Komazawa University showcased a historic comeback win as junior runner Takuma Ishikawa overtook then-leader Soka University with only two kilometers left in the 10th and final leg to capture its first Hakone ekiden championship since 2008 on Sunday.

It was the seventh-ever gold medal for the Tokyo-based team in Japan’s annual New Year sporting tradition, for which universities in the Kanto region are eligible to compete. Komazawa’s winning time was 10 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds.

“I’m extremely happy,” Komazawa head coach Hiroaki Oyagi said after the tournament. “We’ve struggled to win in this event and I was only hoping our team would give a good performance on the second day.”

It was perhaps one of the most dramatic endings to the Hakone ekiden in its 97-year history. Soka maintained the lead it had built on Saturday’s opening day, when it crossed the finish line at Lake Ashi on top.

Soka started the second and final day with a 2 minutes 14 seconds lead over Toyo and an additional seven-second advantage above Komazawa, and junior runner Yoshiaki Ishizu displayed a phenomenal performance to widen the gap between Soka and second-place Komazawa to 3 minutes and 19 seconds at the end of the ninth leg.

But 10th-leg runner Yuki Onodera could not ride that momentum, allowing Komazawa’s Ishikawa to rapidly reduce their deficit. Near the Imperial Palace with about 3 km remaining, Onodera was squarely in Ishikawa’s sights and it was only a matter of time before the latter runner would catch up.

Soka’s long-standing lead officially slipped away when Ishikawa surpassed Onodera and quickly broke away to finish first in Tokyo’s Otemachi business district.

“We’ve gone through tough times over the past year, not being able to practice sufficiently, so it’s definitely been a different year (from usual),” Ishikawa said when asked if his team had been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was running wanting to express my appreciation to our senior athletes. I was so motivated to make something happen and I felt like I did it when I crossed the finish line.”

Komazawa had captured the championship at the national collegiate ekiden competition last November.

Four-time winner Toyo University secured the bronze medal with a time of 11:00:56. Reigning champion Aoyama Gakuin, who entered the favorite to win, moved up in the standings from 12th place after Saturday to fourth overall. The five-time Hakone champion had Sunday’s fastest overall time of 5:25:33.

Tokai University, the 2019 champion was fifth in 11:02:44. The top ten finishers secured automatic berths for next year’s race.

Komazawa is a regular participant in Hakone with multiple titles to its credit, while Soka has only recently embarked on creating a more competitive program under head coach Kazutaka Enoki, who took over the post in 2019. But going in this year’s race, both teams had set a realistic goal of finishing on the podium.

Neither had imagined before the tournament that they would be legitimate title contenders on Sunday.

“We ended up winning overall, but our team is still younger and I personally thought it would be good enough for us to finish within the top three,” Oyagi said. “So we entered the second day with a challenger’s mindset. We finished third (on Saturday) and I thought we would still be far from winning the championship. But we gained good momentum in the sixth leg (with junior Yuki Hanasaki). We didn’t have any seniors on the second day and I was wondering how much we could compete with this young team.

“We were 3:19 minutes behind Soka at the end of the ninth leg and I thought that was it. I just told Ishikawa to run boldly.”

Enoki established a five-year plan to build a legit team when he came to the Hachioji-based school, but their success on the road came far earlier than expected.

He confessed that even a podium finish was perhaps too ambitious a goal for his team, but said that the weekend’s results would give his team nothing but confidence going forward, admitting that his runners would need more experience to compete with elite schools — noting his own inability to give proper advice to Onodera during the final leg.

“If we had a two-minute lead at the end of the ninth leg, I thought Onodera would run away,” said Enoki, whose Soka team had previously placed as high as ninth at Hakone. “Ishizu expanded the lead to 3:19, and I think I got off guard by that.”

Enoki added: “I think he was mentally worn out more than we thought he was, perhaps from the pressure for the championship. Nobody put it on him, but he probably felt it himself. It shows how immature we are and how we need to give our athletes more experience.”

Organizers announced that Tokyo International University sophomore Vincent Yegon was named this year’s recipient of the Shiso Kanakuri Award, which is given to the Hakone ekiden’s most valuable runner.

The Kenyan overtook 14 runners to set a new record of 1:05:49 in the second leg on Saturday. He had previously set a third-leg record in the 2020 race.

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