by Brett Larner
Japan’s distance year hits its peak Jan. 2 and 3 with the 90th running of the biggest sporting event in the country, the Hakone Ekiden. 23 teams of ten Kanto Region university men each, three more teams than usual in honor of the anniversary year face off over the course of two days and 217.9 km on ten stages of from 18.5 km to 23.4 km in front of a live TV audience in the tens of millions with millions more lining the course, and short of an Olympic medal there is nothing more prestigious in Japanese athletics than a Hakone title.
The level of Kanto Region men’s distance running has increased rapidly over the last three years, with multiple course records at Hakone and both of the other Big Three university ekidens, October’s Izumo Ekiden and November’s National University Ekiden, and this year alone has seen national collegiate records for 10000 m and 30 km and near-misses for 5000 m and half marathon. The sheer numbers of collegiate men running quality times is growing steadily; among the 23 schools at Hakone alone there are 64 men with 5000 m bests under 14 minutes, two of them under 13:30, 81 men with 10000 m times under 29 minutes including four under 28 minutes, and 34 men with half marathon times under 63 minutes with six under 62.
These numbers have grown steadily. Three years ago 15 men on the entry list had ace credentials, bests under 13:40, 28:30 and/or 1:03:00, 28:30. Two years ago it was 19 men. Last year the number rocketed to 32. This year it is 42 men, three with times under 13:25, 27:45 and/or 1:01:30.
And this growth is not just limited to the biggest schools. At least a half dozen other programs including small schools in Kanto and bigger universities further westward in Japan had men break 29 minutes this fall, something that just a few years ago would have been exceptional. There is momentum, athletes and young coaches looking at each other, at what is happening in the U.S., and saying, “If they can do that so can we. It’s not enough to settle for just the win. We can do better.” In this environment three schools bring strong chances of winning the 90th Hakone title, each with a compelling story line and all with a half dozen competitors close behind.
Komazawa University set the course record at this year’s Izumo Ekiden, powered in large part by a stage record by star junior Kenta Murayama and solid runs from 2013 World University Games half marathon bronze medalist Shogo Nakamura and captain Shinobu Kubota. Murayama again gave the team its drive at Nationals with another stage record, but despite winning by a wide margin a crack was evident in Komazawa’s armor. On paper Komazawa has an untouchable seven-man team with averages of 13:51.67, 28:29:37 and 1:02:35, but its next three men are one grade down in quality. With eight stages at Nationals Komazawa had exactly seven good runs and missed the overall course record. Hakone demands ten for the win, and despite Komazawa’s first seven strength the deficit in its next three makes it vulnerable to its two strongest rivals, particularly over the half marathon distance where its ten-man average drops from 1:02:35 to 1:03:01. The situation is even more critical if any of Komazawa’s top ten is a DNS as its alternates are another grade down. If things go its way, Komazawa will become just the fourth school to win all of the Big Three university ekidens in one season. Worth watching for on the individual level is Murayama on the 23.2 km Second Stage, Hakone's most competitive, as he goes for sub-60 half marathon Kenyan Mekubo Mogusu's 1:06:04 course record. It was Mogusu's record that Murayama broke at Nationals, and in pre-Hakone interviews Murayama has promised "to leave Mogusu far behind" again. It he succeeds it will already be one of the most important Japanese results of 2014.
Three years ago Waseda University was the last school to win the triple crown, doing it in style as it became the first school to break course records in all three. Then first-year Suguru Osako was key to the team’s success, and now as a senior and the fastest Japanese collegiate ever over 10000 m it is his last chance to lead the team to one last slice of glory. It isn’t a one-man show, though. At November’s Ageo City Half Marathon four Waseda first- and second-years broke 1:03:00 for the first time, giving Waseda a superb ten-man half-marathon average of 1:02:55. With an average stage length of 21.79 km everything at Hakone depends on teams’ credentials over the half-marathon/20 km distance, and in past years Waseda would look like a lock for the win. But there are two problems. Like Komazawa, Waseda’s roster trails off sharply after its first ten. Its next-best man has not broken 1:04:00 for the half-marathon, a flaw that will have a big impact if any of its top ten are hurt. The second problem is bigger. Toyo University also has a ten-man average of 1:02:55.
Hakone course record holder Toyo dominated Hakone during the tenure of uphill specialist Ryuji Kashiwabara, its course record run two years ago a moment of soaring beauty as it became the first team ever to average under 3 minutes/km pace for the entire 217.9 km course including two mountain stages with nearly 900 m of elevation change. Since Kashiwabara’s graduation in 2012 Toyo has finished 2nd in every university ekiden, always right there but lacking that extra something to take the win without Kashiwabara’s help. This is its last chance. Identical twins Yuta and Keita Shitara, both with sub-28 10000 m and sub-62 half marathon bests, graduate in the spring along with 28:39.54 / 1:02:43 man Kento Otsu, severely knocking the team’s strength down next year. Without them Toyo only has one man under the ace category cutoff times, but with them it equals Waseda and surpasses Komazawa for half-marathon credentials and has what they lack: depth. Its three best alternates have all broken 1:04:00 for the half-marathon, giving Toyo the margin of safety it needs with an extra shot of speed: eight of its men have sub-29 bests for 10000 m including the 27-minute Shitaras. With the extra motivation of finally breaking free of Kashiwabara’s legacy in its last chance Toyo is the favorite for the 2014 Hakone Ekiden title.
But it’s a thin margin, and it could go any way among the top three. As in 2013 an upset could go down. Meiji University has had incredible growth over 5000 m this year, with eleven men running sub-14 bests for 5000 m led by junior Genki Yagisawa’s 13:28.79. Sub-14 and not good enough to make the starting roster of a ten-man college team. Six of its top eleven have broken 29 minutes for 10000 m, but over the half marathon the team’s credentials are softer, with a ten-man half-marathon average of only 1:03:30. Despite its success on the track Meiji had trouble putting together team performance at Izumo and Nationals, and facing longer distances at Hakone it will need a perfect two days to contend with Komazawa, Waseda and Toyo.
Defending champion Nittai University had those days last year with a flawless team performance in tough conditions, and with an almost identical team returning this year it is ranked #5 on paper. It was 3rd at Izumo, but its performance at Nationals, where it placed 8th, and its 1:03:36 ten-man half-marathon average are not encouraging. Still, with head coach Kenji Beppu taking the long view of Hakone as the top priority Nittai is a danger to the rest of the top five.
Teikyo University, Yamanashi Gakuin University and Hosei University make up the next tier, shooting for a top ten finish to earn a seeded place at Hakone 2015. Among them, Teikyo, with injury problems among several of its best men including 2012 National University Half Marathon champion Toshikatsu Ebina, looks the most in danger of being run down by six schools chasing the last place or two in the seeded bracket. Aoyama Gakuin University, Chuo Gakuin University, Chuo University, Tokai University, Takushoku University and Tokyo Nogyo University all stand realistic chances of earning the honor of a secured place at Hakone in 2015, and the race among them will be as exciting as that up front.
Overseas fans’ options for watching the 90th Hakone Ekiden live are limited, with NTV’s broadcast sometimes up on sports TV streaming sites and the choppy Keyhole TV option available as a backup. JRN will cover the entire two-day race live on Twitter on the @JRNLive feed starting at 7:00 a.m. Japan on both Jan. 2 and 3, along with detailed coverage on the JRN website. Please post links to any other video streaming options in the comments section of this article.
On to the best race of the year.
90th Hakone Ekiden Entry List
Kanto Region University Men's Championships
Tokyo-Hakone, Jan.2-3, 2014
23 teams, 10 stages, 217.9 km
click here for complete entry and uniform list
click here for stage entry list
1. Nittai University (Kanagawa)
2. Toyo University (Saitama)
3. Komazawa University (Tokyo)
4. Teikyo University (Tokyo)
5. Waseda University (Tokyo)
6. Juntendo University (Chiba)
7. Meiji University (Tokyo)
8. Aoyama Gakuin University (Tokyo)
9. Hosei University (Tokyo)
10. Chuo Gakuin University (Chiba)
11. Tokyo Nogyo University (Tokyo)
12. Yamanashi Gakuin University (Yamanashi)
13. Tokai University (Kanagawa)
14. Kanagawa University (Kanagawa)
15. Koku Gakuin University (Tokyo)
16. Daito Bunka University (Saitama)
17. Senshu University (Kanagawa)
18. Nihon University (Tokyo)
19. Takushoku University (Tokyo)
20. Josai University (Saitama)
21. Jobu University (Gunma)
22. Chuo University (Tokyo)
23. Kokushikan University (Tokyo)
(c) 2013 Brett Larner
all rights reserved