Arguably the most famous marathon relay of them all, the Chiba International Ekiden, which takes place this year on Friday 23 November, a national holiday in Japan, will be quite a different race this year.
Since its inaugural year of 1988, two separate races - one for men and one for women - were contested in Chiba. However, this year for the first time in its history, a single ekiden race will be contested among the fifteen mixed teams (three men and three women).
The marathon distance ekiden is divided into six-stages (5Km, 5Km, 10Km, 5Km, 10Km and 7.195Km). Three of the sections (first, third and fifth) are reserved for men, while other three sections (second, fourth and sixth) are reserved for women. Thus at first, third and fifth relay points, male runner will hand over the “tasuki (sash)” to women while at second and fourth relay point, female runner will hand over “tasuki” to men.
Fifteen teams are invited to the Chiba Ekiden. There are national teams from: Australia, Belarus, China, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Korea, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden, USA and Japan, as well as a Japanese Collegiate team and a Chiba Prefecture team. Among the national teams three standout - Japan, Kenya and Russia – stand out, and most likely will fight it out for the top honour.
The host nation’s team includes four runners from the 2007 World Championships marathon team – Tsuyoshi Ogata, Kayoko Fukushi, Megumi Kinukawa and Kensuke Takezawa. Ogata was fifth in Osaka and third in Helsinki two years ago. Kayoko Fukushi, who was 14th at 5000m and 10th at 10,000m in Osaka, is also a national record holder at 3000m (8:44.40), 5000m (14:53.22) and the half marathon (1:07:26). Megumi Kinukawa, who was 14th at the 10,000m, is still a high school student, but set a national junior record (31:35.27) at 10,000m in April. Kensuke Takezawa, 13:19.00 5000m runner, was 12th at 10,000m in Osaka.
The Kenyan team includes Catherine Ndereba, Emily Chebet, and Moses Ndiema Masai. Ndereba, of course, is the 2003 and 2007 World champion at the marathon, while Chebet was third at 10,000m in the 2006 African Championships. Moses Masai, who won both 5000m and 10,000m at the 2005 African Junior Championships, also set World Junior record at the marathon in 2005, and ran 26:49.20 for the 10,000m in September. His 10,000m personal best is nearly one-minute faster than the next fastest runner (Ed Moran with 27:43.13) in the Ekiden.
The Russian team includes Liliya Shobukhova, a former World Indoor record (8:27.86) holder at 3000m and Yelena Zadorozhnaya, bronze medallist at 3000m in the 2001 World Indoor Championships. Shobukhova is a silver medallist at both the 2006 European Championships 5000m as well as the 2006 World Indoor Championships 3000m, while Zadorozhnaya was fourth at 5000m in both the 2004 Olympics and 2003 World Championships. The Russian team’s male runners are relatively weak by comparison but Anatoly and Evgeny Rybakov were respectively the 10,000m and 5000m championsat the 2005 Under 23 European Championships.
Other notable names running the Chiba Ekiden are: Alina Gherasim (2:28:17 marathon runner) and Luminita Talpos (70:08 half marathon runner) on the Romanian team, Hitomi Niiya (former high school sensation who won the Tokyo marathon in February) on Chiba Prefecture team, Drota Gruca, 2:27:46 marathon runner, on the Polish team, and Ed Moran on the US team, the 2007 Pan American Champion at 5000m who has the best of 27:43.13 at 10,000m.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF