by Brett Larner
It's almost time for Japan's biggest and best sports event, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden, the Kanto region university men's championships. It seems like every year I've come on here and said, "This is going to be the greatest Hakone ever," but it's true. Things have been accelerating very rapidly in Kanto collegiate distance running. There have been course records at Hakone the last two years, and this fall the other two Big Three University Ekidens, the Izumo Ekiden and National University Ekiden Championships, also saw course records. Two years ago 15 athletes in Hakone's field had bests at the sub-13:40, sub-28:30 and sub-1:03:00 level. Last year there were 19. This year there are 32, from 15 of the 20 schools in the field. Where is it going to end? The battle between the three course record-setting schools this year, Toyo University, Komazawa University and Aoyama Gakuin University, looks set to be one for the ages.
Hakone this year is in at least one way the end of an era with the graduation of defending champion Toyo's uphill specialist Ryuji Kashiwabara. For the last four years Kashiwabara has been a celebrity, fearlessly conquering the nearly 900 m-climb Fifth Stage with four stage wins, three of them course records. His presence shaped the race, with other coaches setting their lineups according to how best to deal with the three-minute advantage he brought Toyo. Without him it's a different game, but Toyo is not going to just lie down. Overall they have a better team than last year, when they took 8 minutes 15 seconds off the course record. At both Izumo and Nationals Toyo placed 2nd. At Hakone if their new Fifth Stage runner can perform only decently then the other nine men on the team need to average 1 second per km faster than last year for the course record to again be in range. Everything depends on twins Keita and Yuta Shitara. On the one hand both have broken 28:20 and 1:02:00 since the 2012 Hakone Ekiden, but on the other both have been relatively flat throughout the fall. The school's fortunes will rise or fall with their performances.
Their greatest competition is Komazawa, the best university team Japan has ever seen. 8 of its 10 starters have PBs under 28:30 or 1:03:00. In November anchor Shinobu Kubota ran down Toyo on the anchor stage of the National University Ekiden to give Komazawa the course record and its 10th national title. Time and again a team's half marathon average has proven to be the best predictor of success in Hakone, where the average stage length is 21.79 km. Komazawa's ten-man average of 1:02:58 ranks it first and says that Toyo's Hakone record is in reach. On paper they look unstoppable, the only possible flaw being that their 10th man has a half marathon best of only 1:04:15. But there are other cracks. Despite the record at Nationals, at Izumo Komazawa was only 5th. In other seasons when they've shown that kind of instability they have performed badly at Hakone, including a 13th-place finish in 2009. Komazawa usually runs better on Day Two, but with its three best men Kubota, Ikuto Yufu and Kenta Murayama all entered for Day One look for them to come out hard.
Izumo Ekiden course record-setter Aoyama Gakuin University is the other major contender. Led by Takehiro Deki, who made an early marathon debut earlier this year with a 2:10:02 at the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, Aoyama has quietly been building toward something special in Hakone. In June they missed qualifying for Nationals when both Deki and senior Ryotaro Otani were out with injury, but in September they shocked everyone with the Izumo record. Instrumental to their win was Kazuma Kubota, the #1-ranked incoming high schooler. Izumo was a surprise, but with stage lengths only a third those in Hakone it didn't necessarily mean Aoyama was going to perform over longer distances. In October they shattered any doubts on that point by putting ten men under 1:00:30 at the Takashimadaira 20 km Road Race without Deki even running. It's hard to overstate how big that result was for Aoyama's Hakone chances. They have the fastest 10th man in the field, and if aces Deki, Kubota and Otani run up to ability they should have a shot at the win.
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On paper Meiji University looks like the equal of the three favorites, but with weaker half marathon credentials and only a 5th-place finish at Nationals Meiji is most likely to be fighting for 4th. Teikyo University, featurng 2012 national collegiate half marathon champion Toshikatsu Ebina and National University Ekiden 3rd and 4th-place teams Waseda University and Nittai University will be Meiji's top competition in the second tier. Waseda, who set the previous Hakone course record in 2011 and feature #1-ranked Japanese collegiate Suguru Osako, have gotten a lot of attention as a contender for the win, but they have only half a team. Despite having six men close to Komazawa's best eight, Waseda's bottom four are far lower in quality, and up against the three favorite schools that deficit means the win is all but hopeless.
The top ten schools in Hakone each year are seeded for the following year, with the remaining ten bumped out to run October's Yosenkai 20 km qualifier. The race for the last few seeded bracket spots is always as exciting as the action up front, and this year looks like it will be very rough. Beyond the seven best schools mentioned above another seven have legitimate chances of getting into the final three seeded spots. Look for Tokyo Nogyo University, Chuo University, Juntendo University, Josai University, Daito Bunka University, Chuo Gakuin University and the Kanto Region Select Team to be fighting it out late in the race for seeded honors. If the Select Team, made up of the top-finishing individuals at the Yosenkai from schools that miss qualifying for Hakone as a team, make the top ten they will bump another school down to the qualifiers, leaving only nine schools qualified for 2014.
The Hakone Ekiden is broadcast live in its entirety by NTV beginning at 7:00 a.m. on the 2nd and 3rd. Overseas viewers should be able to watch online with Keyhole TV, with coverage also available via Twitter @JRNLive.
Here's to the best race of the year.
(c) 2012 Brett Larner
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