Ekiden: The Japanese phenomenon

Every year just around when the calendars have flipped to a new year, almost one-third of the Japanese population switch on their TVs to watch the same sporting event. And it isn’t football or baseball. It’s running, but not the dramatic and explosive 100 m sprint final filled with stars. It's a long-distance relay, spanning over two days, with teams consisting of College athletes. The Hakone Ekiden is a tradition like no other in the sporting world and has deep roots in the history of Japan.

We met up with the Tokai University team, former champions and record holders in the small town of Futtsu, just outside of Tokyo. This is what one of their key training sessions looks like, leading up to the 97th iteration of this iconic race. On January the 2nd they'll try to get the title.

Across the Tokyo bay is Futtsu park – a hotspot for endurance athletes in the area. It has the perfect conditions for training in groups and a very characteristic straight road that the team uses for intervals. Shortly after arriving at the parking lot the Tokai team gathers for details and briefing on today's session. The group is in their final preparations. On the 2 of January ten of the runners will cover , competing against some of the most prestigious colleges in Japan. The consist of stretching from central Tokyo to Lake Ashi in the Hakone region, and then back again. This is a to every extent and if one of the runners should retire, the whole team retires. It's all for one, one for all. And today's session is not your everyday training – it is meant to decide who will run on race day, as well as who will run what leg.

There are many aspects to what makes the Ekiden so special and so deeply rooted in Japanese society. History, tradition of running and a strong connection to the educational system all play key parts in making this an event for the people. Every year it attracts nearly thirty million TV viewers, making it one of the biggest running event of the year, globally.

As a starting point you have to go back in time, to a time when the stripes of the Shibuya crossing had not yet been painted and when there were no bright neon lights in Shinjuku. In feudal Japan, the country used bare-footed runners, in a what would today mostly resemble a relay format, to pass along important messages between the route of Kyoto and Tokyo. The trick, if you will, was that the continuous switching of runners meant that speed could be maintained throughout the route.

In the early 20 century, the runner Shizo Kanaguri became a running symbol in Japan after having competed in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics and later on was crucial in the inaugural Hakone Ekiden taking place in 1920. Even though the actual details of the race have shifted over the years, this is still considered to be the first proper iterations of the modern day Hakone Ekiden.

While the Hakone Ekiden is the most prestigious race, other forms of Ekiden is held by all levels of schools, from grade school to university. Because of this, most Japanese people have their own experiences of not only participating but also being part of the culture from a very early age in their lives.

At the core, the Ekiden is of course about fierce competition but even more importantly it is about team spirit and togetherness – ingredients that is not so common in other running cultures around the world.

Rounding up the session, the runners of the Tokai Team gathers a final time. Another qualitative training in the books. While not everyone will be selected to run in the big event only weeks away, it is clear that this is a team first and foremost. Everyone contributes to the collective effort and strives to always help the team, from training to race, it is all in unison.

We at Maurten wish the Tokai University Ekiden Team all the best in the race on 2-3 January, 2021