Regardless of how Kento Otsu and Yuta Shitara fare at Sunday's NYC Half and beyond, they will be able to say—to paraphrase Bogey—"We’ll always have Hakone."
Like the basketball player who hits the winning shot during March Madness or the quarterback who throws the winning touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl, the two Toyo University stars have already left their marks on Japanese running history.
Such is the fame that comes with starring in the Tokyo-Hakone Collegiate Ekiden, Japan's most famous and prestigious race.
"It's the race that every male runner aspires to compete in," said Takeshi Nishimoto, producer of the website Ekiden News. "Just running in Hakone confers a special status on the athlete."
And blowing away records means a legacy that lasts a lifetime. Otsu and Shitara were key members of the Toyo team that not only won this year's race but shattered the course record by a whopping eight minutes. Shitara ran the fastest seventh stage in history, while Otsu fell just seven seconds short of the mark for the eighth stage.
Generally known as the Hakone Ekiden, the 217.9-kilometer race dates back to 1920. It consists of 20 teams from East Japan universities (one team is a selection of top runners from schools that did not make the field) and is run over two days on Jan. 2 and 3 from central Tokyo, heading west along the coast to the mountain hot springs town of Hakone (pronounced ha-koh-neh) before returning to the capital. The stages average just over 21 kilometers, with some including thigh-busting climbs up steep mountains.
The nationally televised race is one of the highlights of the New Year's holiday in Japan. Much like Thanksgiving in the U.S., New Year's is a time for families to gather, and watching the six hours of coverage each day has become a tradition of the season. The race is always one of the top-rated shows for the year.
"Without this [race], it would feel like New Year's hadn't come," Nishimoto said. "What also sets it apart is that it's college runners, not professionals."
The format and circumstances of the road relay conform perfectly with the Japanese psyche, based on group dynamics. The ekiden allows the long-distance runners to experience a team event and, in the case of Hakone, the grueling course and distances greatly appeals to a society that treasures extraordinary efforts.
"Whether it's for their school, company, or hometown, in every category they can fight for their team," said Toshio Kiuchi, senior director of the Japan Association of Athletics Federations.
A runner who can say that he has run in the Hakone Ekiden is equivalent to an actor performing on Broadway or a pitcher in baseball taking the mound at Yankee Stadium. They have tread on hallowed ground.
Among the Japanese stars who first burst into the spotlight at Hakone were Toshihiko Seko, whose two victories at the Boston Marathon in the 1980s were among his Japan-record 10 career triumphs, and Arata Fujiwara, one of the few elite Japanese runners to have competed in the New York City Marathon, which clashes with Japan's ekiden season. Although Fujiwara failed to finish that race in 2010, his second-place finish at last month's Tokyo Marathon earned him a ticket to the London Olympics. Japan's marathon team was announced Monday in Tokyo.
Like Fujiwara in New York, Otsu and Shitara are breaking with tradition, as it is rare for collegians to appear in a major international meet overseas such as the NYC Half. It's just the type of experience that Japanese runners need before taking on the world's best at the Olympics or world championships, said one Japan athletics official.
"We select the athletes [for the Olympics] who we think can be competitive and running overseas while they are still young may help them relax when they get into the big meets," Kiuchi said. "Right now our qualifying races for the marathon are all domestic, which some people question. After London, there might be changes in the selection process."
The fact that the collegians train for what is essentially a half-marathon distance at Hakone should work in the Toyo duo's favor in Sunday's race.
"In terms of global races, Japanese [college] athletes have only run at the Olympics or world championships," Nishimoto said. "It's been hard for them in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, but perhaps for a 20K race, the collegians can compete globally.
"[Otsu and Shitara] might not have the speed yet for the 5,000 or 10,000 meters. But they were the top runners on a Toyo team that totally blew away the record. More than on the track, they might be more suited for road races, so it's interesting that they were selected to run in New York."