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Ekiden Season Approaches

by Brett Larner

If there is one thing even more central to the heart of Japanese distance running than the marathon it is the ekiden. Steeped in tradition, these long-distance road relays enjoy mass popularity and for better or worse are the center of a Japanese distance runner's year and even career. Better in that the level of competition, drama, live television coverage and popularity are unmatched anywhere else in the world, worse in that the races are all but unknown outside Japan.

Now, thanks to Keyhole TV, Japan's ekiden circuit is available to follow live worldwide. JRN plans to add a Twitter feed to offer live commentary on race broadcasts in English. Below is a quick guide to the upcoming season, which gets underway with the university men's Izumo Ekiden next weekend. All races except those in italics will be broadcast, most live and nationwide. Check back for further details and race previews.

University Men
Oct. 12: Izumo Ekiden, Izumo
Oct. 17: Hakone Ekiden Qualifier 20 km Road Race, Tokyo
Oct. 18: Takashimadaira 20 km Road Race, Tokyo
Nov. 1: National University Men's Ekiden, Nagoya
Nov. 15: Ageo City Half Marathon, Saitama
Nov. 21: Biwako University Ekiden, Biwako
Jan. 2-3: Hakone Ekiden, Tokyo

The Hakone Ekiden, the Tokyo regional university men's championship ekiden, is the undisputed king of Japanese distance running, a double-edged sword in many ways. It is the most competitive and most-watched race in Japan and likely the world. With the exception of the Biwako University Ekiden, the western Japan regional university championships for schools unlucky enough not to be in the Tokyo region, everything else on the calendar including Nationals is just a buildup to Hakone.

University Women
Oct. 25: Morinomiyako Ekiden, Sendai
Dec. 23: National University Women's Ekiden, Ibaraki

University women's distance running gets short shrift, with just two major national ekidens on the calendar. At least part of the reason for this is that in the absence of a massive event like the Hakone Ekiden most of the best women skip university and go straight to a pro team from high school. Broadcasters and sponsors are trying to change this trend, using Hakone's popularity to generate more interest in the Morinomiyako Ekiden.

Corporate Men
Nov. 3: East Japan Jitsugyodan Ekiden, Saitama
Nov. 23: Kyushu Jitsugyodan Ekiden, Kyushu
Jan. 1: New Year Ekiden, Gunma
Jan. 11: Asahi Ekiden, Fukuoka

Throughout November there are regional qualifying ekidens for Japan's corporate men's teams to make the national championships New Year Ekiden, a major factor in the relative absence of Japanese men from Berlin, Chicago and New York. The New Year Ekiden itself enjoys mass popularity but is overshadowed by the might of the Hakone Ekiden the following two days. Later in the month the Asahi Ekiden allows the top New Year teams a chance to square off a final time before marathon season.

Corporate Women
Oct. 25: Kyushu Jitsgyodan Women's Ekiden, Kyushu
Nov. 3: East Japan Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden, Saitama
Dec. 13: National Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden, Gifu
Jan. 17: Kita-Kyushu Women's Invitational Ekiden, Kita-Kyushu

The calendar for corporate women follows that of the men, with mid-fall regional qualifying ekidens, a national championship in December, and a season-ender in Kyushu. Despite the presence of a large number of popular marathoners, the National Jitsugyodan Women's Ekiden does not attract the same attention as the New Year Ekiden due to its timing.

High School
Dec. 21: National High School Girls' Ekiden, Kyoto
Dec. 21: National High School Boys' Ekiden, Kyoto

After a series of low-profile regional ekidens, both the boys' and girls' National High School Ekidens are held the same day in Kyoto. The races offer a peek into who the new up and comers are. Most notable, especially on the boys' side, is the level of competition which among the top schools is on a par with American NCAA DI teams.

Other
Oct. 29-Nov. 7: Kyushu Isshu Ekiden, Kyushu
Nov. 8: East Japan Women's Ekiden, Fukushima
Nov. 23: International Chiba Ekiden, Chiba
Jan. 10: National Women's Interprefectural Ekiden, Kyoto
Jan. 17: National Men's Interprefectural Ekiden, Hiroshima

These ekidens include a variety of formats from the ten-day Kyushu Isshu Ekiden, which covers an entire circuit of Japan's southernmost main island, to the last of the economic heydey-era international ekidens, the International Chiba Ekiden. The National Interprefectural Ekidens are some of the most enjoyable to watch, with everyone from junior high school students to Olympic marathon medalists competing on their home prefecture [i.e. state or province] team.

(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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