Saturday, January 3, 2009

Toyo Takes First-Ever Hakone Ekiden Win

by Brett Larner

Click here for a video digest of Day Two and individual stage highlights.


Toyo University celebrates its first-ever Hakone Ekiden win. Click photo for additional pictures courtesy of Sanspo.com.

On Day Two of the 2009 Hakone Ekiden Toyo University defied the odds, hanging on to its slim lead over pre-race favorite Waseda University to come up victorious for the first time in the school’s 67 Hakone appearances. Riding on the momentum of Toyo’s first day victory, the team’s 6th, 7th and 8th stage runners ran impeccably, dueling with Day One runner-up Waseda at every turn before 9th leg runner Shogo Otsu dealt Waseda’s hopes of its first win in sixteen years a death blow with a tactical masterstroke. Waseda anchor Itaru Sando tried his best to close the gap Otsu opened but could get no closer than 41 seconds, leaving Waseda in 2nd place once again. Toyo’s time of 5:35:50 for the 109.9 km Day Two course was also the fastest in the field, giving it a rare triple crown with Day One, Day Two and overall wins.

Toyo's win came less than a month after head coach Shinji Kawashima was forced to resign following a sexual assault scandal involving a Toyo steeplechase runner. The Kanto Regional University Track and Field Association debated barring Toyo from this year's Hakone but decided to allow the team to compete since the person involved in the assault was not an ekiden team member. Longtime coaching staff member Hisashi Sato was appointed the team's new coach; despite the short time left he put together a brilliant race plan. "The key," he said in an interview before the start of Day Two, "is going to be the 9th stage. If we are within 1:30 of the leader then our runner Otsu will catch him."

6th stage runner Hikaru Tominaga, a race-morning replacement for captain Kazuki Onishi, ran far beyond expectations. Overtaken by defending 6th stage winner Sota Kato of Waseda at 3.2 km, Tominaga returned to take the lead three times before finally succumbing to Kato's last spurt in the final 2 km. 7th stage runner Atsuyoshi Tobisaka likewise went beyond what was expected. Waseda's star rookie Yuki Yagi went out hard, widening his lead to over 50 seconds at 10 km before Tobisaka went to work. As the first-year Yagi began to strain, clocking a 3:09 km, Tobisaka ran 3:00. By 17 km Yagi's lead was down to 30 seconds. From 18 to 19 km Tobisaka ran a 2:54 split versus Yagi's 3:13. Both runners began to kick with one km to go, but Yagi was just too far away and finished 12 seconds ahead. Nevertheless Tobisaka succeeded in narrowing the gap and was rewarded with the stage best title.

8th stage runner Yu Chiba initially lost ground to Waseda's Kenji Nakashima but then began to inch forward, drawing even at 7.8 km. The two runners stayed together for almost 9 km until Nakashima began to show signs of difficulty on the steep uphill during the 16th km. Chiba took advantage of the situation and upped his effort ever so slightly. It was just enough, and he pulled away to finish the stage in the lead by 45 seconds, clocking the 2nd best time on the stage.

9th stage runner Shogo Otsu then gave a master class in how to beat a faster runner. Otsu started out at almost a jog, looking off-balance and awkward while Waseda's Tsuguya Asahi clocked a 2:43 first km. By 5 km Asahi was only 10 seconds back. He came within 3 seconds of the lead when at 6.5 km Otsu abruptly dropped his charade, accelerating rapidly and switching into a smooth and symmetrical form. And with that, the ekiden was over. By 14 km Otsu was 30 seconds ahead and still pulling away. He finished with a lead of 1:26, making a Waseda win all but impossible and like Chiba scoring the 2nd best time on his stage. Toyo anchor Ryo Takami ran comfortably as Waseda anchor Itaru Sando tried to close, but when the situation became dangerous with 3 km to go Takami sped up just enough to keep away, delivering the win.

Waseda’s hopes rested upon 6th leg ace Sota Kato, who won the dangerous downhill stage in last year’s ekiden, and 7th leg rookie Yuki Yagi, last year’s high school 5000 m national champion and the top-ranked of the school’s crop of star first-year recruits, but when both runners underperformed the balance of power shifted to Toyo and Waseda was put into a position of desperation which broke 9th stage runner Tsuguya Asahi apart. Although the team will lose Olympian Kensuke Takezawa to graduation, its first-years look poised to dominate in two years’ time and it will remain in contention for a comeback victory at least until the group’s graduation.

Nittai University came up from the depths of the non-seeded teams for a 3rd-place finish, its best in four years thanks in large part to anchor Hirotaka Nagai's stage-best run. Daito Bunka University, which likewise came from the non-seeded team bracket after DNFing last year, outkicked Chuo Gakuin to finish 4th in a three-way sprint finish between the two schools and Yamanashi Gakuin University. Nihon University won another three-way sprint finish against Meiji University and the Kanto Select Team. Meiji was the final school to move up into the seeded positions, scoring its first seed in 43 years with an 8th-place finish. Kanto Select Team anchor Hiroaki Sano of Reitaku University ran a spectacular stage to break into the top ten, meaning that for the second year in a row only nine teams will be seeded for the following year’s Hakone Ekiden. Tokyo Nogyo University, Kokushikan University and Teikyo University all missed out on the seeded bracket in the latter stages after running much of the ekiden in the top ten.

Along with the upward mobility of Nittai, Daito Bunka and Meiji and the solidification of Toyo and Chuo Gakuin's positions as new powers, 2006 winner Asia, 2007 winner Juntendo and co-favorite for the win during the last three years Tokai all finished deep in the field. The biggest shock of the 2009 Hakone Ekiden was, however, defending champion Komazawa University's 13th place finish. Despite winning November's National University Ekiden and having on paper its best team ever, after six wins in the last nine years Komazawa was a disaster, its sole achievement in 2009 being Yusuke Takabayashi's stage best title on the 8th leg. Komazawa also had the dubious honor of becoming the first defending champion to fail to make the seeded bracket without DNFing, its first time outside the seeded positions in thirteen years. As Komazawa head coach Hiroaki Oyagi admitted in an interview before the start of Day Two, "This was a failure."

Josai University, which finished 11th for the last three years, barely missing the seeded positions each time, had a rare DNF after 8th leg runner Ryo Ishita collapsed 19.8 km into the 21.5 km stage. Josai was allowed to complete the ekiden but was not counted in the scoring; Josai captain Kazuyuki Ito ran the fastest time on the 9th leg, 1:10:39, but his mark was not recorded and the stage best title went to Yamanashi Gakuin University’s Go Nakagawa.

For the two lovable underdogs in the race, first-timers Jobu University and 33-year absentees Aoyama Gakuin University, there were no miracles and no escaping the reality of how good the other teams were. Jobu was unable to translate its fantastic performance at October's Hakone qualifier into a strong debut, finishing 21st of the 22 teams which completed the ekiden, but the team's debut run in only its fifth year of existence will nevertheless help it build toward a stronger future. Aoyama Gakuin was the last finisher, just 6 seconds behind Jobu, but team members were overjoyed at successfully carrying their tasuki over the entire course, erasing the memory of the team's DNF 150 m from the finish in its last appearance 33 years ago.

To both schools' credit, they were ahead of Josai University at the time of Josai's DNF on the 8th stage, and neither was likely to be overtaken. More importantly, both schools stayed within 20 minutes of the leader, the cutoff point at which each stage's runner must start if the previous runner has not yet arrived, meaning that both finished the ekiden wearing the same sash with which they started. In most years, the bottom 3 or 4 of the 20 teams fall more than 20 minutes behind on the 8th or 9th stage, their anchors finishing with a white sash. This year, despite there being 23 teams and despite the higher-than-average level of competition, Jobu and Aoyama Gakuin stayed in range, an achievement of which each can be rightfully proud.

2009 Hakone Ekiden Day Two – 109.9 km
Click here for complete results.

Stage Best Performances
6th Stage
(20.8 km): Takumi Sato (4th yr., Daito Bunka Univ.) – 59:14
7th Stage (21.3 km): Atsuyoshi Tobisaka (4th yr., Toyo Univ.) – 1:05:01
8th Stage (21.5 km): Yusuke Takabayashi (3rd yr., Komazawa Univ.) – 1:06:27
9th Stage (23.2 km): Go Nakagawa (3rd yr., Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) – 1:11:07 [Josai's Kazuyuki Ito ran an unofficial 1:10:39]
10th Stage (23.1 km): Hirotaka Nagai (4th yr., Nittai Univ.) – 1:10:41

Overall Team Results
1. Toyo Univ. – 11:09:14
2. Waseda Univ. – 11:09:55
3. Nittai Univ. – 11:13:05
4. Daito Bunka Univ. – 11:17:48
5. Chuo Gakuin Univ. – 11:17:50
6. Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. – 11:17:56
7. Nihon Univ. – 11:18:14
8. Meiji Univ. – 11:18:16
9. Kanto Region Select Team – 11:18:20
10. Chuo Univ. – 11:18:33
----- (top ten teams seeded for 2010)
11. Kokushikan Univ. – 11:19:07
12. Tokyo Nogyo Univ. – 11:19:17
13. Komazawa Univ. – 11:20:20
14. Senshu Univ. – 11:24:59
15. Kanagawa Univ. – 11:25:07
16. Asia Univ. – 11:25:39
17. Takushoku Univ. – 11:26:31
18. Tokai Univ. – 11:28:04
19. Juntendo Univ. – 11:28:09
20. Teikyo Univ. – 11:28:21
21. Jobu Univ. – 11:28:54
22. Aoyama Gakuin Univ. – 11:29:00
-----
DNF – Josai Univ. (8th Stage)

© 2009 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

3 comments:

TokyoRacer said...

Well, I have been a Waseda fan ever since Seko was running for them...even before that, since I studied Japanese there 35 years ago. But I guess I am not a diehard fan, because I was rooting for Toyo to hang on and win their first title. Great that they did, despite the fact that their anchor runner had the weirdest running form I have ever seen.

David Motozo Rubenstein said...

i was going for the underdog toyo also..great race and glad they pulled it off...thanks for great commentary Brett!

bryan said...

I agree with the other commenters. I started out kind of rooting for Waseda and some great individual performances. By the end of the first day, though, I was pulling for Toyo.

Your Hakone preview was invaluable in helping me watch with an informed eye!

Kashiwabara stole the show for me. I can't believe he is just a freshman. Mogusu was predictably amazing, and Gitau also put on quite a show by passing 20 (!) people in stage 2. It shows you how good Mogusu is that he ran one minute faster without having the luxury of 20 people to pass.

The other aspect of the race that I really enjoyed was that throughout day 2, runners were actually competing in groups of 3 or 4 for 4th, 7th, and 10th place at various points. It really kept it interesting back in the pack.

Thanks again for the wonderful coverage of the event. I'm glad I got a chance to watch it again after a few years!