by Brett Larner
Following Monday's Izumo Ekiden, university ekiden season rolls on this Saturday with the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifier 20 km road race in Tokyo's Showa Kinen Park. Each year the top ten schools at the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden, the ten-stage, twenty-team university road relay that is Japan's largest sporting and TV event, win seeded places at the following year's race. The remaining ten teams and other hopeful universities in the Kanto Region line up the third Saturday in October to try to earn the privilege of a starting place at the prestigious Hakone. Any readers in the Tokyo area should join the thousands of fans who go out to Showa Kinen Park on the 19th to soak in the atmosphere of a race packed with university bands, cheerleader squads and booster clubs. For those elsewhere, for the first time this year's Yosenkai will be broadcast live instead of on tape delay. Try Keyhole TV to catch Nihon TV's broadcast starting at 9:30 a.m. Japan time.
In 2014 the Hakone Ekiden will celebrate its 90th running. In honor of this anniversary three extra spots have been added to the field, and the elimination of the Kanto Region Select Team made up of top-placing individuals from schools that do not make the team qualification means that thirteen of the forty-four universities at Saturday's Yosenkai will achieve the dream of every young Japanese who runs and gain a place on the Hakone starting line.
At the Yosenkai each team's score is determined by the cumulative time over 20 km of the top ten finishers among its team of at most twelve starters. In past years the 7th-9th place teams' scores have included a point handicap from their university's track team's overall performance at May's Kanto Regional Track and Field Championships, but the elimination of the handicap this year means qualification will be clear and fair. Fifteen schools have a clear shot at the thirteen available spots, with Tokai University the favorite. Tokai head coach Hayashi Morozumi previously developed Saku Chosei H.S. into a national champion that produced an string of talent including Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.), Akinobu Murasawa (Team Nissin Shokuhin), Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) and Yuichiro Ueno (DeNA RC). He took over at his alma mater Tokai in 2011, but this season is the first sign that his XC-based methods are starting to take root. Tokai this year features four men with 10000 m bests under 29 minutes led by first-year Yuki Hirota's 28:44.34 and bolstered by sub-14 senior Daichi Motomura, and as one of only five teams on the list that could field a team of ten sub-30 men it has the depth to win.
Among the four other schools with ten-deep sub-30 credentials, Tokyo Nogyo University may be Tokai's strongest competition for the win with three men sub-29. Chuo University, among the top-ranked schools at the last Hakone Ekiden but bumped back to the Yosenkai after one of its men DNF'd, should also be dangerous with a combination of depth, quality up front, and extra motivation to make up for the shame of not finishing Hakone. Takushoku University, alma mater of London Olympics marathoners Arata Fujiwara (Miki House) and Kentaro Nakamoto (Team Yasukawa Denki) and led by sub-28 Kenyan Duncan Muthee, also looks set to turn in a good day, with tiny Koku Gakuin University rounding out the top contenders.
Other schools virtually guaranteed to earn a place include two more Kenyan-powered squads, Yamanashi Gakuin University and Nihon University, Daito Bunka University featuring sub-29 twins Hiroshi and Takashi Ichida, perpetual Yosenkai peaker Jobu University, and the off-and-on Josai University. Down around 11th the race gets even more interesting, five schools all showing potential for the last three places. Kokushikan University looks like the best of them with eight men sub-29, and on a good day it should have a shot at running down Josai. Kanagawa University performed very well last year without strong credentials and finds itself in a similar position this year. In contention for the final spot at Senshu University, Asia University and, the longshot of the day, Soka University. With no tradition of making Hakone, Soka would be the most welcome addition to the field if it can outrun at least two of the regulars.
The elimination of the Kanto Region University Select Team by the Inter-University Athletic Union of Kanto (KGRR) is a major blow for smaller schools like Soka and others who are hoping to squeeze into one of the bottom qualifying places. People like 2013 Chicago Marathon 7th-placer Hiraoki Sano (Team Honda), 2013 World Championships marathoner Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't), 2011 World Championships marathoner Yoshinori Oda (Team Toyota) and the currently ascendant Aritaka Kajiwara (Team Press Kogyo) all chose to attend academically-strong universities over a running-focused center of power but still got to run in the Hakone Ekiden thanks to the Select Team. Its elimination means that new programs and outsider schools will no longer be able to attract any talented high schoolers, and that anyone who develops under their program will not get to fulfill the dreams of every Japanese boy who begins running and race in Hakone. Kawauchi has written articulately and passionately about this subject on his blog. The KGRR's move positions its priorities solidly on developing an high average level among its distance runners at the expense of individual development, an accurate reflection of the dilemma currently facing Japanese distance running as a whole.
(c) 2013 Brett Larner
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