Saturday, January 5, 2013

Evaluating the 2013 Hakone Ekiden

by Brett Larner

Although extremely windy conditions meant times were not up to recent years' standards, the 2013 Hakone Ekiden delivered a great race with second-tier Nittai University taking down favorites Toyo University, Komazawa University, Aoyama Gakuin University and Meiji University for the win.  JRN takes a quick look at each of the 20 teams' performances, grading them relative to their potential, pre-race rankings, and the teams' own goals as publicly-stated before the race.  We also look ahead with brief previews of their lineups for the 2013-14 season.

Nittai University
2013 results: 1st, 11:13:26
Goal: top three
Predicted finish: 5th-7th
Grade: A
2014 prospects: weaker

It was quite a year for Nihon Taiku University, Nittai as it is abbreviated.  At the 2012 Hakone Ekiden it finished 19th of 20th, getting white sashed on the final handoff for the first time in its 64 Hakone appearances.  Head coach Kenji Beppu appointed junior Shota Hattori, whose 2nd-place finish on the First Stage was the lone bright spot on the team's performance, captain, telling the seniors, "If you don't like this decision, leave the team." Under Hattori's leadership the team won October's Yosenkai Hakone qualifier, took 4th at November's National University Ekiden, then delivered a perfect team run to win the 2013 Hakone Ekiden.  It was Nittai's first win since 1983 when its lineup included future World Championships marathon gold medalist Hiromi Taniguchi and the first time a team had ever gone from the Yosenkai to the Hakone win in the same season.  Hattori's brilliant Fifth Stage run this year put Nittai into the lead and earned him the 2013 Hakone MVP award, but it was the rest of the team that earned the win.  Every man on the team finished in the top seven on his stage on time, and on the second day its seventh through tenth runners all ran the second-best time on their stages while running alone in the lead.  Coach Beppu admitted after the race that they had not been targeting the win, and for exceeding even their own expectations and capabilities Nittai earned an A.  Its three star juniors Hattori, Takumi Honda and Keigo Yano, return in 2013-14, but with many of the men who finished 2nd having been graduating seniors it will return with a weaker team and will face a tough challenge in defending its Hakone title.

Toyo University
2013 results: 2nd, 11:18:20
Goal: win
Predicted finish: top four
Grade: C
2014 prospects: weaker

Toyo and head coach Toshiyuki Sakai were in a tough position this year following the graduation of star Ryuji Kashiwabara.  They made great efforts throughout the year to counteract his loss and returned with a team that on paper was actually better than last year's course record-setting lineup, but despite a great start with second-straight stage wins by Masaya Taguchi and Yuta Shitara and a third-place finish behind two Kenyans by Shitara's twin Keita, Toyo lost momentum on the Fourth Stage and never really seemed to have it together afterward.  After the first three stages only one more Toyo runner, Ninth Stage first-year Yuma Hattori, made the top three on his stage, and early on the second day Toyo had clearly given up on trying to run down the lead and had settled into hanging on to 2nd.  Getting 2nd over the likes of Komazawa University was no small feat, but overall Toyo ran well below potential and earned only a C.  The loss of the reliable downhill specialist senior Takanori Ichikawa on the Sixth Stage will impact the team's strength next year, but one possible mitigating factor is the recruitment of Hattori's younger brother Hazuma of 2012 National High School Ekiden champion Toyokawa H.S.

Komazawa University
2013 results: 3rd, 11:19:23
Goal: top three
Predicted finish: top four
Grade: B
2014 prospects: much weaker

2012 National University Ekiden course record-setter Komazawa was the favorite on paper with eight men under 28:30 or 1:03:00, but on the first day it was relatively flat and listless. Only second-year Shogo Nakamura on the Third Stage made the top three on his stage on Day One, leaving Komazawa a lowly 9th at day's end.  On the second day they were back and on-point, winning three of the five stages to take the Day Two trophy and advance to 3rd overall, clearing coach Hiroaki Oyagi's relatively conservative pre-race goal of top three.  Altogether it was good enough for a B.  Komazawa will be hit the hardest of any school by graduation, losing all three stage winners Kenta Chiba, Kensuke Gotoda and Wataru Ueno as well as Seventh Stage 5th-placer Kazuhiro Kuga. Oyagi's best achievements seem to come in his development of the younger team members, but it is unlikely that recruitment and development will be sufficient to offset the loss of four of his best men and Komazawa seems set to return with a diminished lineup.

Teikyo University
2013 results: 4th, 11:21:39
Goal: top five
Predicted finish: 5th-7th
Grade: B
2014 prospects: no change

Teikyo had a good year, with members Toshikatsu Ebina and Yudai Yamakawa going 1-2 at the National University Half Marathon Championships and a 2nd-place team finish at the Yosenkai.  Ranked 5th going into Hakone and aiming for top 5, Teikyo's 4th-place finish, thanks in no small part to a memorable sprint finish from anchor Taketo Kumazaki, cleared both and earned it a nearly faultless B.  With only Yamakawa graduating there will be no major change to Teikyo's potential in 2013-14, and with the three schools ahead of it all suffering much worse from graduation it could challenge for top three.

Waseda University
2013 results: 5th, 11:21:39
Goal: win
Predicted finish: 5th-7th
Grade: C
2014 prospects: no change

2011 Hakone winner Waseda only really had half a team this year, but that didn't stop head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe from proclaiming that they were going for the win.  5th place was good for the lineup it had, but with the objective being the win and not a single Waseda athlete, not even star Suguru Osako, winning his stage, overall it was only a C-level performance.  Three members of this year's team graduate including Second Stage runner Shota Hiraga, but overall Waseda should weather the transition to next year's lineup.

Juntendo University
2013 results: 6th, 11:24:43
Goal: top three
Predicted finish: 8th-10th
Grade: B
2014 prospects: no change

A borderline candidate for the seeded top ten, Juntendo was better than expected with a 6th-place overall finish even though it fell short of head coach Akira Nakamura's goal of top 3.  All told it was a solid B.  Senior Hideyuki Tanaka was superb in winning the 18.5 km Fourth Stage by 40 seconds, but with lots of potential among the team's younger members his loss should be offset by development.

Meiji University
2013 results: 7th, 11:25:14
Goal: top two
Predicted finish: top four
Grade: E
2014 prospects: weaker

Meiji was a contender for the win this year, running well for the first eight stages and advancing as high as 2nd after third-year Daiki Hirose made the all-time top 10 on the downhill Sixth Stage, but with breakdowns by final two runners Tomoyasu Matsui and Kaido Kita it plummeted to 7th.  Still in the seeded bracket but far off the team's goal of top 2.  As a team performance it was not a failure but pretty close, rating an E.  Meiji loses two of its best members, captain Masato Kikuchi and reliable uphill specialist Hiroki Oe, to gradutation, and Oe's loss in particular will hurt the team next year.

Aoyama Gakuin University
2013 results: 8th, 11:25:59
Goal: win
Predicted finish: top four
Grade: F
2014 prospects: no change

2012 Izumo Ekiden course record-setter Aoyama Gakuin did the work it needed this year to improve on last year's best-ever 5th-place finish and, with the fastest 10th man in the field on paper it had the potential for the win.  But despite good runs from two of its three ace members, senior Ryotaro Otani and #1-ranked first-year Kazuma Kubota, and an unexpectedly strong performances on the Fifth and Eighth Stages by senior Naohisa Matsuda and second-year Soji Takahashi, altogether the team was a shambles. Anchor, captain and last year's Second Stage winner Takehiro Deki was clearly not 100%, only 15th out of 20 on time despite still managing to move the team up from 9th to 8th, but the fact that Aoyama was in 9th at that point speaks volumes about the lack of a cohesive team effort by the supporting members.  With the win having been in range it was unfortunately an F.  The loss of Deki, Matsuda, Otani and other members of this year's team will be felt keenly, but there is hope for next year.  One of its best members, third-year Ikki Takeuchi, was out this time with injury, and between him, Kubota, first-year Yusuke Ogura and others it is very possible Aoyama Gakuin will be back strong.

Hosei University
2013 results: 9th, 11:26:40
Goal: top ten
Predicted finish: 15th-20th
Grade: A
2014 prospects: stronger

Hosei, a perpetual near-miss at the Yosenkai qualifier and barely squeezing in this year on the unfair strength of its points from sprint and field performances at last spring's Kanto Regionals track meet, seemed like a one-man show riding on the strength of second-year Kazuto Nishiike.  It wasn't a surprise to see Nishiike up front on the First Stage, but despite expectations that they would disappear after that the rest of the Hosei team ran great.  Second-year Kazutaka Kuroyama was 3rd on the Fourth Stage, and unknown second-year Shogo Sekiguchi a completely unexpected 2nd on the uphill Fifth Stage to put Hosei into 5th at the end of Day One.  The team faded over Day Two but held on strong enough to take 9th and meet head coach Michihiko Narita's seemingly unrealistic goal of making the seeded top ten.  An A all around.  Three members of this year's lineup graduate, but with none of them having made much impact on their stages their loss should not be issue and Hosei should be able to improve on its strength.

Chuo Gakuin University
2013 results: 10th, 11:27:34
Goal: top ten
Predicted finish: 11th-14th
Grade: B
2014 prospects: no change

Chuo Gakuin was 3rd at the Yosenkai qualifier and came into Hakone ranked 14th.  13th at the end of Day One and more than two minutes out of the seeded top 10, its remaining members ran well enough to give Chuo Gakuin 5th in Day Two scoring and, more importantly, 10th place and its first seeded-bracket finish since the era of alum Masato Kihara.  A quality B performance.  The graduation of ace Keisuke Fujii, 3rd overall at the Yosenkai, will hurt them next year, but with first-years Keita Shioya and Hironori Tsuetaki having broken 29 minutes for 10000 m in December there is plenty of potential for them to make sufficient progress this year to counteract his loss.

Yamanashi Gakuin University
2013 results: 11th, 11:28:24
Goal: top three
Predicted finish: 15th-20th
Grade: C
2014 prospects: no change

Yamanashi Gakuin was a two-man show riding on the strength of first-year national university 5000 and 10000 m champion Enock Omwamba and his sub-63 half marathon Japanese counterpart Shota Inoue, but the team came through with a good effort to surpass its pre-race 16th-place ranking.  Anchor  Junichi Fukuzawa did his best to run down Chuo Gakuin in 10th but fell 50 seconds short, meaning Yamanashi Gakuin is the top-placing team to return to the Yosenkai qualifier this October rather than the Izumo Ekiden.  A good effort given the level of the team's supporting members, but a turn for the worst after 2012's 9th-place finish, far short of head coach Masahito Ueda's unrealistic goal of top three and only earning the school a C.  With its best members all first and second-years graduation will not have a major impact on next year's potential.

Daito Bunka University
2013 results: 12th, 11:30:46
Goal: top five
Predicted finish: 11th-14th
Grade: C
2014 prospects: stronger

Ranked 13th going into Hakone Daito Bunka had a chance to make the seeded bracket, but after finishing 12th on Day One the second half of its team could not improve on that position and it remained there at the end of the race.  The team's goal of top 5 was never really feasible, and 12th was right in line with its potential.  Several of this year's weaker performances came from graduating seniors, and with continued development from its star twins Hiroshi and Takashi Ichida Daito Bunka should come into the 2013-14 season in position to make the top ten.

Kanto Region Select Team
2013 results: 13th, 11:31:50
Goal: 7th
Predicted finish: 11th-14th
Grade: D

The Select Team, made up of the top-placing Yosenkai finishers from schools that do not qualify for Hakone as a team, is always at a disadvantage without unified coaching, leadership or training, and rarely performs up to ability.  This year it had a solid chance of getting into the seeded bracket and knocking another school down to the Yosenkai, but despite an ambitiously specific goal 7th place by nominal coach Masahiro Okada and a 10th-place finish on Day One the Select Team as a whole could only manage 13th overall after several very weak runs gave it 19th out of 20 on Day Two results.  Given the nature of the team there is no way to project its strength in 2014, but it may not matter.  The KGRR, the Kanto Region's equivalent of the NCAA, plans to do away with the Select Team and replace it with one more school slot.  Two-time Select Team member Yuki Kawauchi is very upset about that and is attempting to use his influence to pressure the KGRR into reversing the decision. Contact the KGRR here to let them know your feelings on the matter.

Koku Gakuin University
2013 results: 14th, 11:33:28
Goal: top eight
Predicted finish: 15th-20th
Grade: B
2014 prospects: no change

You probably remember Koku Gakuin from then-first-year Natsuki Terada's wrong turn while anchoring the team to its first-ever seeded bracket finish in 2011.  Last year Koku Gakuin was again 10th.  Both times they performed far above potential to get there.  This time they were ranked 18th and, while entertaining head coach Yasuhiro Maeda's top 8 goal and the seeded top 10 were out of range, 14th was not a bad placing at all and earned Koku Gakuin a B.  Its second-best member Shuhei Nakayama is graduating, but with Terada still there and several underclassmen showing promise Koku Gakuin should not be any weaker next year.

Nihon University
2013 results: 15th, 11:35:23
Goal: top ten
Predicted finish: 15th-20th
Grade: C
2014 prospects: stronger

Nihon would be nothing without Yosenkai winner and 1:01:06 half marathon senior Benjamin Gandu propping it up, and his win on the Second Stage was likely the only reason Nihon did not hit its pre-race ranking, last.  Despite a superb third year, senior Yusuke Sato squandered Gandu's lead by finishing last on the Third Stage, and with its next two runners finishing 18th and 17th the team's position dropped to 15th.  And that with two better teams having DNFd.  Day Two was no better, with Nihon's first two men going 18th and 20th.  Not until second-year Shingo Hayashi's 6th-place run on the Eighth Stage did the team get it in gear to hold on to 15th overall, short of its goal of top 10 but at the upper end of its predicted finish range and a C, barely.  Gandu and Sato graduate, but Hayashi and sub-29 man Hirotaka Tamura remain, and waiting in the wings as Gandu's replacement is Kenyan Daniel Kitonyi, who as a first-year already has 5000 m and 10000 m marks almost as fast as Gandu's.  Nihon should come into the 2013-14 season with overall improvement relative to this year's team, but the Yosenkai-National University Ekiden double should prove challenging.

Kanagawa University
2013 results: 16th, 11:37:36
Goal: top ten
Predicted finish: 15th-20th
Grade: C
2014 prospects: no change

Kanagawa was a bit of a surprise in 6th at the Yosenkai, and, ranked 19th coming in to Hakone, 16th was not a bad result if nowhere its top 10 goal. First-year Kazuma Ganaha's Seventh Stage win was one of the bigger surprises this year and helped earn the team a C grade.  Several of its best members including Shun Suzuki, Ryo Yoshikawa and Kenta Fukuda graduate this year, but with a high-potential group of first-years this year Kanagawa should not suffer in 2013-14.

Tokyo Nogyo University
2013 results: 17th, 11:39:13
Goal: top five
Predicted finish: 8th-10th
Grade: F
2014 prospects: no change

After finishing in last place in 2012 Tokyo Nogyo came to this year's Hakone ranked 8th and with a good shot at a return to the seeded bracket.  But it was terrible.  Seven of its ten runners finished 15th or worse, and only two, Ninth Stage ace Masaru Aoki and anchor Masayuki Hanada, cracked the top eight.  With a goal of top five only Aoki placed that high on his stage.  Last year the team's poor placing was due entirely to its Fifth Stage man coming down with a cold while waiting for the race to reach him, but this year the team as a whole was not together.  The clearest F in the field.  Aoki is leaving, but so are several bottom-finishing seniors so on the whole Tokyo Nogyo can only go up next year.

Jobu University
2013 results: 18th, 11:42:44
Goal: top five
Predicted finish: 15th-20th
Grade: F
2014 prospects: stronger

The young Jobu team has a fan following for its story, a group of students who put together an ekiden team to pursue their Hakone dreams and recruited Olympian Katsuhiko Hanada to get them there as coach, but while Hanada has shown great prowess at getting Jobu to the top of the Yosenkai qualifier the team has never performed up to potential in its five Hakones to date, its best placing only 14th.  In that light, the less said about Hanada's top 5 goal the better.  Ranked 15th this year, with two teams DNFing Jobu was still last by 3 1/2 minutes, a performance earning an F.  This year's senior class was relatively weak, so look for Jobu to improve in 2013-14.

Josai University
2013 results: DNF
Goal: top five
Predicted finish: 11th-14th
Grade: C
2014 prospects: no change

Looking for its first time defending its seeded bracket position in its ten-year Hakone history to date, Josai instead suffered its second DNF.  Fifth Stage runner Eita Hamamoto was one of two runners to suffer hypothermia and collapse in the 65 kph headwinds near the peak of the mountain almost 900 m above the stage's start, knocking Josai out of competition.  Although its Day Two runners were allowed to run, their results did not count in the final scoring.  Despite the DNF, Josai earns a C grade for its performance. At the end of the Fourth Stage the team sat 11th, and with a Day Two performance that would have been 9th it is quite possible that Josai would have made the seeded top 10 overall if things had turned out differently.  Unfortunately Hamamoto was a graduating senior and will not have the chance to settle the score with mountain next year, but with its best runners all second and third-years Josai should be back.  Hopefully with head coach Seiji Kushibe; previous coach Jun Hiratsuka left the school following Jossai's 2009 Hakone DNF.

Chuo University
2013 results: DNF
Goal: win
Predicted finish: 8th-10th
Grade: F
2014 prospects: stronger

On the other hand, the other school to DNF in the miserable Fifth Stage conditions this year, Chuo University, earned an F this year.  Chuo was not part of the first Hakone Ekiden, but in the 88 runnings since then it has made it 87 times, with 14 titles to its name winning more than any other school, and holding an uniterrupted 28-year streak of top ten seeded bracket finishes.  The DNF this year, the first in Chuo history, put an end to that.  But, looking at the numbers, Chuo's top 10 streak was doomed anyway.  It was in 18th at the start of the Fifth Stage.  Like Josai allowed to run the second day without its results officially counting, despite 2012 national collegiate steeplechase champion Shuhei Shirota breaking into the all-time top 10 on the Sixth Stage and second-year Hidenori Nagai running the best time on the Eighth Stage by well over 30 seconds Chuo was only 17th on Day Two time.  There is no way it would have made the seeded top 10, let alone the team's goal of a come-from-behind victory, even if Fifth Stage man Yushi Nowaki had been able to finish and had run a Kashiwabara-style course record.  Unfortunately for Nowaki, like Josai's Hamamoto he is a senior and won't be back to try to again, but while several good seniors are graduating Chuo has excellent talent and should return via the Yosenkai all the stronger if it can work out whatever was wrong this year.

(c) 2013 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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