Saturday, December 27, 2008

2009 Hakone Ekiden Preview - updated with video

by Brett Larner

Click here for video highlights of Day One and Day Two of the 2008 Hakone Ekiden.

Less than a week remains until the 85th Hakone Ekiden, a 2-day championship relay race on Jan. 2-3, 2009 between the top university men's teams in the Tokyo-centric Kanto region of Japan. Last year Japan Running News published a detailed history of the Hakone Ekiden. To summarize, Hakone is the most popular and thrilling race of the year. It's hard to imagine that a regional university men's distance running championship could attract mass popularity, but in Japan Hakone has at the very least the stature of the Super Bowl or World Series among the general public. Tens of millions watch both on TV and along the course, which consists of 10 stages of about half marathon distance each stretching from downtown Tokyo to the mountaintop resort of Hakone and back. 19 school teams and a select team made of ace runners from universities which failed to qualify usually take part, but this year in commemoration of the event's 85th running organizers have allowed an extra 3 teams to be included. Following is a preview of some of the teams and runners worth watching for this year.

The Contenders

Komazawa University
Click here for video profiles of Komazawa's captain Soji Ikeda (4th yr.) and Tsuyoshi Ugachi (3rd yr.).

There is no doubt that defending champion Komazawa University will win again. Komazawa head coach Hiroaki Oyagi is completely focused upon Hakone and has led the school to victory 6 times in the last 9 years. His strategy is simple. Oyagi does not develop star runners, but raises a large stable of extremely tough guys who can attack when they are tired. He has the numbers to not have to rely upon the abilities of only 1 or 2 exceptional athletes, a crucial element of success in always-unpredictable Hakone. This year for the first time he also has real speed on his team.

6 Komazawa runners, 5 of them 3rd-years, have run 5000 m times under 14 minutes this year. With this combination of speed, depth, and a legacy of victory it would take either a disaster or a truly epic performance by one of the 2 or 3 teams remotely approaching Komazawa's abilities for the school to go down. Its 3rd-straight National University Ekiden title in November shows that Komazawa is ready to go.

Waseda University and Kensuke Takezawa (4th yr.)
Click here for video profiles of Waseda's Kensuke Takezawa (4th yr.), Sota Kato (3rd yr.) and Yuki Yagi (1st yr.).

Waseda is one of the all-time Hakone greats, with 12 victories in the ekiden's history and many of the nation's greatest marathoners, including Toshihiko Seko and Atsushi Sato, gracing its halls. Waseda fell on hard times in the 90's but has recovered in the last few years thanks to the combination of new head coach and former Waseda great Yasuyuki Watanabe and 4th-year Kensuke Takezawa.

Takezawa, along with Tokai University's Yuki Sato, profiled below, has the potential to become Japan's best distance runner ever if he can overcome the injuries which have destroyed most of his 2008 season. Last year he ran 27:45.59 for 10000 m and 13:19.00 for 5000 m, the latter putting him into the all-time Japanese top 3. This year Takezawa comes to Hakone as the first Japanese university student Olympian to run the ekiden in the modern era after having run the 5000 m and 10000 m in Beijing, but since Beijing he has suffered stress fractures and Achilles problems which hampered his performances in the Izumo and National University ekidens.

Waseda finished 2nd behind Komazawa at November's Nationals thanks both to a gutsy run from Takezawa despite his stress fractures and to breakthrough performances by two of its crop of star 1st-year recruits, Yuki Yagi and Yusuke Mita. Waseda pulled off a coup this year, recruiting the national top 4 graduating men from the 2008 high school class, but until November none of the new recruits had performed up to potential. At Nationals Yagi and Mita finally made the transition to university running's longer distances, placing highly on their stages. To defeat Komazawa they will need comparable performances and a fully-operational Takezawa, but the chances of all of this coming together look very slim. Waseda will likely be battling for 2nd.

Yamanashi Gakuin University and Mekubo Mogusu (4th yr.)
Click here for a video profile of Yamanashi Gakuin's Mekubo Mogusu (4th yr.).

Yamanashi Gakuin is one of 2 schools which rely heavily upon the presence of Kenyan 'exchange students.' For the past 3 years the school has been virtually propped up by the exceptional Mekubo Mogusu. Mogusu, who went to high school in Japan and gave up going straight to the professional level in order to have the chance to run Hakone, ran sub-hour half marathons by himself 3 times in 2007 before setting the coveted stage record on Hakone's 2nd leg. He has had a very mixed year since, performing poorly in his international debuts at the Ras Al Kaimah Half Marathon and World Half Marathon, and losing both the National University Track and Field Championships 5000 m and 10000 m to Nihon University's Daniel Gitau, but lowering his 10000 m PB to 27:27.64, winning the Sapporo International Half Marathon for the 2nd straight year, and defeating Gitau to set a new stage record on the 14.0 km 4th leg of November's National University Ekiden. Having realized his dream with the 2nd stage record at the 2008 Hakone the only pressure on him this year is to lead the team to a performance at least on a par with its 3rd-place finish at Nationals.

Since Hakone's rules prohibit a single team from fielding more than one foreign runner, standing in should Mogusu be unable to run will be Kenyan 1st-year Cosmas Ondiba. Ondiba is still in development but has run well in track meets and ekidens throughout the year. His biggest test came on the 19.7 km anchor leg of the National University Ekiden, where he ran a stage-best 58:33 and brought Yamanashi Gakuin home in 3rd place only 53 seconds behind Waseda. With Mogusu running a longer stage in Hakone than at Nationals, Yamanashi Gakuin will be in an excellent position to bridge the gap to 2nd, and, if he or Ondiba deliver something truly special, to Komazawa.

Nihon University and Daniel Gitau (3rd yr.)
Nihon is another of the great legacy schools, like Waseda holding 12 Hakone titles. In the last 5 years it finished in the top 3 an impressive 4 times before sinking to 9th at the 2008 Hakone Ekiden, barely making the seeded top 10 positions. Nihon won October's Izumo Ekiden, the first of the Big Three fall university ekidens, but its victory was due chiefly to a stage-record run by anchor Daniel Gitau who overtook Komazawa's Tsuyoshi Ugachi to take the win. The Izumo Ekiden's stages are relatively short compared to Hakone's, so one strong runner has a larger effect there than in other ekidens. In November's National University Ekiden, in which the stage lengths are closer to Hakone's, Gitau's abilities as a ringer could not make up the larger accumulated deficit created by his Japanese teammates and Nihon finished only 6th. The combination of relative weakness over longer distances and possible early-season peaking means Nihon will have a tough time in Hakone, but it is never wise to count the school out of the top 3.

The Hopefuls

Josai University
Josai was until this year the newest school to make Hakone, first qualifying in 2004 after recruiting former star university and pro ekiden runner Jun Hiratsuka and 1-hour national record holder Seiji Kushibe as its coaching staff. After a slow start the school's performances steadily improved but then stalled, Josai finishing 11th for the last 3 years. The top 10 teams each year are seeded for the following year's Hakone, a mark of prestige which frees up their fall seasons by removing October's Yosenkai 20 km Hakone-qualifying race (click for video) from their schedules. After falling just short 3 times in a row Josai is desperate to break into the top 10 and mark itself as a true distance running power. Josai won the Yosenkai race for the 2nd consecutive year this season led in large part by 3rd-year Yuta Takahashi, but the team's intense training regimen has reportedly resulted in many injuries this year and it may miss the mark again.

Aoyama Gakuin University
Click here for a video profile of Aoyama Gakuin's Yuya Masaki (4th yr.).

Aoyama Gakuin has never been a Hakone power, its best-ever placing only 7th. The school's last appearance was in 1976, well before the birth of any of the current team members. In that running the team's anchor collapsed 150 m from the finish and could not get up, eliminating Aoyama Gakuin from the race. Never since have they qualified.

During the last few years a talented group of runners has come together at Aoyama Gakuin and the school has gotten close to making the last qualifying spot at the Yosenkai several times, each time coming away empty-handed. This time the team just squeezed in, taking the 13th position and qualifying through the grace of the extra 3 positions race organizers added in honor of Hakone's 85th edition. The team's roar of joy and pride when it was announced as a qualifier was the loudest of any at the Yosenkai.

Aoyama Gakuin's trustees held a ceremony to present the team with the tasuki, or sash, from the 1976 Hakone Ekiden, asking them to make sure the new tasuki would reach the finish. Aoyama Gakuin will not be a contender for even the top 10, and in fact anything other than a last-place finish would be a triumph, but the team's pride at having the honor of bringing its school colors back to Hakone is an example of what makes Hakone so captivating.

Jobu University
Click here for a video profile of Jobu's Mao Fukuyama (3rd yr.).

Jobu University is the most fascinating element of this year's Hakone. There is everything to love about them. The team is straight out of every underdog-makes-good American sports movie ever made, and hopefully one will be made about them some day.

5 years ago a small group of runners at Jobu, a school without a running program, were dreaming of somehow making Hakone and decided to try to find a coach. One of them got hold of the email address of Katsuhiko Hanada, a retired former star Waseda runner and 2-time Olympian, and wrote to him, explaining the students' dream and asking him very simply if he would become their coach. Hanada, looking for a way back into the business, sought the advice of his former mentor, legendary marathoner Toshihiko Seko, who told him that if the runners had the passion, the school was willing to support them, and Hanada believed in them, then anything was possible. Hanada accepted, Jobu agreed to fund the team, and together Hanada and the students began building an elite running program from absolute zero.

In its 1st season Jobu fielded a team at the Yosenkai 20 km Hakone qualifier. Only the top 9 teams at the Yosenkai race advance to Hakone, along with a select team made up of top finishers from non-qualifying schools. Jobu was a distant 19th. In its next 2 seasons it progressed steadily, finishing 16th and 13th. Last year the team again finished 13th, but the dreams of the now-graduated founding team members were partially realized when 2nd-year Mao Fukuyama was named to the select team. Running in a Jobu singlet, Fukuyama distinguished himself when he passed 5 runners to finish 3rd on Hakone's most famous stage, the nearly 900 m elevation gain 5th leg.

Fukuyama's performance galvanized the team, and at this year's Yosenkai race Jobu was the class of the field. Running against Josai and powerhouses Nittai, Tokai and Juntendo, it was the first school to land its 10 scoring runners, all of whom covered the 20 km course between 1:01:11 and 1:01:50. Jobu's 11th and 12th men were only seconds behind. Lacking a star runner to bring its aggregate time down Jobu finished 3rd behind Josai and Tokyo Nogyo University, but the overall high level and depth of the team's results brought instant national recognition and comparisons to Komazawa to both Jobu and Hanada. Hanada's coaching methods were strongly validated and Jobu will undoubtedly find itself attracting top high school talent in coming years.

How far can Jobu go at Hakone? In the cornier type of American sports movie the team overcomes all odds and wins. In the slightly less corny movie, they run their best, finish in a decent position back in the middle of the field, and are happy with just having made it to the big leagues. Like Komazawa, Jobu's depth will help it against teams more reliant on individual stars, but realistically the team will probably be battling to make it into the top 10 to be seeded for next year. Even this would be an incredible achievement in only 5 years of existence, but no matter what the result Jobu's 2009 Hakone run is a completely unironic triumph of dreams coming true.

Last Run

Along with Takezawa and Mogusu, 4 other exceptional seniors are making their final appearances at this year's Hakone Ekiden.

Yuki Sato (4th yr., Tokai University)
Click here for a video profile of Sato.

Yuki Sato may become the greatest distance runner Japan has yet produced. A star in high school, his university career has been even more stellar with new stage records in all 3 of his Hakone runs to date, a 10000 m mark of 27:51.65, and a 5000 m mark of 13:23.57. Together with Tokai's Hideaki Date, Sato has propelled Tokai into becoming one of the very best running schools, but this year things have come apart. Following Date's graduation in March, the pair went to California for Stanford University's Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational. Sato began well, situating himself among comfortably among the other 27-minute runners, but he soon dropped back through the field, then out of the race. Since then he has struggled with injury for the first time in his career. He missed the National Track and Field Championships and the Beijing Olympics, where he would have been a teammate of Waseda's Takezawa.

Sato ran well on the anchor leg of October's Izumo Ekiden, but the extend to which Tokai needed both Sato and Date was made clear when it finished 6th. 6 days later Tokai ran the Yosenkai 20 km Hakone qualifier. Sato ran up front as expected but again dropped back, stopping and walking several times before finishing deep down in the field. Tokai was 7th. He was absent from November's National University Ekiden, where Tokai was 12th, suggesting his injuries had returned. At a 10000 m track race in late November he was 5th in only 29:03.54, making his prospects of a 4th stage record or even of a final run worthy of his achievements to date look very slim.

Following graduation Sato will join Tokyo-based Team Nissin Shokuhin, one of the best in the country. Beijing Olympics men's marathon gold medalist and half marathon world record holder Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya said in a recent interview that he is looking forward to Sato's future marathon debut, a superb endorsement of his abilities.

Masato Kihara (4th yr., Chuo Gakuin University)
Click here for a video profile of Kihara.

Masato Kihara has been overshadowed his entire university career in the media's attention to Yuki Sato and Kihara's high school teammate Kensuke Takezawa, but while the 2 stars have had their ups and downs Kihara has reliably worked his way up to the very top of Japanese university men's running.

As an unknown 1st-year at the unknown Chuo Gakuin he destroyed the best that Komazawa, Waseda and the other big schools could offer on his way to winning Hakone's 1st stage. Later in the year he ran a 1:01:50 half marathon, the 2nd-best student mark. Since then he has developed a special relationship as Mekubo Mogusu's Japanese adversary, sparring at every available chance. He attempted to stay with Mogusu during the Kenyan's stage-record run at the 2008 Hakone Ekiden, dropping off but taking the top Japanese position on the highly competitive 2nd stage. At June's Sapporo International Half Marathon Kihara again went with Mogusu, pressuring his rival into running world record pace through 5 km. Kihara dropped back but finished seconds off his PB as top Japanese ahead of national record holder Atsushi Sato and was selected for the national team for October's World Half Marathon in Rio.

Two weeks later Kihara led the National Track and Field Championships 10000 m most of the way, finishing 6th in a PB of 28:06.48 as the only student runner in the top 10. His run in the World Half was a rare failure as he finished 83rd, but soon afterwards he was back in form, running just 1 second off the stage record on the 2nd stage of the National University Ekiden and beating Takezawa's time by 1 second. If he runs up to this potential in his final Hakone then it is unlikely any Japanese runner in the field could beat Kihara. With his efficient, energetic stride Kihara will be a top-class marathoner.

Hiroyuki Ono (4th yr., Juntendo University)
Click here for a video profile of Ono.

Hiroyuki Ono will always be remembered for his junior-year run in the 2008 Hakone Ekiden. The images of him struggling to stand, running again, then falling less than 500 m from the finish are unforgettable. Ono was one of the star members of Juntendo's 2007 Hakone-winning team and the school's chosen replacement for its magical Masato Imai, the undisputed king of the 900 m elevation gain 5th stage who graduated in 2007. Juntendo's 2008 squad was nowhere near the same level as its 2007 team, and by the time Ono took the tasuki on the 5th stage the defending champions were far behind the leaders. The accumulated pressure forced him to attack the dangerous uphill course recklessly as he ran close to Imai's untouchable course record pace. By the time he hit the steep downhill after 20 km he was barely on his feet, and when he reached the relatively flat final kilometer he had literally nothing left.

The run could have ended Ono's career, psychologically if not physically, but he recovered and was soon back to lead Juntendo as the team's captain in his senior year. He had solid performances at May's Kanto Regional University Track and Field Championships, then in June ran a masterful 10000 m at the National University Ekiden qualifying race, clocking a 58-second final lap and just missing catching Nihon's Daniel Gitau by 1 second. Ono has led Juntendo through the fall ekiden season, but despite his best efforts he has not been able to carry the squad, which limped into the 2009 Hakone Ekiden through the good luck of the extra 3 slots this year after finishing 12th at the Yosenkai race. As the team's best runner Ono will likely run either the 2nd or 5th stage, and in his final Hakone appearance he will no doubt seek to leave an image which will erase that from last year's race.

Tomoya Onishi (4th yr., Toyo University)
Like Kihara, Onishi is a compact, efficient runner with a bright future as a marathoner. He has been one of Toyo's top men throughout his career, the only runner to go after Yuki Sato during Sato's stage record run on the 1st leg of the 2007 Hakone Ekiden. This year he has dominated the ekiden circuit, with a 2nd-place finish at June's National University Ekiden qualifying race, a stage 2nd-best on the 3rd leg of the Izumo Ekiden in October, a 1:00:05 victory at the Takashimadaira 20 km road race a week later, and the stage best title on the 1st leg of the National University Ekiden in November. He tied 5000 m national record holder Takayuki Matsumiya's time on the 5th stage of the International Chiba Ekiden, then at the end of November ran 28:54.02 to win a track 10000 m, a mark which surprisingly enough was a new PB.

Onishi's season has been pointing toward an excellent last run in Hakone, but in early December Toyo head coach Shinji Kawashima resigned his position after a member of the school's track team was alleged to have molested a high school girl on a commuter train. The incident and Kawashima's resignation resulted in the temporary cancellation of team practice, leading to doubts about the condition and focus of Onishi and other Toyo athletes coming into the 2009 Hakone Ekiden. With any luck Onishi will still be able to put together the run he has been rehearsing all season.

The New Man in Town

While Yamanashi Gakuin's Cosmas Ondiba and Waseda's Yuki Yagi, Yusuke Mita and other 1st years will garner much attention in their Hakone debuts, one runner stands out as the most important newcomer.

Ryuji Kashiwabara (1st yr., Toyo University)
Click here for a video profile of Kashiwabara.

Kashiwabara was a good but undistinguished high school runner until his very last race, when he ran a 5000 m PB of 14:01 to tie that of national high school champion Yuki Yagi. He has rapidly progressed since then. In January's National Interprefectural Ekiden he surprised all by beating Yagi to win the 1st stage by almost 10 seconds. In May he outkicked 3 of Komazawa's Big Six to finish 3rd in the Kanto Regional University Track and Field Championships 10000 m behind Mekubo Mogusu and Daniel Gitau in a PB of 28:44.42. At June's National University Ekiden qualifying race he frontran from the beginning, beating teammate Onishi to take the win.

In the fall Kashiwabara showed further development as the ekiden season began. At October's Izumo Ekiden he dueled with Kenyans Samuel Ganga and Kibet Kipngeno, taking the lead but ultimately finishing 2nd behind Ganga. At the National University Ekiden he outran Olympian Kensuke Takezawa to tie World Half Marathon team member Masato Kihara 1 second behind the stage record. The sole dark spot on his season was a disappointing run on the 1st stage of the International Chiba Ekiden, but regardless Kashiwabara looks poised for the most impressive Hakone debut since Kihara.

Toyo head coach Shinji Kawashima's resignation holds much more serious implications for the 1st-year Kashiwabara than for the soon-to-graduate Onishi. Kashiwabara is almost certainly the best runner of his generation and will need a talented coach to reach his full potential. Having lost one such coach in Kawashima it can only be hoped that Toyo is able to bring in a replacement who is capable of cultivating an athlete of Kashiwabara's caliber.

Race Broadcast
Click here for a video profile of Meiji University's Kodai Matsumoto (3rd yr.).

The 2009 Hakone Ekiden takes place Jan. 2-3 and will be broadcast live nationwide on NTV. A 1-hour preview program begins each day at 7:00 a.m., with the race beginning at 8:00 a.m. Japan time. Viewers outside Japan should be able to watch the race online through this site. NTV's outstanding race website includes video digests of the 1997-2007 Hakone Ekidens.

(c) 2008 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

3 comments:

bryan said...

I can't believe you don't have any comments on here! Thanks for the brilliant preview and the link to a site where I can watch the Hakone ekiden online. I enjoyed watching it with my ekiden teammates in Yonezawa, Yamagata-ken when I lived there from 2002-2005. I'm excited to get to see it again this year, especially this frosh Kashiwabara.

You've got a fantastic site, which I thoroughly enjoy reading. Keep up the great work!

Brett Larner said...

Thanks. More comments would be nice. Let me know if the Hakone broadcast link works.

Tchansan said...

Kia ora Brett,

Yes, very good work mate. Watching the race right now and
with your help, have a better understanding.

I work at Tokai and help train the rugby team here. I see our Ekiden team almost everyday working hard. It takes a lot of dedication and team spirit to get the results at this level of competition.

I think your insights into this sport are illuminating for English readers a sport which Japanese runners excel.

Wish there were something like this for university rugby.