The Race For The Ages That No One Knows About: The US and Japanese Collegiate Champs Just Raced Each Other in Cross Country. Here’s What Happened.
By Jonathan Gault
September 10, 2019
On September 6, the day before Northern Arizona University begins its 2019 cross country season, where it will put its 3+ year unbeaten streak on the line against one of the world’s best collegiate distance teams, and Lumberjacks head coach Mike Smith is freaking out over…the course map?
It’s not normal to see the Zenlike Smith panic over anything, but this is far from a normal season opener. Usually, the George Kyte Classic is a glorified workout, a way to ensure that the Lumberjacks abide by NCAA rules by competing in a meet within 21 days of the start of practice. But this year, in addition to Arizona Christian University and Pima Community College, NAU, the three-time defending NCAA cross country champions, will be hosting Tokai University, defending champions at Japan’s most prestigious race, the Hakone Ekiden.
It’s the kind of our best versus your best matchup that is usually only spoken of in hypotheticals, and now that it’s actually happening, Smith is feeling a little self-conscious about the only home meet on the NAU schedule.
“I instantly kind of had this feeling of, oh man, I hope we have a good reflection of hosting a meet for the Japanese,” Smith says. “The Japanese are typically so meticulous.”
Specifically, Smith is worried about the course map. Usually, he photocopies the same course map and hands it out as a token gesture; the same teams come every year, and they all know the course. But, upon actually studying the photocopy, Smith deems it inadequate for his new visitors. What follows are several failed attempts to produce a worthy course map.
“So I’m like tracing and using different markers,” Smith says. “Then I thought, [I] can’t hand-draw it, I’ve gotta get this on the computer, and I’m using on Word, the ‘insert shape’ function, trying to make this thing accurate. I’m like, this thing has gotta be to scale. Then I’m on Photoshop and I’m using Google Earth. All because I know if I raced in Japan, the course map would be down to the inch in satellite coordinates.”
Eventually, Smith reaches out to former NAU coach Eric Heins, who emails him the original course map. After a few final touchups, it’s done. Now he can focus on the hardest season opener of his career.
Stop by the NAU track on any given morning, and you never know who you’ll see. It could be four-time Olympic champion Mo Farah of Great Britain, who has recently been in town preparing to defend his Chicago Marathon title. Or one of the members of local pro group Northern Arizona Elite, like Scott Fauble or Kellyn Taylor. Or any of the scores of skinny-legged runners seeking the red-blood-cell-boosting benefits of training at 7,000 feet. Flagstaff is where the world comes to train, and Smith, a year-round resident and Flag guy through and through, views himself as a host. He’ll often reach out to coaches who roll into town to answer any questions they might have and point them toward the best spots to train.
So when Tokyo’s Tokai University arrived last month for an altitude stint, Smith connected with their coaching staff, led by Hayashi Morozumi. Smith’s idea was to get their team and his team together for a long run, but as Tokai’s trip neared its end, that was looking unlikely.
“Right now, our long runs are pretty relaxed on the pace and they were doing some kind of progression that got cranking at the end,” Smith says. “I said that’s probably not going to work for us.”
Not thinking much of it, Smith also mentioned that NAU had a home meet on September 7, the day before Tokai flew home to Japan.
“I thought there was very little chance they’d take us up on it,” Smith says.
But, roughly a week before the race, Smith pulled open WhatsApp to find an unexpected message: Tokai was in.
Perhaps it’s not as surprising once you consider that Morozumi, unlike most Japanese coaches, loves cross country. During his days as a high school coach, he had a 600-meter cross country loop built for his runners to train on; after he was hired at Tokai in 2011, he installed a 1,000-meter loop. The results have been phenomenal. At Saku Chosei High School in Nagano, Morozumi coached Suguru Osako, who went on to set Japanese records in the 5,000 (13:08) and the marathon (2:05:50), as well as future sub-2:10 marathoners Akinobu Murasawa and Yuki Sato. And this year, he guided Tokai to its first-ever title at the Hakone Ekiden — a two-day, 135-mile road relay race that is a combination of NCAA XC and the Super Bowl and draws massive television ratings in Japan.
“I thought it was very good to be able to participate in the race to see how much [our athletes] had adapted to the altitude,” Tokai assistant Nori Nishide tells LetsRun.com. “…We decided to participate in the race because we thought it was a rare opportunity for the Hakone championship team and the US cross country championship team to compete.”
Smith likes to keep things loose at practice, and downplayed expectations heading into the race.
“He would tell us, yeah they’re gonna beat you guys, you guys are gonna get your asses kicked,” says NAU sophomore Ryan Raff.
Smith was only half-joking. Tokai’s talent rivals that of any elite NCAA program. Their roster for the 2019 Hakone Ekiden featured nine guys who had broken 14:00 for 5,000 meters (including four at 13:41 or faster). And remember, this is in a system where athletes are training to race a much longer distance than US collegians (the 10 legs of the Hakone Ekiden are all between 12.9 and 14.4 miles); in addition to their slew of sub-14:00 men, Tokai had two more guys with PRs of 62:07 and 62:17 in the half marathon. For comparison, NAU’s 2018 NCAA XC title team had seven guys under 14:00 for 5,000 (and, like Tokai, four guys at 13:41 or faster) — but none remotely close to 62:00 in the half.
More than their PRs, however, the NAU squad came away impressed with how Tokai carried itself in workouts. Raff recalls watching a session of 20×800 — far longer than anything NAU runs on the track — with nary a word exchanged between members of the Tokai squad.
“It’s just basically all business from the start of the workout to the end of the workout,” Raff says.
About five days before the race, Smith was sitting in his office, which has a view of the NAU track, and watched Tokai grind out a long interval session with military precision.
“It was like 10 guys wearing exactly the same thing, down to the exact same haircut, sunglasses, socks, shoes, singlet, shorts,” Smith says. “Single-file line, and I think they did 1000s for 90 minutes with 200 jog. And I was like, This is great. This team is no joke. They’re gonna crush our guys.”
If you were to draw up the most difficult circumstances possible for a visiting team, facing the reigning NCAA champions on their home course at 7,000 feet of elevation would come close to it. But Tokai showed no fear when it came time for the 4.5-mile race at Buffalo Park, taking it to the Lumberjacks from the gun.
At this point in the season, NAU’s guys are doing mostly volume and longer workouts, so in years past, Smith has had his guys train through George Kyte, tempoing the first part of the race before picking it up over the last mile. The plan this year was similar: the Lumberjacks had run a fartlek the day before, and during the race, they employed a pacer, Ryan Lanley, who was tasked with taking them through the mile somewhere between 5:10 and 5:20. The instructions: no one was to pass Lanley until after the mile mark.
The plan, however, did not account for a couple of Tokai athletes taking the race out in the low-4:40s. Lanley got sucked in, and the result was a large pack of Tokai and NAU athletes hitting the mile in 4:48 just behind the leading Tokai duo. At 7,000 feet, on dirt, that is moving.
NAU’s Luis Grijalva caught Smith’s eye running by, and could do nothing but smile and shake his head. As Smith surveyed the rest of his team, he saw a lot of painfaces. He couldn’t help but laugh. NAU had a race on their hands.
“When I saw their faces a mile in, I very much enjoyed that,” Smith says. “I know they did not enjoy that, but I thought that was great. Those guys, the Tokai guys, wanted to run, so that was cool.”
Faced with a challenge, NAU responded, and the two schools would battle it out over the final 3.5 miles as each athlete tried their best to hold on after the vicious opening mile. Raff, after reeling in the leaders during mile 2, pulled away over the final mile to win in a course-record 21:52.0, but Tokai’s Ryota Natori and Akihiro Gunji took the next two spots.
Overall, NAU claimed a narrow victory, going 1-4-5-6-9 for 25 points to Tokai’s 30 (2-3-7-8-10), but bragging rights were not truly awarded after this matchup. Both squads rested some of their top athletes, with NCAA mile champ Geordie Beamish and 2018 XC All-American Blaise Ferro sitting this one out for NAU, and top freshman Drew Bosley (4th overall) running unattached. NAU, 11 weeks out from NCAAs, was hardly race-sharp, but Tokai, racing a much shorter distance at a much higher altitude than they’re used to, was even farther out of its comfort zone.
“That probably took some courage on their part,” Raff says.
Nishide relays the Tokai athletes’ verdict, “They said the race was difficult to breathe, but [they] enjoy[ed it].”
The timing of the race, and the atmosphere surrounding it (Smith estimates there were a couple hundred fans on hand), was hardly befitting that of a clash between the premier collegiate distance-running programs in two of the world’s premier running nations. But this was not the showdown to settle which nation produces the best runners or collegiate teams. Rather, this was a race about mutual respect and taking advantage of a rare opportunity, two teams separated by an ocean and a language but united by a shared love of running and pursuing greatness.
“This is not gonna come every year,” Raff says. “This is a really cool thing that’s happening.”
And, in an era when several top college squads (and one notable pro team) race as little as possible, it was refreshing to see NAU get after it and race early in the season — even if that wasn’t originally the plan.
“I think sometimes coaches can learn from that,” Smith says. “I think sometimes that we could trade a little specificity for the relationship aspect that sport can provide. We sometimes are so specific about what we’re doing that it actually isolates us.”
After the race, the teams exchanged handshakes and pats on the back and snapped a group photo together, before Tokai departed for home the next day. So naturally, the question arises: will NAU be heading to Japan for a rematch?
Smith has thought about it, but says it’s unlikely. The first two of Japan’s “big three” collegiate ekidens fall during the NCAA cross country season. And while Hakone, which is held on January 2 and 3, could work on the calendar, it presents other issues. For one, the legs are significantly longer than anything an NCAA athlete races. Smith says it would be a challenge for NAU to compete without drastically overhauling their training.
“I looked at the legs for the [Hakone] Ekiden,” Smith says. “Most of them are like half marathon legs, they’re like between 11-14 miles. I thought, oh man. And the stage records on them are unbelievable. They’re running 4:50 pace or something. It might be a long way to go to get absolutely annihilated.”
And then there’s the emotional aspect.
“There is so much emphasis and honor and history and tradition in those ekidens,” Smith says. “Those guys get so up for that. And I don’t know if a team from NAU would have the historical context to emotionally go to a place like a team like Tokai would for their home ekiden. But it’s probably the same for us with NCAA cross country.”
But Raff, for one, is on board.
“I would love it.”
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