by Brett Larner
While the NCAA XC Championships were taking place an ocean away, the final qualification race for the de facto Japanese university championships was happening northwest of Tokyo at the Ageo City Half Marathon in Ageo, Saitama.
The Japanese university running world revolves around the legendary Hakone Ekiden, a ten-stage relay race held every year on Jan. 2 and 3rd. The top nineteen university teams in eastern Japan plus a compilation team of ace runners from schools which do not make the top nineteen race from downtown Tokyo to the mountaintop lakeside resort town of Hakone and back in front of hundreds of thousands of courseside spectators and the largest television audience of any event or program in Japan. If you are a young male runner in Japan then getting to run in Hakone is the absolute highlight of your life and something which anyone in Japan, runner or non-runner, will respect for the rest of your life.
The fall university season in Japan is built up of ekidens and qualification races geared to selecting teams and team members for Hakone. The final race in the series is the Ageo City Half Marathon, held each year on the third Sunday of November. Most universities which will be competing in Hakone send squads of ten to fifty runners to Ageo to make final selection for their Hakone A-squads. Ace runners usually don`t participate as they run for one of the Japanese national teams in the Chiba International Ekiden on Nov. 23 and are already assured a space on their schools` Hakone teams, but for the remaining runners it is a make or break situation. Their coaches will use the Ageo results to select the fittest runners for Hakone, so they have to run all-out against teammates and other schools alike. A professional jitsugyodan team or two usually show up, and the race is also open to the general public.
The course is flat and fast. Last year the top two went under 62 minutes, with second place finisher Masato Kihara, a sophomore at Chuo Gakuin University, running the all-time second Japanese university mark of 1:01:50. Team Honda`s Gebretsadik Bekele won in 1:01:26. This year Bekele repeated in a relatively slow 1:02:43. Second place was Shoji Akutsu of Nihon University in 1:03:06. Twenty-one universities sent full squads and another dozen-odd schools sent smaller numbers. The depth of the field was staggering:
10th place: 1:03:36
25th place: 1:04:08
50th place: 1:04:41
100th place: 1:05:23
200th place: 1:06:37
300th place: 1:08:13
400th place: 1:10:06
500th place: 1:14:49
Is there another half-marathon anywhere in the world with this depth?
My training partners and I had decided in the spring to run Ageo so that we could get pulled along to PBs. I came down with a bad cold three days before the race and only ran 1:14:58, good for 501st place. My friend Jason Lawrence ran under 68 for the first time and came in 286th. Full results are here. From the pull-down menu select the entry second from the top, above the 10 km option. Put in how many results you want to see and then click the grey box.
Some videos of this year`s race are also up. Witness the sight of hundreds and hundreds of young guys running around 3 min/km pace:
3 km point --- 10 km point --- 17 km point
The Ageo City Half Marathon is a recommended event for anyone who would like to experience what elite Japanese distance running is about and to run a fast time while doing it. Next month I will post a roundup of the fall university season and a more detailed history and preview of Hakone.
(c) 2007 Brett Larner
all rights reserved