What was the Japanese men's performance of the year?

What was the Japanese men's performance of the year?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Nittai University Wins First Hakone Ekiden Title in 30 Years

by Brett Larner
click here for a collection of 2013 Hakone Ekiden photos courtesy of jiji.com
click here for video highlights courtesy of NTV

Riding the momentum of its Day One win, Nittai University ran unchallenged throughout the second day of the 2013 Hakone Ekiden to take its first overall Hakone title in 30 years, crossing the line in 11:13:26 with a lead of nearly five minutes over defending champion Toyo University. Nittai, winners of October’s Yosenkai qualifier after finishing a miserable 19th at Hakone last year, became the first team in Hakone’s 89-year history to go from the qualifier to the overall win. With its last winning team in 1983 having included future marathon world champion Hiromi Taniguchi in its lineup, Nittai’s return to the top took on special symbolic significance.

Nittai’s Yusuke Suzuki made a crucial contribution to the team’s success as he started the day off on the net 750 m downhill Sixth Stage, running well in his Hakone debut to prevent last year’s stage winner Takanori Ichikawa (Toyo Univ.) from making up the 30+ seconds he needed for Toyo to make progress in catching Nittai. From there it was a perfect team performance as Nittai’s remaining four runners each ran the second-best time on his stage. With the wind shifting to give runners a second day of nonstop headwinds times were nothing remarkable, but despite the wind Nittai’s lead went from 2:39 to 2:22 on the Sixth Stage before growing steadily to its final margin of 4:54. Overall it was a replay of the strategy Toyo employed in its three Hakone wins: a strong first day capped with a brilliant uphill Fifth Stage run, then a solid if not flashy second day.

Neither Toyo nor fellow contender Meiji University stood any chance of catching Nittai at any point. Toyo's Ichikawa immediately overtook 2nd place Waseda University at the start of the Sixth Stage and made up some ground on Suzuki, but after that it never really seemed to click. Only first-year Yuma Hattori, a risky choice for the 23.2 km Ninth Stage, made the top three on his stage, and with one exception on the Eighth Stage the team appeared to be in a holding pattern to keep 2nd place.  It was a strong team performance, and together with Toyo's 2nd-place finishes in Izumo and at Nationals it is pretty clear that it is the all-around best team in Japan.  But this time the magic and self-confidence Toyo had for the last four years under uphill star Ryuji Kashiwabara just didn't seem to be there.

Meiji was outstanding in the early going, Sixth Stage man Daiki Hirose running an all-time #2 time of 58:19 and Seventh Stage runner Yuki Arimura making the top three on time, but the breaking point came on the Eighth Stage. There Meiji’s star first-year recruit Ken Yokote caught defending stage winner Kento Otsu (Toyo Univ.) and made a play for 2nd, but Otsu countered and cracked Yokote with a surge to reopen Toyo’s margin to 14 seconds. Meiji’s Ninth Stage man Tomoyasu Matsui initially made up ground on Toyo’s Hattori, but late in the stage he abruptly faltered and slowed almost to a walk. National champion Komazawa University went by, then Waseda and finally Yosenkai runner-up Teikyo University before Matsui finally handed off to anchor Kaido Kita. Kita started, ran 20 m or so, then came back to ask if Matsui was OK before starting again. Kita himself faltered late in the race, caught by Juntendo’s Masaki Hori just before the finish for a disappointing 7th overall for the A-grade Meiji team.

As per its usual methods, Komazawa was the dominant team over the second day. Only 9th on Day One despite having the strongest team by far on paper, three of Komazawa’s five Day Two runners won their stages. Sixth Stage man Kenta Chiba was four seconds off his own stage record of 58:11 to win the stage for the third time and advance to 6th.  Komazawa fluctuated on the 7th and 8th stage before senior Wataru Ueno won the Ninth Stage and put the team into 3rd. Anchor Kensuke Gotoda likewise won his stage to give Komazawa the Day Two trophy by one minute and spoil a Nittai perfect win, the Day One, Day Two and Overall titles.

Where the highlight of Day One came courtesy of Hattori’s MVP-winning Fifth Stage run, the best moment of Day Two came in the race for 4th. Teikyo anchor Taketo Kumazaki ran a stage-leading first half to catch Waseda anchor Daichi Tanaka, but instead of passing he tucked in. Or Tanaka wouldn’t let him by. On the Hibiya Street corner markng roughly 6 km to go Kumazaki pulled up next to Tanaka and looked him up and down, hard, three times. But still he didn’t make a move.

With 1 km to go Kumazaki was a step ahead, but Tanaka pulled up to his shoulder. All the way down the kilometer-long home stretch they ran locked together. Kumazaki looked over his should at Tanaka every other step, and, puzzlingly, Tanaka kept looking back too. The tension built as the finish line drew near. Had they made some sportsmanlike agreement to finish side-by-side since nothing else was at stake? There was no sign of a move, and still Kumazaki looked. And looked. And looked. And went! And an entire country started screaming at the top of its lungs. I have never seen a last kick as dramatic, sudden, or entertaining. In a blink both Kumazaki and Taguchi went from cruising speed to full-out 50 m interval-speed the way sumo matches go from zero to 60 by mutual consensus. Both teams clocked an identical 11:21:39, but it was a laughing Kumazaki who got it with a lean into the arms of his hysterical teammates.

Juntendo University picked off Meiji near the end for 6th, while Izumo Ekiden course record-setter Aoyama Gakuin University could do no better than 8th with only a passable anchor stage run from captain Takehiro Deki in his final university ekiden. Hosei University, an unexpected 5th on Day One, held on to take its first seeded bracket top ten finish since 2006 as it landed 9th. after reaching Hakone through the Yosenkai qualifier like winner Nittai.

Most of the rest of the drama came in the race for the final seeded slot in 10th. The Kanto Region Select Team, made up of top-finishing individuals at the Yosenkai qualifier from schools that did not qualify as teams, sat in 10th throughout the day. A top ten Select Team finish would mean that only nine schools would be seeded for the 2014 Hakone Ekiden, so the motivation was there for the three schools in range, Yamanashi Gakuin, Daito Bunka and Chuo Gakuin Universities, to close the gap to 10th. Starting the day 2:13 back from the Select Team it was Chuo Gakuin who made the jump, catching the Select Team on the Eighth Stage. Yamanashi Gakuin anchor Junichi Fukuzawa made a brave effort to catch Chuo Gakuin’s Yuki Yamada but could get no closer than 50 seconds and finished 11th to return to the Yosenkai qualifier this year. Along with Yamanashi Gakuin, Nihon University, the only other school in the field with a Kenyan ringer, missed making the seeded bracket as it finished 15th.

With the headwinds on both days, particularly the gale-force winds throughout Day One, times were slow compared to recent editions. Nittai’s winning time was 22 minutes off Toyo’s course record from last year. Toyo itself was 27 minutes off. Not a single stage saw a new record, and only one, the Sixth, saw runners breaking into the all-time top ten. And nobody cared. Tens of millions of people walked away from the 2013 Hakone Ekiden satisfied with more than their share of head-to-head racing, strategy, upsets and drama. Midway through the day American track fan site Flotrack tweeted a link to a piece by its Mitch Kastoff, author of an insightful comparison of American and Japanese college-aged men, lamenting that the focus on pure time embodied in new IAAF time standards was bad for the sport and would result in nothing but boring, meaningless races. I couldn’t help but wonder, who could have been disappointing or bored watching Hattori’s stage record or Kumazaki and Taguchi waiting for the other guy to blink? This was a slow-ass race, the slowest Hakone winning time in 12 years, and yet where we were three generations were on their feet shouting and laughing. As Kastoff would no doubt be the first to suggest, maybe what’s good for the sport is not just pure time but pure competition, thrills and drama independent of how fast things really are. Like at the Hakone Ekiden.  40 million+ people would probably agree.

2013 Hakone Ekiden
89th running
Tokyo-Hakone, 1/2/13
Hakone-Tokyo, 1/3/13
20 teams, 10 stages, 109.9 km
click here for complete results

Day Two Top Stage Perfomances
Sixth Stage (20.8 km, ~900 m elevation loss from peak)
1. Kenta Chiba (Komazawa Univ.) - 58:15
2. Daiki Hirose (Meiji Univ.) - 58:19 - all-time #2
3. Kazuyoshi Chiba (Teikyo Univ.) - 59:07 - all-time #8
* Shuhei Shirota (Chuo Univ.) - 59:01 - all-time #7 but unofficial due to Chuo DNF on Day One

Seventh Stage (21.3 km)
1. Kazuma Ganaha (Kanagawa Univ.) - 1:04:47
2. Shoji Takada (Nittai Univ.) - 1:04:53
3. Yuki Arimura (Meiji Univ.) - 1:05:02

Eighth Stage (21.5 km)
1. Soji Takahashi (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:06:46
2. Yuya Takayanagi (Nittai Univ.) - 1:07:03
3. Daiki Inari (Teikyo Univ.) - 1:07:11
* Hidenori Nagai (Chuo Univ.) - 1:06:11 but unofficial due to Chuo DNF on Day One

Ninth Stage (23.2 km)
1. Wataru Ueno (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:09:50
2. Keigo Yano (Nittai Univ.) - 1:10:26
3. Yuma Hattori (Toyo Univ.) - 1:11:02

Tenth Stage (23.1 km)
1. Kensuke Gotoda (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:10:49
2. Yuichi Taninaga (Nittai Univ.) - 1:11:16
3. Taketo Kumazaki (Teikyo Univ.) - 1:11:22

Overall Team Results (10 stages, 217.9 km)
1. Nittai University - 11:13:26
2. Toyo University - 11:18:20
3. Komazawa University - 11:19:23
4. Teikyo University - 11:21:39
5. Waseda University - 11:21:39
6. Juntendo University - 11:24:43
7. Meiji University - 11:25:14
8. Aoyama Gakuin University - 11:25:59
9. Hosei University - 11:26:40
10. Chuo Gakuin University - 11:27:34
----- Top ten are seeded for 2014 Hakone Ekiden
11. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 11:28:24
12. Daito Bunka University - 11:30:46
13. Kanto Region University Select Team - 11:31:50
14. Koku Gakuin University - 11:33:28
15. Nihon University - 11:35:23
16. Kanagawa University - 11:37:36
17. Tokyo Nogyo University - 11:39:13
18. Jobu University - 11:42:44
DNF - Josai University
DNF - Chuo University

Day Two Team Results (5 stages, 109.9 km, ~750 m net elevation loss)
1. Komazawa University - 5:32:11
2. Nittai University - 5:33:11
3. Teikyo University - 5:35:12
4. Toyo University - 5:35:26
5. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:37:29
6. Kanagawa University - 5:37:33
7. Juntendo University - 5:38:14
8. Waseda University - 5:38:49
9. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:39:32
10. Tokyo Nogyo University - 5:39:49
11. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:40:15
12. Koku Gakuin University - 5:40:25
13. Meiji University - 5:40:37
14. Nihon University - 5:40:52
15. Hosei University - 5:41:01
16. Daito Bunka University - 5:42:00
17. Kanto Region Select Team - 5:43:58
18. Jobu University - 5:44:42
*Josai University - 5:39:13 but unofficial due to Josai DNF on Day One
*Chuo University - 5:41:19 but unofficial due to Chuo DNF on Day One

(c) 2013 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

5 comments:

mjsalovaara said...

I wonder if the removal of the Toyo captain doomed the team as the Toyo coach got lost looking at the trees and forgot there was a forest?

TokyoRacer said...

Good point in the comment above.

My own very minor point is: on the very windy first day, and even on the windy second day, very few of the runners were wearing sunglasses. They knew they were going to be running into the wind, why weren't they wearing them? I frequently run into the wind (Tokyo is damn windy) and I find that it is much easier to run with sunglasses on. I can't understand why these guys, who were running much faster than I do, into a strong wind, weren't wearing them.

Mahesh Natarajan said...

Brett - Is there any online link where i can watch a replay of the Ekiden?

Cheers
Mahesh

Brett Larner said...

That is a good question about Toyo's coach Sakai, but Toyo has a history of not running its captains so I'm not sure how much impact it had in this case. There were a few things in the team lineup that seemed a little questionable, but it's easy to be an armchair quarterback. Sakai was in a tough position with Kashiwabara's departure and Toyo still did well. 2nd over Komazawa, Meiji and Aoyama Gakuin was quite a feat. Nittai just performed way above expectations.

Aoyama and Meiji both needed everything to go right and it didn't, but the one that needs some questioning was Komazawa. Oyagi is the most successful coach Japan has, but in the last five years he seems to have lost the ability to get the team from Nationals in November to Hakone in January. There's no way that lineup should have lost, but especially on day one it was pretty clear that they were all tired and flat. One of his best guys, Kakuage (13:45.08/28:03.27/1:01:56), didn't even run. The same thing has happened the last few years.

I didn't notice about the sunglasses, Bob. As far as an online replay, no, I don't think there's anything out there. NTV has some highlights here but I think they're only viewable in Japan:

http://bit.ly/132h8qh

There should be highlight videos up on Youtube within a few days. I'll post them if so.

Mahesh Natarajan said...

Thanks Brett. Like you said, the link above doesnt work outside Japan.