Monday, December 31, 2007

The Hakone Ekiden: A Brief History and Preview

by Brett Larner

What are the world`s great races? Great in the sense of history, atmosphere and something intangible which can`t be bought by PR-savvy race directors with bottomless checkbooks. Races like Comrades and Boston come to mind first. Comparatively unknown outside Japan but standing alongside these races is the Hakone Ekiden.

The Hakone Ekiden is the East Japan university men`s championship, a 10-stage, 217.9 km relay race from central Tokyo to the mountain resort town of Hakone and back, held every year on Jan. 2 and 3. The ekiden began in 1920 and has continued uninterrupted apart from a hiatus during World War II. In post-war years Hakone was quickly reinitiated despite the shortage of young men to run; during those years university athletes from other sports were enlisted to run in order to help the tradition continue.

The Hakone Ekiden has grown over the decades into a central position within the Japanese distance running world. In the last 20 years it has expanded beyond the core of distance running fans to become a cultural phenomenon. The entire race is broadcast on nationwide television, and people tune in. Most Japanese people return to their hometowns for the New Year holiday, and it has become a part of the New Year tradition for families to watch Hakone together. It is hard to imagine tens of millions of people raptly watching six hours of distance running on television for several days in a row, but that is exactly what people do, so much so that the Hakone Ekiden has the largest share of television viewership of any event or program in the entire Japanese broadcast year. This is to say nothing of the millions of people who line the course to cheer the university student runners. It is something like all of the American college bowl football games combined, but even bigger.

Extensive corporate sponsorship makes the Hakone Ekiden possible. As with major American professional team sport championships, corporate sponsors produce special commercials which are only shown during the Hakone broadcast. The event`s title sponsor is Sapporo beer. Again, for someone from North America it is difficult to imagine a beer company being the title sponsor of a college sports event in which most of the athletes are underage, but that is how it is. Sapporo even produces a limited-edition series of cans which feature Hakone Ekiden teams` running singlet designs.

What is more, the Superbowl of the professional running world, the Japanese corporate men`s championship ekiden or New Year Ekiden is held each year on Jan. 1, making for three straight days of televised ekidens. Of course the viewership for the New Year Ekiden is high, but it doesn`t attract the same following as Hakone. Watching the two races back to back it is easy to understand why not. While the New Year Ekiden features all the big names in professional Japanese men`s distance running along with world-class foreign runners based in Japan, runners who reliably deliver astounding performances, they are ultimately just that, professionals who are reliably doing their jobs. In the Hakone Ekiden the 200 student runners care and put themselves all the way out on the edge. They really, really care about the race, being in it and upholding the name and history of their schools. It is clear watching Hakone that every runner on the course has reached the goal of his life to date, and this is something beautiful to watch. This passion combined with inexperience leads to frequent dramatic, unexpected turns of events which are mostly absent in professional races; unknown runners having spectacular breakthroughs and much-heralded stars whose ambition exceeds their self-awareness getting caught up in the excitement, going too fast and falling apart. Standout runners of either type often become national celebrities. Hakone is a gripping, thrilling ride, so much so that one doesn`t want to miss anything, even for commercial or toilet breaks.

The huge popularity of the Hakone Ekiden in the last decade has recently been cited by Rikuren, the official Japanese track and field organization, and some other prominent members of Japan`s distance running community as a factor in the perceived decline in the international competitiveness of Japanese male runners. Young men work themselves incredibly hard in junior high school and high school to make it into the best running universities with the sole goal of running Hakone. The fact that Hakone is not a national competition means that these days the East Japan-area universities siphon much of the best talent away from other parts of Japan, stunting development elsewhere. Once in university, runners are so focused on making the Hakone team that they often have little knowledge of or interest in running at the world level. The intense training also means that many are injured or burned out by the time they finish school. Some continue within the professional corporate running world, but most simply stop. Thus, says the contemporary criticism, Hakone is distracting Japan`s men away from becoming world-class marathoners and making them work too hard at too young an age.

Regardless of whatever other factors there may be or whatever grains of truth are contained in such arguments, in the last few years Japan has seen its potentially best-ever generation of distance running men surface in the Hakone Ekiden. The first of these, Masato Imai of Juntendo University, performed truly superhuman feats in setting new stage records on the 874 m elevation gain uphill 5th stage for three years in a row. Imai graduated this past spring and will make his national professional debut with the Toyota Kyushu corporate team at the New Year Ekiden.

Another is the extremely talented Kensuke Takezawa of Waseda University. Takezawa was the only male university student to run a distance event at this past summer`s Osaka World Championships, ran Olympic-qualifying 5000 m and 10000 m performances in 2007, and also ran the pivotal leg of the winning Japanese team at this year`s International Chiba Ekiden. His powerfully efficient form and impassive race face are reminiscent of Waseda alumnus and marathon legend Toshihiko Seko.

Yuichiro Ueno of Chuo University has been a national star since high school and has competed internationally several times, but has so far not quite reached his full potential. Nevertheless, he has improved steadily this year, running particularly well on the first leg of the International Chiba Ekiden where he was 2nd. In August he ran an Olympic-standard 13:21.49 5000 m in Europe.

Tokai University has not one but two of the most talented runners, Hideaki Date and Yuki Sato. Date has set several national records and is notable for the perfection of his running form. He is perhaps the student most to watch when he moves up to the marathon. His teammate Sato, a teammate of Ueno`s at Saku Chosei High School, has the potential to be the greatest male distance runner Japan has produced. He has set stage records in both of his Hakone runs to date; his run on the 1st leg of the 2007 Hakone Ekiden was particularly incredible in that he suffered leg cramps in both legs but still set a new stage record and beat the next runner by a wide margin. In October he met the Olympic B-standard in setting a 10000 m PB of 27:51.65.

While all five of these runners are connected with major running powerhouse universities, Masato Kihara of the unheralded Chuo Gakuin University has quietly been demonstrating that he is at least the equal of his more famous rivals. Two years ago as an unknown 1st-year student, Kihara surgically took apart the rest of the field on the 1st stage with extremely impressive form and style. In the stage victory interview, Toshihiko Seko apologized to Kihara for not knowing who he was and promised that he would always remember thereafter. Kihara went on that year to run 1:01:50 in the Ageo City Half Marathon, the all-time 2nd best Japanese university record. This year he ran 58:40 in the Hakone-qualifying Yosenkai 20 km road race, the Japanese-born runner course record and faster than Hideaki Date`s 58:51 course record in the much flatter Takashimadaira 20 km road race.

These six runners, along with other talented current students such as Satoru Kitamura (Nittai University), Yuki Matsuoka (Juntendo University), Tomoya Onishi (Toyo University) and Koichi Sakai (Komazawa University), look poised to bring a renaissance to Japanese men`s marathoning. As the current generation of stars such as Toshinari Takaoka, Atsushi Fujita and Tsuyoshi Ogata edge toward retirement, this group of younger runners are likely to move up to the world stage and be strong factors in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Also worthy of mention alongside this new generation of Japanese aces is Yamanashi Gakuin University`s Kenyan runner Mekubo Mogusu. The supremely talented Mogusu is a nationally beloved figure in Japan for his spectacular overpace meltdowns on the 2nd leg of the last two Hakone Ekidens. Mogusu has been in Japan since high school when he was a rival and sometime conqueror of current half marathon world record holder Samuel Wanjiru. Despite being the same age and having similar backgrounds, the two runners have followed very different paths. While Wanjiru followed the demands of economics and went straight into the corporate running world from high school, Mogusu chose to enter university specifically for the honor of running Hakone.

As a 1st year student he tried to set a titanic stage record on the 23.2 km 2nd stage, going through 10 km in the mid-27’s and going from 13th to 1st place before fading in the hilly final few km to miss the stage record by 43 seconds. The following year Mogusu went out even harder, unrealistically trying to break the lead which Yuki Sato built for Hideaki Date. Mogusu`s 10 km split was about 10 seconds faster than in his 1st year, but he was unsurprisingly unable to maintain such a pace on the hills. He self-destructed and was retaken by several Japanese runners, much to the shock of the race announcers.

This year Mogusu has shown some maturation, breaking one hour for the half marathon three times, each time running completely alone, as well as a 57:01 course record in the hilly Yosenkai 20 km road race. His crowning achievement of the year was running 55:32 for the 19.7 km anchor leg of the All-Japan University Men`s Ekiden, breaking his own course record from last year by 59 seconds. In this run Mogusu showed progression in his development, holding back and going through 10 km in 28 minutes flat, then accelerating later in the race. Such development and results in 2007 make it look likely that he will finally achieve his goal of a stage record on Hakone`s 2nd leg. It will be exciting to see what happens when he gets opportunities to run against some of the world`s other top half marathoners instead of in solo performances as well as later when he makes the jump to the marathon.

The 2008 Hakone Ekiden is being cast by many commentators as a duel between Tokai University with its two aces Date and Sato, and Komazawa University which has no true stars but a very high average level among its top runners. Last year`s winner Juntendo University lost seven of the ten members on its winning team to graduation, most significantly Masato Imai. Juntendo was 5th in the Izumo Ekiden and 11th in the All-Japan University Men`s Ekiden, the two most important pre-Hakone races, suggesting that it is in a rebuilding phase and unlikely to be a factor.

Komazawa was the reigning king of Hakone from 1998 to 2005, finishing in the top two for that entire period including winning 2002-2005. 2006 and 2007 saw Komazawa in a similar rebuilding period to Juntendo as it finished 5th and 7th. This year its team appears to have reached maturity, winning All-Japan handily and, of this year`s Hakone teams, having the fastest median 5000 m, 10000 m and half marathon times among its ten best runners. Komazawa has no true ace, but its star runner Koichi “Fat Thighs” Sakai has announced that he is in serious training for his debut marathon, next year`s Olympic team qualifying Biwako Mainichi Marathon, and is in fantastic shape for Hakone. All of this has led Toshihiko Seko among others to pick Komazawa for the win.

Tokai is close behind with a victory in Izumo, the 2nd-best 5000 m and 10000 m median times and 3rd-best median half marathon time. Last year Sato and Date ran the 1st and 2nd stages respectively, giving Tokai a lead which was only broken by Juntendo`s Imai on the uphill 5th stage. Tokai ran in 2nd place the rest of the race and was outkicked in the end by Nihon University. Komazawa was nowhere near, finishing 7th. Date is likely to run the 2nd ‘ace’ stage again this time. Sato, who holds the stage records on the 1st and 3rd stages, has said that he doesn`t care whether he is put on the 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th or 10th stage as he will run a new stage record on any of them, an indirect compliment to Imai. Date is remarkably solid and reliable, but Sato has had a mediocre year, doing almost nothing noteworthy during 2007 until October when he ran a winning anchor leg at the Izumo Ekiden and, more importantly, an Olympic B-standard 10000 m PB of 27:51.65. Date and Sato are far superior to any of Komazawa`s runners and, if both run well, will give Tokai a nearly insurmountable advantage. On the other hand, if either has a bad run then Komazawa will almost certainly overtake Tokai.

Perpetual runner-up Nihon University is another potential factor. Its team is relatively consistent but depends heavily upon the presence of a Kenyan ‘exchange student’ in its lineup. Its current Kenyan ringer is 2nd-year student Daniel Gitau. Gitau has performed decently to date, including the fastest student 10000 m time of the year in Japan, but does not give the impression that he is close to his potential yet.

Waseda University, the alma mater of marathon stars such as Toshihiko Seko and Atsushi Sato, was a dominant force in Hakone for many years but has fallen on hard times in the last ten years. It has gradually rebuilt and now with ace Kensuke Takezawa is a true presence. Unfortunately it appears that Takezawa will be sidelined with a recurrence of serious leg nerve troubles which have bothered him since high school.

An outside contender is Josai University. Josai is the most recent team to make the Hakone grade, having first taken part in 2004 after acquiring former Waseda star runner Seiji Kushibe as part of its coaching staff. The team has steadily improved and this year has been ranked in the top four teams based on pre-season performance.

The last and arguably most interesting team to consider is the East Japan University Select Team. This team is made up of the top members of university teams which failed to qualify for Hakone in October`s Yosenkai 20 km road race. One might expect such a team to be comparatively strong, but the Select Team usually finishes quite low in the field. This year, however, the combined time of the team`s members is three minutes faster than that of Yosenkai winners Chuo Gakuin University and its median 10000 m time is the fastest for any Select Team in Hakone history, so it looks possible for the Select Team to apply some pressure to the top teams.

Regardless of outcome, the Hakone Ekiden promises to deliver the most exciting racing of the Japanese running year. Check back on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3 for detailed race reports.

© 2007 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stellar commentary as usual! Two thoughts:
-when will women get to run this race?
-similarly, what does the gringo quota say about Japan?