Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hakone Ekiden Course Change Means the End for Current Course Records


translated and edited by Brett Larner

The Inter-University Athletic Union of Kanto (KGRR) announced on July 28 that changes to the Hakone Ekiden's 23.4 km Fifth Stage and 20.8 km Sixth Stage mean that the existing records for those two stages along with the current Day One, Day Two and overall course records will be replaced at the 91st running of Japan's biggest sporting event on Jan. 2-3, 2015.  The entire course will also be remeasured, meaning additional changes to other stages are possible.

The uphill Fifth Stage was lengthened in 2006 at the 82nd running to become the longest of the race at 23.4 km with 864 m of climb.  Since then, every university that has won the Fifth Stage has also taken the Hakone Day One title, earning it the reputation of being the most dramatic and exciting part of the Hakone Ekiden.  From 2009 to 2012 Toyo University's "God of the Mountain" Ryuji Kashiwabara (now Team Fujitsu) won the Fifth Stage four straight years, breaking the stage record three times and earning national celebrity. 

On Feb. 6 the Kanrei Domon tunnel through which the Fifth and Sixth Stages pass was closed to traffic, meaning that the 91st Hakone Ekiden must use a newly-built bypass instead.  The change in distance from the traditional course is relatively minor, the bypass at 6.2 km on the Fifth Stage and 17.1 km on the Sixth Stage adding roughly 20 meters to each stage, but it means that Kashiwabara's 2012 record of 1:16:39, revered as a superhuman feat in Japanese athletics, will now be consigned to the history books.  The Sixth Stage's 58:11 record set by Komazawa University's Kenta Chiba (now Team Fujitsu) in 2011 will also share the same fate, along with Toyo's Day One and Day Two records and its epoch-making 10:51:36 record for the complete 217.9 km Hakone course.

The 170 m Kanrei Domon tunnel, a popular part of the Hakone broadcast, has aged in the more than 80 years since its construction in 1931.  Only 5.8 m wide, the tunnel was a source of congestion, leading to the construction of the 7.25 m-wide bypass to improve the flow of traffic and safety.  The nation's top university runners will now travel via the bypass on their way to the Day One finish line at Lake Ashi and the handoff to the Seventh Stage in Odawara.

Because a pedestrian path through Kanrei Domon remains, the KGRR looked at the possibility of having runners follow the traditional course while TV broadcast trucks and other race vehicles took the bypass.  However, a KGRR spokesperson explained, "It's just a university event so there is no need to go that far, and vehicles and athletes separating and then rejoining each other on the roads would also create additional danger.  We shelved the proposal that running through Kanrei Domon was a must and went with the course change."

Opinions on the decision are divided.  With the 20 m addition to the course expected to create a difference of only 3~4 seconds many universities' head coaches called for the old records to remain as the official records, but in the end the principles of "precision in time and distance" inherent to track and field won out.  Toshiyuki Sakai (38), head coach of Toyo University which will lose its Fifth Stage, Day One, Day Two and overall course records, commented, "The complete out-and-back course is 217.9 km, so if the course changes due to road construction it's inevitable that the records are going to be erased.  However, our drive to break our 2012 overall course record and Kashiwabara's Fifth Stage record still remains and will not disappear along with them." 

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