by Brett Larner
The Japanese university ekiden season, the highlight of the year for distance fans, peaks with the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden, Japan's biggest and best race. Hakone determines everything for the following year, with the top 10 of its 20 teams guaranteed a place on the starting lines of both the next Hakone and the season-starting Izumo Ekiden. For the bottom 10 it means their season gets going a week at the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai, a 20 km qualifying road race in and around Tokyo's Showa Kinen Park where they must face off against 40 to 50 other university teams joining the ranks of the Hakone-bound and where school cheerleaders and marching bands and tens of thousands of fans bearing school color flags assemble before a live TV broadcast to create one of the greatest race atmospheres in the sport.
With the first-ever cancellation of the Izumo Ekiden last weekend after a typhoon swept through race day, the millions of ekiden fans across the country are eager for the Yosenkai to give them what they've been waiting for. Thanks to simplified rules this year the Yosenkai's format is straightforward: 48 teams run at least 10 and no more than 12 men in a single-start 20 km road race. The times of each school's first 10 finishers are added, and the schools with the 10 fastest aggregate times qualify for Hakone. Given what's at stake it all adds up to the world's deepest and one of its fastest 20 km races.
Yamanashi Gakuin University, 2nd last year, was knocked back to the Yosenkai after Kenyan ringer Enock Omwamba DNF'd on the Second Stage at Hakone this year with a stress fracture and eliminated the entire team. Omwamba is back to full strength, and with sub-62 minute half marathoner Hiroto Inoue and a major influx of over half of Yamanashi Gakuin Prep H.S.'s 2013 National High School Ekiden champion team they are looking very tough to beat, featuring 3 men with sub-63 minute half marathon bests and 7 sub-65 with 12 of its 14 entrants having sub-30 bests for 10000 m.
Last year's 3rd-placer Tokai University looks like the only school really able to mount a challenge for the team win, with all 14 of its entrants holding sub-30 10000 m times, six with sub-65 half marathons and 2 sub-63. A darkhorse is Koku Gakuin University, only 5th last year and light on top-level talent but rock-solid in depth with 13 sub-30 men, 7 of them also sub-65.
6 schools make up the next tier, almost all with 8 men sub-30 and 4 to 7 sub-65 half marathoners. Led by last year's top Japanese finishers, Kanto Region 10000 m champion Kota Murayama, Josai University leads this group along with Chuo Gakuin University. Hosei University is missing its star runner Kazuto Nishiike, mostly injured since his 2nd-place finish at last November's Ageo City Half Marathon, but is solid on depth and could challenge both Josai and CGU. Juntendo University, Chuo University and last year's team title winner Tokyo Nogyo University fill out the bottom of the second group, both Chuo and TNU seriously relying on depth to get them where they want to go.
The one-by-one announcement of the team results is always tense and dramatic, never more than when it comes down to the final slot. 4 schools have chances of making the grade, Hakone regular Jobu University leading the way. Kanagawa University stands at only 11th on paper, but with a similar ranking last year they finished 4th and can't be counted out. Sometime qualifier Kokushikan University is also in the mix, while Soka University, led by sub-29 man Shuhei Yamaguchi, looks to bring some new blood with its first-ever Hakone qualification. Distant outliers who might break into the top 10 with a miracle day include Senshu University, Asia University, and the brand-new Tokyo Kokusai University.
57-minute winning times at the Yosenkai have become commonplace, and last year's winner Omwamba returns the favorite to do it again after running both 1500 m and 10000 m bests this fall. Murayama and Inoue, last year's top Japanese pair at 4th and 5th overall, are probably the only ones who could take him on, Murayama just a step behind when Omwamba ran his 3:39.01 and Inoue saying he thinks he can take it. Wildcards in their debuts over this kind of distance are Kenyan first-years Stanley Shiteki of Tokyo Kokusai University and Lazarus Motanya of the Stephen Mayaka-coached Obirin University.
The Yosenkai will be broadcast live on Nihon TV starting at 9:25 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 18. JRN will be on-hand to cover the race. If in Tokyo you are strongly encourage to go out to Showa Kinen Park and soak in the spectacle. Click here for a course map and checkpoint times, and here for entry lists.
(c) 2014 Brett Larner
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