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Asahi Kasei Wins First New Year Ekiden National Title in 18 Years

by Brett Larner
photos by @rikujolove

Living up to the promise of its 2015 recruiting coup after a disappointing performance last year, the Asahi Kasei team won its first New Year Ekiden corporate men's national championships title in 18 years on the strength of its double set of twins.

Fresh from running 2016's fastest Japanese 10000 m, 10000 m national record holder Kota Murayama led off for Asahi Kasei but unexpectedly proved to be its weakest link, finishing 13th of 37 on the 12.3 km First Stage, 11 seconds back from leader Masaki Toda (Nissin Shokuhin).  Defending champ Toyota also struggled to get off on the right foot, lead runner Taku Fujimoto only 10th.

One of only 7 teams in the field without an African on board to boost its chances, Asahi Kasei fielded Tetsuya Yoroizaka, all-time Japanese #2 for 5000 m and 10000 m, on the 8.3 km Second Stage.  Facing 30 Kenyans and Ethiopians including Rio Olympics 10000 m silver medalist Paul Tanui (Kyudenko) and 2016 World Half Marathon silver medalist Bedan Karoki (DeNA), Yoroizaka lost ground, dropping Asahi Kasei to 20th.  Starting in 21st Karoki was otherworldly, seeming to go at 100% for the entire 8.3 km as he passed one after another of his competitors.  By the end of the stage he was up to 2nd, missing the stage record by 7 seconds but completely changing the shape of the front end of the race.

Having won the 13.6 km Third Stage last year, Karoki's teammate Yuichiro Ueno put DeNA out front on the Third.  Toyota's Minato Oishi spectacularly outran Ueno on time, moving the defending champs up from 23rd to 3rd and coming just 5 seconds shy of the stage record.  Behind them, Shuho Dairokuno gave Asahi Kasei its first quality run of the day, running the next-fastest time on the stage behind Oishi and Ueno to bump Asahi Kasei up to 11th.

The 22.0 km Fourth Stage was eagerly anticipated as the highlight for Japanese fans, featuring the New Year debuts of former Hakone stars Yuma Hattori (Toyota) and Daichi Kamino (Konica Minolta).  Hattori, Kamino and stage record holder Yuta Shitara (Honda) started almost together, but while they focused on outdoing each other and catching leader Toshio Takaki (DeNA), an unexpected threat emerged from behind.  2016 national cross-country champion Takashi Ichida delivered a stage-winning run, moving up from 11th to as high as 3rd before dropping back to 5th in the last sprint to the next handoff.

On the 15.8 km Fifth Stage Asahi Kasei's Kenta Murayama, the twin brother of lead runner Kota, was in position to quickly catch the leaders thanks to Ichida's run.  Never really looking comfortable, Murayama threw in a series of hard surges to break the lead pack of five down one by one.  The last man standing was Yuki Oshikawa of last year's 3rd-placer Toyota Kyushu, but Oshikawa was no match in the end as Murayama pulled away to put Asahi Kasei 7 seconds ahead.

Toyota Kyushu rookie Shoya Okuno sprinted to catch Asahi Kasei's Hiroshi Ichida, twin brother of Fourth Stage man Takashi, on the 12.5 km Sixth Stage but quickly faded away.  Always in his brother's shadow, Ichida delivered the best race of his career to date, pushing steadily and opening an incredibly 58-second lead over Toyota, whose Hideyuki Tanaka overtook Okuno.  Ichida's time of 36:32 was a new stage record by 3 seconds.  The gap he opened gave a critical safety zone to Asahi Kasei anchor Satoru Sasaki.

Sasaki, the top Japanese man in the marathon at the Rio Olympics and like the Ichida twins a graduate of Daito Bunka University, could have played it relatively safely, but with over 3 seconds per km to play with on the 15.5 km Seventh Stage he outran both of his closest two competitors to finish with the second-fastest time on the anchor stage.  Asahi Kasei's total time of 4:49:55 missed the overall course record by 23 seconds, a margin they might have bridged with a better start.

Defending champion Toyota was 2nd over a minute behind in 4:51:02, with Toyota Kyushu 3rd again in 4:52:18 well over a minute faster than last year. Mid-race leader DeNA fell to 7th behind Mitsubishi HPS, Konica Minolta and Fujitsu.  Shaken by Shitara's poor run on the Fourth Stage, last year's 4th-placer Honda was one of the big underperformers as it dropped to 11th.

Many of the top individual Japanese runners at the New Year Ekiden will return in three weeks for the season-ending National Men's Ekiden in Hiroshima. From there it's a quick transition to road reason, with the early February Marugame Half Marathon coming ahead of a wave of marathons.  Fans will have extra reason to be excited about the late-February Tokyo Marathon: Takashi Ichida, Daichi Kamino and Yuta Shitara will all make their marathon debuts alongside Yuma Hattori, who will be trying to go one better than his 2:11:46 debut in Tokyo last year.

61st New Year Ekiden
Corporate Men's National Championships
Maebashi, Gunma, 1/1/17
37 teams, 7 stages, 100.0 km
click here for complete results

Top Team Results
1. Asahi Kasei - 4:49:55
2. Toyota - 4:51:02
3. Toyota Kyushu - 4:52:18
4. Mitsubishi HPS - 4:52:23
5. Konica Minolta - 4:52:26
6. Fujitsu - 4:52:50
7. DeNA - 4:53:27
8. Nissin Shokuhin - 4:53:52
9. Chugoku Denryoku - 4:53:57
10. Hitachi Butsuryu - 4:54:26

Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage (12.3 km)
1. Masaki Toda (Nissin Shokuhin) - 35:15
2. Kei Fumimoto (Kanebo) - 35:16
3. Yuma Higashi (Kyudenko) - 35:17

Second Stage (8.3 km)
1. Bedan Karoki (DeNA) - 22:01
2. Jonathan Ndiku (Hitachi Butsuryu) - 22:08
3. Paul Tanui (Kyudenko) - 22:10

Third Stage (13.6 km)
1. Minato Oishi (Toyota) - 37:57
2. Yuichiro Ueno (DeNA) - 38:14
3. Shuho Dairokuno (Asahi Kasei) - 38:30

Fourth Stage (22.0 km)
1. Takashi Ichida (Asahi Kasei) - 1:03:06
2. Masato Imai (Toyota Kyushu) - 1:03:07
3. Hiroto Inoue (Mitsubishi HPS) - 1:03:14

Fifth Stage (15.8 km)
1. Kenta Murayama (Asahi Kasei) - 46:36
2. Yuki Oshikawa (Toyota Kyushu) - 46:46
3. Hiroyuki Yamamoto (Konica Minolta) - 47:00

Sixth Stage (12.5 km)
1. Hiroshi Ichida (Asahi Kasei) - 36:32 - CR
2. Hideyuki Tanaka (Toyota) - 36:56
2. Shota Hattori (Honda) - 36:56

Seventh Stage (15.5 km)
1. Takuya Noguchi (Konica Minolta) - 46:08
2. Satoru Sasaki (Asahi Kasei) - 46:22
3. Muryo Takase (Nissin Shokuhin) - 46:25

photos © 2017 M. Kawaguchi, all rights reserved
text © 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved


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translated and edited by Brett Larner
photo © 2012 Dr. Helmut Winter, all rights reserved