The Japan NewsAoyama Gakuin runners had to chase the dark blue jersey of Toyo throughout the first day of the Tokyo-Hakone Intercollegiate Ekiden. But the view soon changed on Wednesday.
Downhill specialist Yuji Onoda overtook Toyo in the first section, and Aoyama Gakuin’s path was clear all the way to its fourth straight title.
Onoda, a junior, flipped a 36-second deficit into a lead of 52 seconds in the sixth leg, and fellow junior Keisuke Hayashi posted a new seventh-leg record to build up a cozy cushion that helped Aoyama Gakuin cruise to the title.
The team covered the two-day 217.1-kilometer course over 10 legs in 10 hours 57 minutes 39 seconds.
Day 1 leader Toyo University, which had seven freshmen and sophomores among its 10 runners, finished second with 11:02:32, raising its hopes of halting Aoyama Gakuin’s reign next year. Waseda was third in 11:09:09.
Nippon Sport Science rose from seventh the previous day to finish fourth, followed by Tokai, which rebounded from ninth.
“I want to thank these students [the athletes], who believed in Aoyama Gakuin and came to join us,” coach Susumu Hara said. “I’m surprised at how good my runners were. Especially Hayashi — I didn’t know he had such potential.”
Onoda got Aoyama started by quickly chasing down Toyo sophomore Shunsuke Imanishi.
Imanishi put in a strong effort — his time was the leg’s fifth best of the day — but Onoda shaved time off the lead with each step, catching Imanishi shortly after the 15-kilometer mark and pulling away. Onoda posted the best time in that section.
Onoda has run the downhill sixth leg the past two years. After posting the second-best section time in both 2016 and 2017, the junior won the leg.
“I finally made it,” Onoda said. “This year’s run took the biggest toll on me physically. It’s difficult to stand up.”
Despite these remarks, he flashed a smile of satisfaction.
Receiving the sash from Onoda, Hayashi put on an even stronger performance. He set a fast pace early and stretched the lead — from 52 seconds to 3:28 — to set a new section record.
At that moment, the race was basically over, as Aoyama Gakuin had reserved one of its top two runners — senior Yuta Shimoda — for the eighth leg. Shimoda lived up to expectations, posting the section’s best time.
The last two runners — senior Shuichiro Kondo in the ninth leg and junior Takaya Hashima in the final leg — cruised to the goal, with a jubilant Hashima crossing the finish line.
“I had absolute trust in Onoda in the sixth leg, Hayashi in the seventh leg and Shimoda’s eighth leg, the three sections I felt would decide the fate of the race,” Hara said.
Shimoda, Kondo and other senior runners will graduate without ever losing at Hakone. “The Hakone Ekiden has developed me. I want to achieve results in marathons in the future, and reach the Olympics and other big events,” Shimoda said.
Said Onoda: “We want to make a new team that can surpass this year’s team.”
Tight battle for top 10
As usual, there was joy and sorrow over the top 10 spots that secure automatic entry into next year’s Hakone Ekiden.
Teikyo moved up from 12th the previous day to finish ninth, and Chuo Gakuin from 11th to 10th to grab spots in next year’s race. Their rise bumped two teams — Juntendo and Chuo — out of the top 10.
Kanagawa University, winner of the All Japan collegiate title, was regarded as a title contender.
However, the team was only able to improve by two spots from the previous day, finishing 13th.
Komazawa, the 2008 Hakone champion, also missed out on a top-10 finish, sinking to 12th.
The remaining teams in the top 10 are Hosei, Josai and Takushoku.
30-year-old makes debut
Tokyo International’s 30-year-old freshman Kazuya Watanabe made his Hakone debut in the seventh leg.
Watanabe, a former corporate team runner who took part in the 2011 world championships in the 5,000 meters, entered the university to one day become a coach.