei Otsuka finally did it with almost no room to spare, catching Waseda's Jun Sato in the final kilometer and bringing Komazawa home in 3rd in 5:15:33 just three seconds ahead of Waseda.

With the top six teams scoring places at next year's Nationals #5-ranked Tokai University and #7-ranked Meiji University were together most of the way in 5th and 6th after dropping #9-ranked Juntendo University.  They couldn't afford to run a safe stage, though, as behind them was #6-ranked Yamanashi Gakuin University first-year Kenyan Dominic Nyairo.  At Izumo last month Nyairo was one of the day's stars, tearing through the field in his ekiden debut and overtaking Komazawa in the last kilometer to give YGU 2nd.  In his first time racing near the 20 km distance he did it again here, starting in 9th place a full three minutes out of 6th but going straight out with monomaniacal focus.  Down went 8th place Chuo Gakuin University.  Out with 7th place Juntendo.  Tokai and Meiji coming into sight.

You could tell it was going to be close.  Very close.  Maybe sensing the danger, Tokai anchor Toshio Takaki dropped a surge in the last kilometer to throw Meiji's Kyota Yabushita into Nyairo's path.  Takaki crossed the safely in 5th in 5:17:42.  Yabushita, eyes wide, ran for everything he had as Nyairo grew large behind him, just steps and seconds between them as the finish line approached.  And he survived, taking 6th in 5:17:51, a devastated Nyairo five seconds back in 5:17:56.  You can't fault Nyairo, though, as his time of 56:55 for the 19.7 km stage, sub-61 quality for a half marathon in his first stab at that kind of distance, was more than a minute faster than the next-best time on the stage, fellow Kenyan Daniel Muiva Kitonyi's 58:01 anchor run for #8-ranked Nihon University.

With Kanto Region schools dominating the day, Kyoto Sangyo University, the top non-Kanto school in Izumo, lived up to expectations by taking a credible 11th in 5:22:21 to beat five Kanto schools.  Kyoto Sangyo and Kansai Region rivals Kwansei Gakuin University, 16th in 5:28:21, and Ritsumeikan University, 17th in 5:28:44, will next face each other at the Tango University Ekiden, Kansai's championships ekiden.  For most of the Kanto schools the next big race on the calendar is the Ageo City Half Marathon in two weeks.  After that is the long buildup to the season's peak, Japan's biggest sporting event, the January 2-3 Hakone Ekiden.  With Toyo's unexpected takedown of Aoyama Gakuin today it's going to be a mighty, mighty race.

47th National University Men's Ekiden Championships
Nagoya, Aichi - Ise, Mie, 11/1/15
27 teams, 8 stages, 106.8 km
click here for complete results

Top Team Results - top 6 seeded for 2016
1. Toyo University - 5:13:04
2. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:14:08
3. Komazawa University - 5:15:33
4. Waseda University - 5:15:36
5. Tokai University - 5:17:42
6. Meiji University - 5:17:51
7. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:17:56
8. Juntendo University - 5:19:15
9. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:19:22
10. Nihon University - 5:19:26
11. Kyoto Sangyo University - 5:22:21
12. Nittai University - 5:23:47
13. Kanagawa University - 5:24:30
14. Teikyo University - 5:24:33
15. Koku Gakuin University - 5:24:37

Individual Stage Performances
First Stage - 14.6 km
1. Yuma Hattori (Toyo Univ.) - 43:11
2. Tadashi Isshiki (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 43:11
3. Shinichiro Nakamura (Waseda Univ.) - 43:11

Second Stage - 13.2 km
1. Hazuma Hattori (Toyo Univ.) - 37:34
2. Naoki Kudo (Komazawa Univ.) - 37:52
3. Shin Kimura (Meiji Univ.) - 37:54

Third Stage - 9.5 km
1. Ryo Kuchimachi (Toyo Univ.) - 26:58
2. Kazuki Tamura (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 26:59
3. Haruki Minatoya (Tokai Univ.) - 27:06

Fourth Stage - 14.0 km
1. Kazuma Kubota (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 40:33
2. Rintaro Takeda (Waseda Univ.) - 40:53
3. Keita Shioya (Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 40:54

Fifth Stage - 11.6 km
1. Yuta Shimoda (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 33:46
2. Naoya Takahashi (Toyo Univ.) - 33:54
3. Naoki Saita (Meiji Univ.) - 34:15

Sixth Stage - 12.3 km
1. Shota Baba (Komazawa Univ.) - 35:39
2. Shunya Nomura (Toyo Univ.) - 36:08
3. Koki Ido (Waseda Univ.) - 36:12

Seventh Stage - 11.9 km
1. Tatsuhiko Hori (Toyo Univ.) - 35:10
2. Hiroki Nagayama (Waseda Univ.) - 35:26
3. Ryo Hashimoto (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 35:27

Eighth Stage - 19.7 km
1. Dominic Nyairo (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 56:55
2. Daniel Muiva Kitonyi (Nihon Univ.) - 58:01
3. Shohei Otsuka (Komazawa Univ.) - 58:39

(c) 2015 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


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