by Brett Larner
follow @JRNLive for live coverage of the 2016 Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2 and 3
The Hakone Ekiden Museum divides the history of one of the world's three great races into distinct eras. According to the Museum, the Hakone Ekiden's fourth era began at last year's 91st running with Aoyama Gakuin University's inspired and inspiring win. A young outsider coach, Sususu Hara, with a new approach to building a team radiating not just talent but positivity and a love of what they're doing. A star runner, Daichi Kamino, whose uphill Fifth Stage run guaranteed Aoyama Gakuin the win and turned himself and the rest of the team into national celebrities for the tens of millions of fans who watched the live broadcast and turned out along the course. A sheer depth of quality that indicated that Hara's development and organizational practices did indeed mark the start of something new.
In the year since then, a year that Hara targeted as the culmination of his plans when he recruited his trio of star fourth-years Kamino, Kazuma Kubota and Yusuke Ogura, Aoyama Gakuin has dominated the landscape. At February's Marugame International Half Marathon Kamino ran 1:01:21, the 3rd-fastest time ever by a Japanese collegiate runner, with Ogura and then-2nd-year Tadashi Isshiki also under 1:02:10. A month later Issihiki won the National University Half Marathon in 1:02:11, first-years Yuta Shimoda and Kazuki Tamura both clocking 1:02:22 to get into the top ten and Shimoda marking the best-ever time by a Japanese 18-year-old. In May third-year Kinari Ikeda won the half marathon at the Kanto Regionals meet. In July Ogura and Isshiki took gold and silver in the World University Games half marathon.
At the start of ekiden season, October's Izumo Ekiden, Aoyama Gakuin pulled off another historic performance, running faster than rival Komazawa University's course record despite an extra 600 m being added to one stage. Kamino, out for much of the summer with a stress fracture, returned for November's National University Ekiden Championships less than 100% his earlier self, Toyo University unexpectedly bettering Aoyama Gakuin for the national title. Aoyama Gakuin rallied a few weeks later at the Kanto Region University Time Trials meet where eight of its runners broke 29 minutes for 10000 m in one heat, giving it eleven sub-29 runners on its roster. Eleven sub-29 runners, ten spots on its starting Hakone team. Truly, a new era.
Aoyama Gakuin returns to Hakone the heavy favorite. Of the six schools in the 21-deep field with ten-man 5000 m averages under 14 minutes, the four schools with 10000 m averages under 29 minutes and the two schools with half marathon averages under 1:03 it is the only one to achieve all three. Its 1:02:36 half marathon average gives it a roughly 2 1/2 minute advantage over the other sub-1:03 school, Waseda University, and based on last year Kamino represents an additional three to five-minute advantage over most other teams. It looks like Aoyama Gakuin is a lock for the win, but things rarely go perfectly. Two weeks out from Hakone coach Hara told JRN, "Kamino's recovery has taken time. Don't expect him to be like last year. 1:20:00 is a realistic goal, and if he does that it will be a good day for him and we will be able to win."
1:20:00 puts Kamino at the level of most of the other top runners on the Fifth Stage. The loss of the advantage he brings pushes Aoyama Gakuin back closer to Waseda, itself dependent on one runner for its primary advantage. Captain Koki Takada won the 2014 Ageo City Half Marathon in 1:02:02 to lead Waseda on half marathon credentials, but since the summer he has been largely out of competition. If he is back to 100% Waseda will be the equal of the current Aoyama Gakuin on paper despite the uncertainty caused by the shift in leadership this year from longtime head coach Yasuyuki Watanabe to new head coach Yutaka Segara. If he is less than fit Waseda will be on the same level as the other two main contenders, Komazawa University and Toyo University.
Despite its Fifth Stage runner Shota Baba collapsing repeatedly in the last kilometer Komazawa was 2nd last year with arguably the strongest team lineup in Hakone history. It's down significantly in strength this year, ranked #3 with a top-ten half marathon average of 1:03:04 and only nine top-level runners on a ten man team. Head coach Hiroaki Oyagi may be the most successful coach in Japan, but despite almost always being in the top three he hasn't been able to pull off a Hakone win since 2008. Still, with Kamino and Takada looking shaky a perfect team performance by Komazawa could put them back on top, especially on the second day where they always excel.
National champion Toyo is ranked 4th on half marathon average at 1:03:06 and comes in with the advantage of having beaten Aoyama Gakuin in November. Under young head coach Toshiyuki Sakai Toyo almost always excels in high-pressure situations. The proximity of Komazawa and a less-than-100% Aoyama Gakuin and Waseda fits the bill. Toyo's main advantages: brothers Yuma Hattori, last year's Second Stage winner and the 30 km national university record holder, and Hazuma Hattori, this year's 5000 m national university champion and stellar in both Izumo and Nationals. One cause for alarm: for months Sakai had Hazuma targeting November's Hachioji Long Distance meet where he planned to clear the sub-28 Rio Olympics 10000 m qualifying time. Hazuma was a DNS in Hachioji seemingly without public mention, raising the possibility that he sustained an injury sometime in November. Regardless, while over the last ten years Hakone has become a blowout win for whatever team's Fifth Stage runner took the top position, this year it looks like it could actually be a tight four-way race for the win over the second day.
Tokai University doesn't quite measure up to the top four but is well ahead of the other 16 teams, giving it a strong chance of taking 5th and of placing higher if any of the top four crack. With one of two outstanding Japanese first-years in the field this year, Haruki Minatoya, 13:54.07, 28:46.59 and 1:02:54 in his first year of university racing, Tokai looks like it will peak two to three years from now.
6th through 9th place should be a race between Meiji University, Yamanashi Gakuin University, Teikyo University and Nittai University. Meiji's chances depend heavily on senior Ken Yokote, 27:58.40 and 1:01:37 in the first half of 2015 but out of competition with injury until late November. Yamanashi Gakuin looks like it has a team capable of winning in 2017 or 18, but while they are solid on the track its core young members are not quite there yet on half marathon ability. One of the main sources of drama in the days leading up to Hakone this year is head coach Masahito Ueda's decision about which of his two Kenyans to field. Fourth-year Enock Omwamba has struggled with ups and downs since DNF'ing on the Second Stage at Hakone two years ago, unable to make it up last year when he suffered an Achilles injury two days before the race. This year will be his last chance, but throughout 2015 first-year Dominic Nyairo has rapidly overtaken him with sensational performances at both Izumo and Nationals. Nyairo clearly looks like the better athlete, and if Omwamba is fit Ueda will face a very tough decision.
At Hakone each year the top ten teams make up the seeded bracket, guaranteed a place at the following year's Hakone Ekiden and at October's Izumo Ekiden with 11th place and lower needing to requalify at the Yosenkai 20 km. The race for 10th place, covered in detail on the Day Two broadcast every year, is often the most exciting part of the entire ekiden, and this year it looks like fans are in for a great one. With the top nine relatively secure, six teams of almost equal ability are in contention for the tenth and final spot in the seeded bracket, Josai University, Kanagawa University, the #1 legacy school Chuo University in its 87th-straight Hakone appearance, Nihon University, Juntendo University and Takushoku University. Josai is down on strength following the graduation of 10000 m national record holder Kota Murayama, while Nihon, Juntendo and Takushoku are on the way up. Nihon features the fastest university man over 10000 m this year, Kenyan first-year Patrick Wambui with a 27:54.98 in June, but Wambui will likely be passed over in favor of last year's Fifth Stage runner-up Daniel Muiva Kitonyi. Alongside Tokai's Minatoya, Juntendo's Kazuya Shiojiri is one of this year's star first-years, with bests of 14:04.20, 28:32.85 and 1:02:54. Takushoku, alma mater of two of Japan's best recent marathoners, Arata Fujiwara and Kentaro Nakamoto, fields first-year Workneh Derese, possibly only the second Ethiopian to ever run Hakone.
The six teams at the back end of the field are unlikely to factor into the action and will spend most of the second day trying to stay ahead of the dreaded white sash start. Chuo Gakuin University features 5000 m and 10000 m Kanto Regionals champion and 3000 mSC national champion Hironori Tsuetaki in his final university ekiden. Despite being ranked second-to-last Tokyo Kokusai University will be one of the most interesting teams in the field, making Hakone in just its fifth year of existence as a team thanks in large part to Kenyan Stanley Siteki. Daito Bunka University is ranked last by quite a large margin after the loss of its star twins Hiroshi and Takashi Ichida to graduation, but with a not much better team last year it still came through to make the seeded bracket. One week before Hakone assistant coach Shuta Baba told JRN, "If we make the seeded bracket we'll be as happy as if we had won." Jobu University, Hosei University and the Kanto Region Student Alliance Team made up of top-placing individuals from non-qualifying schools at the Yosenkai round out the field.
NTV's live nationwide broadcast of the Hakone Ekiden begins at 7:00 a.m. both Jan. 2 and 3. Once again this year JRN will cover the race in its entirety on Twitter @JRNLive. Follow for the only live English-language coverage of Japan's greatest race, the one that shows the rest of the world what the sport of distance running could, and should, be.
92nd Hakone Ekiden Entry List
Tokyo-Hakone-Tokyo, Jan. 2-3, 2015
click here for complete entry lists and rankings in English
click here for a list of university uniform and tasuki colors
bib number, school name, team top ten average half marathon time
1. Aoyama Gakuin University - 1:02:36
2. Komazawa University - 1:03:04
3. Toyo University - 1:03:06
4. Meiji University - 1:03:22
5. Waseda University - 1:02:51
6. Tokai University - 1:03:12
7. Josai University - 1:03:42
8. Chuo Gakuin University - 1:04:02
9. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 1:03:25
10. Daito Bunka University - 1:04:51
11. Nihon University - 1:03:47
12. Teikyo University - 1:03:29
13. Nittai University - 1:03:31
14. Juntendo University - 1:03:49
15. Kanagawa University - 1:03:45
16. Takushoku University - 1:03:51
17. Hosei University - 1:04:18
18. Chuo University - 1:03:46
19. Tokyo Kokusai University - 1:04:20
20. Jobu University - 1:04:03
21. Kanto Region University Student Alliance - 1:04:16
text and photo © 2015 Brett Larner
all rights reserved