Komazawa University anchorman Takuma Ishikawa overcame a 3-minute, 19-second deficit over the 23-kilometer final stage to win the prestigious Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden road relay for the seventh time, ending a 12-year winless drought on Sunday.
Komazawa started the 109.6-km, five-stage return leg between the mountain resort town of Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Tokyo's Otemachi business district 2:21 behind eventual runner-up Soka University and seven seconds back of Toyo University, the eventual third-place finisher.
"I was so surprised," Komazawa manager Hiroaki Oyagi said. "You never know what might happen if you don't give up."
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, organizers asked fans not to line the roadside for the 97th running of a race that debuted in 1920, but some still came and witnessed Ishikawa pass Soka anchorman Yuki Onodera just 2 km from the finish line to win by 52 seconds.
"I just thought I'd give it my best shot," said Ishikawa, a junior who produced the fastest 10th leg in the 21-team field. "This year was unlike any other. My mind went out to the seniors on our team, and how this would be their last race, and how they entrusted this important role to me."
Soka, a rank outsider competing in the two-day race for just the fourth time, was a shock winner of the first day's five-stage outward leg. Senior Yoshiaki Ishizu posted the race's best ninth leg to increase the lead over Komazawa.
"I was instructed to relax and enjoy the race, and somehow managed to do that. I had my eye on a better time, but I'm happy I could achieve my main goal of keeping us in front," Ishizu said.
Soka manager Kazutaka Enoki blamed himself for the final leg despite the school's best finish yet.
"I have nothing but praise for the runners, who gave their all. The finish was a failure on the coaching side," he said.
According to the race organizer, the Kanto Student Athletics Federation, the number of roadside spectators dropped about 85 percent compared to last year's race, although in some parts of the course fans appeared to be packed together.
"I've been watching this race for over 30-plus years, and the crowds looked extremely sparse," federation vice president Hiroyoshi Higuma said. "On TV it may have looked like there was no space (between spectators) but in reality, there were gaps between them."
The fans who did come were asked not to cheer but to show their support by clapping their hands.