by Brett Larner
This Sunday kicks off the busiest part of the year on the Japanese racing calendar, the national championship ekiden season. At all levels from junior high school to the jitsugyodan corporate league, the national championship ekiden road relays are the main event for Japanese distance runners and the most dramatic racing of the year, with all but the National Junior High School Ekiden Championships broadcast live nationwide to large-scale audiences and viewable overseas through the miracle of Keyhole TV. A quick guide to the most important of them:
Dec. 18: National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships, Sendai - 6 stages, 42.195 km
The decision was already made to move the National Corporate Women's Ekiden Championships to Sendai well before March's disasters, and this weekend's race will be the first major event held in the city since then. In memory of the victims of the disasters the corporate league expanded the field this year to allow any corporate team that could break 2:30 in a six-stage, 42.195 regional qualifier into the Championships rather than setting a fixed number of places as per the norm. The result is the deepest field in the history of the event. All five members of Japan's marathon squad at the Daegu World Championships are on their corporate teams' entry lists, as are Japan's two best hopes for the London Olympics marathon, national record holder Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex) and half-marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal).
Dec. 18: National Junior High School Ekiden Championships, Yamaguchi - girls: 5 stages, 12.0 km, boys: 6 stages, 18.0 km
For better or worse distance running in Japan gets serious even in junior high school, and the National Championships ekiden is more than a little competitive. No stages in either the boys' or girls' races are longer than 3.0 km, making for fast-paced races.
Dec. 25: National High School Ekiden Championships, Kyoto - girls: 5 stages, 21.0975 km, boys: 7 stages, 42.195 km
Both the girls' and boys' races at the National High School Ekiden Championships are broadcast nationwide live and commercial-free in their entirety, something that seems unthinkable anywhere else in the world. Both races offer glimpses of future talent; this was the race where Samuel Wanjiru's name first came to widespread attention after he set a still-standing stage record in 2004. This year both Wanjiru's stage record and the overall team course record he helped Sendai Ikuei H.S. set that year are under threat from Sera H.S.'s Charles Ndirangu and Sendai Ikuei's current lineup, which looks set to be its strongest since the Wanjiru era despite the devastation of its training grounds in March's tsunami.
Jan. 1: New Year Ekiden - National Corporate Men's Ekiden Championships, Gunma - 7 stages, 100.0 km
Getting up early New Year's Day to watch the New Year Ekiden has become a national tradition. With the high viewership ratings for the live broadcast, more than the marathon in modern times the New Year Ekiden is the reason corporate men's teams exist, the event around which the whole year revolves for professional Japanese men. It's also the reason most of the African elites in Japan are here. 10000 m world champion Ibrahim Jeilan will be in the race, leading Team Honda in a bid to take down injury-plagued defending champion Team Toyota.
Jan. 2-3: Hakone Ekiden - Kanto Regional University Men's Ekiden Championships, Tokyo/Kanagawa - 10 stages, 217.9 km
The oldest and biggest of them, the Hakone Ekiden is one of the world's greatest races. Only a regional university men's event for the Kanto area, it nevertheless pulls in 30% nationwide viewership ratings for the two-day, ~15 hr. broadcast. And for good reason. You won't find more compelling racing anywhere. This year looks as though it may surpass last year's record-setting battle between Waseda University and Toyo University, as 3rd-place Komazawa University returns with a team stronger on paper than either Waseda's or Toyo's squads. The 2012 edition also marks the last run for Hakone's most famous star, Toyo senior and uphill Fifth Stage record holder Ryuji Kashiwabara.
Jan. 15: National Women's Ekiden Championships, Kyoto - 9 stages, 42.195 km
Along with the following week's men's race, the National Women's Ekiden Championships is one of the most interesting races on the calendar, with teams from each of Japan's prefectures made up of junior high, high school, university and professional runners. With a commercial-free broadcast it's one of the few chances to see runners from different levels competing against each other, with the best high schoolers and university runners going up against Olympians.
Jan. 22: National Men's Ekiden Championships, Hiroshima - 7 stages, 48.0 km
Likewise for the National Men's Ekiden Championships. The best Kanto-region university men these days are at least as good as the best of the corporate leagues over shorter distances, so it's always exciting to see the big guns from the New Year Ekiden and Hakone Ekiden face off three weeks later. In the last few years the National Men's Ekiden Championships has also been the coming-of-age party for several future stars, most memorably an unknown high schooler named Ryuji Kashiwabara at the 2008 race. Also broadcast commercial-free.
Following the Jan. 15 and 22 races are a smattering of other small but high-level ekidens including the Kita-Kyushu Women's Invitational Ekiden, the Chugoku Yamaguchi Ekiden and the Meigi Ekiden, but for most athletes the focus shifts to the February-March domestic marathon and half marathon season, including the Osaka International Women's Marathon, the Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon, the Nobeoka Nishi Nihon Marathon, the Tokyo Marathon, the Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, the Nagoya Women's Marathon, the Kagawa Marugame International Half Marathon, the Tachikawa Akishima Half Marathon, the Matsue Ladies Half Marathon, and the men's and women's National Corporate Half Marathon Championships.
(c) 2011 Brett Larner
all rights reserved