October's Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai, the official qualifying race for Japan's biggest race, has for decades been by a massive margin the world's #1 20 km road race. Beginning this year organizers have announced changes to its format including a shift from 20 km to the half marathon distance, positioning the Yosenkai to join November's Ageo City Half Marathon and March's National University Half Marathon Championships as one of the world's deepest and most competitive half marathons.
The Inter-University Athletic Union of Kanto [KGRR], organizers of the Jan.. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden, have announced that the length of the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifying race will be extended from the traditional 20 km to a half marathon beginning with this year's 95th edition on Oct. 13. The start and finish at Showa Kinen Park and the neighboring Air Defense Force base in Tachikawa, Tokyo will remain the same. Organizers are still considering various plans for making up the extra distance including increasing the initial laps of the air base's main runway from two to three. The scoring system will also remain unchanged, with each competing school able to enter 14 runners and start 12, from which the top 10 finishers' times will be combined to determine the team's time. In recognition of the Hakone Ekiden's 95th running, the top 11 schools will qualify instead of the usual 10.
Led by four-time winner Aoyama Gakuin University, the top 10 universities at the 2018 Hakone Ekiden have already secured the right to compete at the 95th edition. In addition, the KGRR decided to grant one additional qualifying spot to the university with the highest combined score in all events at May's Kanto Region University Track and Field Championships over the five-year period form 2014 to 2018. Nihon University, currently embroiled in a scandal involving unethical leadership in its American football program, picked up this position and will be allowed to run Hakone without having to run the Yosenkai qualifying race.
The change in the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai marks the arrival of a new era. Most of the participating universities' head coaches welcomed the increase in distance from 20 km to half marathon. Many elite-level marathons allow debuting marathoners to qualify with a half marathon mark. Eiji Daigo, 53, head coach of 2017 National University Ekiden champion Kanagawa University whose star runner Kengo Suzuki made his marathon debut in 2:10:21 at this year's Tokyo Marathon, commented, "Most of those races won't accept a 20 km mark no matter how good it is. The athletes running the Yosenkai are almost all running PB-level performances, so in that sense changing the distance from 20 km to the half marathon has a lot of merit. Beyond that, 7 of the 10 stages at the Hakone Ekiden are longer than 21 km. This will also benefit performances at the main event, in my opinion."
So what effect will this change actually have on the Yosenkai? Extending the distance by 1.0975 km may seem trivial, but over 10 runners that is an extra 10.975 km, in terms of time a change of around 33 minutes. Juntendo University head coach Shunsuke Nagato, 34, whose team barely missed scoring a seeded place at the Hakone Ekiden when it finished 11th just 14 seconds behind 10th-placer Chuo Gakuin University, spoke cautiously of the change, saying, "Over 20 km the standings changed dramatically with 5 km to go, 3 km to go, even 1 km to go. Adding another 1.1 km means you can more than reasonably expect to see the standings change even more dramatically. I think differences in ability will really rise to the surface."
Returning to the Yosenkai for the first time in 9 years after a disastrous 12th-place finish at Hakone this year, powerhouse Komazawa University's head coach Hiroaki Oyagi, 59, commented tensely, "I hope to see most of our men run PBs at the Yosenkai. If they don't run at that level it will be difficult to place near the top." Yuzen Segami, 56, head coach of last year's Yosenkai 12th-placer Soka University, said, "The opening section around the runway is very flat and easy to run, so it goes out fast every year. If that section is extended this year then you can expect the race to be that much faster early on. If that's the case then the critical issue will be minimizing fading at the end. The extra 1.1 km is not just any 1.1 km. It's 1.1 km that carries a great deal of weight."
From the sound of it the new Yosenkai format could bring untold drama in its final stages. And there's other drama in some additional changes to the qualification standards just to get into the Yosenkai. In the past runners who had clocked official times under 16:30 for 5000 m or 34:00 for 10000 m in the period starting Jan. 1 the year before the Yosenkai were eligible to take part, but beginning this year the 5000 m option has been cut. For the teams truly aiming to run Hakone this won't make any difference, but for the dozens of schools looking just to make it to the Yosenkai it represents a tougher hurdle to clear.
Last year's Yosenkai winner Teikyo University scored 10:04:58 for its 10 men over 20 km, an average of 1:00:29.8 per runner. Barely squeezing into 10th place, Tokyo Kokusai University clocked 10:10:34, averaging 1:01:03.4 per runner. Head coaches from most of the major teams that will race the Yosenkai this year gave their expectations for the outcome based on the assumption of similar weather conditions to last year:
Shunsuke Nagato, Juntendo University (11th at Hakone): "I want to see our star senior Kazuya Shiojiri run 1:02 low, even 1:01 if he can. It'll be a good goal to have our 10th man under 1:05 as well."
Hiroaki Oyagi, Komazawa University (12th at Hakone): "Essentially I want our heavy hitters to run 1:02 and even our 10th man to run 1:03. That's the kind of team I'll be developing this summer."
Eiji Daigo, Kanagawa University (13th at Hakone): "If you calculate that the extra 1.1 km should add about 3:20 per runner, we'll need an average of under at least 1:04:30 to make it."
Yasuhiro Maeda, Koku Gakuin University (14th at Hakone): "There are more foreign runners these days, so I expect the race to go out fast. I want our trio of star 3rd-years Yuhei Urano, Eiji Hijikata and Yuto Aoki to take them on and go for 1:02. Our mid-pack runners will be targeting 1:03 and our 10th man 1:04."
Masakazu Fujiwara, Chuo University (15th at Hakone): "Seniors Ken Nakayama and Kensuke Horio and 3rd-year Shoma Funatsu and others are capable of running 1:02. Our 10th man will be in the 1:04 range. The top teams in the seeded bracket have 6 or 7 men each running 1:02, so if we don't get at least 3 or 4 up to the 1:02 level then we won't be able to compete at Hakone itself."
Osamu Nara, Daito Bunka University (16th at Hakone): "Our 3 best runners will be going for 1:02 or even 1:01. Our 12th man, not just our 10th, will be 1:03. Without that kind of team strength at Hakone you cannot be competitive."
Yuzen Segami, Soka University (12th at last year's Yosenkai): "I hope to see 3rd-year Muiru Muthoni go under 1:02:30. The key will be how many people we can have come home under 1:03:30. I'd like to see our 10th man run 1:04."
translated and edited by Brett Larner