It’s one of the sad truths of Japanese distance running that you never see them at their absolute best unless you get to see the New Year or Hakone Ekidens. That was in full effect today on Day One of the 95th Hakone Ekiden, with record-breaking runs on three of the day’s five stages and just a few seconds off a record on a fourth.
Aoyama Gakuin University came to this year’s race having transformed itself from a lovable underdog to an unbreakable four-straight champion of Japan’s most prestigious race. Last year Toyo University, the last team to win pre-AGU, gave them hell over the first day, beating them to finish on the shores of Lake Ashi only to fall victim to AGU’s superior depth on the return trip to Tokyo the next morning. This time it was all about the two of them again.
Toyo 2nd-year Kazuya Nishiyama, winner of the 21.3 km First Stage last year, took it out hard this time for a few hundred meters, just enough time for disaster. 30 seconds into the race Daito Bunka University 4th-year Kohei Arai clipped another runner and fell, twisting his left ankle and limping badly as he struggled to get moving again. In the ekiden a DNF means the whole team goes down, and as a senior Arai was determined not to let that happen. Nishiyama slacked off the pace and the pack slowed to a jog at 3:06/km, just enough for Arai to get back on board.
A series of feints brought little result except to shake off Arai and a few others until Nishiyama made his move for real at the critical uphill onto Rokugo Bridge with less than 5 km to go. Only Chuo University 4th-year Ken Nakayama, 2nd at November’s Ageo City Half Marathon in 1:01:32, could follow, with AGU 4th-year Taisei Hashizume leading the chase pack. Nishiyama made the first exchange in 1:02:35, 1:01:59 half marathon pace, with Nakayama 1 second behind and Hashizume leading the pack in another 5 seconds back. DBU’s Katsuya Kawasumi waited and waited as the clock clicked closer to the 10-minute cutoff for the runners to make it before the white sash cutoff, and with seconds to spare Arai staggered in to make the handoff, his ankle swollen over the edge of his shoe. The purest guts performance you'll see this year.
The 23.1 km Second Stage is where most of the big names usually run, and this year they brought the runs to live up to the stage’s reputation. Chuo 4th-year Kensuke Horio, 1:01:57 at October’s Hakone Qualifier half marathon, quickly caught up to Toyo 4th-year Shuji Yamamoto, younger brother of 2:08:48 marathoner Kenji Yamamoto, and for over 15 km they worked together to put ground on AGU 4th-year Ryuya Kajitani. Behind them, Ageo course record-breaker Vincent Laimoi of Kokushikan University initially closed, then lost ground to the leading duo.
Further back, Nihon University 4th-year Patrick Mathenge Wambui blasted his way through the field in pursuit of Mekubo Mogusu’s legendary 1:06:04 course record, while behind him #1-ranked Japanese university man Kazuya Shiojiri of Juntendo University, 27:47.87 for 10000 m and 1:01:22 for the half marathon, did the same. Despite mid-race stomach cramps Wambui went all the way from 17th to 4th, Shiojiri almost as solid in moving up from 19th to 9th.
Ahead of them, Horio continued to push Yamamoto on. The low-ranked Chuo was really just a two-man show and bound to fade after Horio’s exit, but while he could Horio did everything to help Yamamoto, lasting until the steep uphills in the last few kilometers before losing ground. Laimoi immediately swallowed Horio up and overtook Yamamoto in the last kilometer to hand off first in a brilliantly paced run, but the real story was Toyo’s lead over AGU growing to 59 seconds. Just back from Horio, Wambui finished in 1:06:18, seconds off Mogusu’s record but good for all-time #2 at 1:00:34 half marathon pace. Shiojiri was next-fastest in 1:06:45, all-time #3 and the fastest-ever by a Japanese man on the Second Stage at 1:00:58 half marathon pace.
Toyo head coach Toshiyuki Sakai had said they needed a 2-minute lead by the start of the uphill Fifth Stage to be in a good position to win overall on Day Two. AGU captain Homare Morita was bound determined to stop that from happening, mercilessly driving forward through the 21.4 km Third Stage field to run down Toyo 2nd-year Hirotsugu Yoshikawa. On a stage that hosted four of Japan’s brightest lights in the marathon last year, Yuta Shitara, Hiroto Inoue, Shogo Nakamura and Suguru Osako, back in 2013, Morita crushed the course record in 1:01:26, 1:00:34 half marathon pace, to put AGU 8 seconds out front.
With coach Sakai having asked for a 2-minute lead and watching what Toyo had built up to that point evaporate before his eyes, Fourth Stage man Akira Aizawa decided that if you want something done right you have to do it yourself. In a flash he overtook AGU 2nd-year Shuya Iwami for the lead, then took on time, gravity and the elements.
Historically 20.9 km, the Fourth Stage was shortened a while back to make the uphill Fifth Stage longer. In 2017 it returned to its historical length, the official course record being considered Yamato Otsuka’s 1:02:21 from 2018 but the historical record the 1:00:56 by future 2:06:51 marathon national record setter Atsushi Fujita way back in 1999. Running free of fatigue, the cold, the uphill in the last few kilometers of the stage, Aizawa put more than 3 minutes on AGU’s Iwami. Sprinting in to the handoff he cracked Fujita’s mark with a 1:00:54 course record, 1:01:29 half marathon pace on a net uphill course. Indoor mile national record holder Ryoji Tatezawa of Tokai University ran the next-fastest time on the stage to overtake Iwami for 2nd, but at 1:02:37 he was a distant afterthought to Aizawa’s epochal record.
Hakone’s Fifth Stage, 20.8 km with almost 900 m of climb in its middle 10 km before a steep downhill to the finish, is one of running’s most iconic courses, and its weight lies heavy over the fate of every contender for the overall Hakone title. Toyo’s uphill man Ryusei Tanaka had more than enough room to spare relative to coach Sakai’s projection, and with the same kind of steady running he showed last year he brought Toyo safely over the mountain to win Day One for the second year in a row in a course record 5:26:31.
Most of the action happened behind him, with Tokai’s Takeshi Nishida, Koku Gakuin University 3rd-year Yuhei Urano and last year’s Fifth Stage record breaker Ryoma Aoki of Hosei University all clearing Aoki’s record mark to move up through the field. Nishida was 2nd-fastest, cutting Toyo’s lead down to 1:14 to put Tokai across the finish line under the old Day One record. Urano took the minor KGU up to 3rd with a 1:10:54 course record. Like the Fourth Stage the history of the Fifth is split between the historical and modern record eras. Urano’s modern record mark was good for all-time #2 on the historical chart behind future 2:07:39 marathoner Masato Imai. Aoki was 3rd on the stage on time, beating last year’s record to put Hosei in 5th.
Hakone Qualifier winner Komazawa University was 4th between KGU and Hosei in 5:29:59, 2:44 off leader Toyo. AGU’s uphill man Naoto Takeishi struggled, dropping to 8th before coming back to 6th on the downhill, holding that position to the finish line in 5:32:01. All told the top 15 teams in the field of 23 finished within 10 minutes of Toyo. They will start the return trip on Day Two in the same order they finished, but 16th-place Nittai University and others will start together 10 minutes after Toyo and carry a time handicap equivalent to how far behind they finished Day One. In Nittai’s case it finished 10:02 behind, meaning a 2-second handicap, while the last-place Kanto Region Select Team, which finished 17:46 behind, will carry a 7-minute 46-second handicap.
What will Day Two hold? There is almost no chance AGU can pull of a fifth-straight win at this point. At 5:30 behind Toyo it would need to average about 3 seconds/km faster over the entire 109.6 km Day Two course to catch Toyo, all but impossible without a combination of a perfect team run and a blowup from Toyo. Toyo’s 1:14 lead over Tokai is fragile, and with Toyo coming up short on depth over Day Two last year and Tokai ranked #1 for depth of quality this year we’ll likely being seeing a real race over Day Two for the first time in a long time. KGU and Hosei ran well today but will surely drop off. What’s left is Komazawa, a long way back but still conceivably in range of 1st with a perfect performance.
The race for the last spot on the ten-deep Hakone podium, which carries places at both the 2019 Izumo Ekiden and 2020 Hakone with it, is always one of the Day Two highlights. Right now there are only 44 seconds separating 9th-place Teikyo University, 10th-place Chuo Gakuin University and 11th-place Meiji University, so expect drama down around that level.
Day Two starts at 8:00 a.m. Japan time with NTV’s stellar live broadcast kicking off an hour earlier. JRN will cover the race live on @JRNLive. Check there for live streaming details and more.
Day Two report.
95th Hakone Ekiden Day OneTokyo-Hakone, 1/2/19
23 teams, 5 stages, 107.5 km, ~800 m uphill
Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage (21.3 km)
1. Kazuya Nishiyama (Toyo Univ.) - 1:02:35
2. Ken Nakayama (Chuo Univ.) - 1:02:36
3. Taisei Hashizume (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:02:41
Second Stage (23.1 km)
1. Patrick Mathenge Wambui (Nihon Univ.) - 1:06:18 - all-time #2
2. Kazuya Shiojiri (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:06:45 - all-time #3
3. Vincent Laimoi (Kokushikan Univ.) - 1:07:12 - all-time #10
Third Stage (21.4 km)
1. Homare Morita (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:01:26 - CR
2. Hiroki Abe (Meiji Univ.) - 1:02:07 - all-time #4
3. Daichi Endo (Teikyo Univ.) - 1:02:32 - all-time #9
Fourth Stage (20.9 km, net uphill)
1. Akira Aizawa (Toyo Univ.) - 1:00:54 - CR
2. Ryoji Tatezawa (Tokai Univ.) - 1:02:37
3. Hirohito Yokoi (Teikyo Univ.) - 1:03:05
3. Kanta Shimizu (Waseda Univ.) - 1:03:05
Fifth Stage (20.8 km, ~800 m net uphill)
1. Yuhei Urano (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 1:10:54 - CR
2. Takeshi Nishida (Tokai Univ.) - 1:11:18 (CR)
3. Ryoma Aoki (Hosei Univ.) - 1:11:29 (CR)
1. Toyo University - 5:26:31 - CR
2. Tokai University - 5:27:45 (CR)
3. Koku Gakuin University - 5:29:15
4. Komazawa University - 5:29:59
5. Hosei University - 5:31:36
6. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:32:01
7. Juntendo University - 5:32:05
8. Takushoku University - 5:32:08
9. Teikyo University - 5:33:30
10. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:33:32
11. Meiji University - 5:34:14
12. Chuo University - 5:35:26
13. Nihon University - 5:35:37
14. Kokushikan University - 5:35:53
15. Waseda University - 5:36:06
----- all teams >10 min. behind Toyo start Day Two with time handicap
16. Nittai University - 5:36:33
17. Tokyo Kokusai University - 5:37:15
18. Kanagawa University - 5:39:41
19. Josai University - 5:40:10
20. Jobu University - 5:42:26
21. Daito Bunka University - 5:43:07
22. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:44:16
23. Kanto Region Select Team - 5:44:17
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