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Discovering ekiden – long-distance relays and the warrior spirit

Attracting tens of millions of spectators, ekiden races are Japan’s most prestigious sporting events. And yet, outside of their island home, these long-distance relays remain largely unknown. We think it’s time that changed.

 

There’s no other form of racing quite like ekiden. With varying terrain and distances through each stage, winning is not just about individual speed, but rather athletes with differing strengths taking the baton (or sash, as it is in ekiden) at the right time for the right leg to create a winning result. It’s about all runners working together for the collective good. It’s not just the format of ekiden that defines it however, but its unique representation of team and human spirit.

 

A storied tradition

 

Starting over a century ago, long before marathons became popular, Japan’s addition to the world of road racing turns the solitary sport of distance running into a gripping team relay event. Competitors enjoy celebrity status, with children across Japan literally hoping to follow in their footsteps.

 

The term ekiden comes from combining the Japanese words, ‘eki’, which means ‘station’ and ‘den’, which translates to ‘convey’ or ‘carry’. Its name is taken from the transportation system used to send government documents by a relay of horses and men in ancient Japan.

 

Ekiden earned special significance from the very first race. The first ekiden was held on April 27, 1917 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Meiji State. To mark the occasion, two teams raced the 316 miles (508 km) from Kyoto (the historical capital of Japan) to Tokyo (the new capital of Japan’s Meiji government). One team represented the Kanto (Tokyo) region, while the other ran for the Kansai (Kyoto/Osaka) region.

 

 

The race took place on a new road created along the old route between the two cities. The message was one of unifying the old Japan and the new, while also showcasing the progress in infrastructure with the fast times the teams could run on the new road. Still, a fast time for 316 miles is still a long time by most people’s standards – the Kanto team won that first race with a time of 41 hours and 44 minutes. And The story of ekiden was off to a flying, high-profile start. Since then, like those first two teams, ekiden has come a very long way.

 

Today, ekiden races happen across Japan. And teams don’t have to take on 316 miles. The standard ekiden involves teams of six running the marathon distance of 26.2 miles (42.2 km) in individual legs that are usually between 5 km and 10 km in length. It’s far from an elitist sport though, with race formats organized for all ages and abilities, from small children to veterans.


Mass Appeal

 

So what exactly makes these relays quite so compelling? For many, it’s the team element that really gives ekiden races their magic. When the whole dynamic of a race can change each and every time one runner passes the tasuki (sash) to the next, the result is high drama. 

 

This makes ekiden great to watch, but what about to run? We visited the Meiji Gakuin ekiden team (pictured), an up-and-coming collegiate ekiden team based in Yokohama, to get a runner’s perspective.

 

And a theme that kept coming up is that ekiden celebrates qualities that are prized in Japanese culture. 

 

“I think Ekiden races, long-distance relay races, came about because Japan, as a country, considers teamwork to be crucial. Because it simply couldn’t be done if everyone did not cooperate.”
Daisuke Satō, Meiji Gakuin ekiden team

 

A team that was trailing might find its star athlete in top form and suddenly it's back in with a chance. Or perhaps a runner starting with a big lead falters – or falls – and it's game on again for the field. It's like someone takes the race at every changeover and gives it a big shake to see what happens.

        

 

And when you add that traditional Japanese dedication to teamwork, honor and the collective good, well, you get something totally unique.

 

“Athletics in general is all about the individual, all about improving one's best, but the purpose of Ekiden is that each person has to run for the team –  it creates a real sense of unity.”
Renya Chiba, Meiji Gakuin ekiden team

 

The greatest race on earth? 

 

The biggest of all the epic ekiden races is the Hakone Ekiden. One of the nation’s most popular sporting spectacles, it’s held annually on the 2–3rd January, and features teams of 10 runners from Japan’s major universities fighting it out for ultimate victory.

 

The Hakone ekiden was founded in 1920 with help from Kanakuri Shiso, a runner from the original ekiden race in 1917, whose story is too unique not to touch on briefly. Japan’s first Olympic marathon runner, Kanakuri competed at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, but the race didn’t go to plan.

 

After a rough 18-day trip from Japan to Sweden by ship the Trans-Siberian Railway, Kanakuri arrived exhausted. Difficulties with the local cuisine and unusually warm race-day conditions only added to his woes.

 

After around 18.5 miles (30 kilometers), he stopped at a house on the route and asked the residents for a glass of water. When the family let Kanakuri rest on their couch, he fell asleep, only waking up the next morning – long after the race was run. 

 

 

Ashamed at not finishing the race, Kanakuri returned to Japan without a word to race officials. He was listed as missing in Sweden for 50 years until officials discovered he was back in Japan. In 1967 Swedish television invited him to come back and finish the race. Kanakuri accepted and in the process set the record for the slowest-ever marathon: 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds.

      

Asked about the event by the Japan Times, Kanakuri said: "It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”

 

Kanakuri subsequently competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games (a fact it seems escaped the Swedish authorities), but his role in setting up the Hakone ekiden is perhaps his greatest legacy. Attracting television audiences of up to 65 million people(!), the Hakone ekiden is arguably the greatest race on earth.

 

This truly formidable relay starts in the hustle and bustle of central Tokyo before heading to the picturesque wilderness of Mount Fuji and back again over two days – a total distance of over 125 miles (200 km). Twenty top teams compete, each made up of 10 male undergraduates. The individual runners covers around 20 km on each day. And they run fast. Really fast. Most of these students clocking times on par with those of professional half-marathon winners anywhere in the world.

 

The warrior spirit

 

The spirit of ekiden is perhaps more visible at the Hakone race than anywhere else. The runners visibly give everything for their teams. It makes for great TV, but it runs much deeper than that. As the Meiji Gakuin runners kept referring to, this spirit is not just part of ekiden DNA – it’s an important value in Japanese society. 

 

 

The same honor that made Kanakuri Shiso leave Sweden quietly drives ekiden runners to give everything to avoid letting the team down. In The Sociological Analysis of Ekiden, Japan’s Long-Distance Relay Road Race, Akira Ohira explains that the values of Japanese society were inextricably linked with ekiden from the start:

 

“Looking back on the early development of ekiden, we can see that the organizers were also concerned with the politics of the new Japanese state.

 

“It is therefore reasonable to say that ekiden running emphasizes a combination of individual physical effort with teamwork and dedication, and that these are the kind of values that the leaders of Japan wanted young Japanese to learn and respect.”

 

Ekiden is still shaped by this same early spirit, just ask the Meiji Gakuin runners:

 

“No matter how injured I am, no matter how bad the situation, I will never miss training, I’ll always practice without fail. Because for me, it’s all about how much I can contribute to the team – even if that means sacrificing myself.”

Daisuke Satō, Meiji Gakuin ekiden team

 

If this unique mix of individual and team racing sounds new to you, imagine how it must look to a 15-year-old from Kenya, itself a pre-eminent producer of elite middle- and long-distance runners.

  

 

That was the situation facing Cyrus Njui when he headed to Japan on an athletics scholarship back in 2001. “In Japan, ekiden is the thing. It’s the priority of all runners. Nothing else comes close,” Cyrus explains. “My first was the Aoto ekiden, which goes from Aomori to Tokyo – it took almost three days to complete!”

 

The unique combination of long-distance running and teamwork immediately struck a chord with him though. “In Kenya, we did relay –  but not like this. Only four people over four miles. But with ekiden, it's at least six different people. And each of those people have different strategies, different specialties and power.”

 

It’s this combination of people and abilities that makes ekiden so appealing to Cyrus. “Even if a runner is slow, that just gives the faster runners motivation to make up any kilometers they’ve lost. And that element of cheering and giving encouragement – ‘I didn't do my best, but I wish you all the best, try to make up what I've lost’ – that idea of teamwork gave me such a boost. It’s really amazing motivation.”

 

 

For Cyrus, this is all part of the Japanese mentality, of the Samurai spirit. “Runners here, they just don't lose hope. Ever. Even if they’re feeling pain. Even if they are defeated. They just keep going. I learned that spirit from them, and I’ve never lost it.”

 

While international ekiden races are becoming increasingly common, they are still a rare racing format outside Japan. Even so, there is a lot that anyone can learn from ekiden. Above all, that when we apply our individual talents for the good of the team and not just ourselves, new levels of hope and fight can be found.

 

Would Kanakuri Shiso have finished the race in Stockholm had he been part of an ekiden team instead of an individual racer? We’ll never know. But with that added warrior spirit, maybe. Just maybe. 

 

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