Entry lists are out for the world's biggest running event, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden university men's championships. Aoyama Gakuin University has built a near monopoly on Hakone, winning the last four years and looking this year to follow Chuo University and Nittai University as the third team in Hakone's 95 years of history to win it five years straight. But with its weakest lineup since 2015, the year AGU first rose to Hakone dominance, that won't be easy.
The Shape of Things to Come" which predicted the breakthrough we've seen this year in Japanese men's marathoning based on the last 20 years of Hakone results, we've ranked the 23 teams in the 2019 Hakone Ekiden based on the combined scores of the 10 best runners on each team's 16-man entry roster.
The Win1. Tokai University - 70 pts.
2. Komazawa University - 69 pts.
3. Teikyo University - 62 pts.
4. Aoyama Gakuin University - 61 pts.
Tokai University is the best in the field, one of only 5 teams in Hakone history to score 70 pts., i.e. its 10 best men averaging under 13:40 for 5000 m, 28:30 for 10000 m or 1:03:00 for the half marathon. Tokai has depth, including 6 men on its entry list with sub-1:03 half marathon bests, and range, from indoor mile national record holder Ryoji Tatezawa to 28:17.52/1:02:03 man Shota Onizuka. But Tokai coach Hayashi Morozumi has struggled to translate that talent into Hakone success in the last two seasons and will need to have everything running perfectly this time to overcome AGU.
Komazawa University is right behind Tokai at 69 points off an incredible performance at October's Yosenkai qualifying half marathon where its 10th finisher Shunsuke Kanbe ran 1:03:22, then again at the Ageo City Half Marathon where several other team members went under 1:03. A gossip magazine's claims of a financial scandal surrounding head coach Hiroaki Oyagi has shaken team unity and it may be a challenge for Komazawa to live up to potential as a result.
Teikyo University is this year's dark horse, its best-ever placing in its Hakone appearances to date a pair of 4th-place finishes in 2000 and 2013. Head coach Takayuki Nakano has quietly put together a team centered around a core of 8 men with 10000 m and half marathon credentials to challenge those of the other 3 main contenders. If any of those teams falters Teikyo should be in position to take over.
AGU is ranked only 4th, its 10000 m and half marathon marks down from the last two years. But between head coach Susumu Hara's businesslike approach to building a dynasty and the momentum of 4 years of success behind them AGU has an advantage over the other 3 top-ranked teams that will probably be enough for it to do it again. The 1st and 5th Stages will be crucial to AGU's chances.
The Podium5. Toyo University - 57 pts.
6. Meiji University - 56 pts.
7. Takushoku University - 56 pts.
8. Waseda University - 55 pts.
9. Juntendo University - 55 pts.
10. Chuo University - 54 pts.
11. Josai University - 53 pts.
12. Koku Gakuin University - 52 pts.
Hakone's top 10 get guaranteed places at the following year's Izumo and Hakone Ekidens, while 11th place and lower get sent back down to run October's Yosenkai qualifier instead. The race for the last few places on the podium is always the highlight of Hakone's second day, and with a narrow margin separating the 5th through 12th-ranked teams this time we should be in for another good one down around that breaking point. It's notable that the teams at this level this year are all as good as the top-ranked teams were 10 years ago.
Toyo University leads the way, the last team to win Hakone pre-AGU era and beating AGU for the Day One title last year, but like Komazawa a scandal on the team centering around the loss of its star first-year recruit following conflict with senior team members has hurt its chances. Meiji University, led by 27:56.45/1:02:16 man Hiroki Abe, Takushoku University with Ethiopian team captain Workneh Derese, and Juntendo University featuring Jakarta Asian Games steeplechase bronze medalist Kazuya Shiojiri with 27:47.87/1:01:22 credentials, should be right there with Toyo. On paper Waseda University should be in the mix for 5th too, but its chances depend largely on perpetually injured 4th-year Hiroki Nagayama.
The Rest13. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 49 pts.
14. Nittai University - 48 pts.
15. Chuo Gakuin University - 47 pts.
16. Kanagawa University - 47 pts.
17. Tokyo Kokusai University - 47 pts.
18. Daito Bunka University - 46 pts.
19. Kokushikan University - 46 pts.
20. Kanto Region Student Alliance - 45 pts.
21. Hosei University - 45 pts.
Making up the rest of the field are teams like Yamanashi Gakuin University, Tokyo Kokusai University and Kokushikan University that rely heavily on the strength of one Kenyan runner without the depth to compete against the top tier, and teams like Chuo Gakuin University that should be in the race for the podium but are short a star runner due to injury. In CGU's case that's 3rd-year Takumi Yokokawa, who sustained an injury at November's Ageo City Half Marathon. Also in this group is last year's 4th-placer Nittai University, another team rocked by scandal as head coach Masaaki Watanabe, who previously lost his position at Toyokawa Kogyo H.S. amid accusations of abuse, was unceremoniously fired at the start of the season for abusing students.
Participation Award22. Jobu University - 41 pts.
23. Nihon University - 38 pts.
Hakone usually has 20 to 21 teams including the Kanto Region Student Alliance, a select team made up of top-placing individuals at the Yosenkai qualifying race whose teams didn't make the cut. This year that was expanded to 23 teams in honor of Hakone's 95th running. Jobu University scored the last bonus spot at the Yosenkai qualifier to extend its unbroken streak of Hakone appearances to 11.
Nihon University, another team heavily dependent on a Kenyan to carry it, takes up the last position. Yet another school with a major sports scandal this year, in its case involving its football team coaches directing a player to deliberately injure another team's QB, the old-school Nihon's powerful alumni have a history of gerrymandering the rules to get its ekiden team into Hakone. This time they did it by getting the KGRR to award a spot to the school that won the overall title at May's Kanto Region University track and field championships, including the results of sprints, field events and other non-distance events in order to give its weak distance program the boost it needed. The difference in quality between Nihon and the rest of the field is obvious, with Nihon's score of 38 just over half that of #1-ranked Tokai's.
Look for more on the 2019 Hakone Ekiden as race week approaches.
© 2018 Brett Larner, all rights reserved