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Defending Champs Wambui and Daito Bunka Return to World's #1 20 km Road Race - Yosenkai Preview



The world's #1 20 km road race, the Yosenkai 20 km Road Race qualifier for the 2018 Hakone Ekiden, is set to go off tomorrow in Tokyo's Showa Kinen Park. 49 universities from around the Tokyo area will field teams of 10 to 12 men, with the combined times of each school's 10 fastest finishers determining which 10 teams will join the top tier of 10 already seeded for Japan's biggest sporting event, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden.

Click rosters to enlarge.

Last year's Yosenkai team winner Daito Bunka University returns ranked 3rd in the field on average half marathon time. With that kind of position DBU is a lock to return to Hakone. Just ahead of them is Josai University, alma mater of Kota Murayama, the last Japanese man to win the Yosenkai and the current 10000 m national record holder. Josai finished 12th at the Yosenkai last year and missed Hakone, but with a strong roster this year with the most men in the field sub-64 for the half marathon it'll be a surprise if they don't make it.

Ranked #1 is Yamanashi Gakuin University, a Hakone A-lister sent down to the Yosenkai after blowing up and finishing only 18th at Hakone this year. Like Komazawa University's 2009 team time record when it ended up at the Yosenkai in similar circumstances, expect YGU to easily take the top position. Teikyo University is the other school to drop down to the Yosenkai this year after finishing 11th at Hakone, and with a #4 ranking it should be making the return trip back up. Soka University first qualified for Hakone 3 years ago, and this year it comes in ranked 5th as it looks to make Hakone for the 3rd time.


#6-ranked Koku Gakuin University marks the cutoff for schools that can feel reasonably comfortable about making the cut, but with a roster heavy on fourth-years this might be the last time it finds itself in that position. 2nd at the Yosenkai last year, Meiji University is more or less even with #8-ranked Takushoku University and #9-ranked Nihon University, putting it in a more precarious position than KGU. The post-race ceremony announcing the qualifying teams is the most dramatic moment in Japanese athletics, the long pause before the announcement of the 10th and final qualifier drawn out for maximum effect. With a history of peaking efficiently for the Yosenkai in its short Hakone tenure to date Jobu University is in the 10th spot ahead of the race.


Jobu has an advantage thanks to that history, but its position is anything but secure. Close behind, Tokyo Kokusai University, the most recent school to make Hakone for the first time with its 2016 debut, will be looking to return, as will #12 ranked Kokushikan University which made the grade last year. TKU has one of the most interesting names in the field, 30-year-old Kazuya Watanabe. All-time Japanese #2 for 1500 m with a best of 3:3811 and at one point in the all-time JPN top 10 for 5000 m, Watanabe is a retired corporate league runner who, having gone to the corporate leagues straight out of high school, opted to go to university after it was over. Watanabe has never raced longer than 10 miles and is 6 years past his best times, so what kind of contribution he'll be able to make remains to be seen.

Until last year Chuo University had the longest unbroken streak of Hakone Ekiden appearances in history, running every year since 1925. That fell apart last year in the first season under new head coach Masakazu Fujiwara, the collegiate marathon record holder at 2:08:12 and the only Japnaese man ever to win the Tokyo Marathon. Chuo finished 11th in the Yosenkai field 44 seconds behind 10th-placer Nihon, an agonizing 4 seconds per runner. In his second season Fujiwara is doing marginally better, but coming in ranked only 13th it will take a perfect day for Chuo to compete with Jobu, TKU and Kokushikan for the final Hakone qualifying spot.

Senshu University and Tokyo Nogyo University are both past Hakone regulars who have fallen on harder times, neither having made Hakone since 2014. Ranked only 14th and 15th, it doesn't appear likely that this will be the year they turn it around. There's more buzz further down the field about Tsukuba University and Keio University, both top academic schools that were among the original 4 universities in the first Hakone Ekiden and both of which have launched initiatives to get back into the fold by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Keio is still a long way from making that happen, but under former top-level corporate league women's coach Tsutomu Hiroyama Tsukuba has the framework of a good team in place with the potential to break into the top 15 this year. As with all the non-qualifying teams, Tsukuba and Keio will have a chance at being represented at Hakone if one of their top-placing runners is chosen for the Kanto Region Student Alliance select team, a non-scoring 21st team in the final Hakone field.


Looking at the top overall individuals in the field, along with Watanabe 11 entrants have run sub-63 for the half marathon or its equivalent for 20 km. Led by last year's overall winner Patrick Mathenge Wambui (Nihon Univ.), 5 of last year's top 6 return, but all will have to contend with YGU's Dominic Nyairo, the only man in the field to have broken 61 minutes for the half. Nyairo's teammate Kenta Ueda, son of YGU head coach Masahito Ueda, is the fastest Japanese man in the field with a half marathon best of 1:02:01 from last year's Ageo City Half Marathon. With a third man, 1:02:37 runner Sho Nagato, in the top 11 YGU's chances for the overall win look very good indeed.

This year 9 schools in Kanto have African team members, 8 with Kenyans and one, Takushoku, with an Ethiopian. But while this number is bigger than ever before, it's cause for thought that not one of these programs is ranked in the top 10, the seeded upper tier at Hakone. YGU was the first school to bring in an African runner, and in those days that was enough of an advantage for it to become a Hakone champion. These days things have changed, with coaches like Hayashi Morozumi (Tokai Univ.), Susumu Hara (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) and Toshiyuki Sakai (Toyo Univ.) having their recruiting and development methodologies down to the point that the overall high level they can produce with an all-Japanese roster more than outweighs the advantages brought by a single fast African. The number of low-level teams trying to follow the YGU model may be growing, but so far only TKU is showing any sign of it taking hold.

JRN will be on-site at what is expected to be a cold and rainy Yosenkai to cover the race live on @JRNLive. Nippon TV will broadcast the race live starting at 9:25 a.m. local time. International viewers can try mov3.co for streaming, with other options to be found here.

© 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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