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Aoyama Gakuin Fronts Wholesale Demolition of Hakone Ekiden Day One Course Records

Day Two results

2020 is the 100th anniversary of Japan's biggest sports event, the Hakone Ekiden. Originally conceived of in large part by Japan's first Olympic marathoner Shiso Kanakuri as a way to develop Olympic marathon talent, this year's Hakone comes at the very start of the year the Olympics return to Tokyo. It also comes at the end of a season that saw four former Hakone stage winners take the top four spots at the 2020 Olympic marathon trials, validating Kanakuri's vision a century removed. But he could never have imagined the kind of race the kids would deliver.

Right from the gun the tone was set, with three-time First Stage winner Kazuya Nishiyama of last year's Day One winner Toyo University taking it out right on course record pace and the entire field going with it. The sheer aggression of the tone never changed over the entire five-stage, 107.5 km day, both big names and unknowns hitting it hard every stage. Minor school runner Rei Yonemitsu outran all the big names to give Soka University its first-ever Hakone stage win on the First Stage, running down breakaway leader Kota Fujiki of Izumo Ekiden winner Koku Gakuin University in the final 300 m to finish just 7 seconds off the course record and tie Hakone great Yasuyuki Watanabe's all-time #2 mark of 1:01:13 for 21.3 km.

2019 World University Games half marathon gold medalist Akira Aikawa of Toyo, who last year broke the Hakone Fourth Stage course record set by then-future 2:06 marathoner Atsushi Fujita and took over a minute off the record on his stage at November's National University Ekiden, started unexpectedly far back in 14th and spent the entire 23.1 km Second Stage slicing and dicing his way through the field. Early on he picked up company from World University Games half marathon bronze medalist Tatsuhiko Ito of Hakone qualifier winner Tokyo Kokusai University, who delivered the performance of his life to act as Aizawa's domestique and push him on to the unthinkable, a 1:05:57 course record. The old course record holder, Kenyan Mekubo Mogusu, ran 59-minute half marathons three times he set his 1:06:04 record. Ito hung on til the bitter end and was rewarded by tying the previous second-fastest mark ever at 1:06:18, his name trending at #3 in Japan immediately afterwards as fans recognized the value of what he'd done for Aizawa.

Teikyo University's Daichi Endo and star Komazawa University first-year Ren Tazawa both broke the year-old Third Stage course record, but their runs paled next to what had to have been the most jaw-dropping run in Hakone history. Making his ekiden debut, Ito's first-year TKU teammate Vincent Yegon took 2:01 off the course record, covering the 21.4 km stage in 59:25. Do the math, y'all, that's a 58:35 half marathon. When he passed leader Takato Suzuki of 2015-2018 Hakone champ Aoyama Gakuin University, who was also on CR pace at the time, Suzuki just laughed and waved him on.

At yesterday's New Year Ekiden winner Asahi Kasei's fourth-straight national title came down to a course record-breaking run by an untried rookie on the second-to-last stage. It happened again here, with AGU's Yuya Yoshida, a senior who had never made the team's starting roster before and plans to quit running when he graduates in March, ran down TKU to put AGU back out front. He also took 24 seconds off Aizawa's CR from last year, which in turn had bettered Fujita's legendary mark, covering the net uphill 20.9 km Fourth Stage in 1:00:30.

That set up Hakone's most dramatic stage, the uphill Fifth Stage with almost 900 m of climb mostly in the middle 10 km of the total 20.8 km distance. Last year KGU's Yuhei Urano set the course record at 1:10:54. This year he started in 2nd 1:28 behind AGU's Takayuki Iida. Almost to the peak he closed relentlessly, but when Iida entered the saddleback slope at the top of the mountain and then crossed onto the steep downhill to the finish he accelerated, bettering Urano's CR in 1:00:40 to give AGU the Day One title in a course record 5:21:16. Urano brought KGU home in 1:00:45, also bettering his own CR, but short of the team's goal of its first-ever Day One win. But they weren't even the best in the field. Far back, Toyo's Hayato Miyashita dropped a 1:10:25 CR to move his struggling team up from 14th to 11th.

Along with the eight runners who broke records on four of the five stages and Yonemitsu's near-miss on the First Stage, the top four teams broke the Day One record that Toyo set last year. AGU notably broke the magic 3:00/km barrier for the entire Day One course, even with the uphill. And did I mention that a guy ran a 58:35 half marathon en route? What to make of it all?

Hakone legends doing guest commentary were stunned by the quality of the performances throughout the day. Yasuyuki Watanabe, former Hakone stage record holder and college coach of marathon national record holder Suguru Osako, said, "I kept thinking there was something wrong with my stopwatch. As someone who ran 66 minutes on the Second Stage I didn't think I'd see 65 minutes happen in my lifetime." Toshihiko Seko, another former Hakone record holder, one of the world's all-time great marathoners and current JAAF director of marathoning, could only stammer, "The conditions were really good."

He was right, of course, as temperatures were mostly under 10˚C and there was a very light tailwind much of the way, but the most honest commentary came from First Stage winner Yonemitsu. When an announcer asked him in a post-run stage victory interview how it felt to have tied Watanabe's all-time #2 mark Yonemitsu answered, "Well, these days there are the shoes, the Vaporfly, so I don't feel especially psyched about it."

It was the funniest moment in Hakone broadcast history since Mogusu set his old Second Stage record, was introduced to Seko and had no idea who he was. But it shone a 10,000 watt searchlight on the elephant in the room. 19 of the 21 guys on the First Stage were wearing them. The rest of the stages were probably about the same. If the shoes were banned tomorrow would today's marks ever be touched? Miyashita's Fifth Stage record, yes. The unbroken First Stage record, probably. Yoshida's Fourth Stage record, maybe. Aizawa's Second Stage record, probably not. Yegon's Third Stage record, no way in hell.

In terms of relation to the times and records of Hakone's past the elephant in the room is probably more of a bull in a china shop. But however much faster everyone was, what was impossible to ignore was the attitude and belief that everyone, EVERYONE, brought to this year's Hakone Day One and the quality of the racing that resulted. Everyone all in and all out. The current generation of marathoners were the ones who took Hakone into the modern era. This generation is taking it further.

Like Yonemitsu, all the stage winners' comments were refreshingly honest, too. Aizawa said that since he beat Mogusu's CR, he thinks he can take his 59:48 half marathon PB too. Yegon said he had a lot of fun and can't wait to try another stage next year. Yoshida said he came here to put everything into his single Hakone run and can walk away from the sport proud now. Miyashita said he never imagined he'd break 71 minutes but that it's nothing compared to Hakone legend Masato Imai, the only runner to ever break 70. Likable people one and all, each looking to his own individual road ahead.

In the immediate future, tomorrow, Aoyama Gakuin looks pretty secure to take back the overall Hakone title on Day Two's return trip to downtown Tokyo. 2nd-place Koku Gakuin used most of its best people today and doesn't have the depth to catch AGU. Tokyo Kokusai still has depth but not the quality and will spend the day trying to finish as high up the field as it can in its first time ever making the top ten. Defending champ Tokai has the depth and quality to take AGU down, but post-race even head coach Hayashi Morozumi freely admitted that making up a 3:22 deficit was almost hopeless. The most exciting action will happen around the 10th-place line, as the top ten score places at next year's Hakone and the season-opening Izumo Ekiden while 11th and below have to run October's Yosenkai qualifier. 29 seconds separate 9th-place Waseda University from 12th-place Chuo Gakuin University, and with last year's Day One winner Toyo currently in 11th it's going to get rough down there.

@JRNLive will cover the race start to finish starting with the pre-race show at 7:00 a.m. Japan time. The best live stream option is probably, but we'll be tweeting other options if they come up. Stay tuned for the final day of the best three days in the sport and whatever it brings.

96th Hakone Ekiden Day One

Tokyo~Hakone, 1/2/20
21 teams, 5 stages, 107.5 km
complete results

Top Individual Stage Results
First Stage (21.3 km)
1. Rei Yonemitsu (Soka Univ.) - 1:01:13
2. Kota Fujiki (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 1:01:18
3. Yohei Ikeda (Nittai Univ.) - 1:01:21
4. Shota Onizuka (Tokai Univ.) - 1:01:23
5. Keigo Kurihara (Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 1:01:26

Second Stage (23.1 km)
1. Akira Aizawa (Toyo Univ.) - 1:05:57 - CR
2. Tatsuhiko Ito (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.) - 1:06:18
2. Razini Lemeteki (Takushoku Univ.) - 1:06:18
4. Vincent Laimoi (Kokushikan  Univ.) - 1:06:46
5. Hironori Kishimoto (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:07:03

Third Stage (21.4 km)
1. Vincent Yegon (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.) - 59:25 - CR
2. Daichi Endo (Teikyo Univ.) - 1:01:23 (CR)
3. Ren Tazawa (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:01:25 (CR)
4. Takato Suzuki (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:01:32
5. Yuto Aoki (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 1:01:34

Fourth Stage (20.9 km, net uphill)
1. Yuya Yoshida (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:00:30 - CR
2. Ryota Natori (Tokai Univ.) - 1:01:37
3. Taiga Nakanishi (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 1:01:53
4. Yuichi Fukuda (Soka Univ.) - 1:01:55
5. Kaito Ojima (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:02:01

Fifth Stage (20.8 km, ~800 m net uphill)
1. Hayato Miyashita (Toyo Univ.) - 1:10:25 - CR
2. Takayuki Iida (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:10:40 (CR)
3. Yuhei Urano (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 1:10:45 (CR)
4. Ryoma Aoki (Hosei Univ.) - 1:11:06
5. Kiyoto Suzuki (Meiji Univ.) - 1:11:49

Team Results
1. Aoyama Gakuin Unviersity - 5:21:16 - CR
2. Koku Gakuin University - 5:22:49 (CR)
3. Tokyo Kokusai University - 5:24:33 (CR)
4. Tokai University - 5:24:38 (CR)
5. Meiji University - 5:27:11
6. Teikyo University - 5:27:15
7. Soka University - 5:27:34
8. Komazawa University - 5:27:44
9. Waseda University - 5:28:48
10. Takushoku University - 5:29:08
11. Toyo University - 5:29:15
12. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:29:17
----- teams >10 min behind leader start Day 2 together
13. Chuo University - 5:31:40
14. Juntendo University - 5:31:52
15. Nihon University - 5:32:53
16. Hosei University - 5:33:00
17. Kanagawa University - 5:34:11
18. Nittai University - 5:34:35
(non-scoring) Kanto Student Alliance Select Team - 5:34:54
19. Tsukuba University - 5:37:53
20. Kokushikan University - 5:38:37

© 2020 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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Yokohama said…
As very good natural experiment. The shoes, while very good, its still about the runner, as evidenced by the large time gap between first and 22nd.
David Murakami Wood said…
It seems that as the IAAF are doing nothing, we'll have every shoe company producing these carbon springs by next year. But they need to do something, ro what is permitted is going to get ridiculous... if it isn't already.
mjsalovaara said…
Regarding the fast time, shoe controversy aside, another factor I haven't seen discussed is that this is an Olympic year. Performances tend to improve in the lead up the Olympics, especially so for the host nation.

As usual, excellent individual performances; stand outs are Ito (day one) and Izumo (day two).

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