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

Kawauchi Brothers Repeat Father's Day Okinoshima Ultra Sweep

For the second year in a row brothers Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) and Yoshiki Kawauchi (unattached) returned to their late father's home island of Okinoshima to dominate the Father's Day Okinoshima Ultramarathon 50 km and 100 km.

Yoshiki, the younger of the two, ran the 100 km for the third time. In his 2015 debut he suffered mightily on the way in to an 11:21:52 finish. Returning with a year's more experience in 2016, he won in a course record 7:20:31. This time he was out fast in search of his first sub-7 clocking, averaging 4:00/km at 40 km through the hilliest part of the course before starting to slow. At 60 km he was still on track for a sub-7, splitting 4:07:10, but when he hit the series of three >100 m elevation gain climbs just after 60 km sub-7 slipped out of reach. Still well under course pace with a 7:12:27 projection at 80 km Yoshiki struggled on the last 100 m climb just over 5 km from the finish, coming in for the win in 7:29:06. Yoshiki has…

Japanese National Track and Field Championships Preview

The 101st edition of Japan's National Track and Field Championships takes place Friday through Sunday at Osaka's Yanmar Stadium Nagai. It's a strange time in some ways. Despite the overall upward trend spurred on by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the count of athletes who might make the London World Championships off their performances at Nationals is low. The marathon, walks, combined events and relays aside, based on current qualifying times only the men's 100 m, women's 5000 m and women's 10000 m could field full three-member squads, and not many events look set to join that list. The progress over the last few years in men's distance on the track seems to have stalled, with nobody qualified for London in the 5000 m and the only man qualified in the 10000 m already a scratch. Is it a just a hiccup or a sign of problems in the buildup to 2020?

Visit the JAAF's National Track and Field Championships website for entry and start lists, live results, photos an…

Ageo City Half Marathon Leads Weekend Action - Preview

by Brett Larner

Rainy weather lies ahead for a busy weekend of racing across the country.  Track is a part of the calender from April through December, and this weekend features several large time trial meets including the Shizuoka Long Distance Time Trials Meet and, closer to Tokyo, the Nittai University Time Trials Meet.  Men's 5000 m is the focus at Nittai with 37 separate heats in one day, the fastest heat led by 12 Japan-based Africans including Bedan Karoki (DeNA RC), Ronald Kwemoi (Team Komori Corp.) and Paul Kuira (Team Konica Minolta).

The main action this weekend, however, happens on the roads, and there's no question that the Ageo City Half Marathon is the main event.  Ageo, the race that university coaches use to thin their rosters ahead of deciding their lineups for January's Hakone Ekiden, is one of two Japanese half marathons vying for the title of world's greatest half, locked in a duel with March's National University Half Marathon to produce the d…