Konica win New
K. Ken Nakamura for the IAAF
2 January 2002 - For the second year in a row, Konica track team won the seven stage 100Km All Japan Corporate team Ekiden Championships, which is also known as the New Year Ekiden. The ekiden championships are contested on the loop course around Maebashi, the site of the 1999 World Indoor Championships, annually on 1 January. Until a few years ago, Konica’s claim to fame may have been that it is the team Eric Wainaina, a two-time Olympic marathon medallist runs for. However, Kenyan runners, Wainaina and Zakayo Ngatho also had a positive influence on the young team members, and thus the team became a contender for the championships.
Unlike last year when Konica run away from their competition in the third of the seven stages, the competition was fierce this year. Last year, as a favourite, Konica won the race to determine the best ekiden team in Japan for the first time after twenty-six attempts. Going into this year’s race, Konica was the favourite again, for they won the eastern Japan district ekiden championships by nearly four minutes. However, the team lost their big gun, Zakayo Ngatho, a Kenyan who won both the 5000m and the 10000m in the 2000 Japanese National Championships, to injury at the last minute, which presumably left the race wide open. Chugoku Electric, a team that won their district championships by five minutes was now considered as co-favourite. The night before the race, Katsumi Sakai who coaches Konica motivated the team members by reminding them that they must win the next day or else be labelled as the team who cannot win without Ngatho.
In an ekiden race, coaches devise different strategies depending on the team’s strength and weakness. The team strategy in turn determines the running order. Because in the ekiden, the first stage often sets the tone for the subsequent stages, one of the possible strategies is to try to take a big lead initially with the team’s best runner. That is exactly what Nissin Food had in mind. Their big gun, Julius Gitahi, an Olympian at 5000m for Kenya who has lived in Japan since his high school days ran the first stage for Nissin Foods track team. As expected, Gitahi broke the race open by 3Km into the first stage. By the end of 12.3Km first stage (34:25, a new stage record), Gitahi was twenty-four seconds ahead of the second place Yoji Yamaguchi of NEC, while the favourite Konica team was 36 seconds behind in ninth place.
It is often said that in order to stay in contention, the team’s best runner must hold his own against the rival teams in the longest stage. The 22Km second stage is the longest stage of the ekiden race, and many teams had their big guns run this stage. Some of the big names running this stage were Toshiyuki Hayata, a former national half marathon record holder, Atsushi Sato, a national collegiate marathon record holder, Takayuki Inubushi, a former national marathon record holder, and Koichiro Nagata, the most promising young runner in Japan. For Nissin Foods, Kenjiro Jitsui, a 1996 Olympic marathon runner run the second stage. Unfortunately, by the ninth Km, Jitsui was caught by Takayuki Matsumiya of Konica, Atsushi Sato of Chugoku Electric, Kazuo Ietani of Sanyo Steel, Satoshi Irifune of Kanebo, and Hideyuki Obinata of Fujitsu. Ten Km later, it was Takayuki Matsumiya, who pulled away from the lead pack; he was chased by Atsushi Sato who run so brilliantly in the district ekiden championships yet was a disappointing 11th in the recent Fukuoka marathon. At the end of the 22Km second stage, Konica lead Chugoku Electric by nine seconds.
Because it is important not to fall too far behind the leaders early in the ekiden, many big names run the 11.8Km third stage. Toshinari Takaoka, an Asian record holder at 3000m/5000m/10000m who recently made a promising marathon debut (2:09:41), Daniel Njenga, a former 3000mSC junior record (8:19.21) holder, Simon Maina, 1998 Commonwealth Games’ champion at the 10000m were among the runner who ran the third stage. In this stage, Yasunori Uchitomi of Chugoku Electric, a top 3000mSC runner in Japan ran brilliantly. Not only did Uchitomi catch Kikuo Ozawa of Konica 4Km into the third stage, but by the end of the stage three, Chugoku Electric lead Konica by 21 seconds. Chugoku Electric runner continued to run brilliantly and increased the lead to a minute and three seconds at the end of the fourth stage. It now appears that Konica was in trouble. However, in the 15.9Km fifth stage, the race turned around completely. Tomoo Tsubota who recently recorded a huge personal best of 28:05.95 at the 10,000m, run nearly a minute faster than the second fastest runner at the stage, Atsushi Fujita of Fujitsu, a 2:06 marathon runner. Tsubota turned a minute and three seconds deficit against Noriaki Igarashi, a 2:09 marathon runner, into a 32 seconds advantage by the end of the fifth stage.
By the sixth stage, the Konica team was on a roll. The other Matsumiya twin, Yuko Matsumiya, increased Konica’s lead to 68 seconds, which may have sealed the victory for Konica. The anchor leg for Chugoku Electric team was Shigeru Aburaya, who was fifth at the marathon in Edmonton. He started fast and immediately closed the gap on Konica; by 5Km into the final stage, Aburaya cut Konica’s lead to 50 seconds. Unfortunately Aburaya could not get any closer. Konica won in a record time of 4:45:32, while Chugoku Electric was 49 seconds back. For both Chugoku Electric and Nissin Foods, who were second and third respectively it was the best finish in the team’s history. The perennial winner (won 9 times in last 12 years) Asahi Kasei fielded a young team this year. They were in trouble early. After starting at 19th place at the end of the stage one, the team finished disappointing tenth, their worst finish in the history of the New Year Ekiden.
After the race, Katsumi Sakai of Konica was already talking about three-peat, a feat only Asahi Kasei and S&B Foods (when Toshihiko Seko and Douglas Wakihuri was at their prime) had accomplished in the past.
Results: (Clear, Temperature 0.2C, Humidity 52%, Wind NW 4m/s)
1) Konica 4:45:32 (D
Isomatsu, T Matsumiya, K Ozawa, T Mukae,
T Tsubota, Y Matsumiya, T Sakai)
2) Chugoku Electric Power 4:46:21
3) Nissin Foods 4:49:38
4) Toyota 4:49:41
5) Fujitsu 4:50:08
6) NEC 4:51:18
7) Otsuka Pharmaceutical 4:51:48
8) Honda 4:51:56
9) Yakult 4:52:24
10) Asahi Kasei 4:52:25
1 - 12.3Km 34:25 Julius Gitahi (KEN) Nisshin Foods - New stage record
2 - 22Km 1:02:45 Takayuki Matsumiya Konica
3 - 11.8Km 32:03 Daniel Njenga (KEN) Yakult
32:03 Simon Maina (KEN) Toyota
4 - 10.5Km 29:41 Tatsumi Morimasa Chugoku Electric - New stage record
5 - 15.9Km 44:57 Tomoo Tsubota Konica - New stage record
6 - 11.8Km 33:47 Yuko Matsumiya Konica - New stage record
7 - 15.7Km 44:53 James Ndungu (KEN) Honda – Hamamatsu - New stage record