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Coming Down From Hakone - This Year's Race in the Cold, Hard Light of Day

Damn, has it already been a week? Time goes by so fast. Times at the Hakone Ekiden this year were fast too. Eight guys broke course records on four of the five stages on Day One, and another five broke the records on three of the five stages on Day Two. Two of the three stages that didn't have new records were just seconds off. Four teams broke the Day One course record, two broke the overall course record, and one broke the Day Two record. This all mirrored what happened a day earlier at the New Year Ekiden, where eight men broke the records on four of the seven stages, at least one other missed by seconds, the top two teams broke the official overall course record and two more broke the record for the actual current version of the course.

And not just records. Some of them were historic, epoch-making marks. None more so than Tokyo Kokusai University's Vincent Yegon, who busted the greatest performance in Hakone history, a 59:25 course record for the 21.4 km Third Stage, 2:01 off the old record set just last year and equivalent to a 58:35 half marathon. Announcers' minds went blank, wondering out loud if the clocks were malfunctioning.

For, uh, obvious reasons, the Hakone MVP award didn't go to Yegon but to Toyo University's Akira Aizawa, Japan's next big thing for sure, who broke the course record for the celebrated 23.1 km Second Stage, the most competitive stage at Hakone where most of the greats of Japanese distance running honed their chops in college. Only six men, four of them Japanese, had ever broken 67 minutes on the Second Stage in Hakone's 95 runnings prior to this year. The fastest of them, Kenyan Mekubo Mogusu, ran 1:06:04, equivalent to a 1:00:20 half marathon on a course with steep uphills just before the finish, in the midst of a year when he broke 60 minutes for the half three times. Aizawa broke Mogusu's record by 7 seconds, becoming the first man to clear 66 with a new record of 1:05:57, worth a 1:00:14 half marathon and 48 seconds faster than the next-best Japanese man ever on the stage.

Until the next Japanese guy, TKU's Tatsuhiko Ito, finished in 1:06:18, tying the all-time #2 mark and 27 seconds up on the previous best-ever Japanese time. Kenyans Joseph Razini Lemeteki of Takushoku University and Vincent Raimoi of Kokushikan University, winners of the Ageo City Half Marathon the last two years, were both under 67. The next two Japanese both clocked times that would have made the all-time top ten on the stage before this year.

And it wasn't just the stars. On the 20.8 km Fourth Stage, Yuya Yoshida, a fourth-year at eventual winner Aoyama Gakuin University who had never even made AGU's starting roster before, ran 1:00:30 to beat the course record that Aizawa set last year by 24 seconds, a record that had barely eclipsed the 1:00:56 record set by future 2:06:51 marathoner Atsushi Fujita 20 years earlier. On the 21.3 km First Stage unknown Rei Yonemitsu, whose team Soka University had qualified for Hakone for just the third time, came 7 seconds short of the record held by Yuki Sato, one of Japan's all-time track greats, and tied the all-time #2 mark of 1:01:13, a 1:00:38 half marathon, set by Hakone legend Yasuyuki Watanabe in 1994.

It's no secret that almost every single person pulling these kinds of era-defining times was wearing Nike's ZoomX Vaporfly Next% shoes. Every single one in the case of the New Year Ekiden. The top three teams at Hakone, AGU, Tokai University and Koku Gakuin University, all used the Next% exclusively, with 7/10 runners at 4th-placer Teikyo University using and 5th-place TKU coming in at 9/10 users. The great @Rolows_13 feed summed it up best graphically, with others doing the math to show the Next% with a Hakone market share of 84%.

There has been a lot of speculation over the last year as runners in the Next% broke records everywhere and at everything about how much faster the shoes are really making people. Dr. Helmut Winter, the German professor who developed the timing display system currently used at many of the World Marathon Majors and other top-level road races worldwide, performed one of the best analyses in his 2019 year-end review. Dr. Winter looked at the number of male and female marathoners worldwide running times inside one-minute increments over a ten-minute range at the elite level over the last five years. Omitting 2018 for clarity, a year he called transitional as the Next%'s predecessor, the 4%, started a wave that produced two Japanese men's marathon national records, his study showed a clear change.

While there was little notable change in depth worldwide of athletes producing times in each one-minute increment among either men or women from 2015 to 2017, in 2019 things were markedly different. Dr. Winter found that subtracting 1:45 from the 2016 numbers resulted in a perfect duplication of the 2019 numbers for men. For women, subtracting 3:00 from the 2016 numbers produced almost as good a replication of the 2019 numbers. In other words, at the elite level male marathoners are 1:45 faster now than three or even two years ago, 2.5 sec/km across the board. For women, they are 4.25 sec/km faster now.

Dr. Winter concedes that some part of this may be due to training, nutrition or other factors, but says unequivocally that the most obvious variable generating this advantage is the Next%. Technology marches on to be sure, and once the transition period is over it will all probably become the new normal, assuming it's not regulated out of the picture. But in the short term what does it mean? For Olympic qualification it's a headache. The Olympic marathon qualifying standards were set based on the assumption using past numbers that half of the 80-runner field would qualify on time and half on world rankings. The numbers qualifying on time have already exceeded the set field size, and the window isn't closed yet. On the elite road racing circuit, it's a wild cash grab right now for any Nike-affiliated agents and athletes using the Next%, with course record bonuses worldwide ripe for the picking.

For Hakone, the proving ground where you get to see the big names coming up and can judge how they stand against the legends from history distant and recent, it's making it impossible to get a handle on what's happening. Last year Kazuya Shiojiri broke the record for the fastest-ever Japanese time on the Second Stage with a 1:06:45 wearing Asics. Is Aizawa really that much better? Is he really set to become the greatest Japanese runner ever? Did an AGU benchwarmer really obliterate both Aizawa and a 2:06 marathoner? Breaking the 3:00/km barrier for the entire two-day Hakone course is the race's holy grail, something only three teams, Toyo's legendary 2012 and 2014 squads and AGU's 2015 team, all featuring some of today's top Japanese marathoners like Yuta Shitara, Yuma Hattori and Daichi Kamino, have ever pulled off. Toyo led the way until this year with an average of 2:59.4/km in 2012. This year, with both coaches admitting their teams were weaker than last year but both having switched to the Next% this season, AGU averaged 2:58.4/km and Tokai 2:59.3/km. Really?

Let's try to apply Dr. Winter's numbers here. As he says, there may be other factors involved; in particular this year there was a light tailwind in the 1~2 m/s range most of the way on Day One and, luckily, again going the other way on Day Two. That probably accounted for some fraction of the fast times. But just to get a general idea, let's use Dr. Winter's finding of a 2.5 sec/km advantage from the Next%, apply that to the Hakone numbers, and see how they stack up against historical numbers.

Looking at the raw results, seven of the ten stages saw new course records, with the stage winners on the other three running all-time #2, #3 and #5 marks for their stages. Mid-to-high 1:01 for the half marathon is pretty much the standard for top-level Japanese university men and what the stage-winning times at Hakone usually translate to. This year multiple stages had multiple guys running the equivalent of about 1:00:30 for the half, something only four Japanese man have ever actually done. Aizawa's performance was equivalent to 3 seconds under the half marathon national record.

Factoring in Dr. Winter's handicap, the results make a lot more sense. Don't worry too much about the times on the Fifth and Sixth Stage, the mountain stages with ~800 m net elevation difference. One goes up in a big way, the other comes back down. With the 2.5 sec/km handicap most of the other stages equate to mid-to-high 1:01 for the half, most of the course record times come in as all-time top ten marks for their stages, and most of the non-CR times come in just outside the all-time top ten. All pretty much what you'd expect in one of the better Hakone years. Only four Japanese men have ever broken 67 minutes on the Second Stage. Aizawa goes from generation-shifting super-talent to the fifth Japanese man to do it, right there with the four other all-time greats to have done it so far. Yoshida goes from something totally incomprehensible to a guy who put years of frustration all into the last race of his career and delivered something plausibly inspiring. Yegon also goes from incomprehensible to something on the upper end of stunning, the logical progression from Mogusu.

Although he got a massive boost from it, Yegon's stage record is one of only three that doesn't look to have been due to the Next%. Two Japanese runners, Teikyo's Daichi Endo and Soka anchor Yudai Shimazu, dropped records in Mizuno.  Endo took a believable 3 seconds off the CR but seems inexplicably fast, his 1:01:23 on the 21.4 km Third Stage equating to a 1:00:31 half marathon, while Shimazu's anchor stage course record equates to a 1:02:59 half marathon, very solid for any of the last three stages where coaches' rosters are usually starting to wear thin. Say what you will about Asics, but Mizuno stockholders at least should take a little more heart. Maybe if Endo or Shimazu had been given the MVP award for "really" breaking a CR instead of Aizawa.

Looking at team results, with the Winter handicap AGU still managed a CR for the uphill Day One course. That's surprising given that over the last 15 years or so Day One success has mostly come to depend on having a stellar uphill specialist on the Fifth Stage, but while AGU's uphill man Takyuki Iida was good it's more a testament to how well the rest of the Day One AGU squad worked together that they managed a believable 46 second record. The rest of the record-breaking runs on Day One, Tokai's Day Two record, and both AGU and Tokai's overall course records all become all-time top ten marks in their categories. Again, believable.

"All-time" as I'm using it above means in the sense of on the current version of the individual stages and Day One, Day Two and overall courses. The Hakone course has undergone minor changes over the years due to road construction and some of the en route exchange zones being moved, so to get a better sense of where this year's team performances really stand historically let's look at average pace. As I mentioned earlier, this year AGU and Tokai both destroyed the record for the fastest overall average pace over the entire Hakone course. Five teams made the all-time top ten on pace. AGU became the first team to break 3:00/km for the uphill Day One course, with KGU delivering the second-fastest time ever and TKU and Tokai also making the all-time top ten. Toyo's 2019 squad, who ran in the 4%, is also in there. Tokai broke AGU's Day Two course record, with AGU, Teikyo and Meiji all getting into the all-time top ten.

With Dr. Winter's handicap both AGU and Tokai still made the all-time top ten, but neither came close to breaking the magic 3:00/km barrier. AGU was actually slightly better than last year pre-Next%, mostly due to its solid Day One run. Tokai was down on strength, which matched up pretty well with how the team, which was missing many of the star seniors who powered it to its first Hakone title last year, looked like it was performing.

Adjusted using Dr. Winter's findings, AGU delivered the fourth-best Day One run ever but was far off even breaking 3:01/km, something only Toyo's 2012 team and AGU's 2015 team have managed, each with best-run-of-career performances from uphill legends Ryuji Kashiwabara and Kamino. KGU, whose coach said pre-race he was putting everything into trying to win Day One, and the Ito and Yegon-powered TKU, also made it into the all-time top ten.

On Day Two both Tokai and AGU still managed to squeeze into the all-time top ten with the Next% taken into account, but it's easy to see how far both teams were down from last year before they made the change in shoes.

So what are the takeaways? Were these really the greatest teams to ever run Hakone? Did Japan's greatest race see a shift to the next level in its 100th anniversary year? Is Aizawa a "once-in-30-years talent" as he was called on the broadcast, something beyond anyone Japan has ever produced? In a seminar I used to take with the MacArthur Foundation genius grant-winning composer Anthony Braxton, one of his frequent themes was, "The question isn't 'What is?' It's 'What is this isness?'" What does it mean to say something "is?" How do you know what that is actually is?

Is AGU 2020 the best team to ever run Hakone? Yes, they were the first ones to break 3:00/km for Day One and 2:59/km for the overall course. Were they better than Toyo's 2012 lineup? No, not even close. Was this the greatest year in Hakone history? Yes, look at all the course records. And no, there have been better. Is Aizawa a generation-leading talent? Yes, he broke the most prestigious course record set by a sub-60 Kenyan. And no, respectfully, based on that he's no better than the four Japanese men who broke 67 minutes, faster, before him.

The shoes' impact was obvious this year, but nobody would mention it. Hakone great Watanabe, on whose watch as Waseda University head coach Suguru Osako went off to start training with the Alberto Salazar-fronted Nike Oregon Project while still a student and who is fully aware of everything Nike has to offer, post-race: "As someone who ran 66 minutes on the Second Stage, I never thought I'd see someone run 65 in my lifetime.." OK, but....

Hakone legend Toshihiko Seko, one of the world's all-time great marathoners and current JAAF head of marathon development, who must know something about what the top three men at September's MGC Race 2020 Olympic marathon trials had on their feet, post-race: "The conditions were outstanding." True, the temperature was ideal and there was a gentle tailwind both ways, but....

The world record holder:

Yes, thank you for that, Eliud. But....

The lone totally honest voice here? After winning the First Stage, Soka's Rei Yonemitsu was asked how it felt to have tied Watanabe's all-time #2 mark just a few seconds off the course record. "I'm not especially psyched about it," he answered. "These days there are the shoes, the Vaporfly. There's definitely an effect from those. But I still ran that kind of time, and that gives me confidence."

In that last respect he's echoing Kipchoge saying that whatever the shoes, what matters is the belief of the athlete. That was on full display at Hakone this year. More than almost any year I've seen before, this year people ran like they believed it. Everyone, just about across the board. The level of racing was stellar, just about the best I've ever seen. People were running fast thanks to the shoes and, especially on Day One, seeming to throw caution away as they rolled with it. That spilled over even to the few runners wearing other brands. World-class ultra runner Geoff Burns had some interesting speculation on that, that the guarantee of a benefit encouraged an expanded sense of the limits and a higher level of risk-taking.

You could definitely see that in Aizawa. Post-race he said, "I broke Mogusu's course record. He broke 60 minutes for the half marathon. I think I can break his PB in that now too." Can he "really" do it? No, probably not. But can he do it? Sure, there's every reason to believe it. He'll probably be there to go for it in Marugame. And he's on the entry list for the Tokyo Marathon. Maybe he's going to be some kind of darkhorse leviathan who eclipses Shitara, Osako, Hiroto Inoue and everyone else for the third spot on the Tokyo Olympic team. You'd better believe it could happen. He probably does.

Hakone has always been a progression over its 100 year history, something you could look at and see a continuity, one with ups and downs as the generations changed but where you could trace a progression that made sense. This year the Next% made a clear break in that continuity, taking what was one of the race's best years and making it something otherworldly and, at times, laughable. When you watch it enough you get a feel for the relationship between how a team looks to be doing and how that lines up with its times. That just wasn't there this year. Teams that were obviously not having a good day or close to past teams in ability were dropping records left and right.

A few more years like this and once this painful transition period is past things will probably readjust and it will all seem normal. If it powers the self-belief of the next generation to go beyond current ideas of limitations, great. There's a lot of great racing ahead. But it's hard not to feel like something's being lost. Is it all real? What is this isness?

© 2020 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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TokyoRacer said…
Terrific in-depth analysis. Thanks for that.
I hope the other shoe companies are able to come up with something as good.
Anonymous said…
Wonderful analysis. Given that vaporfly is widely available to purchase (unlike their first generation shoes, which were very limited supply), we can no longer say it is an unfair advantage. AGU is an adidas sponsored team that wore vaporfly and promptly switched to adidas shoes for the post race interviews. I think this is the new normal and we better get used to seeing vaporfly or their technological competitors in all races, pros and amateurs. I love my vaporfly shoes and I won’t let them go... and I’m just an amateur 3 hour marathon runner.

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