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Aoyama Gakuin sets meet record in decisive victory

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

His final-leg runner Keigo Yuhara was still on the road running. But Aoyama Gakuin head coach Susumu Hara was already high-fiving his other athletes at the finish line in Tokyo’s Otemachi district, being certain his team would be back on top.

The school racked up its first Hakone ekiden title in two years with a meet record of 10 hours, 45 minutes, 23 seconds in a convincing victory on Friday.

Aoyama Gakuin built an advantage of 3:02 over the runner-up and reigning champion Tokai University. Tokai’s time was 10:48:25, which also eclipsed the previous meet record of 10:52:09, which the Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based school set in the 2019 competition.

Four schools competed closely over the closing distance, but Kokugakuin University took the bronze medal, followed by Teikyo University, Tokyo International University and Meiji University. It was the highest-ever finish in the event for Kokugakuin, which placed seventh last year.

Four-time Hakone winner Toyo University was 10th with a time of 10:59:11, missing the podium for the first time in 12 years. Toyo was in 11th place after Thursday’s opening day, but wound up barely securing an automatic berth to next year’s race. The top 10 finishers are awarded automatic berths to the next meet.

“I’ve coached strictly my athletes all year,” Hara said after the New Year’s sporting tradition, which is officially called the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race. “But they all followed me and I appreciate them for that. On top of that, I would like to thank their high school coaches, who had grown them and made them come to Aogaku.”

Aoyama Gakuin, which is widely known as Aogaku and captured four straight Hakone titles from 2015, won the first day on Thursday by building a lead of 1:33 over runner-up Kokugakuin and 3:22 over Tokai, which was fourth.

In an effort to cut the deficit, Tokai pushed hard and overtook Tokyo International and Kokugakuin early in the seventh leg. Then Tokai pulled within 2 minutes entering the ninth leg. But Aoyama Gakuin extended its cushion to 3:42 with Yuta Kanbayashi’s ninth-leg run, and second-year athlete Yuhara cruised to the finish line to wrap it up.

Kanbayashi said that he was determined to put his team closer to the championship with his own run and was happy he accomplished his objective.

“All our teammates that ran on the first day yesterday, and the three runners through the eighth leg (today) before me did a great job, and I thought I had to give a performance to pull the win in my turn,” the junior student-athlete reflected on the competition. “I was running being aware of the gaps to other schools behind us. But I was running well and my head coach was telling me that I was on pace for the fastest time in the leg. I could expand our margin to Tokai, so I think I did my job. I’m extremely happy that I could compete at Hakone for the first time and won the title after we’d gone through tough times.”

Kanbayashi ran the leg’s fastest time (1:08:13).

As proven with the top two finishers breaking the previous meet record, the 96th edition of Hakone became the fastest competition overall.

In fact, records were born in seven of the 10 legs, perhaps thanks to the favorable weather conditions and the fact that many of the participating runners wore the Nike-made Vaporfly shoes.

After the race, Toyo captain Akira Aizawa, who broke the long-standing second-leg record by running 1:05:57 on Thursday, was given the Shiso Kanakuri trophy as the tournament MVP. The previous record was held by Yamanashi Gakuin University’s Mekubo Job Mogusu, who clocked 1:06:04 in 2009.