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The new year starts off with Ekiden Championships in Japan

Ken Nakamura for the IAAF

4 January 2001 - For track and field fans in Japan, every new year starts with an ekiden feast. Two major ekiden championships are contested and televised live in its entirety in the first three days of new year.

First on January 1, 2001, in Maebashi, most of the best runners in Japan gathered for the 45th annual all Japan Corporate Ekiden championships – 7 stage 100.0Km ekiden race - to determine the best ekiden team in the country. The TBS, the network who will be televising the World Championships from Edmonton in Japan, televised the ekiden for six hours starting at 8:30AM.

The favourites for the team title were Fujitsu, the defending champion, Asahi Kasei, a perennial champion who won nine times in the last eleven years (and was second in other two years), and rapidly improving Konica track team.

The Konica team led by last year's sensation Zakayo Gatho (of Kenya) and rapidly improving twin brothers Takayuki and Yuko Matsumiya (recently, they have set the 10000m PR of 28:02.80 and 28:03.43 respectively) won in 4:49:44. The defending champion, Fujitsu despite of stage best by two Asian record holders, Ken-ichi Takahashi (half marathon) and Atsushi Fujita (marathon) had to be content with second place in 4:50:59 while perennial champion Asahi Kasei was disappointing eighth, their lowest finish in history.

As is usually the case, the race started under very windy condition. Simon Maina, the 1998 Commonwealth Games champion at the 10000m, put Toyota team in the lead after the first stage, while Asahi Kasei stumbled badly. Tomonori Watanabe of Asahi Kasei, a 2:09 marathon runner, was over minute behind the leader after the 12.3Km first stage. In an ekiden, the first stage often set a tone for the entire race. When the team stumble in the first stage, they often fail to recover from a disaster, and this was exactly what happened to Asahi Kasei. Disappointed Shigeru Soh (2:09 marathon runner and three time Olympian), the coach of Asahi Kasei vowed to return next year "after improving 10000m time for each runner."

Fujitsu, placed their first big gun, Ken-ichi Takahashi, a national half marathon record holder, in the second stage. This was the longest stage, and most of the team had their big gun (T Takaoka, T Inubushi, T Hayata, K Jitsui) run this stage. As expected, Takahashi took over the lead after covering the 22.0Km second stage in 1:01:36. However Konica was only 18 seconds behind thanks to sensational run by Takayuki Matsumiya who ran the stage in 1:02:14. In the third stage Konica’s big gun Zakayo Gatho, a Kenyan living in Japan, covered 11.8Km in 31:30. However, he was not the fastest for the stage. That distinction belong to Daniel Njenga who once held World Junior Record (8:19:21) at the 3000mSC; Njenga who runs for Yakult team covered the distance in 31:08. Gatho of Konica reclaimed the lead after passing Naoki Mishiro of Fujitsu whose left leg cramped up with 2Km left in the third stage. Fujitsu was nearly a minute behind after third stage. Although 2:06 marathon runner Atsushi Fujita of Fujitsu ran 48:07 for the mostly uphill 15.9Km fifth stage, Yuko Matsumiya of Konica also ran well covering the stage in 48:19. Fujitsu was still 21 seconds behind Konica at the end of 5th stage. In the final two stages, Konica runners Sakai and Tsubota extended the lead over Fujitsu, and won by more than a minute. It was their first victory at the national ekiden championships.

1) Konica 4:49:44
2) Fujitsu 4:50:59
3) Chugoku Electric Power 4:53:25
4) Nissin Foods 4:55:13
5) Araco 4:55:25
6) NEC 4:55:30
7) Honda 4:55:32
8) Asahi Kasei 4:55:39
9) Kanebo 4:58:19
10) Yakult 4:58:26

It was followed with Hakone Ekiden, contested from Tokyo to Hakone (5 stage 107.2Km) on the first day (January 2nd) and from Hakone back to Tokyo (5 stage 109.2Km) on the second day (January 3rd). Despite of being the regional ekiden - only collegiate teams in the Tokyo metropolitan area participate - it is a huge event. It always register one of the highest TV rating of the year, and huge number of spectators, perhaps near million lines up along the course to cheer the runners.

This year, Juntendo University coached by Keisuke Sawaki (won 5000m/10000m double at the 1967 World University Games) was looking to became only the second team to win the triple crown of collegiate ekiden, having won the Izumo Ekiden (6 stage 43.1Km) and all Japan Collegiate Ekiden Championships (8 stage 106.8Km) earlier.

Although the Chuo Univeristy was in the lead after the first stage, it was Hosei University who was in the control for the next three stages. In the second stage, where all the big guns of the school ran, Kazuyoshi Tokumoto of Hosei University who recorded a 28:15.06 10000m recently took over the lead followed closedly by Kamiya of Komazawa and Iwamizu of Juntendo. John Kanyi, a Kenyan student at the Heisei International University passed eight runners in this stage to grab a "Kukansho" the best stage award. At the end of the fourth stage, Hosei led from Juntendo (29 seconds behind) and Chuo (70 seconds behind) with Komazawa the defending champion only sixth.

In the very hilly fifth stage (mostly uphill), Masakazu Fujiwara of Chuo University who recently set an Asian Junior 10000m record (28:17.38) ran patiently during the uphill part of the stage, only to fly down the downhill part to pass both runners around 19Km mark. At the end of the first day, Chuo University lead Juntendo by 8 seconds. The defending Champion Komazawa was two minutes and 24 seconds behind. On the second day, the team started in stagger based on the time differentials from the first day. Almost immediately Shoji Miyai of Juntendo took the lead from Chuo Univeristy and was over three minutes ahead of Komazawa University at the end of the stage six. The race seemed to be over. However, durring the stage 7 and 8 Komazawa slowly chipped away Juntendo’s lead and at the start of the stage 9, Juntendo was only 28 seconds behind. In the ninth stage, not only did Masahito Takahashi of Komazawa University caught Kensuke Takahashi of Juntendo University, he took over the lead and was ahead by 17 seconds at the end of the stage 9. It was totally unexpected. Kensuke Takahashi was Juntendo’s best runner; he was suppose to put the team in the commanding lead. However, Nobuhito Miyazaki, the anchor for Juntendo was well composed despite the surprise of finding himself in the second place. He passed Komazawa runner around 6Km, and slowly build a commanding lead. The Juntendo won the race by nearly three minutes and thus completed a triple crown of collegiate ekiden. Including a collegiate track championships they won in September of 2000, the team completed a grand slam of collegiate championships.

1) Juntendo University 11:14:05
2) Komazawa University 11:17:00
3) Chuo University 11:19:17
4) Hosei University 11:20:23
5) Kanagawa University 11:26:32
6) Daito Bunka Univerisy 11:28:05
7) Teikyo University 11:28:34
8) Nihon University 11:29:17
9) Yamanashi Gakuin University 11:29:18
10) Waseda University 11:29:48