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20 January 2021 | in Summer FISU World University Games

On the road and track, university athletes and alums off to a blistering start in 2021

Where to start, really?


When talking taking it to the limit straight from the gate this year in student-athlete running circles, we'd be remiss to start with anything but the 2021 Hakone Ekiden, Japan's classic two-day relay running race.


web RST6312It was a bit of an eerie sight to see the biggest race in Japan stripped of the millions of fans that customarily line the streets, but underdog Soka University made it one for the memory bank by pulling off a stirring day one victory in the event's 97th edition. While spectators might not have been out on course due to coronavirus concerns and regulations, millions tuned in for Nippon Television's live coverage of all 217.1 kilometres of the race that travelled from Tokyo's Ōtemachi to Hakone and back again.


Soka University started the return trip to Tokyo with a 2 minute 14 second lead over perennial Hakone Ekiden contenders including Toyo University, 2020 National University Ekiden champ Komazawa University and 2019 Hakone titleist Tokai University.

Ekiden startIn simpler times. An archival photo from 2020 for the start of the 96th Hakone Ekiden where millions of spectators lined the streets for the two-day running relay competition on a Tokyo suburb to Hakone and back (photo credit: Hakone Ekiden)

Soka University's day one performance gave them a bit of breathing room, but only barely. With a 109.6-kilometre route ahead of them for day two, their lead translated to just over a second per kilometre — with the pursuers beginning from the advantageous hunting start position.


web AC4I0018 Athletics women's half marathon group JPN(gold medal)Through the first three stages, Soka's advantage ebbed, then flowed, then ebbed again before heading into the day's longest relay leg of 23.1km. Soka U's Yoshiaki Ishizu took his coaches words to hear when he said the ninth leg was critical to the team's chances of victory as he grew his university team's lead from a 1:29 advantage to 3:19 going into the final 23.0km stage. Komazawa anchor Takuma Ishikawa went out fast, trying to reel-in Soka U's Yuki Onodera. It was an all-out, almost reckless start to a hilly route that stretched over a half marathon distance.


Halfway through, Soka University still led by over two minutes. With three kilometres to go, Onodera started visibly struggling with the effort. Soka U's advantage stood at 40 seconds. With just over a kilometre to go, Komazawa's anchor runner Ishikawa pulled level. Ishikawa then made a hard push into the lead. Onodera could not respond.


Ishikawa upset what had until then been shaping up to be the biggest upset in Hakone history and helped lead Komazama University its first event win since 2008.

JPN 2SAL 4328

"The athletes were superb," said Soka University coach Enoki, a four-time Hakone stage winner in his student days, post-race. "If there was any failure, it was in my leadership, not in the athletes. We'll learn from this and use it to move forward and grow."


With the Hakone Ekiden continuing its proud tradition in the first days of the new year — but with uncertainty for the road ahead in 2021 — Komazawa's coach Hiroaki Oyagi said, "I learned today that's it true; you never know what's going to happen until it's done."

web FC2 5272Japanese student-athletes have made their mark on international university competitions, particularly in the distance running events on and off the track. Here, Yuka Suzuki celebrates her half-marathon win during the Napoli 2019 Summer Universiade.

Former Michigan Wolverine standout sets all-time sub-4 world record


University of Michigan alum Nick Willis wrote his name into the history books Tuesday night by going sub 4:00 in the mile for the 19th year in a row. Willis, 37, ran 3:58.63 to finish second to 2016 NCAA steeplechase champ Mason Ferlic at the Orange Winter Classic athletics meet in Clermont, Florida. 


Willis 1The two-time Olympic medalist first broke the 4:00 mile standard as a University of Michigan student-athlete in February 2003 at the Meyo Invitational in South Bend, Indiana. Willis’s performance under the lights in central Florida helped the two-time Olympic 1500m medalist break a tie with fellow New Zealand legend John Walker, who broke 4:00 for 18 consecutive seasons from 1973-1990.


With an Economics degree in hand, Willis has also set a standard as an elite dual career athlete: the Michigan Track Classic event director, business co-founder, and holder of a full-time job as the Athlete Experience Manager for Tracksmith, a boutique athletics sportswear company. 


Following a tragic 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, Willis teamed up to put on a charity track meet four days later. The event drew a crowd of 3,000 and raised $25,000 USD for earthquake victims. 


Keeping to his Wolverine roots, Willis stills calls Ann Arbor — the home of the University of Michigan — his primary residence where he continues to work with legendary collegiate coach Ron Warhurst. 



Collegiate pole vaulters keep reaching new heights

Baylor LIghtfoot2020 NCAA All-American KC Lightfoot of Baylor University vaulted himself into a world-ranking top performance this week with his 5.94m effort (photo credit: Baylor University)

Could the university pole vaulting performances improved since the now-reigning World Record holder Mondo Duplantis left the collegiate ranks following his freshman year at Louisiana State University to star on the professional athletics circuit?


Consider this: Duplantis set the NCAA indoor record with his 5.92m vault in February 2019. Since then, Chris Nilsen from the University of South Dakota vaulted 5.93m. Baylor University’s KC Lightfoot just went one better with his 5.94m mark at the Corky Classic on Saturday.


With Lightfoot’s recent massive 11cm personal best improvement, the third-year collegian has put himself in medal contender conversation. Here’s to hopefully seeing Lightfoot represent university student-athletes at the highest heights in Tokyo and Chengdu this summer!