Saturday, December 31, 2016

2017 Hakone Ekiden Starting Lists and Preview

by Brett Larner



It's almost time for the two greatest days of the year, Japan's biggest and best road race, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden.  Starting lists for each of the twenty-one teams' sixteen-man rosters at Hakone's 93rd edition are out, and below JRN gives you an early look at how the race is shaping up.  Follow @JRNLive for live English-language coverage of one of the sport's truly great events.

Hakone is a road relay run over two days, ten stages of around a half marathon in length each, five from downtown Tokyo up to the mountain town of Hakone on Jan. 2 and five more running back down on Jan. 3.  There is simply nothing else like it anywhere in the world, in quality, in presentation, in popularity.  It's a cultural phenomenon that shows the best of what long distance running can be, even if the cost can be high.

Twenty university men's teams from around the greater Tokyo area and one select team make up the field, each with an entry roster of sixteen.  Ten of those run.  With coaches having the luxury of issuing substitutions on race morning there is always a little uncertainty about exactly what is going to happen, but it's hard to overstate the prestige of being one of the final ten from any school who make it to the start line.

Two-time defending champ Aoyama Gakuin University looks like the heavy favorite.  Fourteen men on its roster with sub-14 bests for 5000 m.  Nine sub-29 for 10000 m.  Seven sub-63 for the half marathon.  Even two sub-2:12 for the marathon.  The only school in the field with sub-14, sub-29 and sub-63 averages for its ten best runners.  Wins at October's Izumo Ekiden and November's National University Ekiden.  One step away from becoming only the fourth school in history to win all of the Big Three University Ekidens in one season, the triple crown of Japanese university men's distance running. Nobody can stop them. Except maybe one team.

Waseda University, the last school to score the triple crown.  An unexpected threat to AGU at Nationals in early November, going back and forth but leading much of the way until AGU ran them down halfway through the anchor stage.  Two weeks after that, a breakthrough.  At the Ageo City Half Marathon, senior Rintaro Takeda won in 1:01:59, his fellow fourth-years Kazuma Taira and Yohei Suzuki both clearing 1:02:20 and first-year Tomoki Ota running 1:02:48.  When the smoke cleared Waseda had a top ten half marathon average of 1:02:42 to AGU's 1:02:47, a slim but resonant edge.  And another: AGU's Hakone wins both came on the back of uphill specialist Daichi Kamino who dominated the race-making Fifth Stage both years.  Kamino graduated this spring, leaving a sizable hole for AGU to fill.  Waseda's Yuichi Yasui, 5th on the Fifth Stage last year, is the second-fastest returning uphill man in the field and puts pressure on AGU to come up with a quality replacement.  Is it enough?  No.  AGU leads Waseda by large margins on both average 5000 m and 10000 m times and has greater depth.  But there's a chance, if Waseda's ten best line up in their best shape.  And at Hakone when there's a chance, that's when the magic happens.

Far enough back from Waseda and AGU to be out of reach of the win, barring the unexpected, five more teams will be competing for the last three spots in the top five.

Komazawa University features the two best Japanese university student half marathoners on the scene today, fourth-year Keisuke Nakatani and third-year Naoki Kudo.  Both went sub-1:01:30 earlier this year, but both have been mostly out of action or below their normal level this season.  Without them Komazawa doesn't have the depth to compete and could end up fighting to stay in the top 10.  To its advantage: fourth-year Shohei Otsuka is the top returning man on the uphill Fifth Stage.

Led by sub-28/sub-61 Kenyan second-year Dominic NyairoYamanashi Gakuin University was 2nd at Izumo and 3rd at Nationals, and with a small rush of half marathon bests in Ageo including sub-1:02:30 times from third-year Kenta Ueda and fourth-year Takaya Sato it has a good shot at 3rd. Nittai University is thinner on front-end credentials in the half marathon but with better depth its solid 1:03:08 average equals YGU's.  At eight men sub-29 for 10000 m it nearly equals champ AGU too.

Tokai University looks like the next big thing, its incredible first-year class this year set to surpass AGU in the next year or two.  Like AGU Tokai has fourteen men sub-14 for 5000 m.  Its eight men sub-29 for 10000 m add padding its credentials, but with only three men sub-63 for the half marathon it's not quite where it needs to be yet to contend for the win in Hakone.  The absence of 28:30.76 fourth-year Yuki Hirota and sub-14/sub-29/sub-63 second-year Haruki Minatoya also ensures Tokai will be going for 3rd at best.

Last year's national champion Toyo University is far down on strength this year, two of its best runners Hazuma Hattori and Ryo Kuchimachi both out of form in their most recent races and its depth shockingly low given its recent history as the most dominant team pre-AGU.  But Toyo has shown the ability to come through when it matters, and with both Hattori and Kuchimachi graduating, this year matters more than ever.

One of the unique highlights of Hakone is the Day Two battle for the seeded bracket, the top ten cutoff that guarantees teams a return trip to Hakone the next season and an invitation to Izumo.  A lot of the time the racing for 10th is more exciting that what is going on up front, something that broadcaster Nippon TV understands and brings out to the maximum.

The top seven are more or less set, but the race for the last three seeded spots looks rough this year.  Six teams are virtually tied in ability, with the non-scoring Kanto Region University Student Alliance select team in the mix to up the competition even further.  Kanagawa University, Koku Gakuin University, Daito Bunka University, Meiji University and Chuo Gakuin University are nearly equals on paper, with Juntendo University, led by Rio Olympics steepler Kazuya Shiojiri, a short distance behind.  KGU is hurting with several key members out with injury, but Kanagawa, DBU and CGU all have good momentum this season.  CGU in particular has consistently performed way beyond itself, taking 4th at Izumo, 5th at Nationals, and ambitious first-year Takumi Yokokawa trying to run away with the win at Ageo by going out at sub-61 pace in his half marathon debut.


The last seven teams in the field, Teikyo University, Takushoku University, Hosei University, Soka University, Nihon University, Kokushikan University and Jobu University, don't have much chance of clearing the seeded bracket cutoff, but it's important to remember that just making it to Hakone to begin with puts them at the very top of the scene, the sub-elite of the elite of Japanese distance.  Soka is running Hakone for just the second time, hoping for an improvement on its 20th-place debut two years ago.  Nihon is one of the big Hakone legacy schools with twelve overall wins and dozens upon dozens of starts, but with nearly half of its top-level roster out with injury it is likely to be trying to stay out of last place.  Bottom-ranked Jobu underwent a coaching change this year but continues to show its usual pattern of peaking for October's Hakone Ekiden Qualifier and coming to Hakone in tatters.  Despite finishing 6th at the qualifier Jobu is missing a number of its best from its entry list, giving it the slowest average 5000 m, 10000 m and half marathon times in the entire field.

Starting List Breakdown

Looking at the start lists, the main thing to remember is that coaches can substitute runners from among their six alternates on race morning prior to each day's start.  Once entered on a given stage a runner must either run it or be pulled out and replaced with an alternate.  They cannot be changed to another stage.  As a result, the start lists tend to be more of an indication of overall strategy and many coaches keep some of their best runners on the reserve list to wait to see how other coaches have stacked their team before deciding where to deploy their best talent.

Aoyama Gakuin head coach Susumu Hara is a good example this year, with four of his best runner including star third-years Yuta Shimoda and Kazuki Tamura on the reserve list.  Hara has his two best seniors Tadashi Isshiki and Yuhi Akiyama on Second and Third, promising a strong start on the first day, but it wouldn't be surprising to see substitutions on the First, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh or Eighth Stages.

Waseda coach Yutaka Sagara is coming out tough, leading off with sub-61 half marathoner Takeda and stacking the rest of the first day's four stages with sub-63 men including uphill specialist Yasui on Fifth.  His Day Two entries are much weaker, but with thee more sub-63 runners and star first-year Shiki Shinsako on the alternate list expect heavy change on the morning of Jan. 3. Based on the two schools' lists it's possible that we might see Waseda lead through Day One, and it has been a long time since a school that won the first day was beaten in the overall race.

Komazawa's Hiroaki Oyagi, arguably the most successful coach in Japanese university distance running, doesn't have much to work with, but having put 65-minute second-year Yuki Yamaguchi on the First Stage you will almost definitely see him substituted out for Yusuke Nishiyama or the mid-recovery Nakatani.  As expected, #1-ranked uphill man Otsuka is entered on Fifth.

Unsurprisingly, Yamanashi Gakuin head coach Masahito Ueda has put his sub-61 Kenyan Nyairo on the Second Stage, Hakone's most competitive, where he will face Aoyama Gakuin's Isshiki and other schools' best.  More surprisingly, Ueda has put his son Kenta on the Fifth Stage.  Expect to see fourth-year Sato substituted in on the First Stage.

New Nittai coach Masaaki Watanabe has brought the team up to front-end contender status in a hurry, and his entry list doesn't leave much to the imagination.  1:02:04 senior Takumi Komatsu leads, and the only places there could conceivably be substitutions are on Day Two's Seventh and Ninth Stages.

Tokai's Hayashi Morozumi has plenty of talent to handle, and his starting list, which is notable for featuring first-years on five of the first six stages, is pretty well complete as-is.  His decision to lead with 1:02:03 first-year Shota Onizuka means the First Stage will largely be a replay of November's record-breaking Ageo City Half Marathon.  1:02:17 half marathoner Junnosuke Matsuo and 2016 National University Half Marathon champion Ryunosuke Hayashi are possible Day Two substitutions from the reserve list.

Toyo head coach Toshiyuki Sakai has always been one of the main practitioners of alternate list legerdemain, but this year he just doesn't have the roster to do it.  The only obvious substitution would be swapping in third-year Kazuki Takeshita on the Seventh Stage.  Breaking up the First Stage Ageo reunion, Sakai's decision to put 1:02:05 first-year Akira Aizawa on the tough 23.1 km Second Stage and to lead with 2015 National University 5000 m champ Hattori is surprising and suggests Hattori's fitness may not be optimal enough to handle the longer stage.

Going further down in the field, Rio 3000 m steeplechase Olympian Kazuya Shiojiri will be running the Second Stage for Juntendo.  Chuo Gakuin is pulling an extremely risky move in putting first-year Daichi Takasago, with no experience at the half marathon distance, on Second.  Like Yamanashi Gakuin's Ueda, Daito Bunka head coach Osamu Nara has entered his son, first-year Ryosuke Nara, on the uphill Fifth Stage.

Kanagawa is coming out swinging, with sub-28:30 man Atsushi Yamato on First and sub-62 half marathoner Kengo Suzuki on Second.  Likewise for the Select Team, which leads with sub-28:35 runners Tatsuya Maruyama of Senshu University and Kensuke Horio of Chuo University.  Along with Yamanashi Gakuin's Nyairo, Soka's Muiri Muthoni, Takushoku's Workneh Derese and Nihon's Patrick Wambui are all entered on the Second Stage, possibly the largest number of African runners to ever run a single Hakone stage.  With excellent conditions forecast, expect big things on Second.

© 2016 Brett Larner
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