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Yesterday evening I was reading Bill Simmons most recent mailbag at Grantland.com. His collection of responses to off-the-wall emails is always so much fun.
A few minutes later I checked Twitter and, lo and behold, I had a question! This comes to us from Christopher Chavez, a runner/writer at Marquette University.
@tracksuperfan If you were to assemble a US college team for the #ChibaEkiden, who would you have? (Dont need to be US born)
— Christopher Chavez (@Chris_J_Chavez) November 21, 2012
First, a word of explanation: What the heck is the Chiba Ekiden?
Its a road race relay in Japan that matches up national teams along with a Japanese college team. Ekidens are hugely popular in Japan, and the closest thing there is to ekiden season in the USA is March Madness. Ekidens can be any distance and any number of legs; this particular one is the marathon distance of 42.195 km and has six legs, three men and three women.
The race will begin tonight at 11pm (Eastern time), and you can get excellent previews and links to a live webcast and live twitter updates at Japan Running News and Alberto Strettis blog. The US team has a pretty heavy hitter on it in Galen Rupp.
If I wanted to be picky, I could point out that a US college runner is already on the team for the Chiba Ekiden: Emma Kertesz. She has exhausted her cross country eligibility at the University of Toledo but still has indoor and outdoor track remaining. She won a spot on the team with a 4th place finish at the USA Womens 10 km Championships (32:51.4).
Anyway, to answer Christophers question, heres my lineup pick.
1st leg: Men, 5 km
This is the shortest leg for the men, so youd probably want to put your weakest runner here. Based on an increasingly strong series of races over the last two years, I think Id put Texas AMs Henry Lelei here. Besides a standout cross country season, Lelei had a great race at the NCAA Championships steeplechase last spring before catching the last barrier and falling.
2nd leg: Women, 5 km
Here Id put NCAA cross country champion Betsy Saina of Iowa State. Defending NCAA 10k champ Natosha Rogers should get a shout-out, but wouldnt get on the team since she didnt compete this fall.
3rd leg: Men, 10 km
Since Arizonas Stephen Sambu has now exhausted his collegiate eligibility, I dont think he should get a spot on the team. That means Id go with his teammate, Lawi Lalang. Despite his claim to be a 5k runner, hes been very tough to beat over 8k and 10k.
4th leg: Women, 5 km
Here you need a runner who can just plain run hard. The field could be strung out and the middle relay legs are just trying to keep it close. If youre looking for Mrs. Consistent, you have to take Oregons Jordan Hasay.
5th leg: Men, 10 km
It looks like most runners are putting their best legs here. Rupp is running this leg. Id go with NCAA cross country champion Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech. Its hard to understate how good his run in Louisville last Saturday was; note that his winning time of 28:31.3 is less than 30 seconds off the NCAA Championship record for outdoor track (by Suleiman Nyambui, who won an Olympic silver medal in the middle of his college career).
6th leg: Women, 7.195 km
A race that is 42.2k is unlikely to come down to a sprint finish, but you do need someone who is just plain tough to get rid of and will not quit. No womens collegiate runner has done this more over the last year than Dartmouths Abbey DAgostino.