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The 2009 Hakone Ekiden in Review

by Brett Larner

Update: Click here for a listing of 2009 Hakone videos on YouTube.

I've been watching the Hakone Ekiden since I first came to Japan in 1997, and wanting to write about it was one of the main reasons I started this blog. This year's Hakone was the best I've seen. There were four consecutive stage records on Day One, two by first-year runners and one a double record, and two all-time passing records. Not a single team was white-sashed despite the presence of three more teams than usual. Japan's two potentially greatest male distance runners ever, Kensuke Takezawa and Yuki Sato, finally settled who was who, and another runner emerged who might surpass them both. This year's Hakone also had an unusual amount of pure head-to-head racing, with spectacular bouts between Masato Kihara and Daniel Gitau, Ryuji Kashiwabara and Masayuki Miwa, Hikaru Tominaga and Kato Sota, and two exciting three-way sprint finishes on the final leg. After last year's carnage with three teams DNFing there was yet another DNF this year, the 11th in Hakone history. I've already written about most of the highlights, but I wanted to add some personal impressions.

Ryuji Kashiwabara (1st yr., Toyo Univ.) and Tomoya Onishi (4th yr., Toyo Univ.)
Kashiwabara was voted MVP of this year's Hakone Ekiden in the coaches' poll, and with good reason. What needs to be said about him? His run spoke for itself. Even race commentators couldn't find much to say because he was just so dominant. Juntendo's Masato Imai redefined how to run the 5th stage and is still respected as the 'god of the mountain' for setting the 5th stage record three times from 2005-2007, taking over two minutes off the previous record in his first run. His runs were some of the best I've ever seen, and Kashiwabara, who went to the same high school as Imai, simply said he was going to break Imai's record and then went and did it. He went hard right from the start, was 30 seconds ahead of his race plan at 5 km, and ran 1:17:18, 47 seconds faster than Imai's ultimate record, as a first-year.

I've run the 5th stage three times in training, most recently last Monday, and would say that with the uphill it takes as much out of you as a 30 km. Based on my own times and those of most of the Hakone runners, adding 15% to a 5th stage time gives a good idea of its worth relative to 30 km. Most Hakone 5th stage guys run about 1:22, which is equivalent to 1:34 for 30 km. Pretty accurate. Kashiwabara's time is worth 1:28:54. The world record for 30 km is 1:28:00. That's how good he was. Where's he going to be when he's a senior? In 2012? In 2016? I hope Toyo's people take good care of him.

His teammate Tomoya Onishi was one of the most dominant runners on the ekiden circuit this fall, and although Onishi said afterwards that he was disappointed with his performance, finishing 3rd on his stage behind Takezawa and Sato is nothing to be ashamed of. I haven't heard where he is going after graduation, if anywhere, but if he is joining a jitsugyodan team then there's no doubt he will become one of the top domestic marathoners. I could see him going to the 2:08 level.

Kensuke Takezawa (4th yr., Waseda Univ.) and Yuki Sato (4th yr., Tokai Univ.)
It's kind of amazing that two guys as good as Takezawa and Sato came along at the same time. I think both have the potential to become the best Japan has ever seen. Takezawa was in the shadow of Sato's stardom during high school, and when the two hit university nothing initially changed. In ekidens, Sato ran Hakone stage records three years in a row, while Takezawa came up mostly empty handed. On the track, Takezawa beat Sato, the 5000 m junior national record holder, in a classic 2006 race which saw Takezawa become all-time #3 on the Japanese record list. The following year Takezawa won the national university championships in a time over 3 seconds faster, 13:19.00, better than both Mekubo Mogusu and Daniel Gitau's bests and over 4 1/2 seconds better than Sato's mark. Both Takezawa and Sato broke 28 minutes for 10000 m in 2007, and again Takezawa's mark was over 6 seconds better.

The problem was that Takezawa was almost constantly injured throughout this time. To surpass Sato he had to work much harder, and he frequently crossed the line. In Dec. 2007 he sustained injuries which kept him out of racing for the first half of 2008. Sato also got injured in late spring for the first time in his career. Sato missed the Olympics as a result, but Takezawa managed to pull it together and ran both the 5000 m and 10000 m in Beijing, albeit in far from peak condition. Both runners were shaky throughout the fall as Sato's injuries continued and Takezawa, having recovered from his original problems, suffered first a stress fracture and then Achilles problems.

Both runners being added to Hakone's 3rd stage meant that even though neither was in full form it would be a final test of who had had the better university career. Sato already held the stage record and would be trying to break it again in order to become the first man in Hakone history to set stage records all four years, while Takezawa would be trying at least indirectly to beat Sato and, in doing so, to take down Sato's record. Somehow, Takezawa did it, beating Sato's old mark by 32 seconds to finish the 21.5 km stage in 1:01:40. That's a 1:00:31 half marathon, just off the national record. After all his injuries when did he train enough to do that? Sato was on stage record pace as well but faded, finishing in 1:02:18, 6 seconds shy of his old record and missing the four-record title, although he did pass 13 runners to enter 3rd on the all-time passing record list, the only runner on the list to do it on a stage other than the 2nd. And so that is how it ends: Kensuke Takezawa was the best university runner of his generation.

Sato will go to Team Nissin Shokuhin after graduation, one of the strongest jitsugyodan teams and a place where he can develop further if he can avoid injury and will surely become the top runner in Japan. Takezawa's future is more questionable. He is both going to grad school and joining the Toshihiko Seko-coached Team S&B, a team with a reputation as something of a black hole for talented runners. His seeming fragility also makes it uncertain how far he can go on the world level. Masato Kihara may well end up having the best career out of the three, but Takezawa and Sato both hold the potential for true greatness.

Mekubo Mogusu (4th yr., Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.)
Mogusu is the same age as Samuel Wanjiru and chose university over an early pro career specifically to run Hakone. After spectacular failures in his first two attempts at a new record on the 23.2 km 2nd stage he finally succeeded with a 1:06:23 stage record last year. In his final Hakone Mogusu ran the most mature race of his life, starting out slowly and gradually accelerating as he first took the lead and then chased his goal of the first 65 minute mark on the stage, a 60:00 half marathon on a course with two 60 m uphills near the finish. He came up just short in 1:06:04, a 60:05 half marathon which would be his fourth-best, but in setting another new record he became the first man to break his own record on Hakone's most competitive stage since Toshihiko Seko 29 years ago.

This year's Hakone was Mogusu's final ekiden as he has chosen to join the non-ekiden Team Aidem after graduation in order to be able to focus on his goal of making the Kenyan marathon team at the London Olympics. It was a sign of how much Hakone meant to him that he brought his mother from Kenya to watch his last run even though he works in a restaurant to make enough money to send her. He still has some issues to work through in order to succeed, but no matter what Mogusu does in coming years Hakone won't be the same without him.

Daniel Gitau (3rd yr., Nihon Univ.)
Gitau also set a record on this year's 2nd stage when he passed 20 runners. Last year Gitau set the previous record of 15, and it's hard to see his new mark ever being beaten. Only 20 teams usually run Hakone, so for someone to break Gitau's passing record they would have to run in an anniversary year, be head and shoulders above the rest of the field, and start their stage at the back of the pack, all of which came together for Gitau this year. It doesn't seem probable that these circumstances would come up again.

Gitau finished 2nd on the stage behind Mogusu again this year and will be the top man in the field next year, when he says he will achieve the 65-minute mark Mogusu missed. Considering that this year he ran 1:07:02 and that he has yet to break 1 hour for the half marathon, he has a lot of hard work ahead of him.

Masato Kihara (4th yr., Chuo Gakuin Univ.)
Kihara has been one of the most interesting runners to watch over the last 4 years, close to Takezawa and Sato in ability but more consistent and inexplicably ignored by the media. 2008 saw him reaching for a higher level but falling short in every race except the National University Ekiden, where he beat Takezawa by 1 second to take the stage best title. Kihara's final Hakone was another case of him falling short as he tried to become the 4th runner to run 66 minutes on the 2nd stage but ran into trouble and finished in a low 68, the 3rd fastest on the stage behind Mogusu and Gitau for the second year in a row. Nevertheless, even on what was obviously a bad day Kihara showed what he was made of, hanging on to Gitau when he was overtaken and then attacking and covering Gitau's counterattacks 3 times over the final 2.5 km. He even tried to outsprint the Kenyan with 200 m left before finally missing out with just 100 m to go. It was the single greatest piece of racing in this year's Hakone.

Kihara is still young with room for improvement, but in retrospect his 2008 season might have shown that as talented as he is, his motivation and goals might be a little beyond the reach of his ability. It looks like he could be world-class, but maybe not the very best. At the same time, a sub-hour half marathon and a 2:06 look completely realistic. Here's to Kihara's marathon debut whenever it comes and to a long career. Between him, Takezawa, Sato and Kashiwabara, Japanese men's marathoning could take a big step forward in the next 5 to 10 years.

Toyo, Waseda, Chuo Gakuin and Komazawa Universities
Toyo's winning squad was made up of six first- and second-years and four fourth-years. Two of the fourth-years were the slowest people on the team, so they are only really losing ace Tomoya Onishi, who was 3rd on the 3rd stage behind Kensuke Takezawa and Yuki Sato, and Atsuyoshi Tobizaka, who had the crucial stage best time on the 7th stage. New head coach Hisashi Sato was Toyo's scout and recruited all of the current runners. Waseda, Komazawa and other big schools pull in the high school stars, but Sato obviously has a talented eye for hidden potential and a good sense of ekiden strategy. With him at the helm Toyo should be one of the top three schools for at least the next two years.

Waseda has come a long way in the last few years toward reclaiming its past greatness as a Hakone titan. It's had two 2nd-place finishes in a row now, and with Takezawa's graduation it may have missed the window of opportunity to take the title. At the same time, with three of its four star first-years having outstanding debuts, Yo Yazawa winning the 1st stage, Yusuke Mita setting a new 4th stage record, and Yuki Yagi taking 2nd best on the 7th stage despite having an off day, Waseda looks like it's in a position to bring its overall level up even higher over the next three years to make up for the loss of a single star.

Chuo Gakuin University came up from obscurity to finish 3rd at last year's Hakone and 4th this year mostly on Kihara's shoulders. Next year it will be hard for the school to place at a similar level without him, but his influence surely attracted some younger talented runners who could step up to help keep Chuo Gakuin in place as one of the new major forces.

Komazawa: what happened this year? How does the defending champion with six wins in the last nine years come from winning Nationals just over a month ago and then finish 13th, its worst placing since 1995 and the first time in Hakone history a defending champ has finished outside the seeded bracket without a DNF? Astounding. Komazawa was missing one of its Big Six runners, but even so, almost all its runners were terrible. There wasn't just one big breakdown like Tokai's Hirotomo Kawano walking on the 5th stage; almost everyone was bad. Five of the Big Six return next year and so in theory Komazawa will be a contender, but after this year's performance who knows?

Masayuki Miwa (4th yr., Waseda Univ.), Kazuyuki Ito (4th yr., Josai Univ.) and Hiroyuki Ono (4th yr., Juntendo Univ.)
I really admire Miwa's peformance on the 5th stage, and part of me feels bad that he couldn't hold off Kashiwabara. Miwa ran the anchor stage for Waseda as a first-year; Waseda was in the top 10 throughout the ekiden for the first time in five years and looked like it woud be returning to the elite seeded bracket. Everything fell apart, though, and Miwa faded to 13th. He's never really gotten over it, and this year was his chance to do something special for the team. First he held off a challenge from Yamanashi Gakuin's Muryo Takase halfway through the stage, then he came back on the downhill after being passed by Kashiwabara and carried out one of the best duels of the ekiden. I think when he collapsed at the finish in 2nd and could only say, "I'm really, really sorry...." he was totally sincere, but nobody could even think of criticizing the way he ran. It was a stellar and deeply respectable way to go out, the essence of what is great about ekiden running, and it was nothing to blame that he came up short against such a world-class performance.

Likewise, Josai Univ.'s captain Kazuyuki Ito deserves respect for his 9th stage performance. Seeing 8th stage runner Ryo Ishita being carried in as he stood there waiting for his final Hakone run, realizing the team of which he was captain was eliminated from competition and that his run would not be counted, having to wait over two further minutes until the official white sash start, and then running alone in last place so far behind that he had no chance of catching up, Ito ran the 23.2 km stage in 1:10:39, 28 seconds better than official stage best winner Go Nakagawa of Yamanashi Gakuin. Well done.

But personally, next to Kashiwabara's record run, I think the performance which most deserves recognition was that of Juntendo' Univ.'s Hiroyuki Ono on the 5th stage. I said pretty much what I have to say about his run in my race day report, but in short, not many people would have the courage to again take on a course which left them lying face down on the ground the previous year, run it at near course record pace, and finish with one of the fastest times ever. I thought Ono had incredible guts last year, but this year was he was profoundly inspiring. Ono doesn't strike me as a runner with a remarkable future ahead, but for these two Hakone runs he has a permanent place on my list of runners for whom I have the highest respect.

(c) 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


GKK said…
Thanks for the excellent coverage, it made the race come alive for me this year.

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