Team depth key to Aoyama Gakuin’s victory

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Aoyama Gakuin University’s ninth-section runner Yuito Nakamura passes the sash to anchor Hironobu Nakakura in the 98th Tokyo-Hakone Intercollegiate Ekiden road race on Monday.

Aoyama Gakuin University demonstrated its team’s depth at the 98th Tokyo-Hakone Intercollegiate Ekiden road relay race, capturing its sixth title and first in two years on Monday.

The university made a strong showing in the two-day, 10-section race over 217.1 kilometers, clocking a record time of 10 hours 43 minutes 42 seconds.

Aoyama Gakuin finished the first day on top and opened the second day with a lead of 2:37 over Teikyo University, which finished the overall race in ninth place.

“It was an admirable run. I respect my students,” Aoyama Gakuin coach Susumu Hara said after the race. “We’ve referred to ourselves as ‘the best team ever,’ and we backed that up.”

Aoyama Gakuin’s anchor Hironobu Nakakura, who also ran the 10th stage last year, crossed the finish line with his fists high in the air. The junior posted a new section record of 1:07:50, rewriting the previous record by 50 seconds.

“This sash carried the hopes of not only the 10 runners who ran on the first and second days of the race, but also of everyone who supported us until this day,” Nakakura said. “So, I’m happy to finish first.”

Ninth runner Yuito Nakamura cemented the lead with a strong performance that resulted in a section record of 1:07:15, giving Aoyama Gakuin a lead of about 8 minutes over the team in second place.

“Honestly, I started running my section with the aim of setting a new record, so I’m happy to have been able to rewrite the record,” said Nakamura, also a junior. “I was able to enjoy running the 23.1 kilometers. In the second half, I ran thinking only about winning the title.”

Nakamura also said his disappointing performance in last year’s race, in which he ran the second stage and finished 14th, was a driving force.

None of the university’s runners had the fastest times in any of the five stages on the first day. Hironori Kishimoto, a junior who missed last year’s race due to an injury, was the first runner who brought Aoyama Gakuin the fastest time of a stage, taking the seventh section in 1:02:39.

Last year, Aoyama Gakuin finished fourth and failed to win a second consecutive title as injuries to its main runners hobbled the team. However, throughout this year’s race, the university showed its steadiness on the second day as it never relinquished the lead.

“We’ve built the depth of the team, so that anyone can compete well no matter who is chosen,” Hara said confidently before the day two of the race.

All 16 members on the roster for the Hakone race have held a 28-minute-range time for 10,000 meters.

“We have the ‘Aoyama Method,’ and if we follow the method of working independently and steadily, we can improve our skills,” Hara said Monday, referring to his own training method based on scientific evidence. “I also feel that the Aoyama Gakuin team has developed tools like self-discipline, self-reliance, self-motivation and an attitude to move forward to tackle issues.”

Runner-up Juntendo University improved from its first-day fifth place finish, but never caught up with Aoyama Gakuin, which completed the race 10:51 in front.

At one point in the 10th section there was a fierce battle for third place between defending champion Komazawa University and Chuo University. But Chuo lost ground and came in sixth, which was good enough to earn an automatic bid in next year’s race given to the top 10 finishers. Chuo finished in the top 10 for the first time in 10 years.

The other schools rounding out the top 10 were Toyo University, Tokyo International University, Soka University, Kokugakuin University and Hosei University.

Regularly seeded-schools Waseda University and Tokai University failed to secure automatic bids.