The Hakone ekiden, one of the biggest amateur sporting events in Japan and the nation’s tradition for the New Year, gets underway in three weeks and the head coaches of the 21 participating teams presented their ambitions for their respective squads at a Tokyo news conference on Thursday.

Aoyama Gakuin University, which grabbed its first-ever Hakone title last winter, will again be one of the favorites to capture the championship, while Komazawa University, Toyo University and Waseda University are expected to compete for the major trophy as well.

An Aoyama Gakuin staffer said the team won’t rest on its laurels after the Tokyo school captured the championship last year with a time of 10 hours, 49.27 seconds, the fastest time ever on the current course. In fact, he added, under the leadership of head coach Susumu Hara, the team is fired up at the prospect of making more history by winning the title for a second consecutive year.

But Hara and his team have a massive amount of pressure on their shoulders as they enter the race this time as the defending champs, a totally different situation than before the last Hakone ekiden.

“We went in the tournament last year at ease because everybody thought Komazawa would win it,” said Hara, who took the helm in 2004 and guided the team to a berth in the premier ekiden championship for the first time in 33 years in 2009. “But once you sit in this position, you get overwhelmed by the incredibly big pressure.”

Hara’s men won the Izumo national collegiate ekiden, another major collegiate championship, in October, but fell short in early November’s all-Japan collegiate ekiden. After the defeat, the 48-year-old said he changed his way of coaching.

“I watched the video of the all-Japan championship and I thought that it wasn’t the Aoyama Gakuin that it was supposed to be,” Hara said. “I was looking at the team, comparing them with last year’s team unconsciously. Then I began looking more at their bright sides and trying to develop their strengths more.”

Hara said he wants his runners to enjoy the race going in and wants the viewers to be entertained, too.

“We are not trainee monks,” he said. “Not just physically, but we also need to peak mentally toward January 3.”

Winning the Hakone ekiden brings so much to the participating teams, such as by adding prestige to the schools, and it can also be a life-changing opportunity for the runners and coaches.

“We set our goal to win the championship,” Waseda head coach Yutaka Sagara said. “You’ve got to win in the high-level competition to achieve that, but we’ve done high-quality training throughout the year. We would like to challenge for the title at all cost.”

This will be the 92nd edition of the relay marathon, which is officially called the Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race. It is contested by university teams from the Kanto area on Jan. 2 and 3 of every year. A total of 21 teams (20 universities and one select squad of the Inter-University Athletic Union of Kanto schools) relay in 10 sections during the two-day race.

The start and finish is in the Otemachi district of Tokyo and the halfway point is at Lake Ashi in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture. The total distance is 217.1 kilometers.

The Hakone ekiden is a very popular event on television and usually draws ratings of around 25 percent.

The race starts at 8 a.m. on both days.

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