Skip to main content

Hakone Champion Aoyama Gakuin University Graduate Ryotaro Otani Starts Transition to Triathlon in Time for Tokyo 2020

by Brett Larner

Fired from the Toyota Boshoku corporate team last month after asking its head coach for more flexibility, Ryotaro Otani, a 2013 graduate of two-time Hakone Ekiden champion Aoyama Gakuin University, took fans by surprise when he won Sunday's Japan Triathlon Union Qualifying Time Trial in one of the fastest times in the event's history.


Before becoming a runner Otani was a youth swimmer, making it to the national level before switching over to his junior high school's track and field team full-time. Alongside Takehiro Deki, at Aoyama Gakuin he was one of the star runners who helped turn AGU into national names, beating top-level men Yuta Shitara (Toyo Univ.) and Ikuto Yufu (Komazawa Univ.) to break the Fourth Stage course record and pave the way for AGU to score its first-ever Big Three University Ekiden win at the 2012 Izumo Ekiden and placing 5th on the Hakone Ekiden's most competitive stage three months later.  In between he set his 10000 m best of 28:46.02, and a few months after graduating and joining Toyota Boshoku he ran a 13:51.86 best for 5000 m.

Friction with the conservative environment at Toyota Boshoku and frustration at its remote location in Aichi made it difficult for Otani to keep the same kind of enthusiasm and motivation he had felt at AGU, and he began going for long bike rides in the countryside to escape.  A year ago at the Marugame Half Marathon he set his half marathon PB of 1:02:48, his best result post-university, but for the most part he was a failure as a corporate runner.  Feeling the clock ticking with his 26th birthday approaching, shortly after this year's New Year Ekiden corporate national championships Otani talked to the Toyota Boshoku head coach about trying to make changes to his approach and environment.  A few days later he received notification of the termination of his position on the Toyota Boshoku team.

Otani in green on the anchor stage of the 2012 Hakone Ekiden.

Otani returned to Tokyo full of questions about his own future.  What next?  Quit?  Find another team?  Everyone in the Japanese distance running industry has talked about nothing but the 2020 Tokyo Olympics marathon ever since Japan won the bid in 2013.  The marathon.  Is that it?  All there is?  Do you only have the options in life that everyone else is aiming for, that the system is pushing you toward?  Or is there more to be had?  What if you did something nobody had ever thought of?  He had swim experience.  He was used to biking over 100 km at a time.   What if a top-level Hakone star made the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in triathlon?

Looking up PBs he found that among current world-class triathletes only London Olympics gold medalist Alistair Brownlee (Great Britain) had run faster for 10000 m.  None of them was better for 5000 m, London bronze medalist Jonathan Brownlee (Great Britain) coming closest with a 14:00.2 road 5 km best.  It was a lot of work to get done in a short time, but what if he didn't just make the team?  What if he medaled?  A Hakone star, medaling in the Tokyo Olympics.  The dream of every runner in Japan under age 30 and of all the coaches and bureaucrats in the system.  But not their way.  Not in the marathon.  In triathlon.  The idea and its implications made Otani giddy with excitement in a way he hadn't felt since the peak of his AGU days.


On Sunday, Mar. 27, Otani took part in the official Japan Triathlon Union (JTU) Qualifying Time Trial.  Clearing 4:43 for a 400 m swim and 16:25 for 5000 m on the track would meet the minimum standards for competing as an elite in official JTU Japan Cup events, his minimum goal.  4:29 twice and 15:35 would make him eligible for the ITU World Cup series.  On just a few practice swim sessions Otani clocked 4:40 for the 400 m swim, then ran 14:22 for 5000 m, his combined times the third-fastest in the event's history.  The door had opened for a possible pro triathlon career.  "With serious training and more experience I think I can improve my swim and run times a lot more," Otani tweeted afterward.  "I hope that you'll all keep cheering on Ryotaro Otani's next big challenge!"  A runner of Otani's ability backed by the power of Hakone Ekiden fandom and the Aoyama Gakuin University name value.  The impact on the Japanese triathlon scene could be huge.  Maybe on the world scene too.  Sponsors are already lining up.  In Japan they love to use the phrase "From Hakone to the World."  Otani is on his way from Hakone to another world.

© 2016 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Comments

Metts said…
Good for him, excellent, there is life after elite running, for those who want to continue excelling in events.

Most-Read This Week

Tokai University Outruns Defending Champ Aoyama Gakuin to Win First Izumo Ekiden Title in Ten Years

Kanagawa's Tokai University outran two-time defending champion Aoyama Gakuin University to win the 2017 Izumo Ekiden, its first win at one of the Big Three university men's ekidens under head coach Hayashi Morozumi and Tokai's first Izumo title since 2007.

Formerly head coach at Nagano's Saku Chosei H.S. where he produced the fastest-ever all-Japanese high school team and standout Suguru Osako (Nike Oregon Project) on a cross-country based training regimen, since taking over at Tokai in 2011 Morozumi has set about systematically developing the Tokai program into one with the greatest depth in Japanese university running. On paper AGU had a slight advantage over Tokai over the first half of Izumo's six stages, but with Tokai's second half runners, including its top two men Shota Onizuka and Hayato Seki, ranked at the top of their stages AGU needed a decent lead by halfway to stand a chance.

From the start it wasn't to be. In hot and sunny conditions Tokai&#…

From Madarao to the World - Tokai University's Hayato Seki

Long-awaited by university ekiden fans, the 2017 ekiden season is underway. The Izumo Ekiden was held Monday, with Tokai University living up to expectations to score the win. The athlete who broke the finish line tape as Tokai's anchor was second-year Hayato Seki. This year Seki has run PBs of 13:35.81 for 5000 m and 28:23.37 for 10000 m, marking his growth into one of the unquestionable stars of the university ekiden scene.

A week earlier, the Madarao Forest Trails race was held on Oct. 1. Flashback to the 2012 edition of the race five years ago. The winner in the 16 km Beginner Class men's race was none other than Seki, then in his third year of junior high school. The picture below is of his win at the 2012 Madarao Forest Trails race. Even though he was only a junior high school student Seki ran brilliantly, opening up a huge lead of well over four minutes over the 2nd-placer.


After that Seki entereed Nagano's ekiden powerhouse Saku Chosei H.S. and has now grown into …

Kawauchi and Kanematsu Win Rainy Shimantogawa 100 km

The 23rd edition of the Shimantogawa Ultramarathon took place Oct. 15 in Shimanto, Kochi. 1822 runners started the 100 km division, where Yoshiki Kawauchi (26, Saitama T&F Assoc.) and Aiko Kanematsu (37, Team RxL) took the men's and women's titles for the first time.

The 100 km division started under a heavy downpour at 5:30 a.m. in front of Warabioka J.H.S. The 576 participants in the 60 km division got off 4 1/2 hours later from Koinobori Park, with both races finishing at Nakamura H.S.

Kawauchi, the younger brother of "civil servant runner" Yuki Kawauchi, ran Shimantogawa for the second time, improving dramatically on last year's run to win in 6:42:06. "Last time I was 21st, a total disaster," Kawauchi said afterward. "My brother told me, 'Don't overdo it on the uphills,' and his advie helped me get through it. The scenery around Iwama Chinkabashi was really beautiful."

Kanematsu began running with her husband around age 30…