by Brett Larner
Watch the 2009 Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai online on Nihon TV on Oct. 17 from 3:30-5:00 p.m. Click here for more info.
As the American NCAA cross-country season chugs along, the home of the world's most competitive university men's distance running, Japan's Kanto region, gets into full swing this weekend with two major 20 km races, the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifying race on Oct. 17 and the Takashimadaira Road Race on Oct. 18.
Each year at the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden, the Kanto region's university men's ekiden championships and an event with mass popularity on the scale of the World Series or Superbowl, the top ten teams out of the field of twenty score seeded positions for the following year's Hakone. The remaining ten teams must battle it out with all the other Kanto universities at October's Yosenkai 20 km road race to earn the honor of a place in Hakone.
At the Yosenkai teams can field up to twelve runners meeting tough qualification standards, with the cumulative time of the team's top ten finishers determining the overall placing. In most years the fastest six teams earn guaranteed Hakone spots. The three remaining spots are determined using a calculation taking into account both the Yosenkai finishing times and points earned by schools' entire track and field teams at May's Kanto Regional University Track and Field Championships, a somewhat unfair crutch which props up large schools having weak years in their distance programs and penalizes smaller schools whose distance squads give it all to make the dream of Hakone come true. The top ten finishers from schools which do not qualify for Hakone are also picked to form a Kanto Region Select Team which competes in Hakone against the nineteen full university teams.
The last two years of the Hakone Ekiden have been chaotic, leading to highly competitive Yosenkai races. In the 2008 Hakone three schools, two of them major forces, DNF'd. In 2009 two-time Yosenkai winner Josai University DNF'd, Komazawa University suffered the humiliation of becoming the first defending champion in Hakone history to finish outside the seeded bracket, and 3rd place Hakone finisher Nittai University was stripped of its seeded spot after an absurd mid-spring scandal involving a Nittai pole vaulter who was suspected of marijuana use. In 2009 the Kanto Region Select Team finished in the top ten at Hakone, meaning only nine schools were seeded for 2010. Nittai's loss of its spot means eleven places are now up for grabs at this year's Yosenkai.
The winning individual time at the Yosenkai is typically under the hour mark, and with big guns Nittai and Komazawa in the field along with some aces from other schools it's a sure bet that this year will again be fast. Looking at the field in this year's Yosenkai, sixteen schools out of the forty-seven entered have realistic chances of picking up one of the eleven spots. Josai University has won the last two Yosenkai editions by peaking for the race and then underperforming in Hakone. It's a safe bet that Josai will again be going to Hakone, but with Nittai and Komazawa in the field a third win will be very tough. Nittai University must be viewed as the favorite, its 3rd place finish in Hakone and the extra motivation its runners have to make up for the shame of the springtime scandal putting it above the rest of the field. Komazawa University is more of a question mark. The most powerful ekiden school in Japan, Komazawa suffered a meltdown at this year's Hakone. The team again ran poorly in Monday's Izumo Ekiden, but in retrospect it's clear that head coach Hiroaki Oyagi chose to run primarily his C-squad in Izumo, saving most of his best prospects including ace first-year Wataru Ueno for the Hakone qualifier. Whether the team is back to its normal self will be seen tomorrow.
Beyond these three schools the field is more even among the real contenders. Tokai University fields two outstanding first-years, last year's high school national champion Akinobu Murasawa and the talented Tsubasa Hayakawa, and should figure among the top placers. Tokyo Nogyo University, Senshu University, Kanagawa University and Asia University are also solid bets to qualify comfortably. Newcomers Jobu University stunned the ekiden scene last year by being the first school to have all ten scorers finish in only its fifth year of existence as a team. The inspiration for the movie "The Wind is Blowing Strong" which opens in two weeks, it's hopeful that Jobu will continue to build on the momentum of having made its Hakone debut in January.
On the chopping block this year is 2007 Hakone winner Juntendo University, a titan which fell from grace following the graduation of most of its 2007 squad. Juntendo barely limped into the 2009 Hakone Ekiden thanks to a combination of points from the Kanto T&F Championships and three extra spots made available in honor of Hakone's 85th anniversary. This year even with the Kanto Championships points the school is unlikely to make the grade.
Of special interest this year is the Tokyo University Graduate School team, for whatever reason the only graduate school allowed to compete. It is very rare for non-Japanese athletes to appear in the Yosenkai, even more so than in the Hakone Ekiden itself since the teams which can afford Kenyan ringers are usually good enough that they get seeded and don't have to run the Yosenkai. This year Swiss graduate student Christian Sommer made Tokyo's team and will run the Yosenkai, possibly the first-ever white runner to appear. It's unlikely he will factor into the action, but the rarity of his appearance in the elite field makes his run particularly noteworthy.
The day after the Yosenkai, the Takashimadaira 20 km Road Race offers a chance for seeded schools to do a mid-season tuneup. 2009 Hakone University winner Toyo University turns out in force each year, and it is likely the team's ace Ryuji Kashiwabara will lead the way. Daito Bunka University is another seeded school with strong Takashimadaira representation. Komazawa and Tokai also usually field some of their best runners, but with both schools lining up the day before they are not likely to be present this time. JRN will be onhand to cover both the Yosenkai and Takashimadaira races.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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