Minolta won the 49th annual Japan Corporate team Ekiden Championships (for men), a seven stage 100Km road relay race, also known as the New Year Ekiden held earlier today in Maebashi, Japan (1 Jan).
It was the company teamâ€™s fourth victory in the last five years and this year they showed their strength as they won without their biggest talent Tomoo Tsubota, who has recorded stage bests in each of the last four years of the race.
Overall, the race was very close. Konica-Minolta ran together with the defending champions Chugoku Electric Power for nearly a half of the seventh and the final stage, before surging away to win by 47 seconds. It was the closest race since 2000 when Fujitsu won by 38 seconds.
Finishing third, further 57 seconds, for the second consecutive year was Nissin Foods. They have finished in top three positions for the four consecutive years. Kanebo who fielded their best runners in the first three stages, was, as expected, in the lead during the early part of the race. They finished fourth, their best placing since 1998 when they also finished fourth.
The 12.3Km first stage was mostly dominated by Africans running for the corporate teams. By 8Km the race came down to a battle between three Africans, Daniel Mwangi, Willy Kirui and Girma Assefa. Three kilometres later Daniel Mwangi, a Kenyan who runs for JAL AGS, surged away from the lead pack. At the end Mwangi was one second short of the stage record set by another Kenyan Martin Mathathi. While Yuki Nakamura of Kanebo was the first Japanese home, more importantly, Takashi Ohta of Konica-Minolta was 27 seconds ahead of the runner from the Chugoku Electric Power team.
The 22Km second stage is usually reserved for the teamâ€™s best runners. It is also where the race starts to take its shape, because it is the longest stage of the ekiden.
Two kilometres into the stage, quadruple (3000m, 5000m, 10000m and Marathon) national record holder Toshinari Takaoka (Kanebo team) took over the lead. Takaoka ran alone for the next 9.5Km, until the World 30km record holder Takayuki Matsumiya joined him in the front. They run together for one kilometre, before Takaoka surged away to record the stage best. In the team race, Takayuki Matsumiya extended the lead over Chugoku Electric Power by another 38 seconds. Although Shigeru Aburaya, (fifth in 2001 Worlds, 2003 Worlds, and 2004 Olympic Marathons), ran for Chugoku Electric Power, they were one minute and 5 seconds behind Konica-Minolta, who in turn were in the second place 19 seconds behind Kanebo, the leaders.
Foreign runners dominated the 11.3Km third stage. The five fastest times for the stage were recorded by Kenyans. Martin Mathathi, who holds the stage record in the stage one, passed 10Km check point under 27 minutes on his way to set another stage record, 30:59 for the 11.3Km. In the team race, Kanebo was still in the front. Chugoku Electric Power moved up to sixth place, but the time-differential between two-favourites â€“ Konica-Minolta and Chugoku Electric Power - actually grew by 9 seconds to a minute and 14 seconds.
In the 10.5Km fourth stage, while Chugoku Electric Power moved up to the fifth place, Konica-Minolta finally took over the lead. Two kilometres into the fourth stage, Daisuke Isomatsu of Konica-Minolta caught and passed Kanebo to take over the lead for the first time in the race. With Isomatsu recording a stage best, the time-differential between two favorites grew further to one minute and 33 seconds.
The plan devised by Yasushi Sakaguchi, coach of Chugoku Electric Power, was to take over the lead during the 15.9Km fifth stage with Atsushi Sato doing the damage. He started a minute and 33 seconds behind Konica-Minolta but ran brilliantly and almost made up the entire deficit. Chugoku Electric Power was back in the race, with just a eight second deficit at the end of the stage.
The deficit was made up during the next stage when Hideaki Shigenari of Chugoku Electric Power caught Kikuo Ozawa of Konica-Minolta 1.5Km into the sixth stage. They ran together for the rest of the stage and after 84.3Km of racing, nothing separated the two teams.
Stage Seven (Final)
So the race came down to the 15.7Km seventh and the final stage. The two teams ran together for the first 7Km of the final stage, at which point Kazuyuki Maeda of Konica-Minolta surged away from Tatsumi Morimasa of Chugoku Electric Power to bring home a victory for his team.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF
Assistance by Akihiro Onishi
1. Konica-Minolta 4:48:57
2. Chugoku Electric Power 4:49:44
3. Nissin Foods 4:50:41
4. Kanebo 4:50:45
5. Honda 4:50:48
6. Suzuki 4:54:11
7. Toyota 4:54:12
8. Fujitsu 4:54:16
15) Asahi Kasei 4:54:55
Stage 1 12.3Km (stage record 34:23 by Martin Mathathi)
Daniel Mwangi (JAL AGS) 34:24
Willy Kirui (Honda Hamamatsu) 34:32
3) Girma Assefa (Fuji Heavy Industry) 34:35
4) Yuki Nakamura (Kanebo) 34:47
5) Abdullah Bay (Yasukawa Electric) 34:48
6) Takashi Ohta (Konica-Minolta) 34:50
21) Teruto Ozaki (Chugoku Electric) 35:17
Stage 2 22.0Km (stage record 1:01:36 by Ken-ichi Takahashi)
Toshinari Takaoka (Kanebo) 1:02:33
Takayuki Matsumiya (Konica-Minolta) 1:02:49
Kazuo Ietani (Sanyo Steel) 1:03:18
Shigeru Aburaya (Chugoku Electric) 1:03:27
Tadayuki Ojima (Asahi Kasei) 1:03:29
Toshinari Suwa (Nissin Foods) 1:03:32
Stage 3 11.3Km (previous stage record 31:08 by Daniel Njenga)
Martin Mathathi (Suzuki) 30:59
James Ndungu (Yachiyo) 31:49
Julius Maina (Toyota Textile) 31:51
4) Julius Gitahi (Nissin Foods) 31:52
5) Daniel Njenga (Yakult) 31:53
10) Samuel Muturi (Konica-Minolta) 32:21
Tsuyoshi Ogata (Chugoku Electric) 32:30
Stage 4 10.5Km (stage record 29:36 by Hatsuo Kitada)
Daisuke Isomatsu (Konica-Minolta) 29:37
Yuki Matsumura (Nissin Foods) 29:48
Toshihide Kato (Honda) 29:48
Kenji Takao (Asahi Kasei) 29:51
Michitaka Hosokawa (Otsuka) 29:53
Yasunori Uchitomi (Chugoku Electric) 29:56
Stage 5 15.9Km (stage record 44:57 by Tomoo Tsubota)
Atsushi Sato (Chugoku Electric) 46:31
Yuko Matsumiya (Konica-Minolta) 47:56
Takashi Tokunaga (Mitsubishi Heavy Industry) 48:00
Nobuhiko Abe (Kyudenko) 48:02
Shin-ichi Watanabe (Sanyo Steel) 48:03
Stage 6 11.8Km (stage record 33:25 by Kazuyoshi Tokumoto)
Hideaki Shigenari (Chugoku Electric) 34:32
Kikuo Ozawa (Konica-Minolta) 34:40
Shin-ichiro Okuda (Toyota) 34:49
Tomohiro Nakagawa (Suzuki) 34:49
5) Shuichi Fujii (Nissin Foods) 35:00
Stage 7 15.7Km (stage record 44:53 by James Ndungu)
Takashi Horiguchi (Honda) 46:36
Kazuyuki Maeda (Konica-Minolta) 46:44
Akinori Shibutani (Kanebo) 46:44
Yuzo Onishi (Nissin Foods) 46:49
Takashi Ishijima (Kyudenko) 47:19
Tatsumi Morimasa (Chugoku Electric) 47:31