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Toyo University Leads Defending Champ Aoyama Gakuin on Hakone Ekiden Day One

The team that brought Japan's greatest race into the modern era with its historic 2012 sub-3 min/km win, Toyo University came out swinging to win Day One of the 2018 Hakone Ekiden.

Intensely popular with fans, Toyo has struggled this season with its entire senior class out with injury. With its fate in the hands of its younger members Toyo 1st-year Kazuya Nishiyama, freshly 19 in November, stepped up and took control of the race with both hands. Midway through the fast First Stage Nishiyama surged hard to go out front alone, 2017 World University Games half marathon gold medalist Kei Katanishi (Komazawa Univ.) and relative unknown Yuhei Urano (Koku Gakuin Univ.) the only ones to try to go with him. Nishiyama covered the 21.3 km stage in 1:02:16, equivalent to a 1:01:40 half marathon, with Urano and Katanishi around 15 seconds back. 3-time defending champ Aoyama Gakuin University was 25 seconds behind in 5th at the first exchange, 2017 Izumo Ekiden winner Tokai University another 7 seconds behind in 7th.

The 23.1 km Second Stage always features every team's best runner, making it Hakone's most competitive. Toyo's top half marathoner Akira Aizawa took the reins and went with it, running 1:07:18 to extend Toyo's lead by 8 seconds. His time, equivalent to 1:01:28 for the half marathon, was the 9th-fastest ever on the Second Stage and 6th-best by a Japanese-born runner, but that didn't stop others from going even better.

In hot pursuit AGU's Homare Morita went from 5th to 2nd as he ran 1:07:15 to win the stage on time and come in at all-time #8. Farther back Kenyan ace Dominic Nyairo (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) tied Morita's time as he tore through the field to take YGU from 17th to 4th. It's a sign of how much things have changed in Japan that a Kenyan can run one of the fastest times in Hakone history and still not better the best Japanese men in the field.

Further back, #1-ranked Tokai failed to make headway on the Second Stage, stalling at 7th by the next exchange. #3-ranked Komazawa was backwardly mobile, unexpectedly dropping from 3rd to 11th as second-stringer Ichitaka Yamashita filled in for 2017 World University Games silver medalist Naoki Kudo.

The 21.4 km Third Stage was a critical one for Toyo to maintain its lead and for AGU and others to run them down before the legendary uphill Fifth Stage. Toyo 3rd-year Shuji Yamamoto put a full stop on his competitors' hopes as he won the stage in 1:02:17, 5th-fastest in Hakone history and a 1:01:24 half marathon equivalent, and increased Toyo's lead over AGU to 46 seconds. 2011 Hakone winner Waseda University advanced to 3rd off a strong run by 4th-year Makoto Mitsunobu, while Tokai and Komazawa each picked up one place to move into 6th and 10th.

Over the last ten years it has been almost universally true that the team in the top position at the end of Day One ended up with the overall title, Waseda's 2011 win being the last time it worked out differently. With the 800 m-plus elevation gain Fifth Stage exerting massive influence on the first day's final standings the Fourth Stage was absolutely critical for AGU and the others to catch back up and stop Toyo from dominating it alone. But again, Toyo's next generation stepped up to the plate.

1st-year Hirotsugu Yoshikawa covered the hilly stage in 1:02:22, the second-fastest time on his leg, to more than double Toyo's lead over AGU to 2:03. AGU held on to 2nd, Waseda falling to 5th, Tokai holding steady at 6th and Komazawa picking up 7th with a good run from 4th-year Masaki Takamoto. Lacking the team-wide half marathon credentials to be competitive over Hakone's longer distances, 2017 National University Ekiden champ Kanagawa University came into contention as 4th-year Yamato Otsuka broke the course record in 1:02:21, 1 second faster than Toyo's Yoshikawa, to move into 3rd.

The uphill Fifth Stage represents a massive variable in Hakone, every team's success dependent on identifying and developing an uphill specialist. More than almost any year in recent memory that was clear this year. Yet another Toyo 1st-year, Ryusei Tanaka held on to the lead to bring Toyo to the Day One finish line on the shores of Lake Ashi, but with only the 9th-best time on the stage he lost almost all of Toyo's lead. AGU 2nd-year Naoto Takeishi ran strongly behind him and might have caught him, but as Takeishi reached the mountain's peak with over 3 km still to go he suddenly stopped to massage out leg cramps. Again on the flats leading into the final km he stopped to rub his legs, but Takeishi succeeded in getting to the finish line just 36 seconds behind Tanaka.

Further back the standings changed wildly as every runner fought the mountain. Waseda moved back into 3rd as 4th-year Yuichi Yasui ran a superb leg to finish with the second-best time on the stage. Tokai, Komazawa and Kanagawa plummeted to 9th, 13th and 15th. Non-factors Takushoku University, Hosei University and Josai University came through brilliantly in a close group in 4th, 5th and 6th, Hosei 2nd-year Ryoma Aoki breaking the stage record in 1:11:44 and Takushoku and Josai both recording their best-ever Day One placings.

Nittai University, Juntendo University and Chuo University rounded out the top ten, a crucial cutoff line in the field of 21. The top ten teams at the end of Day Two score guaranteed places at the following year's Hakone and earn invites to the Izumo Ekiden, with 11th-place and lower sent down to the Yosenkai 20 km qualifier to try to earn a return trip to Hakone. Chuo Gakuin University was in the 11th-place position at the top of the mountain, 25 seconds behind 10th-placer Chuo at the end of the first day and 2017 Yosenkai winner Teikyo University close behind. With top three contenders Komazawa and Kanagawa both ending Day One well out of the top ten the Day Two battle to get back into it promises to be intense.

But where that battle has been the highlight of the day for most of the last ten years, the race up front having a become almost a foregone conclusion for the Day One winner, tomorrow's return trip promises to be a real race. Toyo's 36-second lead is too fragile for any kind of security, especially with the downhill Sixth Stage requiring another kind of specialist. At both Izumo and Nationals Toyo fell victim to the absence of its 4th-years, simply not having the depth to fill their places. With even more stages to be run at Hakone it will take a miracle to hold off the high-quality AGU lineup. 3rd-placer Waseda is in a similar position, lacking the reserves of quality to overtake AGU for the win.

Takushoku, Hosei and Josai likewise may not have the runners it needs to keep their places in the second tier and will likely slide backwards toward the 10th-place cutoff. With several top-level teams looking to move the other way across that line the tension can only go up. Follow @JRNLive for live coverage throughout Day Two of the 2018 Hakone Ekiden.

94th Hakone Ekiden Day One

Tokyo to Hakone, 1/2/18
21 teams, 5 stages, 107.5 km
click here for complete results

Top Individual Stage Performances
First Stage - 21.3 km
1. Kazuya Nishiyama (1st yr., Toyo Univ.) - 1:02:16
2. Yuhei Urano (2nd yr., Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 1:02:30
3. Kei Katanishi (3rd yr., Komazawa Univ.) - 1:02:32

Second Stage - 23.1 km
1. Homare Morita (3rd yr., Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:07:15
1. Dominic Nyairo (3rd yr., Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 1:07:15
3. Akira Aizawa (2nd. yr., Toyo Univ.) - 1:07:18

Third Stage - 21.4 km
1. Shuji Yamamoto (3rd yr., Toyo Univ.) - 1:02:17
2. Kazuki Tamura (4th yr., Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:02:41
3. Shota Onizuka (3rd yr., Tokai Univ.) - 1:03:29

Fourth Stage - 20.9 km
1. Yamato Otsuka (4th yr., Kanagawa Univ.) - 1:02:21 - CR
2. Hirotsugu Yoshikawa (1st yr., Toyo Univ.) - 1:02:22
3. Hidekazu Hijikata (2nd yr., Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 1:02:36

Fifth Stage - 20.8 km, ~800 m net elevation gain
1. Ryoma Aoki (2nd yr., Hosei Univ.) - 1:11:44 - CR
2. Yuichi Yasui (4th yr., Waseda Univ.) - 1:12:04
3. Kyohei Hosoya (4th yr., Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 1:12:17

Team Results
1. Toyo Universtiy - 5:28:29
2. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:29:05
3. Waseda University - 5:30:25
4. Takushoku University - 5:33:05
5. Hosei University - 5:33:06
6. Josai University - 5:33:19
7. Nittai University - 5:33:47
8. Juntendo University - 5:33:54
9. Tokai University - 5:34:09
10. Chuo University - 5:34:18
11. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:34:43
12. Teikyo University - 5:34:47
13. Komazawa University - 5:36:01
14. Koku Gakuin University - 5:36:58
15. Kanagawa University - 5:38:04
16. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:38:07
17. Daito Bunka University - 5:39:38
18. Kokushikan University - 5:41:38
19. Tokyo Kokusai University - 5:41:45
20. Jobu University - 5:42:22
21. Kanto Region Student Alliance - 5:49:20

© 2018 Brett Larner, all rights reserved


Anonymous said…
Is it true the course was changed from last year? Thanks.

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