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Soka University Wins First-Ever Hakone Ekiden Day One Title

It was a strange sight to see the biggest race of them all run through empty streets mostly stripped of the millions of fans who always line them. But as Japan's coronavirus bill comes due, it was a relief just to see the Hakone Ekiden's 97th running happen at all.

The first km of the 21.3 km First Stage was possibly the slowest in Hakone history, with the entire field practically walking its way through the first 800 m before Kiseki Shiozawa (Tokai Univ.) got it moving enough to clock a 3:35 opening split. Things quickly picked up to more normal between 2:50 and 2:55/km, but the slow start meant that 18 out of the field of 21 were still together when the pack hit the climb onto the bridge just before 20 km. There and on its downhill end some of the bigger names made moves that broke the pack down, with Shiozawa and Koki Kamata (Hosei Univ.) pulling away to make it a head-to-head race for the stage title. 

Surprisingly Kamata was the one who got away, giving Hosei its first First Stage win in 21 years as he handed off in 1:03:00, a 1:02:24 half marathon despite the slow start and headwinds that hit every stage. Shiozawa aside, most of the favorites including sub-62 half marathoners Ryuji Miura (Juntendo Univ.), Keita Yoshida (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.), Takuma Sunaoka (Josai Univ.) and Takashi Nanba (Student Alliance) dropped off, leaving Yuichi Fukuda (Soka Univ.) to take 3rd 15 seconds back from Kamata.

The longest stage of the day, the 23.1 km Second Stage had most teams' best runners. Ryota Natori (Tokai Univ.) was quick to take over the lead, but behind him Vincent Yegon (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.), who last year set an incredible 59:25 course record for the 21.4 km Third Stage, was getting down to work, slicing and dicing his way through the field after starting in 15th. En route to making contact with Natori he picked up company from Philip Muluwa (Soka Univ.), who stuck with Yegon longer than anyone could have expected and put Soka into 2nd. 

Yegon struggled on the tough hills late in the stage, but he succeeded in taking 8 seconds off the 1:05:57 course record set last year by Akira Aizawa. Post-race he said that the Second Stage course was a lot harder than the Third Stage course had been last year, as much a compliment to Aizawa as anything else. Muluwa was next to the exchange 59 seconds back, just holding off Natori and sub-28 track 10000 m man Yohei Ikeda (Nittai Univ.).

U20 5000 m national record holder Yamato Yoshii (Chuo Univ.) was expected to factor heavily into the Third Stage, but it was another first-year, Shotaro Ishihara (Tokai Univ.), who got the attention. With a 10000 m best of just 30:59.38 and no half marathon experience, Ishihara was gritting his teeth right from the start, fearlessly running down Jun Kasai (Soka Univ.) for 2nd and then grinding all the way up to leader Hikaru Uchida (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.) and beyond. It was pretty reasonable to doubt whether he could sustain it the whole way, but by the end of the stage Ishihara had a 34-second lead over Soka with just one more stage to go until the great equalizer, the uphill Fifth Stage. His time of 1:02:05, a 1:01:12 half marathon, was one of the best ever run on the stage.

That set Tokai's next runner Yosei Saeki, another high-talent first-year, up well for the 20.9 km Fourth Stage. But behind him, Soka had craftily put on last year's anchor stage course record breaker Yudai Shimazu. After Hakone last year Shimazu took time off from school for health reasons, only starting to run again in August with slow jogging at 8:00/km. But you'd never have known it from the way he ran here, mercilessly running Saeki down and opening a lead of 1:42 at the final exchange. Kenyan Paul Onyiego (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) was the only one to run the net uphill stage faster, but Shimazu was the key athlete as he set up Day One anchor Yuta Mikami to tackle the mountain with a little bit of breathing space.

Mikami had prepped for the Fifth Stage by running some vertical races in the area last year, and as he ascended the >800 m of climb on the 20.8 km stage he never looked worried. Behind him, last year's stage winner Hayato Miyashita (Toyo Univ.) ran down yet another star first-year, Mebuki Suzuki (Komazawa Univ.) and started to shave seconds off Mikami's lead, but Mikami never showed any sign of strain, taking advantage of the steep downhill to the finish on the shores of Lake Ashi to actually extend Soka's lead to 2:14 by the time he crossed the finish line. It was Soka's first-ever Day One win, a stellar achievement in just its fourth appearance since first qualifying in 2015, and caught head coach Kazutaka Enoki, a four-time Hakone stage winner during his student days at Chuo University, off-guard. "I hadn't thought about us winning Day One at all," he said post-race. "All the athletes ran beyond themselves." No joke: all Soka's runners except Muluwa made the top three on their stages, and there's a case to be made for Muluwa as MVP for going with Yegon and keeping Soka in position for the runners after him to take advantage of it. 

Behind Mikami, Suzuki regained ground on Miyashita on the downhill to the lakeside, but in the last km Miyashita held him off to take 2nd. Suzuki was next in 3rd just 7 seconds back, with Shoma Hosoya (Teikyo Univ.) delivering a stage-winning run to take 4th another 10 seconds behind. Tokai was 5th, with Tokyo Kokusai, qualifier winner Juntendo University, Kanagawa University, Koku Gakuin  University and Takushoku University filling out the top ten. Defending champ Aoyama Gakuin University was 12th almost 8 minutes behind Soka, a dismal team performance that saw only one of its runners make the top five on his stage. 

The top 17 teams finished within 10 minutes of Soka, meaning that only the last four teams will start tomorrow's return trip with a time handicap. Soka was a surprise today, but it's hard to see them having the people in reserve to deal with Toyo and especially national champion Komazawa, both of which have 5000 m and 10000 m averages under 14 minutes and under 29 minutes for their ten fastest men. In a great run they would probably take 3rd overall tomorrow, but the well-balanced Teikyo will almost definitely be a threat for top three, and 2019 Hakone winner Tokai is still in range of coming back on Day Two. But sometimes the underdogs have their day, and even more than today, tomorrow might be Soka's.

For most of the rest of the field it'll be a battle to get into the top ten, which earns them places at next season's Hakone and Izumo Ekiden. Just over two minutes separate 8th-place Kanagawa University from 13th-place Josai University, and with both Waseda University and defending champ Aoyama Gakuin currently outside the top ten it should be a great day of racing.

JRN will be back at 7:00 a.m. Japan time to cover the race live on @JRNLive. Race broadcaster NTV is streaming the entire thing on its site, which is restricted to Japan but viewable overseas with a VPN. Other streams tend to pop up on Youtube and elsewhere as the broadcast rolls on, so we'll tweet links to them as they appear. Don't miss an unusually unpredictable Day Two of the best road racing action of the year.

97th Hakone Ekiden Day One

Tokyo~Hakone, 02 Jan. 2021
21 teams, 5 stages, 107.5 km
complete results

Top Individual Stage Results
First Stage (21.3 km)
1. Koki Kamata (Hosei Univ.) - 1:03:00
2. Kiseki Shiozawa (Tokai Univ.) - 1:03:05
3. Yuichi Fukuda (Soka Univ.) - 1:03:15
4. Daiki Nomimura (Kanagawa Univ.) - 1:03:16
5. Ryuto Igawa (Waseda Univ.) - 1:03:17

Second Stage (23.1 km)
1. Vincent Yegon (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.) - 1:05:49 - CR
2. Vincent Raimoi (Kokushikan Univ.) - 1:07:09
3. Yohei Ikeda (Nittai Univ.) - 1:07:14
4. Kazuki Matsuyama (Toyo Univ.) - 1:07:15
5. Joseph Razini (Takushoku Univ.) - 1:07:17

Third Stage (21.4 km)
1. Shotaro Ishihara (Tokai Univ.) - 1:02:05
2. Ayumu Kobayashi (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:02:22
3. Jun Kasai (Soka Univ.) - 1:02:41
4. Daichi Endo (Teikyo Univ.) - 1:02:56
5. Tatsuya Iyoda (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:03:25

Fourth Stage (20.9 km, net uphill)
1. Paul Onyiego (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 1:02:15
2. Yudai Shimazu (Soka Univ.) - 1:02:49
3. Soshi Suzuki (Waseda Univ.) - 1:03:03
4. Issei Sato (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:03:09
5. Kazuki Ishii (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:03:35

Fifth Stage (20.8 km, ~800 m net uphill)
1. Shoma Hosoya (Teikyo Univ.) - 1:11:52
2. Yuta Mikami (Soka Univ.) - 1:12:05
3. Hayato Miyashita (Toyo Univ.) - 1:12:09
4. Mebuki Suzuki (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:12:44
5. Yoshiki Ishikawa (Takushoku Univ.) - 1:12:50

Team Results
1. Soka University - 5:28:08
2. Toyo University - 5:30:22
3. Komazawa University - 5:30:29
4. Teikyo University - 5:30:39
5. Tokai University - 5:31:35
6. Tokyo Kokusai University - 5:32:06
7. Juntendo University - 5:33:31
8. Kanagawa University - 5:33:40
9. Koku Gakuin University - 5:34:52
10. Takushoku University - 5:35:01
11. Waseda University - 5:35:12
12. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:35:43
13. Josai University - 5:35:44
14. Meiji University - 5:36:03
15. Nittai University - 5:36:38
16. Hosei University - 5:37:14
17. Kokushikan University - 5:37:48
18. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:38:38
19. Chuo University - 5:39:17
OP - Kanto Region Student Alliance - 5:45:46
20. Senshu University - 5:49:56

© 2021 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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j said…
The fact that Soka doesn't have the experienced Kira Migita and Hiromi Suzuki in their 16 (and that Migita ran 28:48 in December after entry list was published) is a sign that Soka is pretty confident about whoever they've got running the return route. Only team that didn't run Yosenkai or All Japan so they are the only ones who really know what shape they are in.
Errol said…
Thanks for the coverage !
Errol said…
Thanks for the analysis :)

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