Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Handicapping the Hakone Ekiden Qualifying Race

by Brett Larner


The record-breaking 2009 Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai, the deepest 20 km road race in history.

The Kanto Regional University Athletics Federation has released the entry lists for the Oct. 15 Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai, a 20 km university men's road race qualifier for the Jan. 1-2 Hakone Ekiden.  Outside the Olympics the two-day, twenty-team, ten-stage Hakone relay is road racing's biggest spectacle, an event with viewership in the tens of millions and the kind of popular enthusiasm the World Marathon Majors dream of.  Of all the things obscured behind the cultural insularity of the Japanese running system Hakone is the biggest loss to the sport as a whole, a gripping, high-level race that never lets up over the course of twelve hours and which, with superb production values, could give clues on how to popularize road racing among non-runners worldwide if it were accessible overseas.

The top ten universities at each year's Hakone are seeded for the following year, freeing them up to run October's shorter and faster Izumo Ekiden.  The nine schools left behind must line up again in Tokyo's Showa Kinen Park along with others from the Kanto region for the Yosenkai to fight it out head-to-head for a Hakone berth. Each school may enter fourteen runners and run twelve, the team being scored on the combined times of its first ten finishers.  The six fastest teams move on, but the last three spots are determined by applying a handicap to the remaining schools' scores using points from May's Kanto Regional University Track & Field Championships.  These points include performances in sprints, middle distances and field events, and, as in Japanese business, have the tendency to reinforce the status quo by rewarding the large and established power centers and kneecapping smaller competitors without the resources to diversify.  Virtually every year a small school with a good distance running team beats a larger school fair and square in the race but is passed up because the bigger school's jumpers or throwers dominated five months previously.

The schools who get cheated this way have one last chance for Hakone representation along with talented runners like World Championships marathoners Yuki Kawauchi (Gakushuin Univ.) and Yoshinori Oda (Kanto Gakuin Univ.) who went to universities with weak distance programs.  The top sixteen Yosenkai finishers from schools other than the nine who qualify for Hakone are selected for a Select Team which competes in the main event as the 20th team.  The Select Team has never won Hakone, but if it finishes in the top ten it bumps one more team down to the Yosenkai the following year.

Shoin University's Aritaka Kajiwara has the best chance among minor school runners for front pack contention at this year's Yosenkai, having broken 29 minutes for the first time at last weekend's Nittai Time Trials 10000 m after making the Select Team last year.  The other twelve runners with sub-29 PBs all belong to schools virtually guaranteed to qualify, the two most talented being two-time National University 10000 m champion Benjamin Gandu (28:21.31, Kenya/Nihon Univ.) and two-time Kanto Regional 5000 m champion Taku Fujimoto (28:27.66, Kokushikan Univ.).  Other top individuals include Takamitsu Hashimoto (28:33.21, Josai Univ.), Cosmas Ondiba (28:37.95, Kenya/Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.), Masaki Ito (28:38.13, Kokushikan Univ.) and Naohiro Domoto (28:38.57, Nihon Univ.).

Looking at the team competition, it looks to be a battle between Josai, Kokushikan and Tokyo Nogyo University for the overall win.  Josai always performs well at the Yosenkai but is lacking the depth of reserves held by Kokushikan and Tokyo Nogyo.  Kokushikan may be the best bet for the win, but as last year its dependence on aces Fujimoto and Ito means that if either of them underperforms the school may not even qualify for Hakone.  Tokyo Nogyo lacks star power but has a high average level and should be more resistant to individual breakdowns.  Nihon University and likeable underdogs Jobu University both look safe for the 4th and 5th spots, although Nihon is struggling with extensive injuries in its lineup and may not be able to pull itself together in time.

Six schools are in contention for the final time slot and the three point slots.  Yamanashi Gakuin has a very slight lead over Teikyo University for the sixth slot but, like Nihon, is dealing with setbacks and could falter.  If Teikyo, a small school without a strong overall track and field program, is bumped to 7th its situation becomes very dire as beside Yamanashi Gakuin it will be facing three other schools with large point handicaps, Juntendo, Daito Bunka and Hosei.  It's conceivable that Teikyo's men could outrun all three schools and still not make Hakone due to the point system.  Kanagawa University likewise should outrun Hosei and could beat both Juntendo and Daito Bunka but has little chance of making it through the handicapping.

Chuo Gakuin, Asia and Senshu University, three schools that have had reliable records of making Hakone in recent years, look unlikely to make the cut this year.  Ryutsu Keizai and Soka University look to be the best of this year's minor schools and have a chance of making a dent in the lower end of the potential qualifiers.  Virtually every year there is an upset with a minor school breaking through to shoot down a struggling big school.  If it happens this year it will be from among this group of five.

The Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai takes place Oct. 15 with an edited broadcast including the qualifier announcement ceremony later than afternoon.  Check back for broadcast details.  JRN will be providing race commentary via Twitter @JRNLive.

2011-12 Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai 20 km Top 20 Schools Ranking
ranked by average 10000 m PB of top 12 adjusted for handicap points

1. Josai University - 29:27.97
2. Kokushikan University - 29:28.15
3. Tokyo Nogyo University - 29:30.96
4. Nihon University - 29:39.21
5. Jobu University - 29:43.16
6. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 29:50.24
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7. Juntendo University - 29:41.94 (29:52.19 gross time)
8. Daito Bunka University - 29:46.19 (29:53.19 gross time)
9. Teikyo University - 29:48.13 (29:50.88 gross time)
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10. Hosei University - 29:53.17 (30:02.67 gross time)
11. Kanagawa University - 29:53.64 (29:55.14 gross time)
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12. Chuo Gakuin University - 30:00.69 (30:02.94 gross time)
13. Ryutsu Keizai University - 30:13.03 (30:19.03 gross time)
14. Soka University - 30:15.37 (30:18.62 gross time)
15. Asia University - 30:15.51 (30:16.51 gross time)
16. Senshu University - 30:18.50 (30:19.50 gross time)
17. Reitaku University - 30:25.87 (30:26.37 gross time)
18. Heisei Kokusai University - 30:35.41 (30:41.16 gross time)
19. Shoin University - 30:44.64 (30:45.14 gross time)
20. Kanto Gakuin University - 30:45.78 (30:47.28 gross time)

(c) 2011 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

4 comments:

Eryn said...

And I'll fly in from HongKong to take pictures of my third Yosenkai for JRN... ;-)

This is going to be an interesting race and a great suspense. Hope we'll have a great weather as usual.

Daniel

Brett Larner said...

Great, looking forward to seeing you again. I'll make sure I pay attention on the train this time.

maria said...

Is there any way to get to see it from outside Japan? I'm in the UK fwiw.

PS one of my clubmates spotted Mara Y. running along the Thames last week.

Brett Larner said...

If you download the Keyhole TV software linked in the "Watching Races Online" tab you'll be able to watch on Nihon TV starting at 3:30 p.m. Japan time on Oct. 15.

I hope Mara is in one piece for Yokohama. Looking forward to seeing her again.