by Brett Larner
It's the best time of year for distance running fans in Japan: time for the Hakone Ekiden. Hakone is the championship event for Kanto region-based university men's teams, essentially those in the Tokyo area. The race covers 217.9 km in ten stages spread over two days on Jan. 2 and 3 every year. But it is much more than a regional university race. The race is broadcast live nationwide, fifteen hours of coverage between the two days, with nationwide viewership ratings of 30%. Hakone runners are respected more than any others but Japan's Olympic marathon medalists and have a degree of fame pros in other countries can only imagine. Now in its 86th year, more than any other race the Hakone Ekiden is engrossing, dramatic, and symbolizes what is good about distance running. So much so that it has become a problem for Japanese men's marathoning, where performances have waned over the last few years just as performances at Hakone and related races have waxed to the world-class level.
Thanks to the miracle of Keyhole TV, last year overseas viewers were for the first time able to watch live. Those who invested the time were rewarded with one of the greatest in the event's history. The first day saw new records on four of the five stages, capped by Toyo University first-year Ryuji Kashiwabara's incredible run up the mountain on the final stage of the day. Aces Kensuke Takezawa (Waseda Univ.) and Yuki Sato (Tokai Univ.) dueled in their final Hakone runs before graduation. Kenyan Daniel Gitau (Nihon Univ.) set a new passing record, starting the second leg in 22nd and ending in 2nd. Toyo finished the first day in the lead for the first time in 67 appearances, then spent the second day holding off a desperate Waseda for its first-ever win.
This year Kashiwabara and Toyo return as one of the favorites. Overseas viewers can again watch Nihon TV's superb live television coverage on Keyhole TV, available here. The broadcast begins at 7:00 a.m. on Jan. 2, Japan time, with a one-hour preview show. The race begins at 8:00 a.m. and continues until 2:00 p.m. The broadcast picks up again at 7:00 a.m. on the 3rd, once more with a one-hour preview, and once more running from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Afterwards is a one-hour summary and interview program continuing until 3:00 p.m. Nihon TV also has a first-rate Hakone Ekiden website separate from the official site linked above.
To help make sense of who is who and what is happening, JRN will over live English-language commentary via Twitter feed on JRNLive for the entire fifteen hour broadcast. Also included below is a look at some of the main contenders to watch, both team and individual. Watching for fifteen hours over two days may be a large commitment, but if there is one reliable prediction you can make about the Hakone Ekiden it is that it never disappoints.
2010 Hakone Ekiden Preview
When Ryuji Kashiwabara started the Fifth Stage at the 2009 Hakone Ekiden, Toyo University was in 9th place, 4:58 behind leader Masayuki Miwa of Waseda University. The Fifth Stage, a run up from sea level to the mountainous resort town of Hakone, had long been the realm of specialists, runners who may not have been especially fast but were tough enough to handle 874 m of uninterrupted climb followed by over 200 m of downhill in just over a kilometer and a half. In 2006 the race's organizers adjusted the Fourth and Fifth Stages to make the Fifth 23.4 km, the longest in the ekiden in addition to the substantial climb. Until 2009, the 23.2 km Second Stage had always been where the best runners went, a showcase for future Olympic marathoners, but 1:17:18 after beginning his first Hakone Ekiden, Kashiwabara changed the race's history with a 22 second lead, a 47 second stage record, and Toyo in position for the overall win.
Like the best Kenyan marathoners over the last two years, Kashiwabara redefined how other athletes had to think of the intimidating Fifth Stage: it was no longer a run of caution, saving your energy for later, but one where the winner would be the one who went out hard and survived. Making up 5 minutes on any other stage is impossible even for the very best, but Kashiwabara showed that a good runner who attacked the Fifth Stage could let even a so-so team beat the favorites. Other teams can no longer afford to let this happen, and the talk this year is that most teams' stars, including Nihon University's Kenyan Daniel Gitau and Tokai University's ace first-year Akinobu Murasawa who won October's Yosenkai 20 km qualifying race in a superb 59:08, will be challenging Kashiwabara on the Fifth Stage instead of the Second. If this comes about it will dramatically change the dynamic of the ekiden as a whole. You can never really tell how someone will do on the Fifth Stage until it's done, but with Kashiwabara talking a world-class 76 minutes the others will have their work cut out for them.
Looking now at some of the favorites:
Toyo stands an excellent chance of defending its Hakone win. The 2009 squad was almost entirely made up of first and second-years, and they are all back. With a year of maturity behind them they should be able to make up the deficit caused by the loss of star senior Tomoya Onishi (Team Asahi Kasei) to graduation. Kashiwabara is of course a huge advantage, but unlike some other teams Toyo is not a one-man show. The team's average level is consistent, the only team in the field with every member holding a 10000 m PB under 30:00 including the six alternates. Apart from Kashiwabara and second-year Hiroyuki Uno they may not have impressive speed, but Toyo was good enough to finish 3rd overall at October's Izumo Ekiden and 2nd at November's longer National University Ekiden Championships. Put them on Hakone's even longer stages and they look very good indeed.
Back in the day Waseda was THE distance running school, one of four to have run the first Hakone Ekiden, scoring twelve wins in 85 years, and counting many of the country's greatest among its alumni. One of those great alumni, Yasuyuki Watanabe, is now Waseda's head coach, but he has not been able to put together the right ingredients for the win. Waseda has finished 2nd the last two years despite the presence of the phenomenal Kensuke Takezawa and the recruitment last year of the top four graduating high school boys nationwide, and now with Takezawa's graduation Watanabe may have missed his window of opportunity. Two members of last year's high school national champions Saku Chosei H.S. have joined Waseda this year, Hiroyuki Sasaki and 2009 Ageo City Half Marathon winner Shota Hiraga, but even with these two Waseda would need every member running at 100% to have a chance. That has never happened under Watanabe's leadership. Two of last year's golden four did not even make the team this year, one of them Yusuke Mita who set a new stage record last year on the Fourth Stage. With only 4th place finishes at Izumo and Nationals Waseda will be hard-pressed even for 2nd.
Nihon University won both the Izumo and National University ekidens this season, but both victories came thanks to the presence of two Kenyans on the team, fourth-year Daniel Gitau and first-year Benjamin Gando. Nihon's margin of victory over Toyo at Nationals was 3:36 over 106.8 km, roughly half the distance at Hakone. Hakone allows schools to run only one foreign team member, so Nihon must not only replace Gando with a runner of comparable quality, of which it has none, but also add two more good members to make up Hakone's ten stages rather than the eight at Nationals. In a similar situation after winning Izumo last year Nihon finished only 7th at Hakone. Can they overcome the numbers and pull off a rare triple crown this season? It's possible, but likely? No.
Last year Komazawa came to Hakone an unstoppable force: five Hakone wins between 2002 and 2009, six national titles over the same years, and the best overall track credentials in the field. As the defending champions they were the heavy favorites for another win, but instead they utterly self-destructed. Almost every member of the team ran very, very badly, and Komazawa had the dubious distinction of becoming the first defending champions in Hakone history not to make the seeded bracket for the following year. Having to run October's Yosenkai 20 km qualifier as a result, Komazawa basically threw the Izumo Ekiden, running a squad of its first-years and co-captains Tsuyoshi Ugachi and Yusuke Takabayashi and finishing 10th. Five days later they won the Yosenkai team division with a new meet record, Ugachi, Takabayashi and fellow fourth-year Takuya Fukatsu breaking one hour and first-year Wataru Ueno just seconds off the hour mark. The team looked to be back and ready for a fourth-straight Nationals win, but despite an overall strong showing senior Sota Hoshi suffered a complete meltdown and Komazawa fell to 7th. On paper the team should crush the others, but head coach Hiroaki Oyagi says his only goal this time is, "To finish without any major breakdowns or problems."
Nittai University has something to prove. Finishing a strong 3rd at last year's Hakone Ekiden, the team was banned from the spring track season and stripped of its Hakone seeded position after a pole vaulter at the school was suspected but never charged or convicted of marijuana possession. The ban meant the school could not run the qualifying race for the National University Ekiden, and the invitational Izumo Ekiden quietly refrained from calling. October's Yosenkai 20 km Hakone qualifier was thus the team's only significant race of the season. Nittai finished only 4th, but they come to Hakone with two advantages: the best average 10000 m time in the field including three men under 28:35, and the desire to make up for the humiliation of having their entire year taken away over nothing. Watch out.
Jobu University aren't in contention for the win but deserve attention right along with Toyo, Komazawa and the other top schools. Last year the team made Hakone for the first time ever, ever being only the five years since a group of students at the school dreaming of Hakone glory talked Olympian and star Waseda alum Katsuhiko Hanada into becoming their coach and the school into paying for it. A fictionalized movie depicting their story, "The Wind is Blowing Strong," came out this fall and the team has continued to ride its own momentum. Two years ago second-year Mao Fukuyama made the Kanto Regional Select Team and finished 3rd on the Fifth Stage. Last year all ten scorers at the Yosenkai 20 km qualifier finished within seconds of each other in the mid-1:01 range, making Jobu the first school in the field to bring in all scorers, coming in 3rd after the point tally, and qualifying for Hakone as a team. This year they were again 3rd, but with Komazawa in the field it was a far tougher race. Significantly, third-year Yusuke Hasegawa was 5th in a very strong 59:30 and fourth-year Yasuo Ishida was 15th in 1:00:07. Kenyans aside, Hasegawa actually holds the fastest 10000 m PB in the entire Hakone field, 28:13.92. Considering that when he, Ishida, Fukuyama and the other Jobu runners decided to go to the school nobody had yet made Hakone wearing the black and white Jobu uniform it's all a testament to Hanada's recruiting and coaching. If they make the top ten seeded positions this year, a very realistic possibility, it will be some of the biggest news to hit Hakone in many years.
Beyond these favorites, watch for Yamanashi Gakuin University, Chuo University, Tokyo Nogyo University, Meiji University, Daito Bunka University and the Kanto Regional Select Team to be in contention for the seeded bracket. Aoyama Gakuin University also deserves a mention for making the top eight at the Yosenkai qualifier to get into Hakone without the point scoring system used for the bottom three Yosenkai teams to be picked. Last year Aoyama Gakuin made Hakone for the first time in over 30 years thanks to extra spots being created in honor of the event's 85th anniversary. This year they did it fair and square.
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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