Soka University delivered a stunning performance to finish atop the standings on the first day of the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race on Saturday.

The Hachioji-based school captured the Day 1 crown for the first time, crossing the finish line in 5 hours, 28 minutes, 8 seconds. Toyo University was second and Komazawa University finished third.

“We didn’t expect to win the first day, but our runners did a great job,” said Soka head coach Kazutaka Enoki, whose team is making just its fourth appearance in the Hakone ekiden.

Defending champion Aoyama Gakuin University produced a surprising 12th place finish on the first day. Tokai University, the 2019 winner, was fifth, 3 minutes, 27 seconds behind Soka.

The 97th edition of the annual race will resume on Sunday, with the participants running the same route in reverse as they head back to Tokyo’s Otematchi business district.

Soka will start 2 minutes, 14 seconds ahead of Toyo on Sunday.

Day 1 began at an exceptionally slow pace but eventually picked up on a brisk day under blue skies.

Soka junior Yudai Shimazu put his school in first place about 5½ km into the fourth leg. Soka never trailed after that point.

“My best-case scenario was that we would compete in the top group during the fifth leg,” Enoki said. “But we actually thought we might be able to take first place during the third and fourth legs and Shimazu managed to do it. He was so dependable today.”

Soka junior Yuta Mikami said: “We have great runners for the second day, so hopefully they’ll ride the momentum we’ve built.”

Aoyama Gakuin, often called Aogaku, lagged behind the top group early and sank as low as 13th place at the relay station between the second and third legs.

The school, which was considered a favorite to win the title, rallied into 10th place at one point but ended up in an unfamiliar position in the standings as senior Naoto Takeishi’s pace slowed as he battled through cramps during the hilly fifth leg.

Aogaku, which has won five of the last six Hakone titles, will take off 7 minutes, 35 seconds behind Soka on Sunday.

The Toyo runners, seeking the school’s first championship since 2014, think they have a chance to bounce back on Day 2.

“One big mistake could hurt your placement in the end. That’s how we felt today,” Toyo head coach Toshiyuki Sakai said. “We still have a chance to make up the deficit.”

The race saw scattered crowds along the roadsides as organizers encouraged the public to stay away due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The few fans who still ventured out didn’t seem to cheer loudly or wave flags — two staples of past races — as runners passed by.

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