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Aoyama Gakuin University Wins Third-Straight Hakone Ekiden to Complete Triple Crown

by Brett Larner
click here for Day One report

Holding onto a slim 33-second lead from Day One, Aoyama Gakuin University became the fourth school in history to win all three university men's ekidens in a single season and the sixth to win Japan's most prestigious and popular race three years in a row as it held off rival Waseda University to take the 2017 Hakone Ekiden title.

With 109.6 km before them on the Day Two course, to have a chance of making up the 33-second deficit Waseda needed to stay in range of Aoyama Gakuin on the first leg of the day, the 20.8 km Sixth Stage with over 800 m elevation loss.  This was no easy task given that Aoyama Gakuin was running second-year Yuji Onoda, 2nd on the same stage last year.  Proving himself a true downhill specialist, Onoda put an end to Waseda's hopes when he extended Aoyama Gakuin's lead to 2:08 by the exchange.  There were still four stages and almost 90 km of racing to go, but while Waseda had already run its best talent Aoyama Gakuin had enough in reserve to guarantee itself the win barring disaster.

Which promptly struck on the very next stage.  Halfway through the 21.3 km Seventh Stage, third-year Kazuki Tamura, Aoyama Gakuin's best man over 5000 m and 10000 m and its second-best half marathoner, began to slow, then sway, his pace dropping toward 3:30/km by the end of the stage. Hearing the news Waseda's Koki Ido went into high gear over the last 5 km, too far back to catch the strugglig Tamura but cutting the lead to 1:21.  A little more of that and Waseda would be back in the game, but Aoyama Gakuin's Yuta Shimoda had other ideas.

With a 2:11:34 debut at last year's Tokyo Marathon making him Japan's fastest-ever under-20 marathoner, Shimoda set off on pace to break the 21.4 km Eighth Stage record, the oldest standing record at Hakone having been set back in 1997 just months after Shimoda's birth.  Ultimately he came up short, enigmatically tying his all-time #3 mark of 1:04:21 from last year, but more critically Shimoda succeeded in blowing Waseda's Tomoki Ota out of the water, adding over four minutes to his lead by the end of the stage.

From there it was a walk in the park, albeit it one at a very fast pace.  Fourth-years Kinari Ikeda and Yuya Ando both made the top five on the final two stages, Ando bringing Aoyama Gakuin home to in 11:04:10.  It was the slowest of Aoyama Gakuin's three wins by more than ten minutes, but a win at the sport's biggest race is still a win, and with the triple crown, wins at October's Izumo Ekiden, November's National University Ekiden, and Hakone, and a rare three-peat, Aoyama Gakuin University can now stake a claim to being one of the most successful programs in Japanese history.

Waseda spent most of Day Two alone in 2nd, but behind them Toyo University, Aoyama Gakuin's predecessor as the dominant Hakone power and the team that stopped them from completing the triple crown last year, was closing in.  Far down in strength this year and having struggled earlier in the season with a 9th-place finish at Izumo and a 6th at Nationals, Toyo started Day Two 2:07 behind Waseda.  Quickly overtaking Juntendo University for 3rd, with each stage it drew closer until its ninth man Shunya Yamamoto turned in a stage-winning run to overtake Waseda's Makoto Mitsunobu for 2nd.  Waseda anchor Kanta Shimizu closed slightly, but Toyo's Takeru Kobayakawa was too far away.  Toyo took 2nd in 11:11:31, its second year in a row playing runner-up to Aoyama Gakuin, with Waseda 3rd in 11:12:26.  Juntendo was 4th just 16 seconds behind Waseda, its best finish since its 2007 win.  Kanagawa University moved up from its 6th-place Day One position to take 5th, its best placing since 2001 and first finish inside the seeded bracket since 2003.

The seeded bracket gives the top ten teams a place at the following year's Hakone Ekiden along with an invitation to run October's season-opening Izumo Ekiden.  An 11th-place or lower finish means no Izumo and instead a trip to run the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifier a week later.  It's a mark of prestige to make the top ten, one that most years sees exciting racing throughout Day Two.  At the start of the day eleven teams were still intention for the 6th through 10th-place spots inside the seeded bracket.  Twelve-time Hakone winner Nihon University and minor programs Soka University and Jobu University were quick to fall out, Soka improving on its 20th-place debut with a 12th-place finish and Jobu just missing a school record at 15th, while Nihon dropped to 19th.  Chuo Gakuin University, one of the season's best surprises after unexpected top five finishes at both Izumo and Nationals, moved up from 7th to 6th over the course of the day.

5th at the end of Day One, by the Seventh Stage perpetual top three finisher Komazawa University found itself locked in a five-way battle with Nittai University, Hosei University, Teikyo University and Tokai University for the last four places inside the seeded bracket.  The turnover between the five teams was intense, but ultimately it was Teikyo that faded back to 11th.  In almost perfect intervals behind Chuo Gakuin, Nittai, Hosei and Komazawa took 7th through 9th.  Tokai, a pre-race contender for at least top five, was 10th, a rough debut for its first-year-heavy roster but one that accomplished the minimum goal of making it back to Hakone.

The other big top five contender, Yamanashi Gakuin University, had its worst placing in school history, finishing 19th. Missing key members Takaya Sato and Ryutaro Ichitani, from the First Stage Yamanashi Gakuin was never in it, not even its top-ranked Kenyan Dominic Nyairo who was only 9th on the Second Stage after running one of its fastest-ever times last year. Head coach Masahito Ueda was in tears as he spoke to the team post-race, perhaps his only consolation coming in his son Kenta Ueda having been Yamanashi Gakuin's top placer at 7th on the uphill Fifth Stage.

Along with Yamanashi Gakuin's Nyairo and Nihon's Patrick Mathenge Wambui, Ethiopian Workneh Derese of Takushoku University and Kenyan Muiru Muthoni of Soka also ran, the most non-Japanese athletes in a single race in Hakone history.  Interestingly, none of those four programs made the seeded top ten.  In Yamanashi Gakuin's case there must have been some other issue at work, but in combination with Aoyama Gakuin's third-straight win it illustrated that success in the ekiden relies on overall development of a team rather than leaving it in the hands of one or two talented stars.  This simple but overlooked truth of Japanese distance running has heavy implications for the increasingly problematic issue of Japan's inability to produce individual athletes who can compete internationally, an issue that's not likely to be magically solved in time for Tokyo 2020.

But for most of the 210 university men who ran Hakone these two days the Olympic dream, or even any kind of post-collegiate career, is out of reach.  It's fashionable for the old boys of the system to kvetch that Hakone has gotten too big, too popular, that it's a drain on talent and a distraction from the only thing that matters: an Olympic marathon medal.  Tell that to the 200-plus guys who never have a chance of making that come true, who at Hakone get the chance to run in front of millions, to hear their names called out by the crowds, to taste the glory, to have their two days in the sun.

93rd Hakone Ekiden Day Two
Hakone ~ Tokyo, 1/3/17
21 teams, 5 stages, 109.6 km
click here for complete results

Overall Team Results - 10 stages, 217.1 km
1. Aoyama Gakuin University - 11:04:10
2. Toyo University - 11:11:31
3. Waseda University - 11:12:26
4. Juntendo University - 11:12:42
5. Kanagawa University - 11:14:59
6. Chuo Gakuin University - 11:15:25
7. Nittai University - 11:15:39
8. Hosei University - 11:15:57
9. Komazawa University - 11:16:13
10. Tokai University - 11:17:00
----- top ten seeded for 2018
11. Teikyo University - 11:20:24
12. Soka University - 11:20:37
13. Daito Bunka University 11:23:45
14. Takushoku University 11:24:22
15. Jobu University - 11:24:45
16. Koku Gakuin University - 11:28:44
17. Meiji University - 11:29:17
18. Yamanashi Gakuin University 11:29:17
19. Nihon University - 11:30:38
20. Kanto Region Student Alliance - 11:31:29
21. Kokushikan University 11:49:18

Top Individual Stage Results
Sixth Stage (20.8 km, >800 m elevation loss)
1. Kiyohito Akiyama (Nittai Univ.) - 58:01 - CR
2. Yuji Onoda (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 58:48
3. Toshiya Sato (Hosei Univ.) - 58:52 - all-time #5
4. Yuki Suzuki (Kanagawa Univ.) - 59:46
5. Riku Higuchi (Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 59:49

Seventh Stage (21.3 km)
1. Yasutaka Ishibashi (Tokai Univ.) - 1:04:42
2. Yusei Shirokoshi (Nittai Univ.) - 1:04:45
3. Koki Ido (Waseda Univ.) - 1:04:53
4. Eiji Nakahira (Kanagawa Univ.) - 1:04:56
5. Shotaro Hosokawa (Hosei Univ.) - 1:05:01

Eighth Stage (21.4 km)
1. Yuta Shimoda (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:04:21 - all-time #3 tie
2. Yamato Otsuka (Kanagawa Univ.) - 1:06:25
3. Ren Yonemitsu (Soka Univ.) - 1:06:33
4. Kazuki Takeshita (Toyo Univ.) - 1:06:49
5. Chihaya Kasuga (Tokai Univ.) - 1:06:58

Ninth Stage (23.1 km)
1. Shunya Nomura (Toyo Univ.) - 1:09:47
2. Kinari Ikeda (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:09:55
3. Kento Kikutani (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:11:07
4. Kei Katanishi (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:11:08
5. Kazuto Kawabata (Tokai Univ.) - 1:11:21

Tenth Stage (23.0 km)
1. Akito Terui (Kanto Alliance) - 1:10:58
2. Naoya Sakuda (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:11:00
3. Shun Onoki (Nittai Univ.) - 1:11:01
4. Yuki Murakami (Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 1:11:21
5. Yuya Ando (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:11:41

Day Two Team Results
1. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:30:25
2. Toyo University - 5:35:06
3. Nittai University - 5:35:10
4. Tokai University - 5:35:16
5. Hosei University - 5:35:39
6. Juntendo University - 5:36:33
7. Kanagawa University - 5:36:48
8. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:37:05
9. Waseda University - 5:38:08
10. Daito Bunka University - 5:38:16
11. Komazawa University - 5:38:27
12. Teikyo University - 5:40:18
13. Soka University - 5:41:12
14. Kanto Region Student Alliance - 5:41:44
15. Koku Gakuin University - 5:41:52
16. Takushoku University - 5:43:46
17. Meiji University - 5:44:35
18. Jobu University - 5:45:32
19. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:47:21
20. Nihon University - 5:50:43
21. Kokushikan University - 5:54:21

photos and video © 2017 their respective photographers, all rights reserved
text © 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved


great report once again Brett!
Metts said…
I noticed Toyo doesn't seem to smile much even though they are # 2 the past few years. When they lost, maybe to Nittai a few years back they looked even more unhappy. But Waseda seemed somewhat pleased with their finish yesterday.
Has Toyo become the new Komazawa, never happy with their effort or performance? Speaking of Komazawa, all teams have a down year every now and then, but how will this performance affect the the Komazawa coaching situation?
Brett Larner said…
Very perceptive, Thomas. Yes, Toyo's coach Sakai is not quick the praise or compliments for his runners. If it's not a win he doesn't celebrate. In Waseda's case, this was their best placing in a long time and, coming under new coach Sagara, was enough of a success for them to feel good about. As far as Komazawa, they had problems with injury this year but I'm not sure how much of the larger problem is due to coaching vs. recruitment. The balance seems to have swung toward AGU and Tokai for recruitment, so we'll see where things go in the next couple of years.
Metts said…
I guess my idea about Toyo was, and what I saw in Komazawa all these years, is they do not seem to appreciate how lucky they are to have been 2nd, 3rd, all those years, only thinking first is all that matters, when in fact 40+ teams didn't even make it to Hakone and those in 5th, 10th, 15th etc. would have been extremely happy to be 2nd or 3rd a few of those years. I just think teams can get arrogant/complacent to the point they forget what its like being 15th or not even making it to Hakone. Yes first is great but how many never finish first or even make it to Hakone?

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