The 2004 Chiba Ekiden will be held on Tuesday 23 November, a national holiday in Japan. The fifteen men’s and fifteen women’s teams will contest the road relays over the 42.195Km course, which starts and finishes at the Chiba Sports Centre stadium.
The men’s race is divided into five stages - 10Km, 5Km, 10Km, 5Km and 12.195Km, while the women’s contest over the same marathon distance is divided into six stages - 10Km, 5Km, 10Km, 5Km, 4.767Km and 7.428Km.
The Ethiopian challenge
For the last two years, Ethiopia has sent dream teams to the Chiba Ekiden. In 2002, luminaries such as Bekele, Gebremariam and Sihine represented the Ethiopian men who won by over two minutes from Kenyan, while Tulu, Tirunesh Dibaba, Defar and Kidane were in the women’s side that stopped the Japanese team's winning streak at ten.
Last year’s Ethiopian squads, completely dominated the Ekiden. Not only did they both win in course records, but each individual runner recorded best times for their respective stages.
Once again this year the Ethiopian teams are favoured in both the men’s and women’s race. The Ethiopian teams especially the men's line-up may not be as strong as in the last two years, but including top finishers in the World Cross Country Championships and the World Junior Championships, it is hard to imagine that they will be seriously challenged by any other team.
Women’s Race Preview - Shibui leads national quest
Aside from Ethiopia’s merits, we should consider the hosts. Last year the Japanese women’s team dropped to third behind Ethiopia and Kenya, and while not at top strength their team on this occasion is still quite strong and will be looking to reverse declining fortunes.
Yoko Shibui, a national record holder at both the 10,000m and Marathon will be running one of the 10Km stages. Shibui broke the national marathon record in the recent Berlin Marathon. The Japanese team also includes Yuki Saito, who was fifth in the 2004 World Half Marathon Championships. Saito is one of the promising younger runners, having set a national 10,000m debut record - 31:49.29 - last year.
The team also includes Hiromi Ominami, who was second in the 2004 Berlin Marathon, Megumi Oshima (formerly Tanaka), a two-time Olympian (5000m in 2000 and 10,000m in 2004), Mari Ozaki, 2003 national 5000m champion, and Takako Kotorida, a 1:08:35 half marathon runner. Their 10,000m personal bests are all under 32 minutes.
The teams from Russia, Romania and Kenya include a few world class runners. The Russian’s have included two Olympians, Lydia Griroryeva, who was eighth at 10,000m, and Liliya Shobukhova, who was 13th at 5000m.
The Romanian team also includes two 2004 Olympians. They are Mihaela Botezan, who was 11th at 10,000m and Nuta Olaru, who was 13th at the Marathon. However, the youngest member of the team may be the one to watch, for Ancuta Bobocel, who was second at 3000m Steeplechase at the 2004 World Junior Championships is also included.
The Kenyan team could be much stronger, but it still includes Lucy Wangui, who was 9th at 10,000m in the Olympic Games, and Jane Wanjiku, who was 9th at the short course in the 2004 World Cross Country Championships. Both runners are based in Japan, running for the corporate teams.
Men’s Race Preview - Ethiopia to dominate
Turning attention to the men's race, the Ethiopian team is a strong favourite and should win the race convincingly. Away from the predictable, the most exciting battle could perhaps be for second place between the Japanese and Kenyan teams. The Japanese men’s team includes all three Olympic Marathon team members – Shigeru Aburaya, Tomoaki Kunichika and Toshinari Suwa, and Terukazu Omori, one of the most promising young runners in Japan, who has a 10,000m best of 27:43.9.
The Kenyan team, who finished second last year once again consists entirely of runners who live in Japan. The team may not be the strongest possible Kenyan team, but one advantage of fielding a squad consisting entirely of those runners who compete for the corporate teams in Japan is that they are experienced Ekiden runners.
Martin Mathathi, Julius Maina and Simon Maina are regularly setting stage bests in the Japanese Ekidens organised among corporate teams. The runner on the team with the best championships’ credentials is Willy Kirui, who was third at 5000m in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, UK.
Other world class runners in Chiba include John Yuda of Tanzania, who has twice been third in the World Half Marathon Championships (2001/2002), and was second in the 2002 World Cross Country Championships short course race behind Kenenisa Bekele.
Kevin Sullivan of Canada, 4th 2000 Olympic 1500m, and more recently 17th at the short course in the 2004 World Cross Country Championships, will also race.
Larbi Zeroual of France, who was 25th at the Marathon in the 2003 World Championships, and Brahim Lehlafi of Morocco, who was third at 5000m in the 2000 Olympic Games are also included in the various starting line-up.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF