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Aoyama Gakuin Leads Waseda by 33 Seconds on Hakone Ekiden Day One

by Brett Larner
photos by @k_7250
click here for Day Two report

Two-time defending Hakone Ekiden champion Aoyama Gakuin University squeezed through in its quest to become the fourth school to win the triple crown of Japanese university men's distance running, holding off Waseda University by 33 seconds to finish 1st on Day One of the world's biggest and best road race.

Having won its two Hakone titles thanks in large part to uphill specialist Daichi Kamino on the legendary Fifth Stage, Aoyama Gakuin faced a tough challenge this year following Kamino's graduation.  Without a doubt the best team in the 21-deep field, Aoyama Gakuin found itself surpassed on half marathon credentials by Waseda in mid-November, with Waseda's uphill man Yuichi Yasui presenting a formidable obstacle to whoever had to fill Kamino's shoes.  From Waseda's point of view, Aoyama Gakuin's superior depth and track credentials meant Waseda had to blast Day One to finish it ahead for the Day Two return trip.

Which made the start of the race all the more unexpected.  Despite leading the 21.3 km First Stage field on half marathon credentials with a 1:01:59 win at November's Ageo City Half Marathon, Waseda's Rintaro Takeda and the rest of the field seemed intimidated by the presence of 2015 National University 5000 m champion Hazuma Hattori of Toyo University.  Hattori led from the gun and there was almost no time during the entire run when he wasn't in control.  Where the First Stage typically sees stunning speed, Hattori went as slow at 3:32 for a single kilometer with none of the rest of the field daring to go ahead of him.  Slow through the first 5 km before Hattori's first surge, then a series of off-and-on moves that broke the rest of the field down one by one. In the end it came down to a six-way sprint finish, Hattori outkicking Tokai University first-year Shota Onizuka by 1 second with Takeda and Aoyama Gakuin's leading man Ryuya Kajitani another 3 seconds back.

The 23.1 km Second Stage always features most schools' best runners, and their close proximity this year meant a faster stage than the First.  The first six teams through the exchange quickly tightened up into a pack that stayed together through halfway before Tokai first-year Hayato Seki fell off.  In the second half of Hakone's most competitive stage Kanagawa University's Kengo Suzuki, the top Japanese finisher at October's Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifying race, surged to drop the other four remaining runners, opening a 38-second lead over Aoyama Gakuin's Tadashi Isshiki by the next exchange.

Suzuki's time of 1:07:17 was the eighth-fastest ever on the Second Stage, the first time a Kanagawa runner had scored the prestigious stage win.  But without enough runners to match its opening pair Kanagawa quickly dropped back on the 21.4 km Third Stage.  Last year Aoyama Gakuin's Yuhi Akiyama was its secret weapon, winning the Third Stage in his Hakone debut.  Now a fourth-year, Akiyama did it again.  Taking control of the race he went ahead alone, opening a lead of 1:22 by the next exchange.  Waseda's Kazuma Taira moved into 2nd to set the stage for the two teams to duel it out over the rest of the race, but even he was 29 seconds slower than Akiyama.

The Fourth Stage saw a return to its longer format this year, increased in distance to 20.9 km with the Fifth Stage shortened to 20.8 km.  Waseda's Yohei Suzuki had the chance to try to shave off some of Aoyama Gakuin's lead before the critical uphill Fifth Stage, but at 1:03:50 he was 7 seconds slower than Aoyama Gakuin's Homare Morita.  Toyo moved into 3rd courtesy of fourth-year Shun Sakuraoka.  Behind the top three, front-end favorites Komazawa University, Tokai and Yamanashi Gakuin University all went backwards through the field as they were overtaken by a surprising array of relatively minor schools including Teikyo University, Soka University and Hosei University.

Ever since future 2:07:39 marathoner Masato Imai's transformative Fifth Stage heroics over a decade ago the 800 m-plus uphill stage has become the race-maker, a win there meaning the overall title was on the way.  Aoyama Gakuin's 1:29 lead over Waseda at the start of the stage was good but in no way a guarantee given the untested nature of its new uphill man Ryusuke Sadanaga versus the proven success of Waseda's Yasui.  Through the Ohiradai curve 7.0 km into the stage Sadanaga was faster, extending his lead to 1:56, but as he moved into the steepest part of the course he began to lag. Yasui's experience showed as he changed gears after Ohiradai and began to cut down the distance to Sadanaga.  1 km from the finish Sadanaga was 45 seconds ahead, and at the end of the Day One-wrapping stage Yasui had taken that to 33 seconds.

With 109.6 km to go on Day Two 33 seconds is not much for Aoyama Gakuin to rest on, but the fact remains that Waseda needed to be the one with a lead by the end of the Fifth Stage.  Aoyama Gakuin still has its star third-years Kazuki Tamura and Yuta Shimoda in reserve while Waseda has used all its best runners.  Much of how the rest of the race will shape up depends on the downhill Sixth Stage tomorrow, where Aoyama Gakuin will run second-year Yuji Onoda, 2nd on the same stage last year.  If he is equally strong this year it will be almost impossible for Waseda to catch up on the last four stages.  If he blows it, watch out for something very exciting indeed.

Apart from the race for the overall win, the main feature of Day Two is the battle to finish in the ten-deep seeded bracket.  The top ten schools are guaranteed places at the following year's Hakone and also earn invitations to October's Izumo Ekiden, while 11th and lower are consigned back to the Yosenkai qualifier.  Imai's alma mater Juntendo University was an unexpected 3rd on Day One and looks safe for a seeded bracket finish, along with Toyo and Komazawa.  From there it gets very interesting.  Less than 2:30 separates 6th-place Kanagawa from 14th-place Takushoku University, just over a second per kilometer over the Day Two course.  Pre-race top five contenders Tokai and Yamanashi Gakuin are over a minute back from Takushoku in 15th and 16th after disastrous team performances, just about two minutes out of 10th.  Some surprising teams like Soka and Jobu University are likely to drop out of the top ten, but even so it will be very hard for Tokai and Yamanashi Gakuin to make it back into the fold.  Rarely has the seeded bracket race looked so good from 24 hours out.

Day Two starts at 8:00 a.m. Japan time on Jan. 3 with broadcaster NTV's pre-game show beginning at 7:00 a.m.  Live streaming may be available on, with English-language coverage as always on @JRNLive.

93rd Hakone Ekiden Day One
Tokyo - Hakone, 1/2/17
21 teams, 5 stages, 107.5 km

Day One Team Results
1. Aoyama Gakuin University - 5:33:45
2. Waseda University - 5:34:18
3. Juntendo University - 5:36:09
4. Toyo University - 5:36:25
5. Komazawa University - 5:37:46
6. Kanagawa University - 5:38:11
7. Chuo Gakuin University - 5:38:20
8. Jobu University - 5:39:13
9. Soka University - 5:39:25
10. Nihon University - 5:39:55
----- seeded bracket cutoff
11. Teikyo University - 5:40:06
12. Hosei University - 5:40:18
13. Nittai University - 5:40:29
14. Takushoku University - 5:40:36
15. Tokai University - 5:41:44
16. Yamanashi Gakuin University - 5:41:56
----- time handicap start cutoff
17. Meiji University - 5:44:42
18. Daito Bunka University - 5:45:29
19. Koku Gakuin University - 5:46:52
20. Kanto Region Student Alliance - 5:49:45
21. Kokushikan University - 5:54:57

Top Individual Stage Results
First Stage (21.3 km)
1. Hazuma Hattori (Toyo Univ.) - 1:03:56
2. Shota Onizuka (Tokai Univ.) - 1:03:57
3. Rintaro Takeda (Waseda Univ.) - 1:04:00
4. Ryuya Kajitani (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:04:00
5. Atsushi Yamato (Kanagawa Univ.) - 1:04:01

Second Stage (23.1 km)
1. Kengo Suzuki (Kanagawa Univ.) - 1:07:17 - all-time #8
2. Workneh Derese (Takushoku Univ.) - 1:07:50
3. Tadashi Isshiki (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:07:56
4. Muiru Muthoni (Soka Univ.) - 1:08:05
5. Kazuya Shiojiri (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:08:06

Third Stage (21.4 km)
1. Yuhi Akiyama (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:03:03
2. Kazuma Taira (Waseda Univ.) - 1:03:32
2. Yoshihiro Hiraga (Kanto Alliance) - 1:03:32
4. Ryo Kuchimachi (Toyo Univ.) - 1:03:41
5. Ryoichi Yoshida (Nittai Univ.) - 1:04:07

Fourth Stage (20.9 km)
1. Wataru Tochigi (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:03:36
2. Homare Morita (Aoyama Gakuin Univ.) - 1:03:43
3. Yohei Suzuki (Waseda Univ.) - 1:03:50
4. Shun Sakuraoka (Toyo Univ.) - 1:03:52
5. Yuji Serunarudo (Soka Univ.) - 1:04:17

Fifth Stage (20.8 km, >800 m elevation gain)
1. Shohei Otsuka (Komazawa Univ.) - 1:12:46
2. Kiyotaka Morita (Jobu Univ.) - 1:12:49
3. Kyohei Hosoya (Chuo Gakuin Univ.) - 1:13:08
4. Yuichi Yasui (Waseda Univ.) - 1:14:07
5. Ko Yamada (Juntendo Univ.) - 1:14:12

photos © 2017 Kaephoto-san, all rights reserved
text © 2017 Brett Larner, all rights reserved


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