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Aoyama Gakuin University Rewrites History in First-Ever Hakone Ekiden Win

by Brett Larner
photos by rikujolove 
click here for Hakone Ekiden Day One report and results

After an inspiring Hakone Ekiden Day One performance that saw first-year Kazuki Tamura set the Fourth Stage record and third-year Daichi Kamino deliver a soaring record on the famous uphill Fifth Stage on the way to a Day One course record win, Aoyama Gakuin University came to Day Two of Hakone's 91st running aspiring to something even higher.

With a 4:59 lead and 109.6 km to run Aoyama Gakuin had a margin of nearly 3 seconds per km over the nearest competition, Meiji University, and more over defending champion Toyo University and the heavy pre-race favorite, four-time National University Ekiden winner Komazawa University.  Head coach Susumu Hara was cautiously optimistic pre-race, saying that he was most concerned about the Sixth Stage, with over 800 m of icy downhill in the middle 10 km of a 20.8 km leg, and that if they could get through that safely then the rest of the team would be able to keep it together.

Sixth Stage runner Shun Murai was a big gamble, ranked 20th of the 21 runners on the stage by 10000 m and only 18th on the Sixth Stage last year, but all alone with a lead of more than a kilometer and a half he set out at course record pace, fast when he could be and careful on the icier corners when he needed to be.  Behind him Komazawa's Yoshihiro Nishizawa overtook Toyo's Naoya Takahashi for 3rd and gained on Meiji's Hayato Endo in 2nd, but by the end of the stage Murai had widened Aoyama Gakuin's lead by 43 seconds to 5:42 and even added 10 seconds to its lead over Komazawa.  Only Waseda University's Masahiro Miura was faster, setting a new course record of 58:31.

And that was it, really.  But not just it.

In the past teams with a massive lead have often trimmed sails and cruised under control to keep the win without risk.  Toyo's historic 2012 win, which saw them become the first team to break 3:00/km for the entire 10-stage Hakone course, rewrote the playbook, every runner on its return trip team going for his stage record despite an unbreakable lead after Day One and the uphill Fifth.  Aoyama Gakuin took up the challenge Toyo had thrown down to every other university in Kanto, not to settle for good enough but to keep reaching for something higher.  After Murai set the tone Aoyama Gakuin's next three runners Yusuke Ogura, Soshi Takahashi and Takuya Fujikawa all won their stages, both Ogura and Fujikawa missing the course records by just seconds but beating the stage runners-up by nearly a minute.

Anchor Yuya Ando took over with a lead of 9:56 for the 23.0 km Tenth Stage, enough for him to have almost jogged it in, but like those before him he set out near course record pace, steadily pushing to the packed finish line in 1:10:03 to crack the anchor stage all-time top ten.  For the first time in the race's 91 years of history an Aoyama Gakuin runner broke the finish tape, its time of 10:49:27 eclipsing Toyo's epoch-making 2012 course record and its Day Two time of 5:25:29 likewise bettering Toyo's mark.

In his eleven years as head coach at Aoyama Gakuin University Susumu Hara has taken a long view to systematically building a team that could be the best, bringing Aoyama Gakuin back to Hakone for the first time in 33 years with a 22nd-place finish in 2009, getting into the seeded bracket with an 8th-place finish a year later, and scoring the best placing in school history, 5th, last year.  With the core of this year's team made up of third-years he was relaxed pre-race, saying, "We can win, but if we don't we still have next year. Maybe there'll be pressure then, but not this time."  With a history-making performance behind them this year Aoyama Gakuin University has a long way to fall but nothing to hold them back from flying even higher.

Komazawa fought back from the hypothermia-induced collapse of its uphill Fifth Stage specialist Shota Baba at the end of Day One with one of the fastest-ever Day Two runs, picking off Toyo for 3rd in a great race between Komazawa's Yusuke Nishiyama and Toyo's Hazuma Hattori, rivals since the early days of their high school careers, and Meiji to take 2nd in 11:00:17, fast enough to have won most years and outstanding considering one of its ten runners was on his hands and knees.  But there were no smiles to be seen.  The graduation of its star seniors Kenta Murayama and Shogo Nakamura means Komazawa will return weaker next year.  Murayama, Nakamura and the other fourth-years never tasted defeat at Nationals but now leave without ever sharing in the glory of Japan's biggest win.

Defending champion Toyo had never finished lower than 2nd since its landmark 2009 win but fell to 4th on the Ninth Stage before anchor Genta Yodokawa turned it around to overtake Meiji's Kentaro Egashira for 3rd in 11:01:22.  With both of its star Hattori brothers returning next year Toyo will need to focus on the overall development that made it what it was over the last six years.  Look for the older Hattori, Second Stage winner Yuma Hattori, to make his marathon debut at February's Tokyo Marathon at age 21.

Given the strength of the competition Meiji's 4th place finish in 11:01:57 was entirely respectable.  Likewise for Waseda's 5th-place finish in 11:02:15 off an outstanding sub-5:30:00 Day Two.  Waseda head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe was one of Hakone's greatest stars during his days as an athlete and remains popular as coach.  In December he made a surprise announcement of his retirement at the end of the season, and post-race he gave a teary-eyed thanks to all Waseda supporters, reflecting on his time as coach and expressing disappointment that he couldn't have taken the team to a better finish in his last Hakone.  Watanabe's final appearance as head coach of Waseda, Japan's University of Oregon, will be with Second Stage runner Koki Takada at March's New York City Half Marathon with support from JRN.

Making it to this year's Hakone Ekiden from October's Yosenkai qualifier, the only two other schools to clear the Day One 10-minute cutoff for the Day Two start, Tokai University and Chuo Gakuin University, both hung on to places in the ten-deep seeded bracket, the other big goal that makes Day Two such a compelling watch, Tokai taking 6th and Chuo Gakuin 8th.

The other 14 teams all started Day Two 10 minutes after Aoyama Gakuin, carrying time handicaps to equal the gap with which they finished Day One.  With so many teams it was a nightmare to follow who was in the running for the last three places in the top ten.  Day One 8th through 12th-placers Josai University, Daito Bunka University, Chuo University, Takushoku University and Nihon University all looked in range.  Takushoku and Nihon both faded, but in their place Yamanashi Gakuin University, missing Kenyan ace Enock Omwamba who suffered an Achilles tendon injury on Dec. 31, came up to present a threat.

Chuo rose to 8th on the downhill Sixth Stage thanks to a good run by second-year Takumi Tanimoto and for the next three stages they stayed there, Josai holding even in 9th and Daito Bunka in 10th.  But Yamanashi Gakuin got closer and closer on total time, only 16 seconds back at the end of the Eighth Stage.  Daito Bunka Ninth Stage runner Noriyasu Ikeda fought back to reopen the margin to 52 seconds, but Yamanashi Gakuin anchor Yuta Kaneko brought his team home in an outstanding 1:10:09 to put Yamanashi 32 seconds up on Daito on total time.  With its star twins Hiroshi and Takashi Ichida graduating Daito Bunka had to make the top ten to guarantee that next year's team would line up at Hakone again, and it looked like those hopes were through.

But Hakone is unpredictable, and the unexpected happened again.  Comfortably in 8th place, Chuo anchor Kaname Tada began to look troubled early in the 23.0 km Tenth Stage.  He rapidly began to slow, other teams passing him one after another, and was soon looking down at his left leg in obvious pain as he hopped with a limping stride.  8th fell to 9th, to 10th, and then Chuo was out of the seeded bracket, its own hopes destroyed as Daito Bunka's were saved.  Tada looked in real danger of not finishing, and in any other race he would have been pulled out by his coach, but he held on even when last-place Soka University went by and made it to the finish line, last on the stage by 5 minutes and knocking Chuo from 8th to 20th but never giving up.  The tens of thousands lining the last kilometers of the course and the tens of millions watching live on TV were as rapt for his agonizing stagger home as they were for the pure inspiration of Aoyama Gakuin, and in that you could see part of what makes the Hakone Ekiden what it is, the world's greatest road race.  Great racing is great racing no matter how fast or painful.  Every performance counts, and every runner means it 100%.  All for one, one for all.  No amount of appearance fees or prize money could ever touch that.

91st Hakone Ekiden Day Two
Hakone-Tokyo, 1/3/15
21 teams, 5 stages, 109.6 km
click here for complete results

Overall Team Results - 10 stages, 217.1 km
1. Aoyama Gakuin University - 10:49:27 - CR
2. Komazawa University - 11:00:17
3. Toyo University - 11:01:22
4. Meiji University - 11:01:57
5. Waseda University - 11:02:15
6. Tokai University - 11:07:08
7. Josai University - 11:08:15
8. Chuo Gakuin University - 11:09:18
9. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 11:10:43
10. Daito Bunka University - 11:11:15
-----cutoff for seeded bracket for 2016 Hakone Ekiden
11. Teikyo University - 11:13:30
12. Juntendo University - 11:13:32
13. Nihon University - 11:17:59
14. Koku Gakuin University - 11:18:12
15. Nittai University - 11:18:24
16. Takushoku University - 11:18:24
17. Kanagawa University - 11:18:47
18. Jobu University - 11:18:53
19. Kanto Region Student Alliance - 11:19:12
20. Chuo University - 11:20:51
21. Soka University - 11:31:40

Top Stage Performances
Sixth Stage (20.8 km, ~750 m downhill)
1. Masahiro Miura (Waseda Univ.) - 58:31 - CR
2. Shun Murai (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 59:11
3. Yoshihiro Nishizawa (Komazawa Univ.) - 59:21
4. Kiyohito Akiyama (Nittai Univ.) - 59:29
5. Daisuke Momozawa (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 59:38

Seventh Stage (21.3 km)
1. Yusuke Ogura (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:02:40 - all-time #3
2. Yusuke Nishiyama (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:03:26 - all-time #8
3. Hazuma Hattori (Toyo Univ.) - 1:03:35
4. Takuya Nishizawa (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:04:07
5. Rintaro Takeda (Waseda Univ.) - 1:04:09

Eighth Stage (21.4 km)
1. Soshi Takahashi (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:05:31
2. Shohei Otsuka (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:05:45
3. Hidenori Nagai (Chuo Univ.) - 1:05:47
4. Madoka Tanihara (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 1:05:56
5. Chihaya Kasuga (Tokai Univ.) - 1:06:02

Ninth Stage (23.1 km)
1. Takuya Fujikawa (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:08:04 - all-time #2
2. Shin Kimura (Meiji Univ.) - 1:08:58 - all-time #6
3. Kenya Sonota (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:09:25
4. Toshiyuki Yanagi (Waseda Univ.) - 1:09:32
5. Hirotaka Segawa (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 1:09:42

Tenth Stage (23.0 km)
1. Hirohide Terada (Josai Univ.) - 1:10:01 - all-time #9
2. Yuya Ando (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:10:03 - all-time #10
3. Yuta Kaneko (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 1:10:09
4. Yusei Tsutsumi (Teikyo Univ.) - 1:10:27
5. Genta Yodokawa (Toyo Univ.) - 1:10:29

Day Two Team Results
1. Aoyama Gakuin Univ. - 5:25:29 - CR
2. Komazawa Univ. - 5:28:54
3. Waseda Univ. - 5:29:13
4. Toyo Univ. - 5:30:35
5. Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. - 5:31:50
6. Meiji Univ. - 5:33:00
7. Josai Univ. - 5:33:06
8. Tokai Univ. - 5:33:13
9. Teikyo Univ. - 5:34:12
10. Juntendo Univ. - 5:34:14
11. Koku Gakuin Univ. - 5:35:36
12. Daito Bunka Univ. - 5:35:54
13. Nittai Univ. - 5:36:36
14. Chuo Gakuin Univ. - 5:36:52
15. Jobu Univ. - 5:36:58
16. Kanagawa Univ. - 5:39:38
17. Nihon Univ. - 5:40:30
18. Kanto Region Student Alliance - 5:40:45
19. Takushoku Univ. - 5:42:48
20. Chuo Univ. - 5:45:26
21. Soka Univ. - 5:46:55

© 2015 Brett Larner, all rights reserved
photos © 2015 M. Kawaguchi, all rights reserved


wataru22 said…
What a complete win by Aogaku. Congratulations to the team and staff. But as is the case every year now, the race was over as soon as Kamino took down the stage 5 record. They really do need to shorten the stage. In recent years, the 2nd day has been nothing but a walk in the park for the winner, with the only suspense if any to see who will survive the top 10 cut. I sort of feel bad for the day 2 runners for the teams who are fighting for 2nd or 5th place. What's the point? Also, if the reason of lengthening stage 5 was indeed to improve performances in the marathon, then that plan has failed miserably. If that is the case, they should lengthen stage 2 instead.
Brett Larner said…
It's true that the 5th Stage has basically determined the race the last few years, but it could easily be different. If Baba had run like last year Komazawa would have been much closer and Day Two would have played out very differently. Imai has been doing pretty well as a marathoner, but I think it's still premature to say the marathon development concept is a failure as most of the big 5th Stage stars haven't run one yet. Give it a few more years and we'll see how people like Hattori, Murayama and Shitara do.

I disagree about the lack of suspense on Day Two. In both of Toyo's biggest years and this year with AGU it was very exciting to watch them go for it solo throughout Day Two instead of playing conservative by sitting back and holding on to what they had. Exactly the kind of attitude mostly missing from most of today's Japanese marathoners. It's a different kind of excitement from head-to-head racing, but there is plenty of that further back in the field and NTV does an excellent job of presenting both.

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