Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Hakone Ekiden Trials From the Inside

by Christian Sommer

Swiss runner Christian Sommer is a graduate student at Tokyo University, the only school with a graduate team elligible to run in the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai 20 km qualification race. Sommer made Tokyo's team this year and ran the Oct. 17 Yosenkai, finishing as one of the squad's scorers. It was an extremely rare event for a foreign runner to appear in the Yosenkai race, all the more so in that Sommer is not a Kenyan brought in as a ringer. Sommer wrote an account of his race for JRN.

On October 17 I was given the unique opportunity and big honor to run the Hakone Ekiden Trials. This is a brief report of what happened in the Tokyo University Grad School team on race day from a foreigner's persepctive.

Our team meets two hours before the start at the park entrance and so do many other teams. Approaching the meeting point, I feel overwhelmed by the atmosphere: each team, on top of the twelve participating runners, brings a large support group wearing the school's colors and carrying large flags - flags which remind me of historic Asian war movies. We enter the park and walk to the preparation area close to the starting point, where spectators, bands, and cheerleaders are already lining up. We prepare our singlets and do an individual warmup. For me that's already quite an event. With TV cameras everywhere I feel like a star runner, but the warm-up pace and the form of the real superstars quickly reminds me of my true level.

40 minutes before the start the organizers make sure that all the runners are present with their numbers attached appropriately. Our star runner can't be found. He almost made the Select Team last year and apparently he is completely focused right now, such that he even forgot the final call. He eventually shows up and we're all good to go. I enjoy a few strides in front of the amazing crowds.

Start minus 10: We line up at the starting point (an airfield). Each team gets one lane and there's enough space for the roughly 50 teams. As we order by increasing times, I'm towards the back of our lane. Some small talk, and we wish each other luck.

Start minus 3: Complete silence, everybody is focusing, incredible tension.

Start minus 1: It gets noisy due to the sound of hundreds of hands nervously hitting equally many legs into their correct shape.

Excitement's loads off, I have to hold back quite a bit in order not to waste too much energy in this early phase of the race. I check my watch after 1k but it still shows 00:00 - I must have forgotten to unlock it before the start! That makes it a bit hard to pace but nevertheless I'm lucky to find my rhythm quite quickly. We run two laps on a large airfield, passing the huge crowd of spectators twice, which is quite amazing. As expected, I'm already way behind the top group but fortunately there are dozens of runners around my pace as well. That's one of the great aspects of these races: pick any pace up to the second between sub-3 minutes per kilometer to roughly 3:50 and you will run in a pack together with runners at your level. These peers are very motivating and allow a competitive male to perform at his very best.

We leave the park and run through the city of Tachikawa, the crowds stay to cheer for the slower runners, and I get many encouraging comments from spectators. I can feel their pride that the foreigner is much slower than most of the Japanese. The large crowds and the TV coverage make me realize again that I'm part of something very special and leave me with my share of pride as well.

Sommer in motion.

Half-way point in 36:04, I'm about one minute behind schedule but moving smoothly and given that I just arrived from the other side of the Pacific on Friday and given that I was injured from January to May that's probably the best I can hope for. In the third quarter I keep the pace and pass some very exhausted runners.

The last part consists of two rather hilly loops in the Tachikawa park. The crowds push me towards the finish line and having so many runners around me helps me not to slow down and to keep it together. 1:12:31, the race is over, I'm exhausted, not really satisfied with the time but quite happy with how I ran. I rank 465th out of 549 finishers and 8th out of 12 within my team.

We gather again at a different spot in the park and wait for the officials to announce the results. We're surrounded by thousands of spectators and the inner circle with the fast teams is really packed. TV cameras all around document the emotional reactions of happily qualified and surprisingly disqualified teams. As expected we're neither of both.

Next is the Hanseikai: each runner tells his afterthoughts in front of the team. We line up in finishing order and give a short speech consisting of the individual time and reflections of how we did during the race and we express our sincere gratitude towards the support crew. The further behind, the more self-criticism is appropriate. I imagine how this must feel in a team that just missed qualifying because a few athletes couldn't deliver their very best on race day. Together with some more speeches by coaches and supporters this easily takes more than an hour. After that we head for a celebration with beers and Okonomiyaki.

I enjoyed the race very much and I was again deeply impressed by the level of Japanese university runners. The event as a whole will remain as a wonderful and very special memory of my studies in Tokyo and I'm very grateful to everyone who made it possible. Ask any native Japanese about the Hakone Ekiden and you will know why.

(c) 2009 Christian Sommer
all rights reserved

6 comments:

TokyoRacer said...

Great report, Christian, thanks. And congratulations on a good run. Great that you were 8th on your team. Wish I could have been there to support you, but the American School X-country team I help coach had its Finals race that morning.
Bob

Benjamin said...

Congratulations, very impressive! What about you search for a post doc in Switzerland, our SOLA team is always looking for reinforcements. I promise there won't be a session where everybody has to reflect about their performance ;)

Anonymous said...

Well done Christian!! Great performance. Fantastic story.

Phil

Jon in Tokyo said...

Well done on great performance. Very interesting report. You give an insight into the race which is not usually available to gaijin! Thanks for that.Tamami and I are looking forward to seeing you again some day...some country!!

Anonymous said...

Good stuff Christian,
Otsukaresama deshita!
I guess I can ask my loan wife’s bicycle back as you seem to run faster and easier than you’re riding on the bicycle!
Hope to se you soon
Martin

Christian said...

still remember the race very well since it was really great
I found some videos on youtube (could even spot myself in one), see http://www.sommer.jp/yosenkai.htm if you're interested
thanks for your time