Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Only Komazawa Can Beat Komazawa - 2015 Hakone Ekiden Preview

by Brett Larner
follow @JRNLive for live coverage of the 2015 Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2 and 3

If you've never seen the Hakone Ekiden it's hard to really understand what you're missing.  It's what the sport of running should be.  Utterly gripping, pure and dedicated racing from 21 teams of ten university men each totally focused on running to their absolute limit on their share of the ten-stage, 217.1 km road relay.  A live broadcast that skillfully brings every nuance of the format, the strategy involved in the team order, the multiple story lines and races-within-races instead of just whoever is in front, to the tens of millions of avid fans across the country who watch every year.  Every runner counts, every runner gets his screen time, his moment of recognition for giving his best.  To give anything less would be to sacrifice everyone else's gifts.  One for all, all for one.

Komazawa University comes to the 91st running of Japan's biggest sporting event with all the power of destiny behind it.  From 1998 to 2009 it was almost unstoppable in the two most important of the Big Three university ekidens, winning eight titles at November's National University Ekiden and five times taking the crown jewels of Japanese distance running at Hakone including four-straight wins from 2002 through 2005.  2006 was a rocky year but the next season Komazawa returned for another three-straight national titles and Hakone win.  After two more rough years today's senior class started their collegiate careers with the first of four-straight wins at Nationals, working their way up to a win this year at the season-opening Izumo Ekiden for the first time since 1998.

But a Hakone win has eluded Komazawa for six years.  Head coach Hiroaki Oyagi has pioneered building up teams with incredible depth at quality, eight to ten men with 5000 m bests under 14 minutes and 10000 m bests under 29 minutes, recognizing that rival Toyo University's domination of Hakone from 2009 to 2014 was largely a product of its mastery of the uphill Fifth Stage, 23.4 km with almost 900 m of climb in the middle 10 km, and responding by training specialists capable of running the Fifth in under 80 minutes, the basic benchmark for the best.

But with an average length of 21.71 km for its ten stages Hakone also requires mastery of the half marathon, and at that distance Komazawa has lagged behind Toyo and 2011 Hakone winner Waseda University.  Last year both Toyo and Waseda came to Hakone with ten-man half marathon averages under 63 minutes, but Komazawa had an average of only 1:03:01.  Despite beating Waseda, despite a sub-80 minute run by Fifth Stage man Shota Baba, despite running the fastest time ever at Hakone except for Toyo's 2012 course record, Komazawa still couldn't match Toyo and took 2nd.

Oyagi pinned much of the blame for that loss on star junior Kenta Murayama, an ambitious talent with a 1:01:19 half marathon at age 19 who went out too fast in pursuit of the 23.2 km Second Stage's 1:06:04 course record and faded badly to finish in 1:08:27, a time loss relative to Toyo that destroyed Oyagi's strategy for his placement of later runners.  They needed the margin that Murayama would bring with a solid performance, and without it they simply couldn't catch Toyo after the mountain stages.

This year Komazawa returns with a more mature Murayama and a stronger, even deeper lineup.  Sure to have won the Izumo Ekiden if it hadn't been cancelled due to a typhoon, and a fourth-straight national title in November.  Eight of its 16-man entry roster have sub-14 5000 m bests topped by Murayama's 13:34.53.  Eight have sub-29 10000 m times, led again by Murayama's 27:49.94.  And most importantly, eight have sub-63 half marathons, led by Murayama's all-time #3 Japanese 1:00:50 in Marugame this year but also spearheaded by senior Shogo Nakamura's 1:01:57 best at the 2014 World Half Marathon Championships and the 1:02:18 run by unknown first-year Naoki Kudo for 3rd at November's Ageo City Half Marathon.  Komazawa comes in with an unprecedented ten-man half marathon average of 1:02:29.  Ten.  University runners. 1:02:29.  It's safe to say that that we're not just talking about winning Hakone, we're talking about what kind of course record they're going to set, that the only ones who can beat them are themselves.  But a big part of what makes Hakone what it is is that that often happens.

The most likely to take over from a Komazawa breakdown is the likable Aoyama Gakuin University team.  33 years after its last team to make Hakone broke the chain with an anchor-stage DNF, Aoyama Gakuin, led by new head coach Susumu Hara, squeezed into the 2009 Hakone Ekiden in one of the three extra spots granted for Hakone's 85th anniversary, finishing 22nd of 23.  A year later it took 8th, making the top ten seeded bracket for the first time since 1969, and steadily improving to its first-ever Izumo Ekiden win in 2012 and a school-record 5th at Hakone last year.  With a solid third-year class this year Aoyama Gakuin comes in with good numbers, five men sub-14 and six sub-29, hurt by the loss of National University Ekiden stage winner Yuki Kawasaki to injury and only junior Daichi Kamino having broken 63 for the half but with momentum and an air of positivity born out of the team's belief in Hara's long-term development plan.  At the press conference announcing the Aoyama Gakuin entry roster Hara said, "There is no pressure at all this time.  We can win, but if we don't we still have next year.  Maybe there'll be pressure then, but not this time."  Hara is putting Kamino on the uphill Fifth Stage, where he thinks Kamino can run 1:17:30, a time that would put him 2nd all-time behind Toyo legend Ryuji Kashiwabara.

Last year's winner, Toyo University is down on strength this year following the graduation of its star twins Keita and Yuta Shitara.  In their place junior Yuma Hattori and his younger brother Hazuma Hattori have stepped up into leadership roles, Yuma running a Japanese collegiate record 1:28:52 for 30 km in February that included a 1:02:06 half marathon split and Hazuma running a 1:02:31 PB in Ageo.  But only two other Toyo runners, fourth-year Ryu Takaku and second-year Shun Sakuraoka, have broken 63, and despite Toyo's depth at the 63-minute level and history of success and stability at Hakone it looks like head coach Toshiyuki Sakai simply doesn't have the numbers to compete with Komazawa.

Waseda University is in a better position despite the graduation of #1 man Suguru Osako, with seven runners under 63 led by junior Koki Takada's 1:02:02 win in Ageo, and a ten-man average of 1:02:44, its best-ever.  It also has the added motivation of trying to send out head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe, one of the most popular runners in Hakone history during his days as an athlete in the 90's and who recently made the surprise announcement that he will retire at the end of this season, with honor.  Waseda has rarely been able to live up to potential at Hakone, but with the extra motivation this year it could be the one where it puts it together.

Likewise for Meiji University, always solid on the track and with incredible numbers for 5000 m and 10000 m on paper but never putting it together into a successful ekiden.  Despite the absence of sub-13:30 senior Genki Yagisawa, Meiji comes in with seven sub-14 men and eight sub-29.  It has weaker credentials over the half marathon, with only senior Shuho Dairokuno having gone under 63, but at Nationals in November it turned in its best Big Three ekiden performance in over ten years with a runner-up placing behind Komazawa thanks to brilliant runs from Yagisawa and junior Ken Yokote.  It will need a combination of a step up over Hakone's longer distances and something going wrong for Komazawa to compete for the win, but Meiji looks like solid top three material at worst if it can run like it did at Nationals.

A large part of what makes Hakone so exciting to watch, especially on the second day, is the focus on the battle further back beyond the favorites, where the best of the rest race each other for a place in the seeded top ten.  A top ten finish in Hakone has two important results.   First, it guarantees the team a place at the following year's Hakone Ekiden.  Second, as a product of this the team also gets to run in the first of the Big Three university ekidens, October's Izumo Ekiden.  A placing outside the top ten means that instead of Izumo they have to run the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai, a 20 km qualifier road race in October against all the other Kanto-region schools looking for a piece of the Hakone glory.

At least eight schools look to be in competition for the five seeded spots left behind Komazawa, Aoyama Gakuin, Toyo, Waseda and Meiji.  2013 Hakone winner Nittai University, 3rd in 2014, is in the most precarious position of these after the graduation of most of its best runners and the absence of 2014 National University Half Marathon champion Hideto Yamanaka with injury.  Likewise, last year's 9th-placer Takushoku University looks to be down in strength and could suffer a fall from grace.  2014 top ten finishers Nihon University and Teikyo University should be set to repeat in the seeded bracket.  10th-placer Daito Bunka University is right on the cusp, graduating sub-29 twins Hiroshi and Takashi Ichida hoping to leave a seeded finish as their legacy for next year's team that will have a hard time achieving it without them.

Coming up from the Yosenkai, Kanagawa University had an outstanding day to win there and should be in position to gun for Nittai, Takushoku and Daito Bunka.  Tokai University, now coached by one of Japan's greatest high school coaches, former Saku Chosei H.S. head coach Hayashi Morozumi, is solid on paper with seven sub-29 men and good half marathon credentials and, despite only finishing 3rd at the Yosenkai, should be a lock for the top ten.

The other main contender, Yamanashi Gakuin University, is a top-tier school that had a trip back to the Yosenkai after star Kenyan Enock Omwamba suffered a stress fracture on the Second Stage at last year's Hakone and could not finish, knocking YGU out of the race.  Omwamba is back to near 100% alongside 1:01:39 senior Hiroto Inoue and three first-year graduates of 2013 National High School Ekiden champion Yamanashi Gakuin Prep H.S., Ryutaro Ichitani, Tomoki Kawamura and, son of YGU head coach Kiyoshi Ueda, Kenta Ueda.  Head coach Ueda has yet to utilize his star recruits this season and despite its higher-tier status YGU finished only 4th at the Yosenkai, raising some questions about its chances of breaking back into the top levels.

Koku Gakuin University, Chuo Gakuin University, Jobu University, Chuo University, Juntendo University and Josai University led by Yosenkai winner Kota Murayama, the twin of Komazawa star Kenta Murayama, round out the rest of the regular field.  Despite the public opposition of prominent former team member Yuki Kawauchi, the Kanto Region University Select Team made up of top-placing individuals at the Yosenkai from schools that do not qualify for Hakone as teams returns this year newly formatted and renamed the Kanto Region University Student Alliance, its members given the chance to run Hakone but their results not counting in scoring as the Select Team's results were.  It's a reflection of the same attitude among the older coaches and bigwigs that handicaps Japan's corporate marathoners when they race outside Japan, that it's enough just to have the "experience" of being in a race without really being there to compete in it, that somehow not really being in it is going to help you become an Olympic marathon medalist someday.  The new Alliance's non-presence opens the door for one more scoring team to take a place on the Hakone start line, and at the Yosenkai Soka University took that honor, qualifying for Hakone for the first time in the school's history.

NTV's world-class production of the Hakone Ekiden sets the standard for live race broadcasting.  The broadcast starts at 7:00 a.m. both Jan. 2 and 3, with the race starting at 8:00 a.m. and running for roughly six hours each day, with additional post-race analysis and coverage.  A premium key on Keyhole TV is one of the few widely-available options for watching online from outside Japan, but be sure to follow @JRNLive for detailed coverage during and after the race.

And now, on to the best two days of the year.

91st Hakone Ekiden Field
Tokyo-Hakone-Tokyo, Jan. 2-3, 2015
click here for complete entry lists
bib number, school name, top ten-man half marathon average time
click here for a list of university uniform and tasuki colors

1. Toyo University - 1:02:55
2. Komazawa University - 1:02:29
3. Nittai University - 1:03:45
4. Waseda University - 1:02:44
5. Aoyama Gakuin University - 1:03:16
6. Meiji University - 1:03:30
7. Nihon University - 1:04:30
8. Teikyo University - 1:04:05
9. Takushoku University - 1:04:23
10. Daito Bunka University - 1:04:36
11. Kanagawa University
12. Koku Gakuin University
13. Tokai University
14. Yamanashi Gakuin University
15. Chuo Gakuin University
16. Jobu University
17. Chuo University
18. Juntendo University
19. Josai University
20. Soka University
21. Kanto Region University Student Alliance

text and photo (c) 2014 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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