translated and edited by Brett Larner
video by naoki620
A new wind is blowing on the road to Hakone as the newly-minted Obirin University ekiden team becomes fully operational this year. In April last year Stephen Mayaka, 41, who wowed the nation at the Hakone Ekiden as a student at Yamanashi Gakuin University, became head coach at Obirin. Devoting his first year to recruiting, this spring Mayaka welcomed sixteen athletes including Kenyan Lazarus Motanya Asimundi to the new program. The fresh-faced team made up entirely of first-years is dead-set on making the main event at Hakone before they graduate four years from now.
The sound of feet striking Obirin's cherry tree-lined track in Sagamihara is the music of hope and anticipation. The "single-batch" team of sixteen is finally underway on the road that Coach Mayaka has plotted out for them. Without distance runners on the school's track team when he joined the program last season, Mayaka was forced to travel nationwide to recruit incoming first-years. Staging a selection event in Kenya last summer, he chose 1500 m specialist Lazarus to bring back to Japan. Running his first-ever 5000 m on a dirt track, the high-potential rookie clocked a respectably quick 14:41. After being selected he trained in the same village together with 2014 Kanto Region 1500 m and 5000 m champion Enock Omwamba (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) until the day came for him to fly to Japan on Mar. 28.
"I want to become strong in Japan, and then some day to run in the Olympics," says Lazarus. On April 12 he ran the 1500 m at the Nittai University Time Trials meet, getting off to a good start with a time of 3:50.68. A month later he won the D.2 1500 m title at the Kanto Regional University Track and Field Championships, running 3:49.84 in extremely windy conditions. "He's tall and he has beautiful form," says Mayaka. "Once we improve his stamina he'll be able to run in the 13:40s for 5000 m."
Apart from Lazarus, promising talent on the Obirin team includes Junpei Ishikawa, who ran the National High School Track and Field Championships 3000 m steeplechase while at Okazaki Josai High School, and Naoki Kodaka, a member of Kato Gakuen High School's National High School Ekiden Championships team representing Shizuoka prefecture. Elected captain of the ekiden team, Ishikawa says, "We all came here because we wanted to make history. We want to run Hakone within four years."
Joining Mayaka as assistant coach as of the start of the academic and fiscal year on April 1 was Kenichi Jiromaru, 29, a graduate of three-time National University Ekiden champion Komazawa University and a member of 2012 New Year Ekiden corporate national champion team Nissin Shokuhin. The purchase of a seven-story building in Sagamihara means the team is also nicely set up for a dormitory. The team will travel to Sugadaira, Nagano this summer for intensive training and plans to hold joint practice sessions with Mayaka's alma mater Yamanashi Gakuin University.
"To begin with we have to assess each individual's strengths and abilities, and over the summer we will gradually build them up and increase the distance. A year or two later we will have a team than can be competitive to some degree," says coach Mayaka. His carefully-built plan will help make steady progress toward the team's dream of making the ekiden world's biggest final within just four years.
Lazarus Motanya Asimundi - Born Feb. 2, 1996 in the Kisii region of western Kenya. 18 years old. Focused on middle distance while at Boruma H.S., with a 1500 m PB of 3:47. His inspiration is Beijing Olympics 1500 m gold medalist Asbel Kiprop (Kenya). Hobbies include cycling. 179 cm, 60 kg.
Translator's note: Obirin's Lazarus Motanya Asimundi is scheduled to double in the 1500 m and 5000 m at this weekend's National University Individual Track and Field Championships.