Monday, October 31, 2016

Bekele, Kawauchi, Kwambai, Makau and Tsegay Headline Fukuoka Elite Field

by Brett Larner

The Dec. 4 Fukuoka International Marathon released the elite field for this year's 70th running today.  2014-15 winner Patrick Makau (Kenya) returns, looking to follow Frank Shorter and Toshihiko Seko as just the third man to win Fukuoka three years in a row.  Makau's main competition comes from 2015 World Championships silver medalist Yemane Tsegay (Ethiopia), James Kwambai (Kenya) and Amanuel Mesel (Eritrea).  An interesting name that could represent an extra challenge if he shows the same renewed focus as his older brother Kenenisa is Tariku Bekele (Ethiopia).  Further back, Reid Coolsaet (Canada) has a shot at breaking the 2:10:09 Canadian national record set in Fukuoka in 1975 by Jerome Drayton.

The large Japan-based African contingent is headed by the debuting Paul Kuira (Kenya/Team Konica Minolta), who won the 2015 Kagawa Marugame International Half Marathon in 59:47 in his debut over the distance, 2012 Fukuoka winner Joseph Gitau (Kenya/JFE Steel), 2016 Osaka Marathon winner Benjamin Ngandu (Kenya/Monteroza), and 2016 Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon winner Melaku Abera (Ethiopia/Kurosaki Harima) who scored the win in his marathon debut.

Fukuoka factors into Japan's overcomplicated selection algebra for the 2017 Loondon World Championships marathon team.  Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) has the fastest time of 2016 by a Japanese man, 2:09:01 for 2nd at July's Gold Coast Airport Marathon, and comes to Fukuoka as the #1 domestic seed.  The only other Japanese man in the field to have broken 2:10 in the last three years is Tomoya Adachi (Team Asahi Kasei) with a 2:09:59 in Fukuoka 2014.  Chiharu Takada (Team JR Higashi Nihon) has gotten closer and closer and could be called Japan's best marathoner to have never broken 2:10, but beyond this trio it's hard to see other potential contenders for the London team.  Kazuhiro Maeda (Team Kyudenko) has run 2:08:00, but his best in the last three years is only 2:11:46.  A promising newcomer is independent Aritaka Kajiwara, a former Hakone Ekiden teammate of Kawauchi's who has run 2:18 marathons twice but shows potential for better with a sub-63 half and sub-hour 20 km to his name this year.

70th Fukuoka International Marathon Elite Field
Fukuoka, 12/4/16
click here for complete field listing
times listed are best within last 3 years except where noted

Yemane Tsegay (Ethiopia) - 2:06:51 (Daegu 2014)
James Kwambai (Kenya) - 2:07:38 (Seoul 2014)
Patrick Makau (Kenya) - 2:08:18 (Fukuoka Int'l 2015)
Amanuel Mesel (Eritrea) - 2:08:18 (Warsaw 2015)
Henryk Szost (Poland) - 2:08:55 (Warsaw 2014)
Joseph Gitau (Kenya/JFE Steel) - 2:09:00 (Fukuoka Int'l 2013)
Yuki Kawauchi (Japan/Saitama Pref. Gov't) - 2:09:01 (Gold Coast 2016)
Benjamin Ngandu (Kenya/Monteroza) - 2:09:18 (Tokyo 2015)
Melaku Abera (Ethiopia/Kurosaki Harima) - 2:09:27 (Beppu-Oita 2016)
Yared Asmerom (Eritrea/SEISA) - 2:09:41 (Tokyo 2015)
Cuthbert Nyasango (Zimbabwe) - 2:09:52 (Prague 2014)
Tomoya Adachi (Japan/Asahi Kasei) - 2:09:59 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Chiharu Takada (Japan/JR Higashi Nihon) - 2:10:03 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Reid Coolsaet (Canada) - 2:10:28 (Berlin 2015)
Paulo Paula (Brazil) - 2:11:02 (Fukuoka Int'l 2015)
Yoshiki Otsuka (Japan/Aichi Seiko) - 2:11:40 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Kazuhiro Maeda (Japan/Kyudenko) - 2:11:46 (Biwako 2015)
Noriaki Takahashi (Japan/DeNA) - 2:12:00 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Hiroki Yamagishi (Japan/GMO Athletes) - 2:12:27 (Tokyo 2016)
Dmytro Baranovskyy (Ukraine) - 2:12:40 (Warsaw 2014)
Ryo Ishita (Japan/SDF Academy) - 2:13:52 (Nobeoka 2014)
Bunta Kuroki (Japan/Yasukawa Denki) - 2:14:27 (Warsaw 2014)
Michael Githae (Kenya/Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:14:29 (Shizuoka 2016)
Sho Matsumoto (Japan/Nikkei Business Service) - 2:14:54 (Osaka 2014)
Kenta Iinuma (Japan/SGH Group) - 2:15:05 (Biwako 2014)
Saeki Makino (Japan/DNP Logistics) - 2:15:22 (Seoul 2015)
Tomoya Shirayanagi (Japan/Toyota Boshoku) - 2:15:56 (Shizuoka 2016)

Trying Again
Tariku Bekele (Ethiopia) - 1:01:39 (Great North Run Half Marathon 2014)
Aritaka Kajiwara (Japan/Atsugi T&F Assoc) - 1:02:45 (Takanezawa Half Marathon 2016)

Debut
Paul Kuira (Kenya/Konica Minolta) - 59:47 (Marugame Half Marathon 2015)
John Kariuki (Kenya/Hiramatsu Byoin) - 28:38.16 for 10000 m, Hokuren DC Abashiri 2016)

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Rio Olympian Anju Takamizawa Leads Matsuyama University to First National Title

by Brett Larner

Rio de Janeiro Olympics 3000 m steeplechase runner Anju Takamizawa, the first Japanese university woman to ever make an Olympic team in a distance event, led Matsuyama University to take down five-time defending national champion Ritsumeikan University and become the first school from the Chugoku-Shikoku Region to ever win the National University Women's Ekiden Championships title Sunday in Sendai.


3rd last year, Matsuyama lined up against Ritsumeikan, Kanto Region champ and 2015 runner-up Daito Bunka University and 23 other teams at the Morinomiyako Ekiden, as Nationals are popularly called.  Ritsumeikan got off to a rocky start, its lead runner Nanako Kanno eight seconds behind 1500 m national university champion Natsu Hashimoto (Kyoto Sangyo Univ.) in 6th, but for Matsuyama and Daito Bunka the First Stage was a disaster. Matsuyama senior Ayumi Uehara, one of its three best runners, was only 14th, 40 seconds behind Hashimoto.  Daito Bunka's Soyoka Segawa was another seven seconds back in 15th.  For both schools it was going to be a tough race to catch back up to Ritsumeikan and the other leaders.

Matsuyama's second runner Misaki Ogata was up for the challenge. Delivering Matsuyama's first-ever individual stage win, Ogata ran down Ritsumeikan's Ayano Ikeuchi to move up into 3rd overall, 14 seconds behind new leader Meijo University.  Matsuyama moved into 2nd on the Third Stage but Meijo, one of only two schools to have beaten Ritsumeikan for the national title in the last 13 years, unexpectedly expanded its lead to 33 seconds thanks to a stage best run from Honoka Yuzawa.  A new stage record from Matsuyama's fourth runner, Riho Takamizawa, wasn't enough to break Meijo's lead, Meijo handing off to the 9.2 km Fifth Stage, the day's longest, still two seconds ahead.

It was up to Matsuyama's 5000 m national university champion Misuzu Nakahara to get the job done on the Fifth Stage.  Immediately catching Meijo's Yomogi Akasaka, Nakahara ran a steady pace for the first 3 km before throwing in a surge that dropped Akasaka.  Pushing on ahead, Nakahara opened a massive 1:04 lead coming up to the anchor stage handoff. Behind her, Akasaka fell victim to Ritsumeikan's Kureha Seki, who put the defending champs into 2nd but could do nothing but watch as Nakahara faded into the distance ahead.

Nakahara handed off to Olympian anchor Anju Takamizawa.  No relation to her younger teammate Riho, Takamizawa had 64 seconds to play with over just 5.2 km, pretty much an unbeatable lead even with Ritsumeikan's best runner Natsuki Omori behind her.  Takamizawa could have played it safe, but instead she went all in, breaking the anchor stage course record by three seconds to give Matsuyama University its first-ever national title.  With the Kansai and, to a lesser degree, Kanto Regions dominating the women's university landscape, it was the first win for a team from the relatively weak Chugoku-Shikoku Region.  Ritsumeikan anchor Omori was only four seconds off the anchor stage record, giving it everything but no match for Takamizawa. There were more stony faces than tears on the Ritsumeikan team as their five-year winning streak, the longest in Morinomiyako history, came to an end.

Meijo held on to 3rd, with early leader Kyoto Sangyo University 4th. Spending the entire race catching up after its weak start, Daito Bunka climbed back to 5th by race's end, well within the eight-deep bracket of seeded places at the 2017 Morinomiyako Ekiden.  Osaka Gakuin University and Nittai University comfortably took 6th and 7th, but the race for the 8th spot was close and painful.  Fukuoka University was unexpectedly strong this year, running as high as 2nd overall and staying within the top five for the first half of the race.  But on the Fifth Stage it fell to 9th behind Kansai University, six seconds from Kansai at the handoff to its anchor with Toyo University just three seconds behind.  Toyo anchor Izumi Yamaguchi quickly overtook Fukuoka's Chisaki Okamura, but it took until the final kilometer for her to catch Kansai anchor Ryoko Mori.  Flying around the last corner to the home straight, Yamaguchi brought Toyo in in 8th, three seconds ahead of Kansai and 11 seconds up on Fukuoka.  The race for the last seeded position is usually one of the highlights of the big championship ekidens, and this year's Morinomiyako finish was one of the best.

Morinomiyako Ekiden
34th National University Women's Ekiden Championships
Sendai, Miyazaki, 10/30/16
26 teams, 6 stages, 38.0 km
click here for complete results

Top Team Results - top 8 seeded for 2017
1. Matsuyama University - 2:03:56
2. Ritsumeikan University - 2:05:07
3. Meijo University - 2:05:48
4. Kyoto Sangyo University - 2:06:07
5. Daito Bunka University - 2:06:12
6. Osaka Gakuin University - 2:06:18
7. Nittai University - 2:06:50
8. Toyo University - 2:07:34
-----
9. Kansai University - 2:07:37
10. Fukuoka University - 2:07:45

Stage Best Performances
First Stage (6.4 km) - Natsu Hashimoto (Kyoto Sangyo Univ.) - 20:27
Second Stage (5.6 km) - Misaki Ogata (Matsuyama Univ.) - 17:56
Third Stage (6.8 km) - Honoka Yuzawa (Meijo Univ.) - 22:04
Fourth Stage (4.8 km) - Riho Takamizawa (Matsuyama Univ.) - 15:38 - CR
Fifth Stage (9.2 km) - Misuzu Nakahara (Matsuyama Univ.) - 29:49
Sixth Stage (5.2 km) - Anju Takamizawa (Matsuyama Univ.) - 17:03 - CR

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

37-Year-Old Mother of Three Sakamoto Becomes First-Ever Japanese Winner of Osaka Marathon

by Brett Larner

One of the ten biggest marathons in the world, the Osaka Marathon celebrated its first-ever Japanese winner this year.


The Osaka women's race was a one-woman show the whole way.  Amateur runner Yoshiko Sakamoto (Y.W.C.) a 37-year-old mother of three and former high school star who took up marathons at age 32 after not running for more than 10 years, went it alone from the gun.  35 seconds ahead of #1-ranked Nurit Yimam (Ethiopia) at 5 km, Sakamoto fearlessly pushed her pace under 2:30 by 15 km and stretched her lead to almost four minutes as Yimam and top club runner Yumiko Kinoshita (SWAC) held steady to 2:35~36 pace.  With a best of 2:36:29 Sakamoto was bound to pay for it, and after halfway she began to slow.  "After 33 km it felt like my right hamstring was going to cramp up," she told JRN after the race.  By 40 km she was barely clearing 4:00/km.

Behind her Yimam had dropped out, but Kinoshita was closing.  Kinoshita covered the 5 km from 35 to 40 km over a minute faster than Sakamoto, but with enough of a lead and the self-control to push it again after 40 km Sakamoto held on. "Right until the end I was trying to win, so I never gave up," she told JRN.   "I just kept pushing forward and forward."  Sakamoto crossed the finish line in 2:36:02, a new PB that made her the first Japanese runner male or female to win the Osaka Marathon. After a 2016 that saw her sit out January's Osaka International Women's Marathon when her children caught the flu, sit out February's Tokyo Marathon when she caught it from them,  DNF in freezing rain at April's Zurich Marathon, then rally with a 4th place finish at June's Jilin Marathon and 2nd at September's Muenster Marathon with support from JRN, her win was a perfect cap to Sakamoto's year.


2015 Osaka men's winner Daniel Kosgei (Kenya) led a sizable men7s lead pack through 5 km in a leisurely 16:03, mid-2:15 pace, before picking it up toward 2:12 territory.  Kosgei stayed in front at that pace through halfway before 2012 Osaka winner Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (Mongolia/Team NTN) went to the front.  Bat-Ochir kept control for over 10 km, the pack dwindling even as the pace slowed until Tokyo-based Benjamin Ngandu (Kenya/Monteroza) took over.

With a sub-2:10 best in Tokyo last year ranking him alongside Bat-Ochir as the favorite for the win Ngandu turned it on, dropping first Bat-Ochir, then last year's runner-up Taiga Ito (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC), and finally 2:12 man Hiroki Yamagishi (GMO Athletes) to score his first career marathon win in 2:12:47.  A graduate of Nihon University, Ngandu's sponsor Monteroza recently announced that it will disband its athletics team in the spring.  Breaking Osaka's 2:11:43 course record would have gone a long way to helping Ngandu stay in Japan, leading him to show obvious disappointment as he crossed the finish line.  "Next year there won't be a Monteroza," Ngandu said post-race.  "Please keep cheering for me and supporting me!"

6th Osaka Marathon
Osaka, 10/30/16
official results coming shortly

Men
1. Benjamin Ngandu (Kenya/Monteroza) - 2:12:47
2. Hiroki Yamagishi (GMO Athletes) - 2:12:59
3. Taiga Ito (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:13:35
4. Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (Mongolia/NTN) - 2:13:43
5. Sora Tsukada (SGH Group) - 2:15:16 - PB
6. Yasuyuki Nakamura (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:15:32
7. Koshi Watanabe (Subaru) - 2:15:36 - PB
8. Sho Matsumoto (Nikkei Business Service) - 2:15:50
9. Yosuke Chida (Hitachi Butsuryu) - 2:17:05 - PB
10. Brandon Mull (U.S.A.) - 2:18:14
-----
18. Daniel Kosgei (Kenya) - 2:27:57

Women
1. Yoshiko Sakamoto (Yokkaichi Wellness Club) - 2:36:02 - PB
2. Yumiko Kinoshita (SWAC) - 2:37:03
3. Hisae Yoshimatsu (Shunan City Hall) - 2:38:00
4. Mitsuko Iino (Running Team R2) - 2:44:00
5. Mayumi Uchiyama (Nitori) - 2:45:06
6. Shiho Satonaka (Running Team R2) - 2:47:22 - PB
7. Tomomi Matsuoka (Run Friends) - 2:47:29
8. Tomoko Horioka (Osaka Nittai Univ.) - 2:49:06 - PB
9. Mina Ogawa (Puma RC) - 2:49:32
10. Ai Ogo (Himeji T&F Assoc.) - 2:50:09
-----
DNF - Nurit Yimam (Ethiopia)

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Saturday, October 29, 2016

'Boise State Men and New Mexico Women Take Home Team Titles at Mountain West Cross Country Championships'


http://www.themw.com/news/boise-state-men-and-new-mexico-women-take-home-team-titles-at-mountain-west-cross-country-championships-10-28-2016

Yusuke Uchikoshi (3rd yr., Boise State Univ.) won the Oct. 28 Mountain West XC Championships 8.0 km individual title in 23:48.80.  His win is likely the first NCAA conference XC title for a Japanese athlete.  Click here for complete results.  Uchikoshi ran 13:59.90 for 5000 m in high school before going to the U.S. for university.  His father Tadao Uchikoshi was 2nd in the 1991 Amsterdam Marathon and 5th in the 1993 Stuttgart World Championships marathon.  More footage and interview in the video below starting at 2:05.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Breaking the Ritsumeikan Dynasty - National University Women's Ekiden Preview

by Brett Larner



Ekiden season rolls on this Sunday with the Morinomiyako Ekiden, the 34th edition of the National University Women's Ekiden.  25 university teams and one regional select team will race over 38.0 km in six stages.  Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University has won the national title ten times in the last thirteen years and is in the middle of the longest streak in the championships' history, with five straight wins behind them and looking to add a sixth.  The last team to beat them, Kyoto rivals Bukkyo University, have completely disappeared since the departure of head coach Kenichi Morikawa to take over at the Yamada Denki women's corporate team, while the only other team to beat Ritsumeikan since 2003, 2005 champ Meijo University of Aichi, was 5th last year almost four minutes behind Ritsumeikan.

Ritsumeikan won September's Kansai Region University Women's Ekiden, but its margin over runner-up Kyoto Sangyo University was only 24 seconds over 30 km.  At the National University Track and Field Championships earlier in September, between the 1500 m, 5000 m, 10000 m and 3000 mSC only one Ritsumeikan runner, fourth-year Natsuki Omori, made the top five in any event.  Ritsumeikan has rarely looked as vulnerable.

Last year's runner-up Daito Bunka University of Saitama may be the one to break the Ritsumeikan dynasty.  Almost three minutes behind Ritsumeikan last year, at September's Kanto Region University Women's Ekiden DBU won by a margin of almost two minutes in 1:38:59 for 30.6 km, faster than Ritsumeikan's 1:39:21 for 30.0 km in Kansai.  On the other hand, no DBU women made the top five in the distance events at the National University Track and Field Championships.  If they come to Nationals with the same strength they showed at the Kanto Region race they could become the first Kanto national champion since 2002.

2015 third-placer Matsuyama University easily won the Chugoku-Shikoku Region University Ekiden, but with a total distance of only 25.0 km its time of 1:26:28 is harder to compare to Ritsumeikan's.  A better indication of Matsuyama's strength was its performance at the National University Track and Field Championships.  Led by Rio Olympian Anju Takamizawa, seven Matsuyama women made the top five in the four distance events including a meet record from Takamizawa in the 3000 mSC and a win in the 5000 m by fourth-year Misuzu Nakahara over Ritsumeikan's Omori.  A national title for them would be a first for the Chugoku-Shikoku Region.

University men's ekiden season is completely dominated by Kanto Region teams, but with Ritsumeikan, Daito Bunka and Matsuyama all coming back strong this year's women's Nationals look to be an exciting race between the top teams from three different regions.  Ritsumeikan prioritizes peaking for Nationals above all else and shouldn't be counted down and out based on its September results.  But apart from Bukkyo's 2009 and 2010 wins it's hard to remember a time any teams have looked as close to them in ability.  Even Kyoto Sangyo could get in on the action.  The only thing better than an unbeatable champ is seeing someone beat one.  This could be the year.

Nippon TV will broadcast the Morinomiyako Ekiden live starting at noon on Sunday, Oct. 30.  Follow @JRNLive for live coverage throughout the race.

34th Morinomiyako Ekiden
National University Women's Ekiden
Sendai, Miyagi, 10/30/16
click here for complete entry list and uniform guide

1. Ritsumeikan University - Kyoto
2. Daito Bunka University - Saitama
3. Matsuyama University - Ehime
4. Nittai University - Kanagawa
5. Meijo University - Aichi
6. Osaka Gakuin University - Osaka
7. Tokyo Nogyo University - Tokyo
8. Kansai University - Osaka
9. Hokusho University - Hokkaido
10. Tohoku Fukushi University - Miyagi
11. Ishinomaki Senshu University - Miyagi
12. Toyo University - Saitama
13. Hakuoh University - Tochigi
14. Josai University - Saitama
15. Juntendo University - Chiba
16. Chuo University - Tokyo
17. Niigata Iryo Fukushi University - Niigata
18. Chukyo University - Aichi
19. Kyoto Sangyo University - Kyoto
20. Kansai Gaikokugo University - Osaka
21. Osaka Geijutsu University - Osaka
22. Kantai Heiyo University - Okayama
23. Fukuoka University - Fukuoka
24. Kanoya Taiiku University - Kagoshima
25. Kwassui Joshi University - Nagasaki
26. Tohoku Region Select Team

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

The Izumo Ekiden - Director's Cut



Last year JRN covered the Izumo Ekiden for Meter, a boutique running magazine published by clothing manufacturer Tracksmith who produced the uniforms for Izumo's Ivy League Select Team.  The article printed in Meter included a number of typos, grammatical errors and other problems not in JRN's original text which its editor declined to correct in the version it published online earlier today.  Below is the original unedited and error-free version of the article with previously unpublished photos.

text and photos by Brett Larner
race photos by Kazuyuki Sugimatsu


Fall, cooler breezes and changing leaves, the country’s runners turning not to the trails and golf courses but to the roads. Ekidens, Japan’s long distance road relays, a century of history backing massive modern popularity. For the best university men it’s a three-month season. October’s Izumo Ekiden, short, fast and sweet. November’s National University Ekiden Championships, longer and more strategic. The peak of the season, the year, the runners’ lives up to that point, the biggest sporting event in Japan, January’s two-day Hakone Ekiden from downtown Tokyo into the foothills near Mt. Fuji and back.

Hakone, the oldest and most prestigious of the ekidens, held every year for nearly a century except at the height of World War II. Ten stages around a half marathon in length each, the centerpiece around which everything turns. Nationals, first held in the late 60’s, a mid-season step toward Hakone’s massive scale, eight men averaging 13 km each, the anchor the only one to tackle the kind of distance they all will face in Hakone. Of the Big Three the season-opening Izumo is the newest, launched in 1989 to provide a transition from track to road, each team’s six runners averaging just 7.5 km apiece.

All three, along with the college women’s equivalents and the championship high school and pro ekidens, are broadcast live to devoted fans nationwide. It’s easy to reduce their mass appeal to generalizations about how they speak to cultural values, how every runner counts, the entire team rising or falling on each member contributing their best, continuity from those that came before and on to those still to come. Not a baton, a straight line from one point to another, but a sash, the tasuki, a circle, continuity, woven from cloth that absorbs and blends the sweat of each runner to form a physical bond between them that mirrors their spiritual bond of shared work and sacrifice for the benefit of the group, a source of strength in times of individual hardship.


True these may be, but contending that they are the reason ekidens attract tens of millions of fans is no more meaningful than contending that college bowl games are popular because football audiences consciously appreciate the game for its representation of core American values of militarism. Just like bowl games or Final Four, ekidens rose from the love of the college team, the advent of TV bringing larger, wider audiences and the resulting fame, excitement and money pushing performances higher and higher, begetting more fans. A circle, continuity. It’s all too common to invoke the mystical Orient when talking about things Japanese, but this completely overlooks what ekidens, and especially the university ekidens, really are: a high-octane team sport of action, energy and passion. Look up any fan-made highlight video on Youtube and you won’t hear plaintive bamboo flute soundtracks. You’ll hear screaming hard rock and high-energy club beats like you would on the same kind of video made by fans of all the big American and European ball games.

That’s the spirit in which the audience is watching, and the incredibly high-quality TV presentation plays it to the limit. At the Olympics and World Championships people love the relays, and the success of the World Relays has shown how great all-relay competition can be. Japan has known it for a hundred years. Ekidens give distance running a larger context for the action, the true team framework missing everywhere else, killer plays within a game, a clear-cut winner. What people want to see.



The same era Izumo was born saw a blossoming of ekiden internationalism. The Yokohama International Women’s Ekiden, the International Chiba Ekiden, even an IAAF World Road Relay Championships, university teams from the U.S.A. invited to both the men’s and women’s Nationals. The Ivy League Select Team was part of that, getting its start at the 1990 men’s Nationals, the product of an idea shared by Brown alumnus Vern Alden and future JAAF president Yohei Kono to help recent Ivy League graduates get international racing experience. The team quickly found the distances too long to handle on NCAA training, but the shift to the shorter Izumo Ekiden at its 10th running in 1998 put them in a position to compete against the Japanese teams more familiar with the format and with running on the roads.

In the nearly 20 years since then the popularity and quality of the Big Three university ekidens have skyrocketed. But at the same time shifting economic and political tides saw the disappearance of first the World Road Relays, then Yokohama, then the reduction of the International Chiba Ekiden from separate men’s and women’s races to a mixed-gender team format. Chiba’s unceremonious cancellation last spring meant that apart from the scattered teams to bring in an African or two to bolster their ranks, the eight members of the Ivy League Select Team to accompany coach Jack Fultz and manager Bill Okerman to Izumo this year were the last remnant of an international component to the history of the ekiden as a sport in Japan.


The Ivy League team arrived in Izumo on Japan’s southwestern coast to find themselves treated as guests of honor, meeting English-speaking student guides, running with local schoolchildren and visiting Izumo Taisha, Japan’s key Shinto shrine and the starting point for the race. Harvard’s James Leakos, along with Princeton’s Alejandro Arroyo Yamin one of two previous team members to be returning to Izumo, was off before dawn to hike up a nearby mountain in time for sunrise.

Guided by Atsushi Yoshimura, an executive at the race-organizing Inter-University Athletic Union of Japan, the team toured the course by bus, scouting the location of each kilometer mark, each hill and curve, each handoff zone. The night brought the highly formal opening ceremony, taiko drums, a live orchestra, every team introduced onstage before a packed hall of dignitaries and local fans. Fultz gave the team final instructions on handling the tasuki embroidered with the Ivy name that they would wear throughout the race across the chest and over one shoulder, its loose end tucked into the shorts. Take it off and wrap it around one hand before kicking to the handoff zone at the end of your stage, a matter both of practicality and a way of drawing spiritual strength from the runners before.

Having at times bolstered the team lineup with non-Ivy League runners, Fultz was confident that this year’s all-Ivy team would deliver its best performance ever. The competition was tough. The course record-setting winner at the last Hakone Ekiden, favorite Aoyama Gakuin University’s six best men had 5000 m, 10000 m and half-marathon averages of 13:51.62, 28:40.58 and 1:02:10, more than enough to represent in the NCAA.

Race day dawned with heavy rain, an echo of the typhoon that had caused the cancellation of the race the previous year. Arriving by bus at the massive wooden Izumo Dome in the center of town the team said their good lucks before splitting up, shuttled off to their individual handoff zones to await their turns. Princeton’s Sam Pons, the day’s first runner, warmed up inside the dome with other lead runners, the rain stopping just as they were taken to Izumo Taisha for the start. On the front steps to the shrine under roiling clouds, with the live TV broadcast a go, they were off on the steep downhill through the enormous concrete torii arch before the shrine grounds.

On the only stage to offer familiar head-to-head racing Pons ran 23:20, good enough to win the 8.0 km leadoff leg the last two years but only landing him 9th. 2015 World University Games 10000 m bronze medalist Keisuke Nakatani of Komazawa University led the stage in 22:34. “Usually in a race you’re racing the guy next to you, but I could sense this was different,” Pons said afterward. “I could tell it was about trying to gain every second you could for the runners who were coming later.”

One of many unfamiliar mental challenges the Ivy League runners faced. Above all was the waiting, tension building, at each handoff zone every runner going through their warmups, checking the TVs to find their teammates’ positions, wordlessly watching the road for the sight of their school colors and the signal to step out. Where in single-start cross-country and track races you’re usually amongst runners of similar ability, in an ekiden the relative abilities of nearby runners depend on coaches’ strategy and the ebb and flow of luck on the day. Second runner Tyler Udland, another Princeton grad with solid track credentials, found himself being run down by 30 km national university record holder Yuma Hattori of Toyo University and this year’s 3000 m steeplechase national champion Hironori Tsuetaki of Chuo Gakuin University, locked in mortal combat with each other.

Later in the race runners often find themselves facing solitude with no competitors in sight ahead or behind. Harvard’s Will Geiken, running fifth through rice fields at the foot of the mountains to the north of the city, found himself alone and called it a “time trial,” but for the Japanese runners it represented something different, more abstract and primal. If running was key to human evolution in terms of the hunt the ekiden represented it in its purest form, pursuit and the pursued, the ability to remain focused on the unseen quarry, the unseen predator. The secret to success as an ekiden runner.

The differences came not just in the race itself. Where at a football game the two teams’ cheerleaders and marching bands decorate the sidelines in front of packed grandstands, here 20 schools’ worth did their routines along the roadside together with alumni booster clubs waving hundreds of banners in school colors, thousands upon thousands of fans from across the country, many in wild costumes, and local residents proud to have an event like this in their town. “I was really impressed with the level of community involvement in the race,” said Princeton’s Chris Bendtsen. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.”

Up front, Aoyama Gakuin and defending champ Komazawa ran a thrilling head-to-head duel that lasted until halfway through the anchor stage before Aoyama Gakuin’s Tadashi Isshiki put it away to set a new course record. Ivy League anchor Leakos slipped doing strides while waiting for Geiken and ran his stage with bloodied knee and backwards baseball cap but still picked up two places to put the team into 9th, meeting Fultz’s goal of its best-ever finish with an all-Ivy lineup. On live national TV Leakos scored fans across the country when he turned and bowed to the course, a traditional sign of respect. Fans waited for photos with the team after the closing ceremony inside Izumo Dome before runners headed to a nearby track to cheer on their alternates, including the Ivies’ George Galasso, as they ran 5000 m. The racing finally behind them, all that was left was the goodbye party at Shimane Winery.

No big game is complete without a tailgate party, alumni, fans, family, athletes and staff celebrating and bonding over barbecue and brews. The Izumo Ekiden Sayonara Party is the biggest tailgate party you’ve ever been to multiplied by ten. Most of the 21 teams joined their alumni booster clubs at tents outside on the winery grounds for barbecued beef, crab and vegetables, beer and local wine for the so inclined, iced tea for the underage and non-partakers. Teams from farther away gathered at tables inside the winery’s sprawling complex together with local residents and volunteers, another facet of the event’s connection to the local community. On the party stage the mayor and other dignitaries kicked things off with the inevitable series of speeches before a toast – Kanpai! – with the winery’s best vintage for all. The Ivies quickly discovered the secret to making friends at a Japanese party: pick up an open bottle of beer, walk up to any random table and hold it out to pour. Instant friends for life.

Back on the party stage, top-placing teams’ cheerleader squads delivered their routines between more speeches. The Ivy League’s contribution? “YMCA,” joined onstage mid-song by Aoyama Gakuin’s 2015 World University Games half marathon gold medalist Yusuke Ogura, anchor stage winner Dominic Nyairo of Yamanashi Gakuin University and other star runners keen to swap shirts for Ivy League gear. Fireworks brought the party to an end, teams and their supporters bidding goodbye before filing onto busses for the trip back to their hotels.

There’s a time for play and a time for work. 6:00 a.m. the next morning and the Japanese teams’ runners were out for their morning training, already regrouping for the buildup to Nationals and on to Hakone. The Ivies headed to Tokyo for one more night on the town before the flight home, talking eagerly about coming back and kicking some ass next year. Rising in domestic popularity even as the urge to internationalize fades, for one weekend at least the Ivy League’s return to the Izumo Ekiden showed a glimmer of what could be, an alternate reality where the best of one world face the best of another in front of legions of adoring fans. For all the talk about how to save the sport, the answer is already there.


text and photos © 2015 Brett Larner, all rights reserved
race photos © 2015 Kazuyuki Sugimatsu, all rights reserved

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Gobena and Cheyech Top Field for Nov. 13 Saitama International Marathon

by Brett Larner

In its first running last year the Saitama International Marathon tagged a small elite women's race, the descendant of the defunct Yokohama International Women's Marathon and Tokyo International Women's Marathon, onto a new 3500-runner amateur race.  Tokyo International was a high-profile, high-prestige elite event that served an important role in both the development of women's marathoning worldwide and Japanese national team selection.  The profile and prestige dipped with the move to Yokohama, its 2014 winner Tomomi Tanaka controversially left off the 2015 Beijing World Championships team, and both dropped again last year with the move out to Tokyo's northwestern suburbs in Saitama.

Its legacy as the inheritor of Japan's premier women's race and nominal current role as a women's event are obscured by the co-ed mass marathon, local boy Yuki Kawauchi proudly splashed across the Saitama website's top page for this year's Nov. 13 race, and with the National Corporate Women's Ekiden moving from mid-December to Nov. 27 this year Saitama is in an even more dire situation than the Fukuoka International Marathon for recruiting elite Japanese marathoners good enough to belong on a national team.  The Tokyo Marathon or even October's Osaka Marathon would make way, way more sense as high-profile selection events, but the powers that be are bound and determined to keep a selection race, however unnecessary, in November, logic, quality and outcome be damned.

Which is not to sound too negative about it.  The elite field is better than last year's, solidly silver label with eight internationals and all of four Japanese women on board.  Five of the overseas elites are familiar faces in Japan with big wins behind them, Amane Gobena (Ethiopia) the 2010 Osaka International Women's Marathon winner and runner-up in Tokyo this year, former Uniqlo corporate team runner Filomena Cheyech Daniel (Kenya) the 2010 National Corporate Half Marathon champion, Monica Jepkoech (Kenya) the 2013 Osaka Marathon winner, Atsede Habtamu (Ethiopia) the 2012 Tokyo Marathon winner, and Maryna Damantsevich (Belarus) the 2014 and 2015 Osaka Marathon winner.  The other three internationals, Deborah Toniolo (Italy), Japan-based Winfridah Kebaso (Kenya/Team Nittori) and Cassie Fien (Australia) have all raced in Japan before too, Kebaso taking 5th in Saitama in her debut last year.

The Japanese field is predictably small, led by Kaori Yoshida (Team RxL) who returned from Japan's only public EPO suspension to set a PB 2:28:43 for 2nd in Saitama last year.  Mizuho Nasukawa (Team Universal Entertainment) was 2nd in Yokohama once upon a time but hasn't run a quality marathon in many a long year.  With a 1:11:43 half marathon best Aki Otagiri (Team Tenmaya) looks to have potential, but in seven marathons to date she has yet to crack 2:30:00, finishing 8th in Saitama behind Yoshida and Kebaso last year in 2:36:29.  Akane Sekino (Imabari Zosen) is a borderline amateur whose first marathon finish was a 2:38:00 in Nagoya last spring, but like Otagiri her 1:11:17 half marathon PB in February this year suggests the potential to go better than that.

With January's Osaka International Women's Marathon and March's Nagoya Women's Marathon still to come, realistically there is almost no scenario in which one of these Japanese women would be picked for the London World Championships marathon team barring a legendary breakthrough.  Yoshida won August's Hokkaido Marathon, hypothetically included in consideration for the London team, and one source connected with Saitama told JRN that if Yoshida were to win Saitama too it would force the JAAF to put her on the team after all the bad press around Tanaka's omission last time around. That's a real Hail Mary plan if true.  Short of Yoshida or another Japanese woman running an improbably great time, say 2:23 or better, having Saitama as a national team selection race looks like a lose for the JAAF whether they put her on the team or not.  And that's a hole the JAAF has dug for itself.  Let's hope for something dramatic.

2nd Saitama International Marathon Elite Field Highlights
Saitama, 11/13/16
click here for detailed field listing
times listed are best within last three years

Amane Gobena (Ethiopia) - 2:21:51 (Tokyo 2016)
Filomena Cheyech Daniel (Kenya) - 2:22:44 (Paris 2014)
Monica Jepkoech (Kenya) - 2:27:26 (Toronto 2015)
Kaori Yoshida (Japan/RxL) - 2:28:43 (Saitama 2015)
Atsede Habtamu (Ethiopia) - 2:29:40 (Toronto 2015)
Maryna Damantsevich (Belarus) - 2:30:07 (Warsaw 2015)
Aki Otagiri (Japan/Tenmaya) - 2:30:24 (Nagoya 2015)
Mizuho Nasukawa (Japan/Universal Entertainment) - 2:30:27 (Yokohama Women's 2013)
Deborah Toniolo (Italy) - 2:31:28 (Berlin 2015)
Winfridah Kebaso (Kenya/Nitori) - 2:32:08 (Saitama 2015)
Cassie Fien (Australia) - 2:33:36 (London 2016)
Akane Sekino (Japan/Imabari Zosen) - 2:38:00 (Nagoya Women's 2016)

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Rio Silver Medalist Kiryu Throws First Pitch in Solid Baseball Debut

http://www.fnn-news.com/news/headlines/articles/CONN00340126.html

translated by Brett Larner

The fastest man in Japan, Rio de Janeiro Olympics silver medalist Yoshihide Kiryu, 20, made his baseball debut throwing out the first pitch at a game for his school Toyo University.  In recognition of his dream of running Japan's first 9-second time in the 100 m, Kiryu took the mound wearing uniform #9.

His pitch wasn't fast, but it was good enough to draw cheers from the crowd.  "I have no idea how fast that was, what it might have been.  Hopefully it was over 100 km/h," Kiryu commented.  "Anyway, it wasn't a wild pitch so I'd probably give it a 5/10."

Earlier this month his Rio 4x100 m teammate Ryota Yamagata, 24, threw out the first pitch at a pro baseball game.  Yamagata's pitch bounced once, something Kiryu was aware of.  "I just wanted to make sure mine didn't hit the ground and bounce," he laughed.

Also this week, Chuo University, alma mater of Rio 4x100 m team member Shota Iizuka, took out a full page ad in the Asahi Newspaper featuring Iizuka.  The headline reads "The place I learned the joy of running."

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

In Fourth Season As Team, Kansai Gaikokugo University To Run Its Third National University Women's Ekiden Sunday

http://www.sankeibiz.jp/business/news/161025/prl1610250913005-n1.htm

translated by Brett Larner

The Osaka-based Kansai Gaikokugo University women's ekiden team is set to make its third-straight appearance at the National University Women's Ekiden this Sunday, Oct. 30 in Sendai.  The race will be broadcast live on NTV beginning at noon.  26 teams including eight seeded schools, seventeen top teams from regional qualifiers, and one select team from the Sendai area will compete.

Kansai Gaikokugo University's women's ekiden team finished 5th at September's Kansai Region University Women's Ekiden in 1:41:50 to qualify for the national championship event.  The Kansai Region's share of the national field is six teams this year, down one from last year.  Three seeded teams finished ahead of Kansai Gaikokugo University in the regional race, meaning the school was the second to secure one of the three remaining places.

The Kansai Gaikokugo University women's ekiden team was founded in April, 2013.  With sixteen members on the team, this year's first-ever fourth-years make this season the first time the team has included members from all four class years.  It first qualified for the National University Women's Ekiden in 2014, finishing 21st out of 26 teams.  Last year it improved to 13th.  In its third appearance this year the team hopes to make it onto the eight-deep podium to score a place in the seeded bracket for 2017.

Translator's note: JRN will cover the National University Women's Ekiden live on @JRNLive.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ngandu and Yimam Lead Osaka Marathon Fields

by Brett Larner

The Osaka Marathon is something of an oddity.  The progeny of the post-Tokyo Marathon mass participation running boom, in its fifth running last year Osaka had nearly 30,000 finishers to rank as the 7th-largest marathon worldwide in 2015.  But along with the United States' Marine Corps Marathon it was one of only two races in the top ten without an IAAF label, an indication that the JAAF has not positioned it as part of Japan's crowded elite race calendar.  And yet, Osaka typically has an invited elite field good enough for at least IAAF bronze medal status if it wanted it, good enough that it has yet to see a Japanese winner male or female.  There's something of an indication there of the tension between tradition and modernity in today's Japanese distance running world, neither purely elite nor purely mass participation.

Whatever the organizers' intentions, Sunday's race features good fields on both the men's and women's sides with six of last year's top seven men and four of last year's top five women returning.  Defending men's champ Daniel Kosgei (Kenya) is back, facing 2012 winner Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (Mongolia/NTN) and a tough challenge from Benjamin Ngandu (Kenya/Monteroza).  Ngandu, with a 2:09:18 best from Tokyo last year, is fresh off a third win at the Takashimadaira 20 km and looks like the favorite.  Last year's runner-up Taiga Ito (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) is the top-ranked Japanese man, but Yoshihiro Wakamatsu (Team Nissin Shokuhin) is a promising first-timer who could challenge Ito for the top Japanese position.

Last year's women's runner-up Hisae Yoshimatsu (Shunan City Hall) is also back with a 2:35:46 course record win at the Hofu Yomiuri Marathon under her belt in the interim.  Her strongest competition is Nurit Yimam (Ethiopia), but there's potential for Remi Sano (Team Nitori), a former 2:23 runner making a comeback after facing cancer, to step back up to the elite level.  2015 Zurich Marathon winner Yoshiko Sakamoto (YWC) will run her first domestic marathon of 2016 in Osaka after good runs at June's Jilin Marathon and September's Muenster Marathon with support from JRN.

6th Osaka Marathon Elite Field Highlights
Osaka, 10/30/16
click here for complete elite field listing
times listed are best within last three years except where noted

Men
Ser-Od Bat-Ochir (Mongolia/NTN) - 2:08:50 (Fukuoka Int'l 2014)
Benjamin Ngandu (Kenya/Monteroza) - 2:09:18 (Tokyo 2015)
Daniel Kosgei (Kenya) - 2:10:13 (Castellon 2014)
Taiga Ito (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:12:04 (Nagano 2015)
Hiroki Yamagishi (GMO Athletes) - 2:12:27 (Tokyo 2016)
Yasuyuki Nakamura (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC) - 2:13:46 (Tokyo 2016)
Sho Matsumoto (Nikkei Business Service) - 2:14:54 (Osaka 2014)
Yoshihiro Wakamatsu (Nissin Shokuhin) - debut - 1:03:15 (Marugame Half 2015)

Women
Remi Sano (Nitori) - 2:33:24 (London 2013)
Nurit Yimam (Ethiopia) - 2:33:44 (Rabat 2015)
Hisae Yoshimatsu (Shunan City Hall) - 2:35:46 (Hofu 2015)
Yumiko Kinoshita (SWAC) - 2:35:49 (Tokyo 2015)
Yoshiko Sakamoto (YWC) - 2:36:29 (Osaka Int'l 2015)
Chika Tawara (RxL) - 2:39:44 (Osaka 2015)
Mayumi Uchiyama (Nitori) - 2:39:54 (Tokyo 2015)

©2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Monday, October 24, 2016

Hironaka, Ndiku and Aoyama Gakuin Lead Weekend Track Highlights

by Brett Larner

A week after running 9:00.81 to become the fastest-ever Japanese 10th grade girl over 3000 m, Ririka Hironaka (Nagasaki Shogyo H.S.) was back to break another record.  At Saturday's Challenge Games in Oita Ginko Dome Hironaka ran 15:42.23 to win the women's 5000 m, again the fastest mark ever by a Japanese 10th grader.  10th graders also brought good times in the women's 3000 m and men's 5000 m, where Oita Tomei H.S. resident Kenyans Marta Mokaya and Benuel Mogeni won in 9:06.29 and 13:43.37.  Japanese high schoolers Keita Yoshida (Sera H.S.) and Yuta Kanbayashi (Kyushu Gakuin H.S.) both broke 14 minutes, Yoshida running 13:53.53 for 3rd and Kanbayashi next across the line in 13:59.14.

Faster 5000 m times came Sunday at Yokohama's Nittai University Time Trials, where Jonathan Ndiku (Team Hitachi Butsuryu) came up just short of the fastest 5000 m on Japanese soil so far this year as he won in 13:15.32.  John Maina (Team Fujitsu) and Alfred Ngeno (Team Nissin Shokuhin) also broke 13:20, but reigning university ekiden power Aoyama Gakuin University delivered bigger news across the pack behind the top three.  Already holding thirteen men with sub-14 bests for 5000 m, in the same heat as Ndiku nine Aoyama Gakuin men broke 14, the four fastest of them setting new PBs and one doing it for the first time.  Aoyama Gakuin's roster now includes fourteen men sub-14, five of whom have also run sub-29 for 10000 m and sub-63 for the half marathon, plus one more runner, fourth-year Kinari Ikeda, who has run 28 and 62 with a 5000 m best of only 14:08.27.  This gives Aoyama Gakuin a fifteen-deep roster of A-listers, more than enough to tackle next week's National University Ekiden with eight stages averaging 13.4 km.  But they have company.

Before this weekend Tokai University already matched Aoyama Gakuin at runners fourteen sub-14 and six sub-29.  At Nittai two more of its team broke 29, giving it a seventeen-deep A-list roster, fourteen of them sub-14 including five sub-29, plus three more sub-29 with 5000 m bests between 14:03.82 and 14:11.25.  Only second-year Haruki Minatoya has broken 63 for the half marathon at this point, a shortcoming that will hurt their chances against Aoyama Gakuin at Nationals and especially at January's Hakone Ekiden where the ten stages average roughly a half marathon in distance.  But take a look at Tokai's first-years:

  • Hayato Seki: 5000 m: 13:41.28     10000 m: 28:48.63
  • Shota Onizuka: 5000 m: 13:43.61     10000 m: 28:55.26
  • Rintaro Takata: 10000 m: 28:57.91
  • Junnosuke Matsuo: 10000 m: 28:59.65
  • Ryoji Tatezawa: 5000 m: 13:48.89
  • Ryohei Sakaguchi; 5000 m; 13:51.69
  • Takuya Hanyu: 5000 m: 13:52.98
  • Yuichiro Nishikawa: 5000 m: 13:58.54

Just these eight first-years alone would be a better team than most other schools will field at Nationals, and none of them has run a half marathon yet.  Tokai could even field two teams and both would do better than most of the competition.  Give them another year and you'll be looking at the team that will take away Aoyama Gakuin's spot on top of the university ekiden world.

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Toilet Maker Toto Claims Princess Ekiden Throne to Qualify for National Corporate Women's Ekiden

http://news.tbs.co.jp/newseye/tbs_newseye2898668.htm

translated and edited by Brett Larner

The Princess Ekiden, gateway to the throne of Japan's ekiden queens.  28 teams competed Oct. 23 for the 14 remaining spots at next month's National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships.

The fierce battle to sit atop the throne started right out of the gate.  Its big movement came on the 3.8 km Fourth Stage.  Shuru Bulo, making her debut for toilet and washlet maker Toto, made up a 46-second deficit to put Toto into the lead by 4 seconds.  From there on out Toto sailed on smoothly and without straining to score its first Princess Ekiden title by 45 seconds over rival Noritz.  The win meant a fourth-straight appearance at Nationals for the Toto team.  Can they become the queens of tomorrow?

More drama was to found further back in the field in the race for the 14th and final ticket to Nationals.  In 14th on the second-to-last stage, the Juhachi Ginko team was overtaken by Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo, dropping out of the qualifying bracket.  With just 1 km to go Juhachi Ginko anchor Yuka Koga caught Route Inn Hotels anchor Suzune Ishikawa, moving back into 14th and sealing ints place on the national stage by a final margin of 12 seconds.

Princess Ekiden
National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships Qualifier
Munakata, Fukuoka, 10/23/16
24 teams, 6 stages, 42.195 km
click here for complete results

Stage Best Performances
First Stage - 7.0 km: Haruna Maekawa (Juhachi Ginko) - 22:34 - CR
Second Stage - 4.0 km: Misaki Tanabe (Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) - 12:23 - CR
Third Stage - 10.3 km: Mizuki Matsuda (Daihatsu) - 33:04
Fourth Stage - 3.8 km: Pauline Kamulu (Route Inn Hotels) - 11:47
Fifth Stage - 10.4 km: Kyoka Nakagawa (Japan Post) - 35:30
Sixth Stage - 6.695 km: Nozomi Terauchi (Japan Post) - 22:04

Top Team Performances
1. Toto - 2:19:15
2. Noritz - 2:20:00
3. Kyocera - 2:20:11
4. Panasonic - 2:20:14
5. Hokuren - 2:20:16
6. Shimamura - 2:20:25
7. Hitachi - 2:20:42
8. Japan Post - 2:20:45
9. Shiseido - 2:20:50
10. Daihatsu - 2:21:26
11. Wacoal - 2:21:33
12. Yutaka Giken - 2:21:50
13. Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo - 2:22:20
14. Juhachi Ginko - 2:22:45
----- top 14 teams qualify for Nationals
15. Route Inn Hotels - 2:22:57
16. Uniqlo - 2:23:02
17. Otsuka Seiyaku - 2:23:25
18. Edion - 2:23:29
19. Miyazaki Ginko - 2:23:56
20. Sysmex - 2:25:08

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Hyuga Endo Breaks 3000 m Japanese High School National Record

by Brett Larner


Ekiden season is underway but there is plenty of track action along the way as teams get ready for the main road races.  A week after his third-straight National Sports Festival track title, 12th-grader Hyuga Endo (Gakuho Ishikawa H.S.) became the first Japanese high schooler to break 8 minutes for 3000 m when he won Hyogo's Sumitomo Denko Cup in 7:59.18 by a margin of more than 20 seconds.  Opening with a 2:36.82 first 1000 m, Endo slowed to 2:42.50 in the middle of the race, still on track to break 8 overall but behind pace over the next 600 m.  One of Endo's main strengths to date has been his kick over the last lap, and here a 59.92 second last lap was just enough to get him under.  Endo's time was a new high school national record and the second-fastest ever by a Japanese junior.  With a steady string of new PBs from 1500 m to 5000 m over the last two years the new record was another step forward for Endo, who plans to join the Sumitomo Denko corporate team after his graduation next spring.


The same day in Fukuoka another high schooler dropped a fast 3000 m. Ririka Hironaka (Nagasaki Shogyo H.S.), already Japan's fastest-ever 10th grader in the women's 3000 m, took 3 seconds off her best as she won the All-Kyushu High School Newcomers' Meet in 9:00.81.  A meet record, Hironaka's time was the 5th-best Japanese girls' high school mark and 7th-best junior mark, and it was enough to beat Kenyan Tabitha Njeri Kamau (Kamimura Gakuen H.S.) by over 5 seconds.


Another fast race came at the Chubu Corporate Track and Field Meet in Gifu, where Kenyans James Rungaru (Team Chuo Hatsujo) and Hiram Ngatia (Team Toyota) pushed each other where at least Ngatia had never gone over 10000 m.  Both clocked 27:30, former Toyota runner Rungaru getting the win in 27:30.17, his best time in over five years, and Ngatia 2nd in a 10-second+ PB of 27:30.75.  Edward Waweru (Team NTN) and Patrick Muendo Mwaka (Team Aisan Kogyo) were both under 27:45, with Ngatia's teammate Yuma Hattori (Team Toyota) running a PB of 28:09.74 for 7th as the top Japanese finisher.

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Wambui, Ngandu and Daito Bunka Dominate a Double Dose of 20 km Action

by Brett Larner

This weekend saw Japan's two biggest 20 km road races go down back to back in Tokyo.  Saturday in  Showa Kinen Park fifty Tokyo-area university men's teams lined up at the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai to try to claim one of the ten remaining places at January's ultra-prestigious Hakone Ekiden.  With at least six Kenyans, one Ethiopian and one Taiwanese runner on the starting line it may have been a record for international participation in the Yosenkai, the official qualification race for Hakone, and it was the internationals who pushed the front end of the field to fast times despite conditions made unseasonably warm by the bright and cloudless skies.

Undefeated in his last seven races on the track and road, Patrick Mathenge Wambui (Nihon Univ.) was the heavy favorite despite his inexperience at such a long distance, but he received a serious challenge from newcomer Josphat Ledama Kisaisa (Obirin Univ.).  Arriving in Japan earlier this fall to run under the coaching of Stephen Mayaka at Obirin, Kisaisa was on the attack early.  Pushing the first 5 km to 14:23 and keeping it almost even with 14:29 and 14:32 splits for the next two 5 km sections, Kisaisa progressively burned both off his international competition and the only four Japanese men to try to roll with him until only Wambui was left.  After 15 km Kisaisa began to fade, and biding his time for a long surge Wambui had no trouble pulling away for the win in a solid 58:15.  Kisaisa was 2nd in 58:27, one of the better Yosenkai debuts by a first-year.


Kengo Suzuki (Kanagawa Univ.) was the last Japanese man standing up front, teaming up with another Kenyan first-year, Muthoni Muiru (Soka University) when the leading pace proved too hot.  The pair worked together to reel in Workneh Deresse (Takushoku Univ.) after halfway, then set their sights on Simon Kariuki (Nihon Yakka Univ.).  With 2 km to go Suzuki surged to drop Muiru, running down Kariuki for 3rd in 58:43, the third-fastest time ever by a Japanese man at the Yosenkai.  Muiru also overtook Kariuki to claim 4th in 58:51, the first time four men have broken 59 minutes at the Yosenkai.  Altogether ten men cleared the hour mark, putting it near the top of the race's better years.

At the Yosenkai times matter more than places, with each university's ten fastest finishers adding to its overall time and the ten top schools on aggregate time going on to Hakone.  Ranked just 6th pre-race Daito Bunka University was the first one to put ten men past each of the checkpoints along the course, but up against schools with a super-fast star up front that was no guarantee.  Everything depended on final finishing times, and with a record 87-year streak of making Hakone at stake nobody felt that more than Chuo University after its star runner Taiga Machizawa fell off the lead group and slowed dramatically over the second half of the race.  The announcement ceremony, always tense, was more dramatic than ever.


With third-year Noritoshi Hara making an unexpected breakthrough to the sub-60 level with a 59:44 for 9th overall and its first ten finishers all breaking 1:01:15 Daito Bunka won the team competition in 10:08:07.  Its tenth scorer was first-year Ryosuke Nara, the son of head coach Osamu Nara.  Meiji University lived up to its #2 ranking, 2nd just behind Daito Bunka with a time of 10:10:09.  Muiru's strong debut powered Soka University to 3rd overall in 10:10:09 for just its second-ever Hakone appearance.  Soka's 11th runner ran 1:02:05, meaning that without Muiru the team would have totalled 10:13:23 for 7th, just ahead of its pre-race #9 ranking.  Soka still would have made the Hakone cut, but a 3rd place generated buzz that just squeaking through wouldn't have.

Similarly, last year Tokyo Kokusai University qualified for Hakone for the first time in just its fifth year as a program.  This year it ran Kenyan first-year Titus Mogusu, who dropped out after 15 km.  Without him, Tokyo Kokusai was 15th, not enough for a return to Hakone.  In the case of last year's Yosenkai winner Nihon University, Wambui's time meant everything.  Nihon's 11th runner finished in 1:04:08, a difference of 5:53 from Wambui's winning time.  An extra 5:53 would have put Nihon outside the circle at 13th; considering the profound cachet of the Hakone Ekiden and the impact that making it can have on a university's name value, enrollment, and alumni relations it's pretty clear just how valuable having good African athletes like Muiru or Wambui can be to a Japanese university.

Chuo gave even more evidence.  In its first season under new head coach, Chuo alum and 2:08:12 marathoner Masakazu Fujiwara, Chuo was the 9th school to put its top ten across the finish line, but with Machizawa running only 1:00:05 its runners and staff were sweating it out through the announcement ceremony, 87 years of history weighing heavier and heavier on them as the countdown went on.  1st, 2nd, 3rd, then 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th all bringing cheers as relatively minor schools made the grade.  A long pause before 10th, and when Nihon's name was announced an era had come to an end.  Chuo was 11th, 44 seconds behind Nihon on aggregate time, a little over 4 seconds per runner over 20 km.  If Machizawa had held on to his first half pace and finished around 59-flat Chuo would have made it.  If Nihon hadn't had Wambui and the race had otherwise played out the same way, Chuo would have made it.  For that matter, if Wambui had been only a decent athlete like Deresse or Kariuki, Chuo would have made it.  If Chuo had an African team member they probably would have made it.  Nothing but ifs, but one thing was clear: Wambui's presence at Nihon meant the difference between Nihon's fate and Chuo's and all that is going to come down as a result.



The next day Japan's other big 20 km got off on a unique 5 km loop in Tokyo's Takashimadaira neighborhood at the Takashimadaira Road Race.  Always a mid-season time trial for schools already qualified for Hakone plus Yosenkai school second-stringers and a few random turners-up, this year saw 2013 and 2014 winner Benjamin Ngandu (Team Monteroza) lead Rio Olympian Kazuya Shiojiri and other Juntendo University runners, Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) and more collegiate competition from Tokai University, Teikyo University and elsewhere to the deepest finish in Takashimadaira's 41-year history.

From the start it was all Ngandu and Shiojiri, the pair splitting 14:33 and 14:37 for the first two 5 km laps.  On the third lap Shiojiri, who ran the 3000 mSC in Rio and whose unexpected appearance in Takashimadaira left fans and amateur runners in the race alike very pleased to say the least, slowed, taking 15:00 to Ngandu's 14:48.  From there the two were never challenged, Ngandu winning for the third time in 59:17 and Shiojiri taking 2nd in 59:36, a PB by 2 seconds.  Defending champ Kawauchi, in preparation for next month's Porto Marathon, took 3rd in 59:43, well over a minute faster than his winning time last year.  Shiojiri's Juntendo teammate Takuya Nishizawa and independent Aritaka Kajiwara also cleared 60 minutes to make to make five under the hour mark, the most-ever on the Takashimadaira course.

93rd Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai 20 km
Tachikawa, Tokyo, 10/15/16
click here for complete results

Top Individual Results
1. Patrick Mathenge Wambui (Nihon Univ.) - 58:15
2. Josphat Ledama Kisaisa (Obirin Univ.) - 58:27
3. Kengo Suzuki (Kanagawa Univ.) - 58:43
4. Muthoni Muiri (Soka Univ.) - 58:51
5. Simon Kariuki (Nihon Yakka Univ.) - 59:06
6. Workneh Derese (Takushoku Univ.) - 59:34
7. Soma Ishikawa (Nihon Univ.) - 59:38
8. Tatsuya Maruyama (Senshu Univ.) - 59:40
9. Noritoshi Hara (Daito Bunka Univ.) - 59:44
10. Atsushi Yamato (Kanagawa Univ.) - 59:58
-----
DNF - Titus Mogusu (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.)

Top Team Results - top ten qualify for 2017 Hakone Ekiden
1. Daito Bunka University - 10:08:07
2. Meiji University - 10:08:17
3. Soka University - 10:10:09
4. Hosei University - 10:10:18
5. Kanagawa University - 10:11:47
6. Jobu University - 10:12:12
7. Takushoku University - 10:12:36
8. Koku Gakuin University - 10:14:09
9. Kokushikan University - 10:14:45
10. Nihon University - 10:16:17
-----
11. Chuo University - 10:17:01
12. Josai University - 10:19:10
13. Tokyo Nogyo University - 10:20:50
14. Senshu University - 10:25:00
15. Tokyo Kokusai University - 10:25:29

41st Takashimadaira Road Race 20 km
Takashimadaira, Tokyo, 10/16/16
click here for complete results

Men
1. Benjamin Ngandu (Monteroza) - 59:17
2. Kazuya Shiojiri (Juntendo Univ.) - 59:36
3. Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) - 59:43
4. Takuya Nishizawa (Juntendo Univ.) - 59:48
5. Aritaka Kajiwara (Atsugi T&F Assoc.) - 59:52
6. Naoya Sakuda (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:00:20
7. Kazuto Kawabata (Tokai Univ.) - 1:00:26
8. Reo Kuniyuki (Tokai Univ.) - 1:00:28
9. Kento Hanazawa (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:00:50
10. Reiri Nakashima (Tokai Univ.) - 1:00:56

Women
1. Shinobu Ayabe (Dream AC) - 1:15:56
2. Mitsuko Hirose (Tokyo Wings) - 1:16:16
3. Shiori Shimomura (Comody Iida) - 1:17:58

text and photos © 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hakone Ekiden Qualifier Preview

Nihon University third-year Ikki Yamazaki made this animated video using over 700 pieces of paper asking for fans' support for Nihon at Saturday's Hakone Ekiden qualifier.

by Brett Larner

Monday's Izumo Ekiden saw the top ten schools from the 2016 Hakone Ekiden get their 2016-17 season started.  For the rest of the universities in the Tokyo area, Saturday's Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai is their gateway to the biggest race of the year.

A 20 km road race, the Yosenkai is the official qualifier for the Hakone Ekiden, the Jan. 2-3 road relay that is a cultural institution in Japan featuring twenty Tokyo-area university teams and one select team.  The top ten finishers in Hakone are seeded for the following year, freeing them up to run Izumo.  The rest line up again at the Yosenkai with all the other Hakone hopefuls, where they field teams of ten to twelve men.  The times of their first ten finishers are combined, and the ten schools with the fastest aggregate times make the Hakone cut.  Ten of the fastest individuals at the Yosenkai whose teams don't make it are chosen for the select team.

Like Hakone itself, the Yosenkai is broadcast live, and the atmosphere in Tokyo's Showa Kinen Park is alive with energy before, during and after the race. Marching bands and cheerleader squads from each university line the course around the start area and 5 km first loop, and all around the park crowds of students, alumni and fans wave banners with the school colors and cheer their runners on enthusiastically.  The announcement ceremony for the ten qualifying schools is one of the most dramatic moments of the season. Taken all together, the Yosenkai is the biggest, most competitive 20 km in the world.

Highlights from the 2015 Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai.

This year fifty universities will field teams at the Yosenkai, each lining up single-file by PB for the mass start.  All ten of the 12th-21st place teams at the last Hakone return, with a few more schools close to making the bottom end of the field.  The top fifteen-ranked teams in the field by average half marathon PB are listed below.  In some cases individual times are extrapolated from 20 km performances or IAAF scoring tables.  Click to enlarge.

After not even qualifying for Hakone last year, Koku Gakuin University looks like the favorite for the overall win with a margin of almost 30 seconds per runner over the next-best team.  You might remember Koku Gakuin for this scene from a few years back when it was trying to finish within Hakone's seeded bracket for the first time.

In a rebuilding phase after heavy losses to graduation in recent years, Hakone 15th-placer Meiji University is Koku Gakuin's closest competiton.  Last year's Yosenkai winner and 12th at Hakone this year, Nihon University is also close behind as it sees star runner Patrick Wambui, undefeated in his last seven races on the track and roads, making his debut over the longer distances.  Hakone 14th-placer Kanagawa University is comfortably positioned at 4th to re-qualify.  From there things get interesting.

5th through 10th are ranked within a relatively tight range of 6 seconds per runner.  With ten runners that's a one-minute range overall, but expect most of the group containing Hosei University, Daito Bunka University, Chuo University in its debut under new head coach Masakazu Fujiwara, Kokushikan University, Soka University and Senshu University to be close together throughout the race.  Soka, going for its second Hakone appearance, and Senshu, trying to return for the first time since 2014, have a 6 second per runner margin over 11th-ranked Josai University.  The line between 10th and 11th is the critical one that decides who runs Hakone and who watches from the side of the road, and the margin is close enough that it should be exciting.

12th-ranked Tokyo Kokusai University, which made its Hakone debut in 2016 in just its fifth year of existence as a program, is 4 seconds per runner behind Josai and will need a combination of a perfect day and a higher-ranked team blowing up to bridge the 10 second per runner gap to Hakone.  6~7 seconds per runner behind Tokyo Kokusai, Tokyo Nogyo University, Takushoku University and likable underdog Jobu University, feeling the resignation of head coach Katsuhiko Hanada this spring, will need a miracle to make the cut.

Last year Kokushikan was 11th behind Jobu, missing Hakone by 10 seconds. One second per runner over 20 km.  With at least four schools in contention for the last two spots at Hakone this year's Yosenkai should be even more dramatic.  JRN will be on-site to cover the race as it happens.

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Ivy League On Its Izumo Ekiden Experience


A day after its 14th-place finish at the 28th Izumo Ekiden, JRN sat down with the members and staff of the Ivy League Select Team in Shinjuku to talk about their races and experience.  Their own words, in 35 seconds or less:

Henry Sterling (Dartmouth): First Stage (8.0 km) - 24:48 (17th of 20)

John Gregorek (Columbia): Second Stage (5.8 km) - 18:54 (20th of 20)

Chris Bendtsen (Princeton): Third Stage (8.5 km) - 27:39 (18th of 20)

Steve Mangan (Dartmouth): Fourth Stage (6.2 km) - 18:44 (13th of 20)

Will Geoghegan (Dartmouth): Fifth Stage (6.4 km) - 18:53 (11th of 20)

Jake Sienko (Columbia): Sixth Stage (10.2 km) - 31:21 (9th of 20)

Ben de Haan (Cornell): alternate

Brian Masterson (Dartmouth): alternate

Jack Fultz: head coach

Bill Okerman: manager

Atsushi Yoshimura: Inter-University Athletics Union of Japan official:
"14th place this time was a bit disappointing.  I'm optimistic for better results next year, so please continue to cheer for the Ivy League team."


© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved