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Inside ekiden racing with Haruka Yamaguchi

A unique insight into Japanese long-distance relay racing from one of the sport’s leading competitors.

 

Every month, the streets of Japan bustle to the sound of ekiden. For over 100 years, athletes have gathered for these remarkable long-distance relays. Crowds cheer. Teams of runners charge. And records are set. 

 

Haruka Yamaguchi is an Olympic-standard marathon runner, a Paralympic guide runner – and one of the leading female athletes in the extraordinary world of Japanese ekiden racing. Here, Haruka-san gave us the lowdown on what makes this race format the focal point of Japanese running culture. And why in ekiden, team spirit is everything. 

  

 

How did you start in ekiden?

 

I’ve run an ekiden at least once a year since I was 13. I usually enter the Yokohama Ekiden in April and the Okutama Ekiden in December. Okutama has the second-longest history after the renowned Hakone Ekiden.

 

Okutama is a women’s race and in Yokohama it’s mixed. I’ve entered Okutama about eight times and in 2020 I set a new section record in the final anchor section while running for the Futtsu team. There are three sections in that race. I managed to set a section record and we won the race overall. That was a great end to 2020.

   

 

How did you feel after that win?

 

We were in fifth place when I got the baton, but I could still see the bright lights shining from the white bike at the front of the race. I just thought: ‘I need to go for it.’ 

 

"The person running the second section seemed disappointed when they handed me the baton. I thought if I overtook people, they would be relieved. You run these long-distance relays as a team."

 

Two days before, I’d run 10 km at the Japanese Championships. I wasn’t feeling at my best. But I had to try hard because it’s a relay. There were members of the team who were there as supporters rather than runners because I had a spot on the team. So I felt I needed to put in the effort for them. I already hold the section 2 record in Okutama, so this time I wanted to get the section 3 record. Maybe next year I can get the section 1 record! 

 

 

What attracts you to ekiden over marathons?

 

I look to the roadside and react to what’s going on there. Marathons are fun too, but ekiden is a team event. That always makes them feel quite exciting. Lots of runners get nervous about the race. I’m the type to say: ‘Whatever happens, it will be fine. Leave it to me.’ 

 

Of course, I get nervous too. I’m worried about how it will go. But I turn that tension into a good thing. With ekiden, no matter how short the race or how small the event, there’s always the fear about affecting others in your team. It is nerve-wracking, but you have to manage it.

 

 

What’s been your most memorable Ekiden experience?

 

I ran for the Kanagawa team in the East Japan Women’s Ekiden, but I’d never thought about running an ekiden as a representative of a prefecture. I knew about the races from when I was in junior high school. Someone fast that was the same age as me was running in them. But I didn’t have any direct links with the event: I just watched it on TV.

 

Then Kanagawa’s team called me up as an adult runner. I thought: ‘Wow! No way!’ It was a big surprise given how old I was. It was good being able to take part in a relay that I’d stayed away from because I didn’t feel I was good enough for it. 

 

I was asked to run 10 km as the anchor, and I was second for the section. That was a good result. Now I want to put in more effort so I can hopefully get invited to future relays.

 

 

Away from ekiden, you also act as a guide runner for blind athletes in Paralympic sport. How did that happen?

 

The coach Kyohei Yasuda, who is a marathon committee chair, asked me to help. I didn’t hesitate. I was very keen to do so.

 

By being a guide, I push myself. The racers are trying hard. So you need to have spare capacity yourself. I wouldn’t be much good as a guide if I was struggling breathlessly with them, so the capacity I have is important. I need to be able to guide even if I’m not on top form, so that naturally pushes me to train more.

 

If the blind runner’s distance is 10 km, I feel like I need to do 15 km. I have a sense of wanting to run more than others. I can’t take it easier than the racer I’m guiding. Because I wanted to perform for the racers, my running distances naturally increased when I became a guide. 
 

 

 

Is it true you were paired with a marathon runner who almost had the same pace as your best?

 

Yes, that’s right. I’d previously only guided women, where there’s normally a difference of 50 minutes [in marathon finishing time] between me and the athlete I’m guiding. So I can do that even if I’m slightly unwell. 

 

But last year I guided a male runner, and there wasn’t even a 10-minute difference. The difference in our 1 km PRs is only about three seconds. I was worried I wasn’t good enough. I was scared of not being accepted as a guide. Being a guide to that male runner was a challenge, but I felt it had to be done.

 

 

What’s your next running target?

 

Records! Athletics is easy to understand. You can see your position based on records, so by producing new records you can see how you’re improving.

 

I was invited to run in the Osaka International Women’s Marathon in January 2021 because of my record [2:26:35 at the same event in 2020]. There were a lot of runners I know that couldn’t run because they didn’t have a qualifying time.  

 

Even if they didn’t say it out loud, they all sent me off saying: ‘Please try hard for me.’ But unfortunately I couldn’t respond to that with a new record. During the run and afterwards, I thought: ‘Maybe this is it for me as an athlete. Perhaps 2:26 is the fastest I’ll ever be.’

 

Afterwards, I tried to sleep. But I couldn’t. I was so upset. I wondered what to do. Until then, I hadn’t ever done strength training, core training or tried a special diet. I actually don’t like any of those things. But I was aware that meant I wasn’t suffering as much as other runners in training. Sponsored runners put up with a lot of restrictions. ‘Citizen’ runners like myself are able to have a more casual routine. 

 

I’m scared of falling out of love with running, so I’ve decided to carry on as before. I want to show to others that you can get to a good level just by enjoying running. 

 

 

So you still find running enjoyable?

 

Yes! That’s why I feel so aligned with On, where the mission is to make running fun. Of course, you want to win events. But ultimately, I want to deliver the feeling of fun that comes with running.

 

A sponsored runner may enjoy running, but it’s harder in some aspects too. The On team are always saying that running is fun, it’s cool and that’s brilliant. It’s the same reason I introduce people to our Futtsu team training sessions on a Sunday. 

 

It’s casual. But the more people come and continue to come, the more friends you develop. There are people of different ages and jobs. And it’s hard to make friends as an adult. So the more you run at Futtsu, the more friends you make. For me, there are only good things that come from running.

 

 

You’ve run 50 marathons. Are they still fun?

 

Yes – and coronavirus has reminded me of that. It’s made me realize the significance of friends. Because of the pandemic, some of my friends couldn’t run in marathons like I could. They go through ups and downs with me, congratulate me or console me, so I’ve really felt they were watching over me. 

 

What would you say to female runners thinking about taking part in ekiden races?

 

To believe in what’s around you as well as yourself. There are times when those around help you and times when you help those around you. There are ways to perform well that are unique to ekiden. Even if I don’t feel great, in an ekiden I tell myself ‘I have to try hard for the team.’ 

 

"There will absolutely be times when you don’t feel good. But in Ekiden those around you are supporting you. Run with a positive attitude. Because, whatever happens, it’s OK."

   

 

You’ve been wearing a new shoe recently. What have you made of the updated Cloudace?

 

It’s light and durable. I don’t like it when shoes fall apart quickly, so durability is important when you run a lot. But On’s shoes are always incredibly durable. You don’t see the outside starting to collapse like you do with other shoes. I run both on trails and roads, and the Cloudace seems good for both. That’s another major positive.

 

And what about On performance apparel?

 

They’re all so easy to wear. I wore the Trail Breaker and the Running Shorts for a 40 km run the day after the photoshoot. I got lots of compliments about how trendy they were. Previously I’d run in leggings, but it wasn’t at all uncomfortable running in the Running Shorts. They felt smooth. The Tights Long are also easy to slip on, they’re easy to move in and they dry quickly. I’m just wearing them all the time. All the clothes from On make it easy to get a great range of mobility. And that makes it easier to run.

  

The all-new Cloudace
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The Trail Breaker
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