The New Year Ekiden is the peak of the year for corporate league men, their national championship race with 37 teams of seven squaring off over a total of 100 km in front of a live TV audience. At 61 runnings it is still a newcomer compared to the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden and has long struggled to approach Hakone's popularity. The upswing in talent at the university level over the last few years has brought more fans to the New Year Ekiden as one after another of the biggest Hakone stars have graduated and entered the corporate machine.
Last year Toyota scored a second-straight New Year Ekiden title with a very young team that averaged 23 years old. This year its roster is bolstered by the addition of one of the most popular and talented 2016 graduates, 30 km collegiate national record holder Yuma Hattori, formerly of Toyo University. Hattori will tackle the New Year Ekiden's longest stage, the 22.0 km Fourth Stage, and with much of last year's lineup returning, in particular Minato Oishi fresh off a 27:48.56 PB for 10000 m, Toyota should be tough to beat.
Runner-up Konica Minolta also gets a boost from one of the biggest names of the 2016 graduating class, former Aoyama Gakuin University uphill specialist Daichi Kamino. Kamino has been strong throughout his first year as a pro, but less so his teammates. Keita Shitara, Masato Kikuchi and Tsuyoshi Ugachi have all been among the very best of the last few years but have been far from their best through most of this year. If they are back to normal ability Konica Minolta can do it.
Asahi Kasei was expected to be a challenger for a rare all-Japanese lineup win last year, with 10000 m national record holder Kota Murayama, all-time #2 over both 5 and 10000 Tetsuya Yoroizaka, Murayama's twin brother Kenta and other top young talent. Come race day they were a shambles, finishing only 7th. Their entry lineup this year includes both Murayamas, Yoroizaka, 2016 National XC champ Takashi Ichida and his twin Hiroshi, track and half marathon man Shuho Dairokuno, and the top Japanese man in the marathon at the Rio Olympics, Satoru Sasaki. It's a team that should win, but as last year showed just assembling talent doesn't guarantee it will happen.
Nissin Shokuhin is a perpetual placer, only 6th last year but picking up talent this year including Masaki Toda. One absence is its best Japanese runner, Yuki Sato, who announced last year that he would not be running ekidens any more. Sato is listed as an alternate so there is an off chance he may go back on his word, but it will be very interesting to see what Nissin can do without him. Other quality teams include last year's 3rd through 5th-placers Toyota Kyushu, Honda and DeNA.
The 8.3 km Second Stage, the race's shortest, is the conceptually problematic "International Stage," the only stage non-Japanese runners are allowed to run. 30 of the 37 teams in the field feature African ringers, people the caliber of Rio Olympics 10000 m silver medalist Paul Tanui (Kyudenko), 2016 World Half Marathon silver medalist Bedan Karoki (DeNA), 2016 Prefontaine Classic 10000 m runner-up William Malel (Honda), 1500 m junior world record holder Ronald Kwemoi (Komori Corp.), 2016 Copenhagen Half Marathon winner James Mwangi (NTN) and too many others to list, all adding up to make one of the best races of the year on just its first day.
Most of the best Japanese runners will be on the 22.0 km Fourth Stage, including Yuma Hattori (Toyota) and Daichi Kamino (Konica Minolta), 2:07:39 marathoner Masato Imai (Toyota Kyushu), two-time stage record setter and Rio Olympian Yuta Shitara (Honda), London Olympics marathoner Kentaro Nakamoto (Yasukawa Denki), 2016 national cross-country champion Takashi Ichida (Asahi Kasei), Akinobu Murasawa (Nissin Shokuhin), Hiroto Inoue (Mitsubishi HPS) and many more.
Kenta Murayama (Asahi Kasei) leads the 15.8 km Fifth Stage against Rio Olympics marathoner Suehiro Ishikawa (Honda), 30 km national record holder Takayuki Matsumiya (Aichi Seiko), 2014 Asian Games silver medalist and 2:08:09 marathoner Kohei Matsumura (Mitsubishi HPS), Yuki Oshikawa (Toyota Kyushu), Keigo Yano (Nissin Shokuhin) and more. Look also for Rio Olympian Satoru Sasaki (Asahi Kasei) and track star Chihiro Miyawaki (Toyota) on the anchor stage.
Follow @JRNLive for live coverage of the New Year Ekiden throughout the broadcast starting at 8:30 a.m. Japan time on Jan. 1. And until then, a Happy New Year wherever you are.
© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved