Skip to main content

A Quick Guide to National Championship Ekiden Season

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

Comments

dadsweb said…
I think the National Women's University Ekiden held in Sendai in October counts as a major event.

Do you know when they finalize who is running which leg? I'd like to see Noguchi run, but aren't sure which leg she'll run...
Brett Larner said…
Agreed, and likewise for the National University Men's Ekiden in November, Izumo and Chiba, but I was just focusing on upcoming races at this point. They did used to have a National University Women's Invitational Ekiden in December but it was suspended last year and I haven't seen that they are re-starting it this year, unfortunately.

Start lists should be up pretty soon for this weekend. I imagine they'll put Noguchi on the ace stage, which I think is 10 km. Should be pretty interesting if she and Fukushi are on the same stage. Sysmex should be ahead of Wacoal at that point.
Brett Larner said…
I just did a little searching and found that the IUAU did have the University Women's Invitational on the schedule but that in October they announced it had been cancelled again, unfortunately.

Most-Read This Week

How Things Played Out - Hakone, Marathon Development, Where Things Went, and What's Still Ahead

Four and a half years ago JRN published a look at 20 years' worth of the Hakone Ekiden and the relationship between development at the university level on Japan's Hakone circuit and later success in the marathon. There are a lot more important things going on right now, but, since we've got some time on our hands, let's follow up on where things have gone since then and what might still be ahead.



In the original article I wrote, "In the next 4-6 years we are going to see a lot more Japanese marathoners running fast times, the first really significant overall change in Japanese men's marathoning since Barcelona ('92).....Once that ball gets rolling we should see an impact on the all-time marathon lists and when that happens you are talking real times. There's nothing to suggest Japanese men are going to start running 2:03 or 2:04 marathons, but given the numbers involved 2:07 and 2:08 should become normal, with 2:06 in range of the top men the way 2:07…

Osaka Governor Admits "It Would be Pretty Difficult" to Put On Osaka Marathon This Year

Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura, 44, appeared remotely on a morning news talk show on May 31. Asked by one of the hosts whether the Nov. 29 Osaka Marathon, one of the world's ten largest marathons, would be held this year, Yoshimura answered, "I think it would be pretty difficult this year, but the organizers are in the final stages of their decision-making process. They will make an announcement soon."

Held annually since its launch in 2011, this year the Osaka Marathon is set to celebrate its tenth edition and its first running as a World Athletics label race. As mayor of the city of Osaka Yoshimura himself ran and finished the 2017 race. With a new course finishing at Osaka Castle Park, last year's race had 32,989 finishers. With that number of people it is likely that they would come into close proximity to each other at the start in front of the Osaka Metropolitan Government offices.

"We are in discussion with all involved parties," said Yoshimura. …

Ageo City Half Marathon Canceled - AGU Coach Hara Calls for "Medical Worker Support Half Marathon" Instead

On June 2, the organizers of the Nov. 15 Ageo City Half Marathon announced that this year's race has been canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Every year Ageo attracts hundreds of collegiate runners hoping to impress their coaches over the distance and have a chance of making their Hakone Ekiden dreams come true. Marathon national record holder Suguru Osako showed his talent there in 2010, winning Ageo his first year at Waseda University in a still-standing Asian junior record 1:01:47. Since the 2011 race, every year the top two Japanese collegiate finishers have been invited to run March's NYC Half Marathon. This year Ageo was certified by World Athletics as a world-class event, but its cancelation means that a key part of the fall season has been lost.

Susumu Hara, the outspoken head coach of this year's Hakone Ekiden winner Aoyama Gakuin University, was quick to take to Twitter to comment. "One of the most important fall university races, the Ageo Half, …