by Brett Larner
If you’re a distance running fan then it is nearly time for the best two days of the year: the 87th annual Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden. A ten-stage, 217.9 km university championship race spread over two days with a live nationwide TV broadcast that attracts domestic viewership ratings of over 30%, Hakone is a cultural institution in Japan and features the most gripping and dramatic racing of the year. There’s good and bad in that, but for now at least we’ll focus on the good.
Overseas viewers have the chance to watch Nihon TV’s Hakone broadcast online via Keyhole TV, available here. It’s not perfect, but in the absence of an overseas broadcast or official webcast it’s the only chance you have to be part of it if you live outside Japan. The broadcast begins at 7:00 a.m. Japan time on both Jan. 2 and 3 with the race starting at 8:00 a.m. and lasting until around 2:00 p.m. For those on the west coast of North America that means the race begins at 3:00 p.m. on Jan. 1 and goes until 9:00 p.m. For those on the east coast it’s 6:00 p.m. to midnight. London viewers will be watching from 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., unfortunately. As with the last edition, JRN will be doing live English-language commentary for the entire broadcast via Twitter @JRNLive. If the feed overloads we’ll switch to @JRNHakoneEkiden. To help you understand who’s who, we now present our annual Hakone preview.
Waseda vs. Toyo
The 2010-2011 season has been a landmark one for Japan’s university and high school men. At a time when the country’s marathoners are going through a dry spell the under-25 set is dealing with the missing ingredient in the system; unprecedented numbers of university and high school runners are running under 14 for 5000 m and under 29 for 10000 m, and in 2010 more Japanese runners than ever before broke 28 minutes, five of them under age 25. This hasn’t yet translated into an improvement at the national record end of things, but the overall level has never been higher. This is most clear in the two favorites for the 2011 Hakone Ekiden, 2010 National University Ekiden champion Waseda University and two-time defending champion Toyo University.
This year’s Waseda squad is the best university team Japan has ever seen. Seven men with 10000 m PBs under 29 minutes, two of them first-years, a 1:02:08 half marathoner and the Asian Jr. half marathon area record holder, 1:01:47 first-year Suguru Osako. Waseda smashed the competition at October’s Izumo Ekiden and November’s National University Ekiden Championships, winning both races in course records. On paper it is clear: going by each of the twenty Hakone teams’ top ten men, Waseda will win. If all ten of their top ten men are fit and run up to potential then nobody will touch them.
But it’s never that easy. Waseda head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe has a history of burning his teams out between Nationals and Hakone and bringing them to the race in a shambles. Having the entire team in peak form in November doesn’t bode well for doing the same at the top of January. Most critically, Waseda has no alternates. Ranked by the top ten of its sixteen entered team members, Waseda is far and away 1st in the field. Ranked by its top eleven it is still in 1st but just a step ahead of Toyo. Ranked by its top twelve Waseda falls to a shocking 13th. In other words, Waseda has no depth. It has exactly what it needs to win, and no more. If even one of its top ten is not 100% it will not win.
Two-time defending champion Toyo University is another story entirely. Everybody knows about Waseda’s amazing lineup, but few realize that the entire central group of third and fourth years at Toyo have all quietly worked together to raise their level and that Toyo now also features seven men with 10000 m PBs under 29 minutes including first-year Keita Shitara. Half the team is now as good as former captain Tomoya Onishi was when Toyo won Hakone for the first time two years ago. And they have four alternates who could fill in without a major decrease in overall quality. And they have Ryuji Kashiwabara.
Nobody in memory has had as big an individual impact on the outcome of Hakone as junior Kashiwabara, the two-time stage record breaker on the legendary 900 m-climb 23.4 km Fifth Stage. Although Toyo’s pair of wins required solid runs from the rest of the team, there’s no doubt that they won because Kashiwabara could make up well in excess of five minutes on his stage. That was true when they were a decent team with a superstar ace. Now they’re one of the best-ever Japanese university teams, plus a superstar ace and four solid backups. It’s conceivable that even if Kashiwabara, who has with the notable exception of a 28:20.99 10000 m PB in November been out of competition with injury troubles most of the fall, runs only passably Toyo could still beat Waseda.
Komazawa and Nittai
But it’s not only about these two schools. Komazawa University and Nittai University are neck-and-neck a short distance behind Toyo in the rankings. As at Nationals, either school could be in contention. Komazawa head coach Hiroaki Oyagi is perhaps the best university coach and Hakone strategist Japan has seen, and with a lineup including four sub-29 men, first-year Ikuto Yufu among them, and a history of performing above potential on the longer distances at Hakone they will challenge Waseda and Toyo and be there to pick up the pieces should either school falter.
Although Nittai only has three runners sub-29, its depth actually exceeds that of Komazawa and on paper it could beat them. In reality, Nittai has a shakier record under pressure and will be in a tough position to beat Komazawa, a goal requiring a near-perfect performance from the whole team. Taking Waseda or Toyo would be a major upset.
The Second Tier
Meiji University, Chuo University and Tokai University are virtually evenly-ranked and should be battling each other to round out the top five. Meiji actually holds five sub-29 men, the best of them junior Tetsuya Yoroizaka with a PB of 28:34.12, but it has not performed reliably in the last few ekiden seasons. In a perfect race it may come 3rd. Chuo only has two sub-29 runners but they are supported by a pack of four sub-64 half marathoners, a lineup which should be good enough to go after Komazawa, Nittai or Meiji should any of them falter.
Tokai University, which limped into Hakone after ace sophomore Akinobu Murasawa missed October’s Yosenkai 20 km qualifier with a sprained ankle, has now lost its third sub-29 runner Asuka Tanaka to injury, but with Murasawa on Second Stage and its other sub-29 sophomore Tsubasa Hayakawa on Fifth Stage its chances look good of returning to the seeded bracket, conceivably in the upper half.
The Seeded Bracket
For schools without a chance of winning, making the top ten to secure a seeded spot for 2012 is the next major goal. The race to make the seeded bracket is often one of the highlights of Hakone’s second day. Yosenkai winner Takushoku University, with 27:53.50 Kenyan first-year John Maina on the entry list and new head coach Masahiro Okada, coach of 2006 Hakone winner Asia University, at the helm, should break through into the seeded bracket despite being ranked only 14th on the strength of its top ten. If there is a darkhorse to watch out for it is Teikyo University, which had a surprise 3rd showing at the Yosenkai and is ranked 8th by top ten and 9th by top twelve. Josai University, Aoyama Gakuin University and Yamanashi Gakuin University are the other main contenders for the seeded bracket, with the Kanto Regional Select Team, made up of the top Yosenkai finishers from schools which failed to qualify for Hakone, standing a chance of taking a top ten spot and knocking one more school into next year’s Yosenkai.
You might have noticed the large number of first-year runners mentioned above. This year’s entering class is superb. Usually there are three or four ‘golden rookies’ who receive a lot of attention in the media and race broadcast. This year there are at least thirteen men good enough to deserve that attention.
Shota Hattori (Nittai Univ.) – 13:54.32 / 28:37.75
Takumi Honda (Nittai Univ.) - 13:56.47 / 29:50.62 / 1:03:41
Kaido Kita (Meiji Univ.) – 13:59.64 / 28:42.92 / 1:03:50
Shinobu Kubota (Komazawa Univ.) – 13:55.18 / 29:06.82
John Maina (Takushoku Univ.) – 13:41.17 / 27:53.50 / 58:23 (20 km)
Duncan Muthee (Takushoku Univ.) – 13:41.08 / 27:53.00
Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.) – 13:47.29 / 28:35.75 / 1:01:47 (Asian Jr. Area Record)
Fuminori Shikata (Waseda Univ.) – 14:04.77 / 28:38.46 / 1:03:20
Keita Shitara (Toyo Univ.) – 13:58.08 / 28:52.22
Ikki Takeuchi (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) – 13:53.39 / 29:26.17
Hirotaka Tamura (Nihon Univ.) – 14:01.14 / 28:55.90
Kosei Yamaguchi (Josai Univ.) – 14:13.16 / 28:55.33
Ikuto Yufu (Komazawa Univ.) – 13:45.42 / 28:51.71
Along with the release of the preliminary start lists on Dec. 30 came the news that Waseda first-year Fuminori Shikata, a 28:38.46 runner who was instrumental to Waseda’s success at Nationals in November, has a stress fracture and is only on the reserve list. Coach Watanabe is known for leaving many of his key runners out of the initial start lists to hide his strategy until race morning when he puts them in as substitutes, but he has three obvious dummy entries on Eighth, Ninth and Tenth and only Shikata and juniors Yuki Yagi and Yusuke Mita with whom to fill the spots. If the news of Shikata’s injury is not elaborate sandbaggery then it is a disaster for Waseda. They have no margin for strategic maneuvering and will have to play with what they have.
Toyo has all the options they could need. They will win. Waseda will lead much of the first day thanks to the triple punch of Osako on First Stage, Hiraga on Second and Yazawa on Third but will lose ground on the Fifth Stage. Kashiwabara may not be able to take the lead for Toyo but on the second day Toyo, cagier with its entry lists than usual, will field most of its best runners and will take Waseda apart, with Yagi substituting in on Ninth Stage vainly trying to keep Waseda in the game. Komazawa will outrun Nittai and depending on how badly things go for Waseda may repeat as runner-up. Nittai will be up front for the first two stage before fading. As in 2010, Meiji will also be up front throughout the first day but will drop back on the second day.
Look for JRN's viewing guide tomorrow, with course maps, a guide to teams and which stages to watch for the best competition. On to Hakone.
(c) 2010 Brett Larner
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