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Hometown Kyoto Wins National Women's Ekiden in Near-Whiteout Conditions

by Brett Larner
click photo for video courtesy of NHK

Snow throughout the night and morning yielded to freak weather alternating between piercing sunlight and near-whiteout conditions at the 35th edition of the National Women's Ekiden in Kyoto. A unique format featuring teams of junior high school, high school, university and pro runners from each of Japan's 47 prefectures, the National Women's Ekiden is the peak of ekiden season for most Japanese women.

It was an unusually tight race, with the lead turning over five times over the nine-stage, 42.195 km course and 2nd place within 3 seconds of the leader at six of the eight exchanges.  Many of the favorites, including defending champion Aichi, 2015 winner Osaka and powerhouses Hyogo and Okayama, got off to a slow start, ranging from 10th to 44th on the first stage and spending the rest of the race digging themselves out of a hole.

2014 winner Kyoto, course record holder, 2013 winner Kanagawa and the always-strong Chiba were up front from the start, outrun on the 6.0 km First Stage by Saitama's Yukari Abe.  Hosts Kyoto went to the front on the 4.0 km Second Stage thanks to a 12:32 stage win by Yumika Katayama and held on to the top spot over the 3.0 km JHS student Third Stage despite a middling run from its Mahiru Kobayashi.

The first big action of the race came on the 4.0 km Fourth Stage.  Starting in 12th, Nagasaki high school first-year Ririka Hironaka ran down university and pro competition, passing eleven runners to take the top spot and just missing the 12:40 course record set by London Olympics marathoner Ryoko Kizaki.  With a bobbing head and dynamic arm carriage she drew comparisons from TV announcers to marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, and singlehandedly she put Nagasaki into the race.

Kanagawa advanced to the front on the next stage and held that position for three stages, the longest uninterrupted lead of the day.  Over the Fifth and Sixth stages, snow that had blown off and on earlier in the race reached a peak, accumulating on runners' hair and clothes and causing almost a complete whiteout.  Fighting it off, 18-year-old high schooler Yumika Nagahama gave Kanagawa the biggest lead any team had in the entire race, opening 16 seconds over Nagasaki.  Behind Kanagawa, as the race approached its penultimate stage it shook down to eight good contenders for the eight-deep podium.  The win looked like it would be a race between Kanagawa, Nagasaki and Hyogo, but a great run from JHS runner Tomo Muramatsu on the 3.0 km Eighth Stage put Kyoto just one second behind leader Chiba at the start of the anchor stage.

With 10.0 km to work with, a field including Rio Olympians Mai Ito, Hanami Sekine and Miyuki Uehara, and just 10 seconds separating the top six the stage was set for a dramatic anchor leg.  As the snow picked up again over the first half of the stage Kyoto anchor Sakiho Tsutsui edged away from Chiba's Riko Matsuzaki, turning a one second deficit into a two second lead at 5 km and dropping all chasers. Further back in 8th, 2:23:20 marathoner Rei Ohara began to overtake the competition and move forward  28 seconds behind at the exchange, at 5 km she was up to 4th but still 24 seconds behind Tsutsui. Over the next 2 km she picked up 9 seconds on Tsutsui, 15 seconds behind with 3 km to go.  With 1 km to go Ohara was up to 2nd but still 7 seconds behind.

Having lost a place on the Rio team in a last sprint in Nagoya last March, Ohara gave it everything she had in the last 500 m on the track, but with too much ground to make up she watched in frustration as Tsutsui broke the finish tape 2 seconds ahead.  Tsutsui gave Kyoto its first win in 3 years, taking the national title in 2:17:45 to Okayama's 2:17:47.  Chiba was 3rd in 2:18:24, with Nagasaki holding off defending champion Aichi and Shizuoka for 4th. Kanagawa dropped to 7th in 2:18:39, just ahead of Hyogo who rounded out the podium finishes.

35th National Women's Ekiden
Kyoto, 1/15/17
47 teams, 9 stages, 42.195 km
click here for complete results

Top Team Results
1. Kyoto - 2:17:45
2. Okayama - 2:17:47
3. Chiba - 2:18:24
4. Nagasaki - 2:18:32
5. Aichi - 2:18:34
6. Shizuoka - 2:18:34
7. Kanagawa - 2:18:39
8. Hyogo - 2:18:46
9. Fukuoka - 2:19:04
10. Nagano - 2:19:32

Top Individual Stage Results
First Stage (6.0 km)
1. Yukari Abe (Saitama) - 19:27
2. Mao Ichiyama (Kyoto) - 19:27
3. Kaori Morita (Kanagawa) - 19:29

Second Stage (4.0 km)
1. Yumika Katayama (Kyoto) - 12:32
2. Naruha Sato (Kanagawa) - 12:33
3. Yuna Wada (Nagano) - 12:34

Third Stage (3.0 km)
1. Seira Fuwa (Gunma) - 9:23
2. Aika Nishihara (Ehime) - 9:27
3. Akari Yamamoto (Okayama) - 9:29

Fourth Stage (4.0 km)
1. Ririka Hironaka (Nagasaki) - 12:47
2. Kanayo Miyata (Shizuoka) - 13:03
3. Maki Izumida (Kanagawa) - 13:07

Fifth Stage (4.1075 km)
1. Yume Goto (Hyogo) - 13:27
2. Fumika Sasaki (Nagano) - 13:30
3. Natsuka Sekiya (Chiba) - 13:35

Sixth Stage (4.0875 km)
1. Hikari Fukuda (Kumamoto) - 12:58
2. Mai Ota (Hyogo) - 12:59
3. Yumika Nagahama (Kanagawa) - 13:08

Seventh Stage (4.0 km)
1. Hikari Onishi (Hyogo) - 12:32
2. Yumi Fujinaka (Aichi) - 12:37
3. Maasa Sasano (Chiba) - 12:40

Eighth Stage (3.0 km)
1. Izumi Takamatsu (Nagano) - 10:04
2. Moe Shimizu (Miyagi) - 10:06
3. Natsumi Doi (Chiba) - 10:09

Ninth Stage (10.0 km)
1. Rei Ohara (Okayama) - 31:45
2. Hanami Sekine (Tokyo) - 32:03
3. Mao Kiyota (Shizuoka) - 32:06

© 2017 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


TokyoRacer said…
Nice to see so much young talent coming up.

This is such a great format, I don't why other countries don't do it. Well, I suppose it's too much work to organize (the Japanese are great organizers) and they don't know about it so it never occurs to anyone to have a relay race like this.

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