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Komazawa University Pulls Off Last-Second Come-From-Behind Win at 2021 Hakone Ekiden


Where to start, really?

Yesterday in just its fourth time running the Hakone Ekiden since it first qualified in 2015 and its second season under head coach Kazutaka Enoki, underdog Soka University pulled off a seemingly out-of-nowhere Day One win. Soka started the return trip to Tokyo today with a 2:14 lead over heavyweights including perpetual top 3 placer Toyo University, 2020 National University Ekiden champion Komazawa University and 2019 Hakone winner Tokai University, enough to give it breathing room but not a margin of safety. With 109.6 km ahead of them, their lead translated to just over a second per km.

Soka's leadoff Day Two runner Masaki Hamano handled the Sixth Stage, 20.8 km with over 800 m of descent, well, but behind him Komazawa's Yuki Hanasaki nearly cracked the course record, winning the stage in 57:36 and cutting Soka's lead down to 1:08. Soka's most accomplished Day Two runner, Yoshiki Haratomi fired back on the 21.3 km Seventh Stage as he outran Komazawa's Kyosuke Hanao by 43 seconds to widen Soka's lead to 1:51. If Soka had repeated on the 21.4 km Eighth Stage it would have been pretty much over, but Komazawa's Kohei Tsukuda turned things around again, bringing them back within 1:29 of the leaders.

Soka coach Enoki had said pre-race that the Ninth Stage, the day's longest at 23.1 km, would be critical to the team's chances. Yoshiaki Ishizu took those words to heart, going out hard and never slowing as he more than doubled his lead over Komazawa's Chikara Yamano to 3:19. With a lead of over a kilometer Soka anchor Yuki Onodera was just a 23.0 km run away from history, the quickest a team had ever gone from qualifying for Hakone for the first time to winning it outside of the first couple of years back in the 1920s. It was going to be the biggest upset in the history of the biggest of races. The stuff legends are made of, right?

Right?

Out fast, Komazawa anchor Takuma Ishikawa was determined to run his best no matter how fruitless it was. 6 km into the stage he'd cut about 30 seconds off Onodera's lead, solid but nowhere near what he needed to pull off the impossible. At that rate he'd come within a minute and a half on Onodera and probably win the stage on time, a performance he could be proud of.

But Ishikawa kept pushing, and by 13 km, 10 km to go, he was within two minutes of Onodera, who was starting to show signs of strain. The math still didn't work in Ishikawa's favor, but in just over 3 km from there he closed another 40 seconds. Onodera was now in sight and visibly fading, and that only drove Ishikawa on harder. Just before 21 km he made contact, a hard surge into the lead, Onodera turning to look as he went by and dropping his head in defeat for a second. 

There hadn't been an anchor stage turnaround at Hakone in 20 years, let alone from a kilometer behind or in the last 2 km of the 217 km race. It was absurd. Inspirational. One of those moments that elevates us all. And it happened in empty streets where any other year there would have been tens of thousands there to see it. Can you imagine what it would have sounded like? 

 

Ishikawa pushed on to the end, never slowing. Right before the coach's pursuit car peeled off at Nihonbashi with 1 km to go Komazawa head coach Hiroaki Oyagi shouted out over the car's loudspeaker for Ishikawa to go harder and get the stage win, then a play on his usual negative motivation: "You did it. You're a man!" When Ishikawa heard that he was all smiles, ones that lasted all the way to the finish line.

Ishikawa upset what was going to be the biggest upset in Hakone history, handing Komazawa its first win since 2008. In a normal year his team would have been there laughing, crying, singing the school song, throwing him into the air in celebration in front of adoring fans. This time there were just two team staff members and a few officials there to greet him, the cheers and screams of teammates and fans happening far away on the other end of the live broadcast.

"To be honest, after the Ninth Stage I gave up," coach Oyagi said post-race. "But Ishikawa was moving well, so I told him to keep going." "I thought it was impossible," agreed Ishikawa. "But coach kept telling me I was doing great, and when I got close enough to see Soka ahead of me I knew I could do it." Not only did he do it, but he executed Oyagi's orders down to the last, winning the stage in 1:09:12, one of its fastest times ever.

Onodera came in 52 seconds later in 2nd, crying as he ran down the home straight and collapsing after finishing. Nobody, coach Enoki included, had expected Soka to make it so far, and having gone 20th-12th-9th-2nd in its four appearances to date there are only good things to say about them. But having come so close to something so historic it had to hurt for Onodera, and it's a credit to the public that hours after the race his name was still trending nationwide. 

"The athletes were superb," said coach Enoki, a four-time Hakone stage winner in his own student days, post-race. "If there was any failure it was in my leadership, not in the athletes. We'll learn from this and use it to move forward and grow." Consider the big-name schools put on notice for 2022.

After being caught by Komazawa on the Sixth Stage Toyo held on to 3rd the entire way, finishing exactly four minutes behind Soka. 2020 Hakone champ Aoyama Gakuin University fought back from a stunning 12th-place finish on Day One with the fastest Day Two run in the field to run down last year's runner-up Tokai for 4th, Tokai landing 5th almost a minute and a half behind.

The race for the back half of the ten-deep podium saw almost constant turnover throughout the day. In the end Waseda University, Juntendo University, Teikyo University, Koku Gakuin University and Tokyo Kokusai University emerged on top, KGU and TKU both surviving heavy losses to graduation last year to repeat as podium placers. Juntendo, the winner of October's Yosenkai qualifier, was the only new addition, knocking out Meiji University which finished 11th just 26 seconds outside the cut behind TKU. Along with a place at next year's race podium finishers earn invitations to October's Izumo Ekiden, with Meiji and beyond sent back to the Yosenkai to re-qualify.

As COVID-19 numbers are going up rapidly in Tokyo and with the surrounding prefectures and their governors meeting on Jan. 2 to discuss another declaration of a state of emergency it was something of a miracle that this year's Hakone Ekiden happened at all. But as a truly unforgettable edition of a national tradition it had to have been an inspiration for the tens of millions who watched it, wherever they were. With nothing but uncertainty for the road ahead in 2021, the last word went to Komazawa's coach Oyagi. "I learned today that's it true," he said. "You never know what's going to happen until it's done." 

97th Hakone Ekiden Day Two

Hakone~Tokyo, 03 Jan. 2021
21 teams, 5 stages, 109.6 km
complete results

Top Individual Stage Resuts
Sixth Stage (20.8 km, ~800 m downhill)
1. Yuki Hanasaki (Komazawa Univ.) - 57:36
2. Sodai Shimizu (Juntendo Univ.) - 58:06
3. Yuki Takahashi (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 58:13
4. Yoshinori Shimazaki (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 58:39
5. Yuji Kawakami (Tokai Univ.) - 58:45
5. Haruto Wakabayashi (Chuo Univ.) - 58:45

Seventh Stage (21.3 km)
1. Ryo Saeki (Tokyo Kokusai Univ.) - 1:03:10
2. Yoshiki Haratomi (Soka Univ.) - 1:03:12
3. Kotaro Kondo (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:03:14
4. Kyosuke Hanao (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:03:55
5. Yudai Nakazawa (Chuo Univ.) - 1:04:07

Eighth Stage (21.4 km)
1. Kaishi Daiho (Meiji Univ.) - 1:03:59
2. Hideki Noguchi (Toyo Univ.) - 1:04:15
3. Shoya Iwami (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:04:29
4. Kohei Tsukuda (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:04:48
5. Ryunosuke Chigira (Waseda Univ.) - 1:04:55

Ninth Stage (23.1 km)
1. Yoshiaki Ishizu (Soka Univ.) - 1:08:14
2  Takayuki Iida (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:09:20
3. Naoto Hashimoto (Teikyo Univ.) - 1:09:25
4. Takuya Kozasu (Waseda Univ.) - 1:09:28
5. Shota Nogami (Nittai Univ.) - 1:09:49

Tenth Stage (23.0 km)
1. Takuma Ishikawa (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:09:12
2. Ryosuke Sasaki (Kanagawa Univ.) - 1:09:58
3. Rin Kitsuki (Koku Gakuin Univ.) - 1:10:15
4. Hironobu Nakakura (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:10:17
5. Shintaro Kawasaki (Chuo Univ.) - 1:10:31

Overall Team Results - 10 stages, 217.1 km
1. Komazawa University - 10:56:04
2. Soka University - 10:56:56
3. Toyo University - 11:00:56
4. Aoyama Gakuin University - 11:01:16
5. Tokai University - 11:02:44
6. Waseda University - 11:03:59
7. Juntendo University - 11:04:03
8. Teikyo University - 11:04:08
9. Koku Gakuin University - 11:04:22
10. Tokyo Kokusai University - 11:05:49
----- top 10 seeded for 2022
11. Meiji University - 11:06:15
12. Chuo University - 11:07:56
13. Kanagawa University - 11:08:55
14. Nittai University - 11:10:24
15. Takushoku University - 11:10:47
16. Josai University - 11:11:20
17. Hosei University - 11:13:30
18. Kokushikan University - 11:14:07
19. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 11:17:36
OP - Kanto Region Student Alliance - 11:18:10
20. Senshu University - 11:28:26

Day Two Team Results
1. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:25:33
2. Komazawa University - 5:25:35
3. Chuo University - 5:28:39
4. Waseda University - 5:28:47
5. Soka University - 5:28:48
6. Koku Gakuin University - 5:29:30
7. Meiji University - 5:30:12
8. Juntendo University - 5:30:32
9. Toyo University - 5:30:34
10. Tokai University - 5:31:09
OP - Kanto Region Student Alliance - 5:32:24
11. Teikyo University - 5:33:29
12. Tokyo Kokusai University - 5:33:43
13. Nittai University - 5:33:46
14. Kanagawa University - 5:35:15
15. Josai University - 5:35:36
16. Takushoku University - 5:35:46
17. Hosei University - 5:36:16
18. Kokushikan University - 5:36:19
19. Senshu University - 5:38:30
20. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:38:58

© 2021 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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Comments

j said…
The fact that Vincent was officially named MVP might be the biggest surprise of the entire thing. Not only because Ishikawa would've been a deserving winner as well. Obviously the only course record (and that particular one) in headwinds has to be the favourite but I thought that anchor run would snatch it away. I thought if Mogusu never got one, and Vincent's run last year didn't get one, he wouldn't get it this time either. And I don't think there is anyone in Japan who feels worse right now than Yuki Onodera, thankfully the man is getting (mostly) comforted after he tweeted an apology. It would appear a similar thing happened to him in the Saitama HS Ekiden in his 2nd year.
Errol said…
What a finish ! 😐😶😶😶😶
And the comeback of Aoyama too. Such a great day 2.
Geoff Burns said…
I’d kill to see the stories that all the news outlets’ beat writers had to rip up in the last 6 km

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