The hunt. The hunted down. The ekiden — a psychological game.

The ekiden. The word’s origin lies in a means of communication that has existed in Japan since ancient times. “Eki,” a relay point positioned between the start and the destination. “Den,” literally to convey. Long before the Internet, phones, or even a postal system, messengers in the Edo Period rode horses to pass important information on to the next one waiting at a relay point.

As a form of competition, the first ekiden race took place in 1917. Running through the day and night, teams of 23 runners covered the 508 km from Kyoto to Tokyo. The Tokyo-area Kanto Region team’s anchor was Japan’s first Olympic marathoner, Shizo Kanakuri. More than a century has passed since then, and, in that time, ekidens have become a nationally popular spectator sport in Japan. Its top athletes have pop star status with young female fans and hero status with children.

How did it get there?

“It’s easy to say that the aspect of each individual contributing their best for the benefit of the group as a whole fits conceptions of what Japanese culture is, but I try to avoid thinking in those terms,” says Brett Larner, editor of Japan Running News and a 25-year resident of Japan. “Ekidens are popular because, like popular team sports anywhere, they’re fun to do and exciting to watch. An ekiden is, essentially, a long-distance road relay race using a sash called a tasuki. Road relays exist all over the world — they’re not something unique to Japan. I ran in a marathon-distance relay at the Vermont City Marathon before I’d ever been here. Some details were different, but the basic format of a group of people running a long-distance race as a relay was exactly the same as an ekiden.”

So, why has it become so popular in Japan? Larner cites the high quality of the television coverage as one of the reasons. The most popular of them, the Hakone Ekiden, has TV viewership ratings that can reach 35%. 65 million watch at some point, a level of attention comparable to the Super Bowl or Champions League Final.

“The extremely high quality of the TV broadcast and its production aesthetic has been critical in building viewer interest and popularity. Road race broadcasts outside Japan mostly show the leader, but ekiden broadcasts cover the development of the race from multiple perspectives. The ekiden as a format is inherently multifaceted, and that’s what makes it interesting. It’s not just about who’s leading — it’s about who started where, who’s overtaking, who’s dropping, who’s still to come later in the race. The way the TV production conveys all these different facets in a coherent whole keeps audiences watching. It gives context to each athlete’s performance in a way that is lacking in traditional racing and its coverage. It’s not something that could be done overnight. This and other elements building up and feeding each other for over a century have helped give the ekiden its current level of popularity.”

One thing that stands out compared to other road race formats is the psychology of ekiden running.

“The psychology of ekidens and other races is completely different. In a regular race, everyone starts at the same time and runs together to the finish line. You’re always running head-to-head against your competition. Except for the first leg, in an ekiden you start at different times. A lot of the time you’re running with nobody around you. You’re chasing down someone you can’t see, trying to get away from someone you can’t see. The hunt. Being hunted. It’s a completely different psychology from traditional racing.

One race the top collegiate men run is the Izumo Ekiden. They invite a team of Ivy League alumni from the U.S., and sometimes I help out. One runner told me afterward, ‘There wasn’t anybody ahead of me or behind me. It was basically just a solo time trial.’ If you’re not familiar with ekidens as a format, I can see why it could feel that way. But I think Japanese and African athletes with more experience get it. The chase against an invisible opponent. Closing down the gap to whoever’s ahead of you. Opening up the space behind you. That’s the psychology of the ekiden.

One phenomenon you see a lot, is that the fastest performance on a leg is often set by whoever is leading. In traditional road racing, people usually produce fast times by running behind pacers most of the way. In an ekiden the leaders setting the fastest times completely on their own do it running away from the people chasing them. For the ones chasing, success isn’t measured only in taking the lead. Closing the gap to who is ahead of you contributes to the team’s success, even if you’re not the one to actually go to the front. Even if you’re not improving the team’s place standing, the mentality is of setting up the runners still to come to do that. These kinds of things are at the heart of what’s really unique about ekidens."

When you talk to top ekiden team runners and coaches, they all say that the key to winning is to maintain momentum and flow. It’s a very abstract concept that isn’t easily quantifiable, like time or pace. This invisible, unmeasurable element is the essence of the ekiden.

“When I do pre-race rankings on JRN before the big ekidens, I calculate things like a team’s average PB for different distances. You can make pretty accurate predictions just based on that. But along with that you have to consider a team’s momentum. A team coming to the race with positive momentum can place better than their ranking based just on numbers, and the opposite is also true for a team with negative momentum. There’s definitely that intangible element. It’s not a physical thing — it’s something fluid that flows through the team.

At the top level, the athletes on ekiden teams are world-class distance runners. The best university and corporate league women run under 31 minutes for 10 km legs. High school boys break 29 minute for 10 km legs. The best Kenyan college student ran the equivalent of a sub-59-minute half marathon on his leg at the Hakone Ekiden. And these aren’t on perfectly flat courses.

Back in the day, ekidens originally served as a way to cultivate world-class marathoners. That’s still true. At the Tokyo Olympics, all three men on Japan’s marathon team and the alternate were people who had won their stages at the Hakone Ekiden in college. It has served its originally purpose as a developmental mechanism for marathoners for 100 years.

But an ekiden team requires a group of people. More than focusing resources on the development of one highly talented athlete, creating a team with a high average level will lead to success in the ekiden. This has led to the kind of depth that we see in Japan. In other countries, a lot of resources might be concentrated on a small number of exceptional talents with Olympic medal potential. In Japan the same resources have typically been spread over supporting a larger number of people and developing their average level in order to produce ekiden success. This has given a lot more people the opportunity to continue a post-collegiate career in athletics, not just the very best.

Corporate athletes are generally hired by a company after graduating from university, sometimes high school, receive a salary, and continue to compete. Sponsor corporations can be things like car manufacturers, makeup companies, or software firms. Along with a salary, team members usually get performance bonuses, housing, and other costs associated with being a competitive athlete. It’s a good system.

It does have its downsides. The most talented athletes have often not gotten the individual attention to maximize their potential and sometimes have to prioritize running for the team in ekidens at the expense of their own opportunities. But this has changed a bit in the last few years, and it’s becoming possible to have more flexibility in how they develop their career as an athlete. For the very best, there are now cases where they’re essentially functioning as independent professional athletes outside the framework of the corporate team structure and only run with them in the major ekidens. This will probably get even more common.”

But ekidens aren’t only an elite-level sport. Grassroots community-level races that anyone can run are an important part of the format’s popularity too.But ekidens aren’t only an elite-level sport. Grassroots community-level races that anyone can run are an important part of the format’s popularity too.

“There are ekidens all over Japan in which anyone of any age can take part, and amateurs and even non-runners can put together teams to run them. I’ve run them dozens of times, everything from my neighborhood ekiden to the Tokyo Championships. The first one was about three months after I came to Japan, the Okutama Keitoku Ekiden, a great experience that I’ll always remember. Okutama is a very old-school race, 45 km along a narrow road that follows a stream through a gorge in the mountains of western Tokyo, with six runners on a team. A train line follows the course, and it was really interesting to see runners use the train to get to their exchange zones. All the exchange zones were outside stations along the railway, so you could really feel the roots of the “ekiden” name. It was a lot of fun. Fun to run and fun to watch. When you run them, you want to watch them. When you watch them, you want to run them. I think that kind of cycle of positive reinforcement is key to why it has become such a popular sport domestically.

The New Year Ekiden and Hakone Ekiden broadcasts were both officially streamed live in Japan this year, and people around the world were able to watch them for the first time using a VPN. Since there’s zero coverage in English, I live tweet them so that people can follow them. This time, people who were watching the streaming in North and South America, the U.K., Europe, Turkey, Asia, Oceania, even Kenya all got in touch saying, ‘This is awesome!’ and ‘Super exciting!’ If it were possible to watch them outside Japan more easily, I think it would attract a lot of people. There’s definitely global potential for its popularity. Fun to run, exciting to watch. That’s the ekiden. I think that kind of appeal is universal.”

"Fun to run, exciting to watch. That’s the ekiden. I think that kind of appeal is universal.”

Words by Mika Tokairin, Photos by Kaoru Fukui