Aoyama Gakuin University took the lead in the third of Sunday's five stages and never looked back, crossing the line first to win the outward half of the 98th Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden road relay.

Freshman Aoi Ota moved Aoyama Gakuin up to first place some 18 kilometers into stage three and anchor Hiroki Wakabayashi finished in 5 hours, 22 minutes, 6 seconds, giving his team a 2-minute, 37-second lead to take into the return leg of the prestigious event to be run on Monday.

Aoyama Gakuin University's third-leg runner Aoi Ota (L) hands the sash to fourth-leg runner Takayuki Iida in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on the first day of the two-day Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden road relay on Jan. 2, 2022. (Pool photo) (Kyodo) ==Kyodo
Hiroki Wakabayashi crosses the finish line in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, as Aoyama Gakuin University completes the opening day of the two-day Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden road relay in first place on Jan. 2, 2022. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Teikyo University finished second and Komazawa University third, 3 minutes, 28 seconds behind Aoyama Gakuin. Kokugakuin University finished in fourth place, followed by Juntendo University in fifth.

"This is wonderful. They were amazing," Aoyama Gakuin men's ekiden coach Susumu Hara said.

"All 16 registered runners are sub-29 minute runners and I know every one of them is capable of bringing home (a win). But we can't let our guard down. We have to be aggressive on the return leg and come up with another great race strategy."

The two-day, round-trip race features 21 teams of university students from Kanto area schools.

The outbound route is a 107.5 km course that starts in the Otemachi business district in Tokyo and finishes at Lake Ashinoko in Hakone, a popular tourist spot in the mountainous west of Kanagawa Prefecture.

Last year, Komazawa University staged a dramatic final-leg comeback to win the overall title.The first runners of 21 teams start in Tokyo's Otemachi business district on the first day of the two-day Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden road relay on Jan. 2, 2022. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

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