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Aoyama Gakuin University breaks on course record for sixth Hakone Ekiden win

Riding the momentum of its Hakone Ekiden Day One win, Aoyama Gakuin University broke the Day Two and overall course records to take its sixth Hakone title in eight years.

With all sixteen men on his entry roster having broken 29 minutes for 10000 m and even leaving some recent 62-minute half marathoners off, head coach Susumu Hara had plenty of material to work with on the five-stage 109.6 km Day Two return trip from the mountain town of Hakone to central Tokyo. Handling the 20.8 km descent on the day's first leg, 4th-year Yuki Takahashi was the weakest link in the Day Two lineup in terms of finishing time on his individual stage, running only 8th-fastest, but even so he added a valuable 41 seconds to AGU's initial lead of 2:37.

And from there it was a total blowout. Hironori Kishimoto was the only runner to break 63 minutes on the 21.3 km 7th leg, taking the lead to 4:51. Issei Sato lost 19 seconds to Juntendo University's Masaki Tsuda but was still 2nd-fastest on the 21.4 km 8th leg. Yuito Nakamura blew the race apart with a 1:07:15 course record on the 23.1 km 9th leg, 46 seconds off the old record dating back to 2008 and putting AGU ahead of Juntendo by 7:56. Anchor Hironobu Takakura backed that up with a 1:07:50 course record on the 23.0 km 10th leg, 50 seconds under the old record.

AGU broke the Day Two record in 5:21:36 and took almost 2 minutes off its own record for the full 10-stage, 217.1 km course, finishing 10:51 ahead of 2nd in 10:43:42 with the biggest margin of victory since 1988. That works out to 2:57.9/km including the two mountain stages. How dominant is that? The same pace for 100.0 km, the distance run at Jan. 1 at the 7-stage New Year Ekiden corporate men's national championships, would give AGU a time of 4:56:30. That would have put them in 12th out of 37 teams, not evening taking into account that they were running more than twice as far as the corporate leaguers, only one stage at the New Year Ekiden is as long as what every runner at Hakone does, or that Hakone includes two stages with elevation changes of 837 m. Take those into account and AGU's best 7 could probably be giving New Year winner Honda, who averaged 2:54.6, a run for it, even without a Kenyan. Coach Hara might get it wrong every now and then, but at this point his development program is pretty close to untouchable at the collegiate level. 

Behind AGU, the overall race was as complex as expected given how close most of the teams were in ability, way too much to recap. From 2nd to 13th, almost every team changed position on almost every stage. There were as many brilliant days in the sun as devastating setbacks, as many as you could hope for. 2020 Yosenakai qualifier winner Juntendo continued its forward movement after a slow start on Day One, moving from 5th to 3rd thanks to a stage best from downhill runner Keito Makise, then 2nd after another stage best from 8th man Tsuda. Tsuda, a second-string senior, delivered one of the biggest runs of the day, taking out Komazawa's #2 man Mebuki Suzuki to put Juntendo into 2nd, where they stayed. Komazawa fell to 6th as Suzuki faltered, but fought back to 3rd. 

Last year's 3rd-placer Toyo University struggled to stay in the top 10, then caught Komazawa for 3rd in the anchor stage home straight before dropping to 4th in the final sprint. 2021 Izumo Ekiden winner Tokyo Kokusai University bounced between 7th and 4th before landing in 5th. Yosenkai runner-up Chuo University made it as high as 3rd on the 8th leg before falling back to 6th, its first time in the top 10 in ten years. Last year's Hakone runner-up Soka University went from 8th to 5th to 9th to 7th. Koku Gakuin University dropped from 4th to 10th over the first three stages of the day. A stellar run from first-year Kiyoto Hirabayashi took them back to 5th on the 9th leg, but anchor Ryomei Aizawa dropped again to 8th. Teikyo University started in 2nd after an uphill win at the end of Day One by Shoma Hosoya but spent Day Two sweating it out as they fell back as far as 10th on the 9th leg before anchor Shoma Nishiwaki took them back to 9th. 

A top 10 placing in Hakone gets you a return trip the next year and an invitation to October's season-opening Izumo Ekiden. 2019 Hakone winner Tokai University clawed its way up to 10th on the Day One 5th leg, then to 8th over the first four stages of Day Two. But anchor Yuta Yoshitomi ran into trouble and dropped, and coming off Nihonbashi with 1 km to go he was caught by Hosei University's Yuki Kawakami. It's a sign of how much trouble Yoshitomi was in that he ultimately finished 52 seconds behind Kawakami, sending Tokai back to the Yosenkai with Hosei getting into the top 10 for the first time in 3 years. Waseda University, Japan's University of Oregon, looked like they might break into the top 10 with good 7th and 8th leg runs from Soshi Suzuki and Ryunosuke Chigira, but they couldn't quite close it up and were caught just before the finish by Kanagawa University.

Even further back there was just as much action throughout the day. The Kanto Region Select Team recorded its best-ever time, finishing 14th overall but not counting in team scoring. 2021 Yosenkai winner Meiji University fought back from a disastrous Day One to overtake top 10 contender Kokushikan University for 14th. Chuo Gakuin University overcame a Day One time handicap to beat Yamanashi Gakuin University and Nittai University for 16th. The debuting Surugadai University, last on Day One, likewise outran its handicap to knock Senshu University down to 20th.

Altogether it was a truly great edition of the world's greatest race, one with more plot lines happening simultaneously than even the ultra-competent Nippon Television production team knew what to do with. That's a direct product of the constantly increasing level of collegiate men's distance running in Japan. AGU and coach Hara may be showing what's possible, but with so many teams raising the average ceiling at once it created the right conditions for tense and exciting racing throughout all 11 hours of action over Hakone's two days. That's good for the athletes, good for the broadcaster and their sponsors, and good for the fans. Japan is losing elite-level races at a rate that should be ringing some alarm bells, but in the lead-up to Hakone's 100th running in 2024 it was a reassuring sign that this one, at least, is only getting better.

(01/04/2022) Views: 343 ⚡AMP
by Brett Larner
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hakone ekiden

Hakone Ekiden, which is officially called Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, is one of the most prominent university ekiden (relay marathon) races of the year held between Tokyo and Hakone in Japan on 2 and 3 January. The race is telecast on Nippon Television. Only men take part in the competition, meaning there is greater investment in the men's ekiden...

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2022 Hakone Ekiden, this is the biggest race of the year on the Japanese Ekiden calendar

One of the biggest race of the year, the 98th Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2 and 3. 21 university men's teams race 10 legs from central Tokyo to the mountains and back over the course of two days, each leg roughly a half marathon in distance and the total course adding up to 217.1 km. 65 million people watched at least part of the 2021 NTV Hakone broadcast broadcast, so you know they must be on to something.

The broadcast, the best in the world, starts at 7:00 a.m. both days, and as you'd expect they keep it a locked-down secret only for Japanese audiences. A VPN or mov3.co are probably the best bets for trying to watch from abroad, but JRN will once again cover it all on @JRNLive. 

The 2021 race had one of the most dramatic finishes in Hakone history, with Komazawa University anchor Takuma Ishikawa coming from over a kilometer behind to run down Yuki Onodera with 2 km to go and stop him from bringing Soka University home to its first-ever Hakone win. Both were 3rd-years, and it's one sad detail of the 2022 race that neither will be back for a senior year rematch, Ishikawa having been arrested a few months after the race and no longer running for Komazawa, and Onodera missing from Soka's entry list.

The pandemic has had a major impact on Hakone and the collegiate men's development system. Given the average stage length of 21.71 km, the half marathon has long been the major focus of Japanese collegiate training, something that has contributed directly to the depth of the country's marathoning and results like what we saw in Lake Biwa this year. During the pandemic most of the major races on the collegiate half marathon circuit haven't happened, and that's led to a refocusing on track racing. It's easy to see that in this year's Hakone entry lists. 

Looking at the average PBs of the 10 fastest runners on each team, out of the 19 teams that raced Hakone last year and are back this year, 17 have gotten faster over 5000 m since last year, 17 faster over 10000 m, and 14 slower over the half marathon. It couldn't be clearer: out of necessity, coaches have shifted focus from the half marathon to the 5000 m and 10000 m, and the level at those distances has come way up. 12 of the 21 teams have a 10-man average 5000 m time under 14 minutes, 16 have a 10000 m average under 29 minutes, and only 2 have a half-marathon average under 63 minutes. Even last year, when the lack of half marathons was already an issue, it was nowhere near that, with 8 teams sub-14, 10 sub-29, and 5 sub-63. 16 teams have at least one runner 28:10 or faster for 10000 m. 12 have someone 13:40 or better for 5000 m. Only 5 have someone under 62 minutes for the half. Shoes are no doubt part of it, but given the decline in the half marathon they're not the whole story. It'd be interesting to speculate what kind of impact this is going to have on the next generation of marathoners, and what would happen if the focus shifted further to 1500 m and 5000 m.

At any rate, the shift that has happened makes the job of ranking teams harder. Defending champ Komazawa has the best 5000 m and 10000 m 10-man averages, 13:41.71 and 28:24.64, but almost nobody on the team has run a serious half marathon. 2nd-tier teams that had to run October's Yosenkai qualifier half marathon have quality half marathon times on the books and look better on paper relative to top-tier teams like Komazawa than they probably really are. Other teams like last year's 3rd-placer Toyo University publicized that they were doing a half marathon time trial in place of November's Ageo City Half Marathon but didn't publicize the results, leaving them way farther down the rankings than they should be. We've tweaked our rankings formula to try to account for all this, but as with last year you can be sure that there's more unpredictability than usual.

Aoyama Gakuin University has won Hakone 5 of the last 7 years and is the favorite. 2nd at both the Izumo Ekiden and National University Ekiden this season, AGU is one of only 3 teams in the field to be better over 5000 m, 10000 m and half marathon than it was last year, when it was 4th at Hakone, and one of only two with sub-14, sub-29 and sub-63 10-man averages. Two weeks after the National University Ekiden it had 6 people total under 63 minutes in two half marathons, so whatever it lacked at the shorter ekidens you can be sure AGU's head coach Susumu Hara isn't letting the team's stamina slide.

AGU's two strongest competitors on paper are this year's and last year's Yosenkai qualifier winners Meiji University and Juntendo University. But it's one thing to win the qualifier, making you the #11 team in the Hakone field, and something else to go for the overall win. Meiji has a history of not performing well at Hakone, and last year Juntendo struggled in part because star 1st-year Ryuji Miura had suffered an injury while training for the National Championships 3000 mSC a month before Hakone. Running up to potential would put either into contention, but as Soka head coach Kazutaka Enoki said right after last year's loss, "It's not that easy."

Komazawa, Tokyo Kokusai University and Toyo could all be up at this level despite being ranked further down the field due to their lack of experience with the half marathon. Komazawa's trending in that direction after finishing 5th at Izumo and then winning the longer Nationals, while TKU and Toyo are the opposite, TKU winning Izumo and taking 5th at Nationals, and Toyo going 3rd and 10th. The most likely scenario for TKU is to stack the first three stages with its top 3 Vincent Yegon, Masaya Yamatani and Ken Tansho to build up a big Day One lead and then try to hang on through Day Two like Soka attempted last year. That would set up a potential duel between Yegon and Komazawa's Ren Tazawa, maybe with Miura, the 3000 mSC NR holder, 7th in the steeple final at the Tokyo Olympics, and the U20 half marathon NR holder, in the mix. Given that Tazawa beat 2021 Hakone MVP Yegon over 10000 m earlier this month, it would be one of the highlights of this year's race.

Toyo will have former H.S. 5000 m NR holder Kosuke Ishida making his Hakone debut, one of the other highlights to watch for. Teikyo University is in the same situation as TKU and Toyo, and given a stable history at Hakone it should probably be included among the contenders for top 10. That leaves only the debuting Surugadai University and bottom-ranked Senshu University on the list of non-contenders, making for what could be one of the most competitive Hakones in memory. 

One of the things that NTV does so well on its broadcast, especially on Day Two, is to cover multiple plot lines. With so many good teams this year there should be a lot of turnover around the dividing line between 10th and 11th keeping their production crew busy. Things can get complicated if the leading team gets too far ahead, so in prep for the race take a few minutes to read this guide to understanding elements of the ekiden format like white sash starts and race strategy. See you at 7:00 a.m. Sunday morning.

(12/29/2021) Views: 345 ⚡AMP
by Brett Larner
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Hakone Ekiden, one of Japans most popular annual sporting events

The Melbourne Cup in horse racing is known as the race that stops the nation but, in truth, there’s an event in athletics that holds a country in a far-more-captivated grasp: the Hakone Ekiden. 

This 10-leg, 217km relay in Japan has for years garnered viewing figures that defy belief, and this year’s race on January 2-3 was watched by 64.71 million people, according to Video Research Ltd. That means half the Japanese population tuned in, an audience share above that of the Superbowl in the Unites States. 

This year’s broadcast, which ran for more than 12 hours across two days, hit a record high with 32.3% average of total Japanese viewership.

The competitors may be students, some of them not yet old enough to buy a drink, but the best are idolised like rock stars, their faces splashed across pull-out supplements in newspapers, their performances dissected on national radio and TV, their appearances mobbed with hordes of screaming fans. 

Why so much hype for a long-distance relay involving university teams from one region (Kanto) of Japan? It’s best to ask those who’ve seen it – it’s the only way to believe it.  

Before British author Adharanand Finn arrived in Japan in 2013, he knew Ekidens were a big deal, but he didn’t realize how big. 

“I had this idea the Japanese are really into marathon running but when you get in with the serious end, their whole year is built around Ekidens,” he says. “To compete in the Hakone is bigger than the Olympics for a runner.”

Finn spent six months in Japan before writing his superb book, The Way of the Runner, and towards the end of his time there he experienced the enchanting electricity of the Hakone Ekiden.  

Finn believes the media coverage is key to its popularity and to the audience’s understanding. 

“Everyone is reading the background stories, the histories, the timelines and that’s what gives sport its hook. There’s this soap opera connected to it. The TV coverage is brilliant; I’ve often ranted about how terrible coverage of marathons in the UK and US is, cutting away at the wrong time, but in Japan all the stats are all over the screen. It’s so well produced that you can really follow it. A lot of people who watch are not running fans, but they cater for a wide audience.”

It’s a point echoed by Takeshi Nishimoto of Ekiden News. 

“I've seen TV broadcasts of many races but Hakone is probably the best road race in the world,” he says. “The director of the broadcast came up with the idea that ‘Hakone Ekiden is a drama of each athlete’.  Nippon Television (NTV) closely follows each athlete throughout the year and commentators are fed personal stories to talk about in detail. That's how it truly captivated the hearts of Japanese people.”

Brett Larner, who runs the Japan Running News website, says the Hakone Ekiden has the biggest TV audience of any sporting event in Japan and the second-highest viewership of anything, “surpassed only by Kohaku, a long music special that's broadcast on New Year’s Eve.”

Larner knows countless athletes who participated and the stories they bring back from the course strike a similar tone. “That it's like a blur,” he says. “They can't remember much due to the roar the entire way except for their ears hurting. There are thick crowds almost the entire way, with tens of thousands crowding the start and finish.”

Founded a century ago

The race dates back to 1920, and was founded by Shizo Kanakuri, an Olympic marathoner for Japan in 1912. 

“The original purpose was to have college athletes compete in the half marathon to develop and identify talent who can excel in the Olympic marathon,” says Nishimoto. “However, in recent years, the number of entrance applicants of a university is directly affected by the result of the Hakone Ekiden, so universities invest in building state-of-the-art training facilities for Ekiden teams or recruiting systems offering scholarships.”

The legacy it has built over the century since its founding earned the ekiden a World Athletics Heritage Plaque in 2019.

Larner explains that the emphasis on the half marathon in Japanese distance running is most notable in the Kanto Region, given all the legs of the Hakone Ekiden are close to 20 kilometres. 

“Hakone is the peak of the year, so the entire year is focused on being ready to run a half marathon at 100% come January. But the rest of the year people are running 1500m, steeple, 5000m and 10,000m, cross country, and not just the half.”

The emphasis on the distance can be a double-edged sword for young talent, according to Finn. 

“It’s one reason running is so popular so it’s really good in that way, but with high school and college kids, they train really hard for the half marathon on the roads and it burns a lot of them out, physically and mentally. At 20-21, half marathon training is quite hard on them and it has this all-consuming effect.”

The day before Hakone, the New Year Ekiden takes place over 100 kilometres, a race that features the best athletes running for corporate teams in Japan. Despite the high standard it’s seen as a side-show to the collegiate event.  

“Many Japanese traditionally like amateur sports more than professional sports,” says Ken Nakamura, an athletics writer and statistician. “In the early days of professional baseball, it was not held in as high esteem as college baseball, and national high school baseball tournaments held every summer are followed by even those people who do not consider themselves sports fans.”

During his many years based in Japan, Larner has witnessed an astonishing progression in standards at the Hakone Ekiden, which can only partially be explained by shoe technology. 

“The sharpest growth in performance has happened since 2012, when Toyo University became the first school to break the 3:00/km barrier for average pace over the entire 217km Hakone course, (which is) no joke given the mountain stages,” he says. “Hakone has continued to grow in popularity, which has created more financial investment, which has resulted in higher performance levels, which has resulted in greater popularity.”

(01/09/2021) Views: 505 ⚡AMP
by World Athletics
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hakone ekiden

hakone ekiden

Hakone Ekiden, which is officially called Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, is one of the most prominent university ekiden (relay marathon) races of the year held between Tokyo and Hakone in Japan on 2 and 3 January. The race is telecast on Nippon Television. Only men take part in the competition, meaning there is greater investment in the men's ekiden...

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Organizers Ask Public Not to Come Watch Hakone Ekiden

On Sept. 20 the Inter-University Athletics Union of Kanto (KGRR), organizers of January's Hakone Ekiden, announced that all of its remaining competitions this academic year will be held without spectators in order to help minimize the spread of coronavirus infection.

The KGRR asked for the public's cooperation in not turning out to cheer. A statement released by the KGRR said, "Our major events will be live streamed and broadcast live or recorded by NTV.

Please do not come to the race venues or the areas around them. Even if we go ahead with the ekiden, it cannot be put on without the agreement and cooperation of the local residents who live along the course.

Courseside crowd support has always been one of the things that has helped our ekiden thrive. We want to ensure that it continues to have a long future as a beloved event and ask for your understanding and cooperation this time.

"The extremely popular Hakone Ekiden is run every Jan. 2 and 3, attracting over a million spectators along its course every year.

(09/21/2020) Views: 542 ⚡AMP
by Brett Larner
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hakone ekiden

hakone ekiden

Hakone Ekiden, which is officially called Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, is one of the most prominent university ekiden (relay marathon) races of the year held between Tokyo and Hakone in Japan on 2 and 3 January. The race is telecast on Nippon Television. Only men take part in the competition, meaning there is greater investment in the men's ekiden...

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Takaya Hashima Race to 4th straight Hakone Ekiden title

Aoyama Gakuin’s Takaya Hashima celebrates as he crosses the finish line of the Tokyo-Hakone Intercollegiate Ekiden on Wednesday in Tokyo to secure the team’s fourth straight overall title. Hakone Ekiden, which is officially called Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, is one of the most prominent university ekiden (relay marathon) races of the year held between Tokyo and Hakone in Japan (01/03/2018) Views: 1,095 ⚡AMP
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