A preview of the 2012 Chiba Ekiden marathon relay

Canada will look to crack the top ten on Friday at the prestigious international marathon relay.

For the Japanese running is serious business. It is a mainstream sport and thousands tune in watch live televised broadcasts of the countries’ major road races.

One of those races is the Chiba Ekiden relay. The event is 42.2K in length, mimicking the modern marathon distance, but is divided up into 5K, 7.2K and 10K legs.

Chiba is a truly international race, with countries from around the world sending highly competitive teams for the last 24 years. Since 2007 the race has been a mixed competition, with the leg division shaking out in the following structure: 5 km (men), 5 km (women), 10 km (men), 5 km (women), 10 km (men), and 7.195 km (women).

Some of the greatest running nations will be sending teams, including Kenya, Russia and the United States. Japan will field three teams: a local team, a national team and their highly competitive “university selects” team. One notably absent national team are the Ethiopians, who have fielded squads in the past, but do not appear on the team start list.

Kenya’s team looks to be the favourite heading into the race, with 2012 Olympic 5000m bronze medalist Thomas Longosiwa, who has an insanely fast 12:49 PB, leading his team. He will be accompanied by women’s marathon silver medalist Priscah Jeptoo in what could be an unstoppable group.

The Americans are packing some serious star power as well. Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Galen Rupp has joined the group. He is also a threat in the 5000m, with a 12:58 PB. Rupp will be accompanied by two Kenyan born runners representing the United States in Joseph Chirlee and Robert Cheseret. Canadians may recognize Chirlee from his win at the 2012 Montreal Marathon, where he battled high winds to a 2:18:43. Cherest is a younger brother of running legend Bernard Lagat. He was a standout track runner for the University of Arizona and now trains with the U.S. Military’s athletics program.

The Americans have a pair of up-and-coming female runners to round out the group. Former Cal runner Chelsea Reilly was just crowned the U.S. 10K champ last month in her first ever attempt at the distance. She will be joined by Neely Spence, who finished third in that same race.

The Canadians will field a very competitive team for this year’s race, after placing a respectable tenth in 2011. “This team has high expectations and is looking forward to battling against the rest of the world in Japan”, said Thelma Wright,who is Athletics Canada’s National Event Group Coach, in a press release on Wednesday. “Canada is aiming to finish in the top half of the competitive field. The depth of the other countries and our own ability to rise to challenge as part of a team will be the difference.”

Olympic marathoner Reid Coolsaet will lead the group, which also includes fellow Olympian and 3000m steeple chase specialist Alex Genest, as well as Canada’s top two female marathoners in Krista DuChene and Lanni Marchant. “With two London 2012 Olympians on this years’ team, Canada has potentially its strongest Chiba Ekiden team in recent years”, team leader and double Olympic marathoner Jon Brown said in the release.

Former UVic runner Geoff Martinson was also included in this year’s team. He has a 800m-5000m background on the track. Tara Korir and Rachel Hannah, both talented road racers, will also be on the Chiba team. Rob Watson, who was selected and also ran on the 2011 squad, was forced to bow out of the event due to a lingering hamstring issue. It is unclear who, if anyone, will replace him for Friday’s race.

The Chiba Ekiden will be broadcasted live in Japan, and will no doubt be available for live streaming online, where it will be viewable on Thursday night in Canada. Check our Facebook and Twitter feeds for more information on Thursday.