This will be the 95th winter featuring the New Year’s tradition — the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, or as it’s more commonly known, the Hakone ekiden.

There’s a story behind how the annual race came to be over a century ago.

Shiso Kanakuri was one of the world’s elite marathon runners and had competed at the 1912 Stockholm Summer Games as one of Japan’s first-ever Olympic athletes.

Kanakuri was looking for a marathon gold medal but ended up performing far from his best as he suffered a heatstroke running in temperatures which reached as high as 40 C.

In 1917, Kanakuri ran the anchor leg during a 508-km Tokaido relay marathon race between Tokyo and Kyoto, a competition considered the origin of ekiden races. After that experience, Kanakuri, who had said there should be a long-distance competition to develop young Japanese runners, contributed to the formation of the Hakone ekiden, which held its first edition in 1920 with just four Kanto universities.

In the decades since that humble beginning, Kanto’s collegiate ekiden has morphed into a massive sporting extravaganza which draws high TV ratings during its live broadcasts.

Because it’s held on Jan. 2 and 3 during Japan’s New Year’s festivities, some compare it to the Rose Bowl, the annual college football blockbuster which takes place on Jan 1., when trying to explain the ekiden’s popularity to foreigners — especially North Americans.

For participating runners, the experience of competing at Hakone is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and can not be traded for anything. The sentiment is similar to that which is felt by baseball players who compete in the national high school tournaments at Koshien Stadium.

This year’s race

For Hakone’s 95th edition, a key storyline will be whether Aoyama Gakuin University can continue its reign and capture a fifth straight title.

Some say that unlike in previous years, the school isn’t represented by the usual assortment of star runners.

While Susumu Hara, the team’s head coach, concedes this point, he insists he has the “best team” of his 15-year career in with the squad and is ready for a five-peat — a feat which has been accomplished by two other schools, Chuo University and Nippon Sport Science University.

Hara isn’t bluffing. He says that looking at the personal bests of his student-athletes at 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the half marathon, all of which are considered indicators for the popular ekiden competition, the numbers this year have exceeded those of his past teams.

“When we put all that data together, we believe this is the strongest squad we’ve ever had,” Hara told a news conference early last month. “We may not look flashy as a team, but everybody has really improved and it’s like they are all our ace runners. That’s our strength this year.”

Aoyama Gakuin, which is widely referred to by its abbreviated form “Aogaku,” has already triumphed at this season’s other two collegiate events — October’s Izumo ekiden and November’s All-Japan collegiate ekiden. Aogaku completed the title trifecta in the 2016-17 campaign. If it does it again with another Hakone crown this year, it would become the first school to accomplish the collegiate ekiden sweep twice.

Aogaku’s main contender for the throne is Toyo University, which finished runner-up at Izumo and third at All-Japan. Toyo led after the first day of last year’s Hakone race. Tokai University could also be in the mix for the title in the 23-team competition. The Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based school was third at Izumo and finished behind Aogaku at the All-Japan.

Others like Takushoku University, Komazawa University, Nippon Sport Science University and Waseda University can also legitimately seek a podium finish.

Runners’ perspectives

Experts, and even some rival schools, say that barring an accident, Aogaku is a lock for the Hakone championship.

Ryoji Tatezawa, a speed runner for Tokai, is one of them.

The junior student-athlete expressed his honest feelings, saying: “(Aogaku) are strong. You won’t be able to beat them easily.”

Tatezawa added that while any team will struggle if Aogaku performs at “100 percent,” the favorite isn’t an invincible team.

Tatezawa, who has competed in the last two Hakone races, stressed that no one will be able to put on a perfect performance in the 217.1-km race.

“Some of our athletes will have to take some risks to outperform them,” said Tatezawa, who has repeat titles in the 1,500 meters at the national championships and recorded a ninth-place finish in the same discipline at the 2018 Asian Games. “They have to compete at 120 percent.”

Meanwhile, Ryohei Sakaguchi, another junior student-athlete from Tokai, said competition within the team had been intense. Tokai has 59 runners this year and only 16 are registered on the Hakone roster. Only 10 will earn the privilege of competing in the race.

Reflecting on its preparation for Hakone last year, Sakaguchi recalled the internal competition had an negative effect, because runners focused too much on outperforming their rivals within the team during training camps and failed to peak during the main event.

Sakaguchi, who ran in the second leg at Hakone in 2018, says they have matured this year and become more like a team, all striving for the ultimate goal.

Hakone is only a local collegiate ekiden race, but the impact of winning is felt nationwide.

“People ask you about Hakone. The influence (of competing in it) is incomparable,” Sakaguchi said. “There’s Izumo and there’s All-Japan, but even if you lose in those, if you win at Hakone, it all pays off.”

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