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Aoyama Gakuin University got off to a good start toward recapturing the Hakone ekiden title as it finished first on the opening day of the New Year’s traditional event on Thursday.

Aoyama Gakuin notched a first-day record of 5 hours, 21 minutes, 16 seconds, with a lead of 1:33 over runner-up Kokugakuin University at the finish line at Lake Ashi in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Reigning overall Hakone champ Tokai University was fourth at 5:24:33. Toyo University, the two-time defending first-day leader, unexpectedly sits in 11th place.

The 96th edition of the annual event was held under near-perfect weather conditions with the temperature at the start in Tokyo’s Otemachi district at 7 C.

After freshman runner Hironori Kishimoto took the lead in the second leg, Aoyama Gakuin was surpassed by Tokyo International University’s Kenyan student-athlete Vincent Kibet Yegon in the next leg. But Aoyama Gakuin retook the lead in the fourth leg and Yuya Yoshida retained the placement in the hilly fifth leg to conclude the first day on top.

Tokyo International was third on the 107.5-km first day.

Aoyama Gakuin entered the last Hakone race, which is officially called the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, as the title favorite. But it finished 5:30 behind first-place Toyo at the end of the opening day, and that cost it a fourth straight championship. The Tokyo school settled for second place in 2019.

Aoyama Gakuin captain and senior Takato Suzuki said that he was told by head coach Susumu Hara to keep up with Yegon, who set a first-leg record of 59:25. But Suzuki decided to let him go because the Kenyan’s pace was much faster.

“But,” Suzuki said afterward, “I was running on my own, good pace, and I was running focusing on finishing ahead of our rival Tokai University.”

Aoyama Gakuin’s first-day standard was 5:15 faster than the previous mark set by Tokai last year. The top four teams came up with a faster overall time than that.

Hara said that he was happy with the result for his team, which won event titles in 2015, 2016, 2017 and ’18. But he added that its hard-working training would not fully “be paid off if it doesn’t win it all.”

The race will resume on Friday morning at Lake Ashi. The second-day runners will cover the return leg back to Tokyo.

Tokai will start the final day 3:22 behind Aoyama Gakuin.

Tokai head coach Hayashi Morozumi confessed that the time gap “is too tough to overcome” yet his team would keep fighting “not giving up.”

The top 10 schools will earn automatic berths for next year’s Hakone ekiden, in which teams from the Kanto region are eligible to compete.

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