Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Nittai University Scores Upset Win on Windiest-Ever Hakone Ekiden Day One

by Brett Larner
click here for video highlights courtesy of NTV

The early going near Shinagawa Stn. on the First Stage. Photo by Phil Suh.

With headwinds gusting to over 70 kph near the Fifth Stage handoff marking the windiest January day in recorded history, Day One of the 2013 Hakone Ekiden saw defending champion and course record holder Toyo University fall short of making history of its own as Nittai University captain Shota Hattori ran down Toyo anchor Toshiki Sadakata two-thirds of the way through the nearly 900 m uphill, 23.4 km Fifth Stage to give Nittai its first Day One win in 26 years in 5:40:15.  Toyo was in search of a first-ever fifth-straight Day One win, but along with 2011 winner Waseda University and fellow contender Meiji University finished the day within range of Nittai for the overall win tomorrow.  2012 Izumo Ekiden course record-setter Aoyama Gakuin University was 6th and 2012 National University Ekiden champion Komazawa University came only 9th.  Two teams, Josai University and Chuo University, DNF'd after their runners collapsed with hypothermia in the brutal conditions at the peak of the mountainous Fifth Stage where headwinds blew at 65 kph.

With the loss of its uphill star Ryuji Kashiwabara Toyo needed a superb team performance. Masaya Taguchi got the day off right, winning the 21.4 km First Stage in 1:03:32 after outkicking his fellow Osaka natives and rivals since junior high Kei Fumimoto (Meiji Univ.) and Kazuto Nishiike (Hosei Univ.).  Komazawa's Ikuto Yufu was close behind in 4th, but the early casualties included Yuki Maeda (Waseda Univ.) and Masato Endo (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) who were side-by-side in 17th and 18th in only 1:05:36.

Having taken the lead on the 23.2 km Second Stage last year, Toyo half marathon record holder Keita Shitara this time built a sizeable margin on his own, going from 14 seconds ahead of Meiji at the start of the stage to 53 seconds up on Nittai's Takumi Honda by stage's end.  In the interim, 1:01:06 half marathoner Benjamin Gandu (Nihon Univ.), the 6th-fastest man ever on the Second Stage, shot up from 13th place to run Shitara down in the final stretch and take the lead by 1 second at the handoff.  Behind him 2012 national collegiate 5000 m and 10000 m champ Enock Omwamba (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) also picked up twelve places, moving from 16th to 4th but suffering his first loss on Japanese soil as he ran 46 seconds slower than Gandu.  Omwamba briefly overtook Nittai's Honda for 3rd but could not match Honda's closing speed.  Komazawa ace Shinobu Kubota failed to make up any ground, dropping from 4th to 5th, while further back Ryotaro Otani (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) and Shota Hiraga (Waseda Univ.) outran Kubota on time to move their teams up to 11th and 12th.

Gandu handed off to Nihon captain Yusuke Sato with a 1-second lead for the 21.5 km Third Stage, while Toyo's Shitara passed to his identical twin, Toyo 10000 m record holder Yuta Shitara.  This Shitara had little trouble dispatching Sato, and, seemingly unaffected by the increasing winds over the first half of the course, rapidly opened a lead that grew for the entire stage.  As Sato plummeted to 10th,  Shogo Nakamura (Komazawa Univ.) and future Nike Oregon Project attendee Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.) tore up the competition, briefly forming a chase pack of five before pulling ahead into 2nd and 3rd.  #1-ranked first-year Kazuma Kubota (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) also performed well in his longest race to date, picking up 7th place.  But the stage best time went to Shitara, who staggered while turning into the wind along the beachfront second half of the course and was hit by sand blowing in the crosswind.  After shockingly taking the great Yuki Sato's Seventh Stage record last year, Shitara overcame the elements to deliver his second jaw-dropping Hakone performance, outrunning Osako by 8 seconds for the stage best title.

Toyo coach Toshiyuki Sakai's race plan called for a lead of at least two minutes by the end of the 18.5 km Fourth Stage to ensure a safe margin on the uphill Fifth Stage.  As headwinds at the handoff gusted to over 70 kph Shitara delivered fourth man Genta Yodokawa a margin of 2:41, but with only the 11th-best run on the stage Yodokawa lost ground if not the lead.  Yuki Kimura (Nittai Univ.) make the biggest impact on the day's outcome, cutting Toyo's lead to 1:49 as he moved up from 4th to 2nd.  Hiroyuki Sasaki held steady in 3rd as Genki Yagisawa (Meiji Univ.) advanced from 6th to 4th and Shunsuke Yuchi, the weak link on the Komazawa team, fell to 10th.  Yuki Kawasaki (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) also lost ground, dropping from 7th to 8th.

The setup meant that three of the favorites for the brutal uphill Fifth Stage, the most important for Hakone's final outcome in at least seven of the last eight years and wilder than ever with the day's record-setting winds, started within 2 1/2 minutes of Toyo's new Fifth Stage man Toshiki Sadakata.  A puzzling choice to fill Kashiwabara's shoes, Sadakata's best marks to date include 5000 m and 10000 m times of only 14:06.36 and 29:26.84 with a half marathon best of 1:07:15.  Behind him were Shota Hattori (Nittai Univ., 13:49.33/28:37.75/1:03:54, last year's Fifth Stage 3rd-placer Shuhei Yamamoto (Waseda Univ., 13:42.17/28:14.49/1:02:28) and 2012 Fifth Stage runner-up Hiroki Oe (Meiji Univ., 14:00.25/29:16.69/1:03:55).  Sadakata did what he could, but Hattori and Yamamoto quicky made up the ground to him, even faster after Yamamoto overtook Hattori past 10 km into the stage.  Making contact with Sadakata just before 15 km, they quickly got rid of him and turned to hammering each other.  The lead changed between Yamamoto and Hattori every few hundred meters until Hattori finally made his game-ending move with a surge at 17 km.  At the entrance to the saddleback peak between 18.5 and 19.5 km he had a lead of 28 seconds over Yamamoto, who in turn was 28 seconds ahead of Sadakata.  Despite 65 kph headwinds at the peak Hattori pushed on to the downhill and flat to the finish where he crossed the line with an incredible 2:35 margin.  His time of 1:20:35 fell just outside the all-time top ten on the stage, and given the conditions it had to be one of the greatest Fifth Stage performances next to Kashiwabara's records.

Sadakata pushed hard on the last 1.5 km, coming within 3 seconds of Yamamoto but unable to close the gap.  Oe could not make any real headway for Meiji this year, finishing 1:43 back in 4th.  Further back, unknown Shogo Sekiguchi (Hosei Univ.), looking uncannily like a racewalker, had a brilliant run to advance from 13th to 5th with the best time on the stage after Hattori.  Naohisa Matsuda was also strong, moving Aoyama Gakuin up to 6th in a sprint finish against Tsukasa Koyama (Teikyo Univ.) and Takayuki Saigo (Juntendo Univ.).  2012 Ageo City Half Marathon winner Kenta Murayama (Komazawa Univ.) could only improve one place, advancing from 10th to 9th.

Five teams fell more than 10 minutes behind the Nittai, meaning they will start Day Two together and carry a time handicap throughout the day.  Both Josai and Chuo were casualties of the wind at the summit and did not finish the stage after Josai's Eita Hamamoto collapsed at 18.3 km with hypothermia and Chuo's Yushi Nowaki did the same at 22 km.  Josai's former head coach Jun Hiratsuka was no longer in his position after Josai's DNF in 2009, so current coach, one hour run national record holder Seiji Kushibe, may be counting his days in office as a result.  For Chuo it was the worst day in the school's history, a history that includes making and finishing 87 of the 89 Hakone Ekidens to date and winning 13 of them, both more than any other school, and a 28-year streak of top-10 finishes.

Looking to Day Two and the overall 2013 Hakone Ekiden title, defending champion Toyo University remains in the best position for the win.  If Nittai pulls it off it will be the first time in Hakone history that a team has gone from October's Yosenkai qualifier to the overall win, but while its 2:35 lead is formidable with 109.9 km to go it amounts to only 1.4 sec/km.  With five stages still to go Nittai has only one runner left, Keigo Yano, with a sub-29 10000 m or sub-64 half-marathon best.  2nd-place Waseda likewise has only one runner, Fuminori Shikata, left at that level.  Toyo has six, including last year's Sixth and Eighth Stage winners Takanori Ichikawa and Kento Otsu, and that number does not include Izumo Ekiden Fifth Stage course record setter Ryu Takaku who remains on Toyo's available list.  Toyo of course did not want to spend Day Two trying to close a margin of that size, but it certainly has the arsenal to make a successful title defense still happen.  And if the wind remains the same look for most or all of the stage records to go.

4th-place Meiji likewise has six sub-29 / sub-64 runners left, but its margin of over 4 minutes to the lead and 90 seconds to Toyo will be tough to overcome.  If it does, its first win in 64 years awaits.  5th-place Hosei had a nearly perfect day to get where it is and the odds are against it repeating tomorrow.  6th-place Aoyama still holds captain Takehiro Deki, who as last year's Second Stage winner could conceivably make up around two minutes, but without the support it needed from its rank-and-file members on Day One it is likely out of range of the win and can only seek to improve on last year's best-ever 5th-place finish.  7th-place Teikyo should pick up ground and move toward 5th, while 8th-place Juntendo will be treading water to stay in the top ten to be seeded for 2014.  9th-place Komazawa still holds five of its best members in reserve, so look for it to pull a repeat of last year and win Day Two on time in a push toward the top three.  The Kanto Region Select Team, Yamanashi Gakuin and Daito Bunka will spend the day battling for the sole remaining place in the seeded bracket, while Chuo Gakuin will drift farther away.  If the Select Team gets it only nine schools will be seeded for next year.  After DNFs today Josai and Chuo will likely be allowed to start Day Two with the five schools that missed the 10-minute cutoff for the white sash start on the Sixth Stage, but they will not be scored in the final results.

It all gets underway tomorrow at 8:00 a.m. with a pre-race show starting at 7:00.  Check out NTV's broadcast on Keyhole TV, premium edition for better quality, and follow @JRNLive for the only realtime English coverage of one of the world's great races, the 89th Hakone Ekiden.

2013 Hakone Ekiden Day One
89th running
Tokyo-Hakone, 1/2/13
20 teams, 5 stages, 108.0 km
click here for complete results

Day One Top Stage Perfomances
First Stage (21.4 km)
1. Masaya Taguchi (Toyo Univ.) - 1:03:32
2. Kei Fumimoto (Meiji Univ.) - 1:03:46
3. Kazuto Nishiike (Hosei Univ.) - 1:03:47

Second Stage (23.2 km)
1. Benjamin Gandu (Kenya/Nihon Univ.) - 1:08:46
2. Enock Omwamba (Kenya/Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) - 1:09:32
3. Keita Shitara (Toyo Univ.) - 1:10:29

Third Stage (21.5 km)
1. Yuta Shitara (Toyo Univ.) - 1:04:36
2. Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.) - 1:04:44
3. Shogo Nakamura (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:05:55

Fourth Stage (18.5 km)
1. Hideyuki Tanaka (Juntendo Univ.) - 57:16
2. Shuhei Hayakawa (Teikyo Univ.) - 57:56
3. Kazutaka Kuroyama (Hosei Univ.) - 57:59

Fifth Stage (23.4 km, ~900 m elevation gain at peak)
1. Shota Hattori (Nittai Univ.) - 1:20:35
2. Shogo Sekiguchi (Hosei Univ.) - 1:22:32
3. Shuhei Yamamoto (Waseda Univ.) - 1:22:52

Day One Team Results (5 stages, 108.0 km, ~750 m net elevation gain)
1. Nittai Univ. - 5:40:15
2. Waseda Univ. - 5:42:50
3. Toyo Univ. - 5:42:54
4. Meiji Univ. - 5:44:37
5. Hosei Univ. - 5:45:39
6. Aoyama Gakuin Univ. - 5:46:27
7. Teikyo Univ. - 5:46:27
8. Juntendo Univ. - 5:46:29
9. Komazawa Univ. - 5:47:12
10. Kanto Region Select Team - 5:47:52
11. Yamanashi Gakuin Univ. - 5:48:09
12. Daito Bunka Univ. 5:48:46
13. Chuo Gakuin Univ. - 5:50:05
----- Teams over 10 min. behind leader start Day Two at 10:00 with time handicap.
14. Koku Gakuin Univ. - 5:53:03 (2:48 handicap)
15. Nihon Univ. - 5:54:31 (4:16 handicap)
16. Jobu Univ. - 5:58:02 (7:47 handicap)
17. Tokyo Nogyo Univ. - 5:59:24 (9:09 handicap)
18. Kanagawa Univ. - 6:00:03 (9:48 handicap)
DNF - Josai Univ.
DNF - Chuo Univ.

(c) 2013 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

photo (c) 2013 Phil Suh
all rights reserved

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