General view of teams assembled for 2005 Chiba Ekiden (Hasse Sjogren) © Copyright
Preview 22 November 2005 – Chiba, Japan

Can the Ethiopians win yet again? - Chiba Ekiden - PREVIEW

Chiba, JapanPaula Radcliffe (GBR), Catherine Ndereba (KEN) and Vanderlei de Lima (BRA), all recent global championship marathon medallists, will take part in the 2005 Chiba Ekiden, which takes place tomorrow, Wednesday 23 November, a national holiday in Japan.

Six stages for both men and women

Until last year the men's and women's ekiden were contested over five and six stages respectively.  Starting this year, however, both men's and women's divisions of Chiba Ekiden will be contested over the marathon distance of 42.195Km divided into six-stages of 5Km, 10Km, 5Km, 10Km, 5Km and 7.195Km.  This is a welcomed move to standardise the Ekiden distances including individual stage distances for the record purpose. 

Fourteen men's teams (AUS, BEL, BRA, ETH, FIN, GBR, KEN, MAR, RUS, SWE, USA, JPN, Japanese Collegiate, and Chiba prefecture) and thirteen women's teams (AUS, BLR, CHN, ETH, FRA, GBR, KEN, ROM, RUS, USA, JPN, Chiba prefecture A and Chiba prefecture B) will be contesting this year's ekiden.

Focus of media attention is on Radcliffe

Despite an Ekiden being essentially a team discipline by its very nature, one individual is attracting most of the attention so far. Paula Radcliffe, the World Marathon champion and record holder, is attracting much attention in Japan, with her arrival was covered on national TV in both the Monday evening as well as the Tuesday morning news programmes.

“I like road relays.  I grew up running them in England,” confirmed the Briton at today’s press conference. “This ekiden is special because its total distance is the marathon distance and the marathon is very special for me.”

Describing her training since her Helsinki gold medal, Radcliffe commented: "After taking some holidays, I was doing good training until illness interrupted it (bronchitis). I am training again now, but not so well.”

Ethiopian ‘B’ team still the favourites

Ethiopia is not sending their "A" team this year, but both the assembled squads are still strong enough to be considered as a slight favourite. The Ethiopian men's roll includes Tariku Bekele (younger brother of Kenenisa), who was seventh at the 5000m in Helsinki, Abebe Dinkesa, who recorded 26:30.74 for 10,000m in Hengelo, and Gebre Gebremariam, double World Cross Country silver medallist in 2004.

The Ethiopian women's line-up includes Meselech Melkamu, who was fourth at 5000m in Helsinki, Gelete Burika, who was eighth at 1500m in Helsinki, and Sintayehu Ejigu, who was tenth at 5000m in Athens. 

The challengers

The main challenge to the Ethiopian teams is expected to come from Kenya, Japan and in case of the women's competition, also from Russia. As usual the Kenyan teams consist mostly of those runners who are living in Japan and run for Japanese corporate teams. The squads through are still quite formidable, however, and might give Ethiopians some competition. The biggest gun in the Kenyan men's arsenal is Martin Irungu Mathathi who was fifth at 10,000m in the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki.  He has a 10,000m personal best of 27:08.42, recorded in April of 2005.  Other sub-28 minutes 10,000m runners on the team are Josephat Muchiri Ndambiri, John Kariuki and Mekubo Mogusu.  Their 10,000m personal bests are 27:19.19, 27:28.69, and 27:54.75 respectively, all recorded in the Hyogo Relays in April of this year.

Turning our attention to the Kenyan women's team, the star is of course, Catherine Ndereba, who has been was first (2003 Worlds), second (2004 Olympics) and second (2005 Worlds) in the last three global championship marathons.  She will be joined by the best Kenyans living in Japan, Jane Wanjiku and Mary Wangari. Wanjiku ran the 5000m in both the 2003 World Championships and 2004 Olympic Games. Her 10,000m personal best is 31:04.34, recorded in April of 2004, while Wangari, recorded her 10,000m personal best of 31:38.81 in May of 2005. The Kenyans, however, have not won the Chiba Ekiden since 1997, when their men’s team triumphed, while the last victorious Kenyan women's team was in 1991. 

The Russians offer a threat in the women’s race, counting on - Lidia Grigoryeva, was eighth at 10,000m in the 2004 Olympics with 31:04.62, Yelena Zadorzhnaya, was fourth at 5000m in Athens, Liliya Shobukhova, was ninth at 5000m in Helsinki (also 13th in Athens), and Lyudmilla Petrova, who was eighth at the Olympic marathon.

The hosts

The Japanese men won the Chiba ekiden for three straight years from 1998 to 2000, while women's counter part won for ten straight years until 2001. The Japanese men's team includes Atsushi Sato, who was tenth at the marathon in 2003 Worlds and Takayuki Matsumiya, who holds the World record at 30Km.  Also on the team are Michitaka Hosokawa, who was 48th at the marathon in Helsinki, and Kazuo Ietani, who was eighth in the World Half Marathon Championships in Edmonton.  One of the young rising stars on the team is Yuki Sato, who has recorded a national high school 10,000m record, 28:07.39, in Nov 2004. "I hope to run low 28 minutes for 10Km second stage," said Sato at the press conference.

Turning our attention to the Japanese women's team, three runners on the team - Megumi Oshima, Miho Sugimori and Minori Hayakawa - competed in the World Championships in Helsinki.  Oshima was tenth at the marathon in Helsinki, while Hayakawa recorded an Asian record at 3000m Steeplechase in Helsinki, and Sugimori holds the national record at 800m, 1000m and 1500m.

The forecast

The Ethiopians have dominated the Chiba Ekiden for the last three years. Both the men's and women's teams from Ethiopia have recorded the fastest ever times - 1:55:59 for men and 2:11:22 for women - in 2003.  Furthermore in 2003, the Ethiopian teams recorded the all-time bests for every single stage, and their 2003 performance may be hard for them, let alone any other country to match this year.


Finally, it should be noted that in previous years, the first stage was contested over 10km and many of the team's key runners competed in the stage one, but starting this year the 10km is has been moved to the second stage. This means that on the basis that the strongest team entrants still opt for the 10km leg, we are likely to witness what the Japanese call "Gobonuki" which describes the sight of some world class runners overtaking dozens of lesser opponents who began the stage ahead of them.  Devoted fans of the sport claim that "Gobonuki" is one of the most exciting sights of any ekiden. 

In the context of this year’s race, Radcliffe, Grigoryeva and Zhou Chunxiu (fifth at the marathon in Helsinki) will be running the second stage, while Ndereba will be running the 10Km fourth stage.  Fans are already speculating how many runners will Paula Radcliffe pass during her 10Km second stage?

Ken Nakamura for the IAAF