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Hakone Ekiden Qualifier Happening Saturday

One of the questions floating around during the coronavirus crisis is what it meant for Japan's biggest sporting event, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden university men's championships. People have been holding their breath as one major race after another, not least of all the university men's season-opening Izumo Ekiden, has canceled. But they can breathe a little easier now as the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai, its qualifying half marathon, is set to go ahead this Saturday.

At the Yosenkai 46 university men's teams field 10 to 12 runners apiece, with each school's first ten finishers scoring and the top ten teams going on to join the top ten from last year's Hakone to make up the back half of the twenty-deep 2021 Hakone field. There's really nothing else like it. The announcement ceremony is the most dramatic moment in the sport. If you've ever been there for it, you know it's true.

This year things will be a bit different. The race will have its usual start on the runway at the SDF Air  Base in Tokyo's western suburb of Tachikawa with the traditional single-file team lineup at the start, this time with 1 m in between each runner on the team and 2 m to either side of each team. But where the race usually heads out onto the city streets before finishing inside nearby Showa Kinen Park, this time the field of about 500 will go round and round the runway to make up the half marathon distance. It's closed to the public, meaning none of the usual marching bands, the cheerleading squads, the tens of thousands of alumni, fans, and corporate league scouts that give it something extra.

But the Yosenkai is still what it is, the chance to make Hakone. For many teams that's a years-long, multimillion dollar quest buoyed by the dreams of every high school runner they pull in. The race will still be the race, the announcement ceremony will still be dramatic, and NTV's broadcast will still be the best around. The broadcast happens 9:25 to 11:25 a.m. Saturday Japan time, and while it doesn't look like there's an official live stream there are options like, iTVer, and TVJapanLive that might work. We'll be doing English commentary on @JRNLive too.

Looking at who's who in the field, it's an unusually exciting year with at least 19 of the 46 teams having a realistic chance of picking up one of the ten places on offer. Numbers 1 through 10 were the 11th through 20th-place finishers at this year's Hakone, and most have solid histories of qualifying behind them. Numbers 11 through 19 are looking to knock one of those teams out, some for the first time and some for a comeback. Numbers 20 and up are the dreamers, the ones trying to get up into the next bracket or just proud to be in the trials event for Japan's biggest race.

The Best

1. Chuo Gakuin University 
CGU has two men under 63 minutes for the half marathon, 4th yr. Takeru Toguchi the faster at 1:01:55, and another five either under 64 minutes or under 29 for the 10000 m, putting it in comfortable position for a top five placing. Everything depends on their 8th through 10th men, but CGU has almost always performed well at the Yosenkai when it's been there.

2. Chuo University
Chuo has three men sub-63 and another nine under either 64 or 29, so it's pretty much a lock for qualifying and should be in it for the win. The thing everything will be watching for, though, is how Chuo's star 1st-year Yamato Yoshii, the U20 national record holder for 5000 m at 13:28.31 and with a 28:35.65 to his name for 10000 m, does in his half marathon debut.

3. Takushoku University
Takushoku was hurt by the graduation of senior Akira Akasaki, but with bests of 27:51.91 and 1:01:23, Kenyan 2nd-year Razini Lemeteki should help compensate for some lack of depth in the Takushoku lineup. Expect to see them in the last few qualifying spots, or lower if some of the up-and-comers bring A-game.

4. Juntendo University
Like Chuo, Juntendo's got some buzz around it thanks to star 1st-year Ryuji Miura, the 3000 mSC collegiate and U20 national record holder, in his half marathon debut. But Juntendo isn't just a one-man show, with two runners under 63 for the half and another eight under 64 or 29. If it's a good day it might challenge Chuo for the win, but anything outside the top five would be a surprise.

5. Hosei University
Hosei's in about the same league as Takushoku, with 3rd-year Yuki Kamata, 28:53.97 for 10000 m and 1:02:19 for the half, taking the place of a Kenyan ringer. A solid competitor for the second half of the qualifying bracket.

6. Kanagawa University
Kanagawa is weak on half marathon credentials, but over 10000 m it's ahead of both Takushoku and Hosei. They don't have anyone who would be a contender at the front end of the field, but a solid team run should get them into the top ten.

7. Nittai University
Nittai has had some chaotic changes to its coaching over the last few years, but right now it has a strong lineup led by 4th-year Kohei Ikeda with sub-14 and sub-29 bests on the track and a 1:01:36 half marathon to his name. Another contender for the middle of the qualifiers.

8. Nihon University
Speaking of chaotic coaching changes, Nihon threw the scene into confusion earlier this year when it pulled in Yoshiyuki Aoba, former head of Hakone organizers KGRR, as its new coach. One of the OGs of Japanese collegiate sports, Nihon has often benefitted by rule tweaks that make it easier for it to get into Hakone, but this year it has a good enough lineup to get in on its own strength, sub-28 Kenyan 2nd-year Charles Ndungu leading seven men under the 29 and 64 lines.

9. Kokushikan University
Kokushikan has just about the best Kenyan on the collegiate scene. 3rd-year Vincent Raimoi with bests of 13:35.83, 27:39.80 and 1:00:10, but with only two other non-Kenyan runners under 65 minutes for the half it'll take a good day for it to make the cut this year.

10. Tsukuba University
Tsukuba was one of the feel-good stories last year, making Hakone for the first time since 1994. They've got about 9/10 of the team them need, meaning a big run from 1:01:56 4th-year Kento Nishi will make a major difference to its chances of a return trip.

Almost There

11. Reitaku University
JRN's officially cheering for Reitaku, 11th at the Yosenkai the last two years as it has tried to make Hakone for the first time ever. It took a few hits from graduation this year and on paper looks to be short the number of top-tier people it needs, but never underestimate the underdog. 4th-year Kota Sugiho leads the top with a 10000 m best of 28:53.19.

12. Surugadai University
Under the coaching of former Hakone star Kazuyoshi Tokumoto Surugadai has come way up through the ranks, and on paper it's definitely better than Reitaku this year. Kenyan 3rd-year James Bunuka leads with a 10000 m best of 27:45.59, and there's a solid core of at least six others to put it into contention for top ten. Tokumoto has said he'll be looking for one of the regulars to make a mistake Surugadai can exploit.

13. Jobu University
Jobu is a fan favorite, edging into Hakone every year under head coach Katsuhiko Hanada but fallen on harder times since his departure to the GMO corporate team. Jobu was known for its runners all finishing close together, and with twelve athletes of similar ability on its entry list this time it's got a realistic chance of overtaking Kokushikan or another team for 10th.

14. Senshu University
Another former Hakone regular, Senshu has fallen on harder times. This season it's at about the level of Surugadai, close to a top ten finish but maybe in need of a meltdown from one of the stronger programs.

15. Josai University
Josai was another program that worked its way up semi-regular Hakone appearances in the last decade. It bombed out this year, but a strong core of sub-64 half marathoners and two 4th-years, Iori Sugawara and Shunya Kikuchi, under 29 minutes for 10000 m it should be a threat to break back in this time.

16. Tokyo Nogyo University
Another program on the Reitaku-Surugadai-Senshu plane of existence. The first school to join the original four that ran the first Hakone, Tokyo Nogyo hasn't qualified since 2014.

17. Yamanashi Gakuin University
The first collegiate team to use Kenyan athletes, YGU has struggled a bit since longtime head coach Masahito Ueda stepped back into an advisory position. Last year it missed qualifying for Hakone for the first time since it first made it in 1987. On paper it's got the team to make it back this year, even if Kenyan 3rd-year Paul Onyiego isn't quite up to the level of some of its past stars. 4th-year Shingo Moriyama leads the team with bests of 13:46.76, 28:28.30 and 1:03:06.

18. Daito Bunka University
Another former Hakone winner struggling with transitions in its coaching program, DBU is right there with Reitaku, Surugadai and the others at that level. 9th through 12th, or even lower, will be exciting. 3rd-year Yohei Katane is DBU's standout athlete with a 10000 m best of 28:49.33.

19. Ryutsu Keizai University
RKU is another program that's been on the cusp of making the jump. This year is probably the best lineup it has had, with a core of eight that puts it in that same group up around 10th place. Most of its chances depend on how its 9th and 10th men do.

The Rest

There are actually a few other programs further down the field that have been putting mad resources into developing their ekiden programs. The two most notable:

23. Rikkyo University
Under new head coach Yuichiro Ueno, a former Chuo University star and 1500 m national champ, Rikkyo has come up surprisingly quickly. It doesn't have the numbers it needs to be a threat yet, but expect to see a lot of people attention on it.

27. Keio University
Not sure why Keio is ranked so far down the field as on paper it's up in the Reitaku orbit around 10th. One of the original four Hakone schools, Keio predated Rikkyo in pumping resources into its ekiden program in hopes of returning to prominence at Hakone, where it last ran in 1994.

© 2020 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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