It's been a month since the 94th Hakone Ekiden wrapped up. Every university is busy piecing together its new team. After making the seeded top ten for the first time in four years, Takushoku University, alma mater of Olympic marathoners Kentaro Nakamoto (Yasukawa Denki) and Arata Fujiwara (Arata Project) has named third-year Derese Workneh its team captain for the 2018-19 season. Under the leadership of this exceptional foreign student athlete the team aims to beat its best-ever Hakone placing, 7th. The clock is already ticking to the 95th running.
Veteran head coach Masahiro Okada, 72, is confident in his choice of captain. "The only one who can lead the new Takushoku is Derese," said Okada. He informed the team of his decision at its first meeting on Jan. 4, a day after Takushoku returned to the seeded bracket with an 8th place finish at this year's Hakone.
It has only been three years since Derese came to Japan from Ethiopia. His initial reaction to the announcement was, "I think my language ability will be too much of a problem," but his teammates all overruled him with a warm round of applause. Accepting the position, he already showed the dignity of a true leader as he told them, "There are things I can't say with words, but those things I will try to communicate by leading the team from the heart."
It's unheard of for a non-Japanese student to be named captain. Coach Okada again showed confidence in his decision as he explained, "I've been thinking about who I would name as the next captain since last summer. Derese always led the team in the hard workouts, and sometimes he would drop back to give encouragement to teammates who had fallen behind. Sometimes he would bring donuts for the others when they worked hard at a session. He is the man on the team who best understands the meaning of teamwork. All he needs to do as captain is what he has already done naturally."
デレセ選手の応援のシーン。— いちのさわ (@TYouth29) January 5, 2018
Leading the team on the track, Derese always wants to enter the world of the marathon. From Jan. 9 to 14 he took part in a marathon training camp in Okinawa doing 35 km and 40 km training runs. At the time he planned to run the Feb. 25 Tokyo Marathon, but after getting sick upon his return to Tokyo he decided to shift his debut to the Apr. 15 Nagano Marathon. "My goal in my first marathon is 2:08 to 2:10," Derese said. "There are a lot of very strong athletes in Ethiopia, but I am aiming to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team. I think I have a chance."
Heading into his final Hakone season, the targets are already in place, both for Takushoku as a team and for Derese as an individual. Takushoku's best-ever 7th-place Hakone finish came in 2011. For the last three years Derese ran Hakone's most competitive stage, its 23.1 km Second Stage. Now, he says, "I want us to leave our best-ever result as a team. To help make that happen, I'm going to run 66 minutes on the Second Stage."
デレセがニャイロに手が当たった時に謝ってる。— だいだいだいこ (@dafudafu0520) January 4, 2018
"My hobby is learning," Derese says. Like a true student, this 22-year-old has had a dream since the beginning. "I want to invite my mother Wanda to my graduation ceremony." To show his mother how much he has grown during his four years in Japan, as both Takushoku University's star runner and captain, the coming year will be the biggest of Derese's life so far.
Derese Workneh - born July 23, 1995 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 22 years old. Began running in elementary school. Entered Takushoku University in 2015 after graduating from Medhani Alem H.S. Has run the Hakone Ekiden Second Stage three times, finishing 11th as a 1st-yr, 2nd as a 2nd-yr, and 5th as a 3rd-yr. 10000 m PB: 28:19.16. 169 km, 51 kg.
translated and edited by Brett Larner