Looking at the average PBs of the 10 fastest runners on each team, out of the 19 teams that raced Hakone last year and are back this year, 17 have gotten faster over 5000 m since last year, 17 faster over 10000 m, and 14 slower over the half marathon. It couldn’t be clearer: out of necessity, coaches have shifted focus from the half marathon to the 5000 m and 10000 m, and the level at those distances has come way up. 12 of the 21 teams have a 10-man average 5000 m time under 14 minutes, 16 have a 10000 m average under 29 minutes, and only 2 have a half-marathon average under 63 minutes. Even last year, when the lack of half marathons was already an issue, it was nowhere near that, with 8 teams sub-14, 10 sub-29, and 5 sub-63. 16 teams have at least one runner 28:10 or faster for 10000 m. 12 have someone 13:40 or better for 5000 m. Only 5 have someone under 62 minutes for the half. Shoes are no doubt part of it, but given the decline in the half marathon they’re not the whole story. It’d be interesting to speculate what kind of impact this is going to have on the next generation of marathoners, and what would happen if the focus shifted further to 1500 m and 5000 m.
AGU’s two strongest competitors on paper are this year’s and last year’s Yosenkai qualifier winners Meiji University and Juntendo University. But it’s one thing to win the qualifier, making you the #11 team in the Hakone field, and something else to go for the overall win. Meiji has a history of not performing well at Hakone, and last year Juntendo struggled in part because star 1st-year Ryuji Miura had suffered an injury while training for the National Championships 3000 mSC a month before Hakone. Running up to potential would put either into contention, but as Soka head coach Kazutaka Enoki said right after last year’s loss, “It’s not that easy.”
Komazawa, Tokyo Kokusai University and Toyo could all be up at this level despite being ranked further down the field due to their lack of experience with the half marathon. Komazawa’s trending in that direction after finishing 5th at Izumo and then winning the longer Nationals, while TKU and Toyo are the opposite, TKU winning Izumo and taking 5th at Nationals, and Toyo going 3rd and 10th. The most likely scenario for TKU is to stack the first three stages with its top 3 Vincent Yegon, Masaya Yamatani and Ken Tansho to build up a big Day One lead and then try to hang on through Day Two like Soka attempted last year. That would set up a potential duel between Yegon and Komazawa’s Ren Tazawa, maybe with Miura, the 3000 mSC NR holder, 7th in the steeple final at the Tokyo Olympics, and the U20 half marathon NR holder, in the mix. Given that Tazawa beat 2021 Hakone MVP Yegon over 10000 m earlier this month, it would be one of the highlights of this year’s race.
With all those teams capable of finishing in the top 6, the race to get into the top 10 and score a guaranteed place at the 2023 Hakone and a trip to the 2022 Izumo Ekiden will be a tough one. 2nd at the Yosenkai qualifier the last two years, Chuo University isn’t far off the top tier but couldn’t translate that to success last year. The Kanto Region Student Alliance team, made up of top-placing individuals at the Yosenkai from teams that don’t qualify and which doesn’t count in team scoring, and Waseda Universtiy, featuring sub-28 trio Yuhi Nakaya, Naoki Ota and Ryuto Igawa, are another step behind Chuo.
Excluding Komazawa there’s not much difference between the next 9 teams after Waseda, taking the list of solid contenders for top 10 to 17. Given its performance last year Soka is the best bet to finish higher than expected. 2019 Hakone winner Tokai University seems strangely down on its luck this year, finishing 9th at Izumo and 12th at Nationals, and missing last year’s Third Stage winner Shotaro Ishikawa from its entry roster.
As above, TKU and Toyo should place higher than their ranking would suggest but are unpredictable due to their lack of available half marathon times. Toyo will have former H.S. 5000 m NR holder Kosuke Ishida making his Hakone debut, one of the other highlights to watch for. Teikyo University is in the same situation as TKU and Toyo, and given a stable history at Hakone it should probably be included among the contenders for top 10. That leaves only the debuting Surugadai University and bottom-ranked Senshu University on the list of non-contenders, making for what could be one of the most competitive Hakones in memory.