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The U.S. Team Talks After Second-Straight Izumo Ekiden Top Eight Finish

photos by Kazuyuki Sugimatsu

On Oct. 8 the U.S. team at the 24th Izumo Ekiden had its best-ever showing, tying last year's best-ever placing at 8th but running over a minute faster for the six-stage, 44.5 km course.  Fifth Stage runner Brendan Gregg was one of five men on his leg to break the standing course record, second on his stage on time and missing the win by only two seconds behind Ryu Takaku of defending champion Toyo University.  Historically an Ivy League alumni team, its makeup has shifted over the last two years to become more of an overall U.S. post-collegiate team lineup.  Taking in Tokyo for a few days post-race, the team's members gave JRN their impressions of the Izumo Ekiden, Japanese collegiate runners, the system under which they train and compete and how it compares to the NCAA, and more.

Elliott Heath (Stanford Univ., First Stage, 8.0 km – 4th, 23:33)
Running in a Japanese ekiden opened my eyes to the Japanese running culture in a way that I didn't really know existed. I had no idea how much excitement and interest there is in running in Japan and the extent that people support it.

The experience of running in the ekiden was very different from the collegiate experience in the United States. The discipline of the Japanese runners to have to run on your own basically the entire time is very different from the NCAA, the U.S.A. college events, because there you're always racing someone. In Japan you can find yourself out there by yourself for a large period of time, and that takes much more discipline.

My ekiden experience made me wish that the American experience was more like this, where people are far more interested in running. There's definitely much more excitement about running culture here than there is the United States, and the whole ekiden experience was very rewarding for sure. I can't wait to come back to Japan again and race in another ekiden or in some other race. It was a lot of fun.

Julian de Rubira (UC Santa Barbara, Second Stage, 5.8 km – 9th, 17:27)
Running the Izumo Ekiden relay was the best way I could imagine of experiencing Japan for the first time. I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, the generosity, the hospitality. The competition was very, very good, more than I had expected. Japanese runners are very, very strong and tough, and it’s inspiring to see the effort that they put into it, and their talent.

I was extremely impressed with Izumo in general. It was really cool to be able to interact with the people of the town, and it was so beautiful running in that valley with mountain ranges on both sides and the ocean, crossing over the river and looking around and seeing just how beautiful everything was here in Japan.

I'm really, really thankful for this opportunity and I want to say thank you to everyone who made it possible. It's an amazing event and I really wish that the ekiden would be taken more seriously. Then in the future Americans could send a really, really strong team, maybe a few teams, and make it something that college teams would be more excited about and come over here and want to do well. I definitely hope to come back, whether for any ekidens or other road races, and just be a lot more prepared.

Landon Peacock (Univ. of Wisconsin, Third Stage, 7.9 km - 8th, 24:26)
Running an ekiden requires a lot more mental strain and you have to be prepared to race right from the start. It requires constant calculating and strategizing throughout the entire duration of the run. In the United States there is much more of a sit-and-kick sort of attitude that requires no thinking until the last 200m of a race. Even in races that get broken up early there is generally a mutual understanding amongst competitors that it is beneficial to work together for as long as possible.

Racing the ekiden has a way of denying me of all the racing styles I have grown comfortable with. In an ekiden you are not just racing to get to the finish before your competitors, but instead to give the next man on your team as big of an advantage as possible. You are constantly figuring out how you can catch the next group and not just sit on them and beat them in the last 100 m but also to gap them and give your team a greater advantage. Racing the ekiden is for a true racer, a man with grit. At no point are your competitors companions on the run or pacers to help you run a faster time. They are always your competitors. Their success is not only your failure, but also your next man's disadvantage.

J.T. Sullivan (Stanford Univ., Fourth Stage, 6.2 km – 11th, 18:39)
I was amazed at how accepting and polite all the Japanese athletes were and how excited everyone in Izumo was for us to be there, and at the incredible determination and tradition of Japanese distance running.

Something I found very difficult and was impressed by about the other Japanese runners was their ability to run on their own for such a long period. The ekiden leg, especially deep into the race, is pretty much just an individual time trial once it separates out, and the tenacity and the single-minded focus of the Japanese athletes was really incredible and something I'd love to see more of in the NCAA. I think the ekiden-style race is really fun, an awesome idea, and something I'd like to see in the U.S. The relay-type atmosphere really brought everyone together, not only on each individual team but also the athletes on all the teams.

I want to thank all the people of Izumo, all the people of Japan, all of the Japanese runners in the Izumo Ekiden. It was an incredible time, something that I'm never going to forget, and hopefully I'll come back next year and the Ivy League team, the American team, will finish even higher. Thank you very much.

Brendan Gregg (Stanford Univ., Fifth Stage, 6.4 km – 2nd, 18:13)
The Izumo Ekiden was a really wonderful experience unlike any other racing experience that I've ever had. It was a true team race where you're not racing your teammates but just the other teams. 8th place is a good finish for us, but I certainly think that we could have finished much higher had we all been on our A-game and I would love to come back next year and take a shot at the top three. But as it was this year, I think it was a very positive race for the American Select Team. We had some great performances and it was really exciting to get out and experience a completely different type of competition and see how we stack up against some really great Japanese competitors.

I was disappointed to get the sash a little further back than we had hoped to be, but at the same time it was very, very exciting to get to chase people down, and that really motivated me to see how many guys I could catch. That was my goal, to run down as many people as I could and get us as high as we could be leading into that last leg. I was trying to drop people the whole time, and they gave no quarter. They pushed me to a higher level than I had been pushed in a long time, throwing in surges and trying to get some distance on the other teams. I got the sash right next to the Komazawa runner Kazuhiro Kuga and he took off like a rocket. I didn't think I could go with that, but I followed him out for the first couple of km and he pulled me to a better performance than I thought I could muster. The competition level was very fierce, and I think it drew the best out of us.

The hosts were so friendly, and the level of community involvement, community support and excitement that goes into these races was really amazing, unlike anything in America. Watching the races on TV in the holding area before our own legs got started, seeing how involved everything was, the opening ceremonies and the closing ceremonies and the after-party were unlike anything in the U.S. I'm very honored to have been a part of it and very grateful to have had the opportunity.

Matt Llano (Univ. of Richmond, Sixth Stage, 10.2 km – 10th, 31:08)
I really had no idea what to expect coming into it, which was a first for me for a race. I've never raced internationally before, so this was a first there as well. I couldn't find a whole lot online in English about what the race is like, but I didn't mind having that unknown. The whole atmosphere of the race was just electric. I’m really, really impressed by the ekiden system over here and I wish that the United States had something similar. It helps build incredibly strong runners that have really quite amazing range. I've been really impressed by the range that a lot of the Japanese athletes seem to have, from what it seems, 5 km through the half marathon.

This year I think we could have been a little bit more competitive. We should have been farther up front, but it's difficult with the travel that we have to do before the race, and the different system, and being peaked at different times in our training, us all being on different schedules. But I still think that all things considered we ran pretty well. The hard thing for my stage in particular was that by the time I received the sash there was a big gap to the people in front of me, so I think that kind of hurt me in that I didn't have the other runners around me to help push me to a faster time or a higher finish. It forced me to really be in the race a little bit more, whereas I think a lot of the Japanese athletes were more experienced with this kind of racing. They have really incredible mental strength to push through that kind of situation on their own and still produce quite stellar times and performances.

I think coming back next year the goal will be to have people around you to really race against and to be a little bit more mentally prepared for it if that's not the case. I'm really looking forward to it. I hope that I have the opportunity again to come back next year and run stronger, run closer to my potential. I think our team as a whole has a lot of room for improvement and I hope that we can capitalize on that and really make a statement here in Japan. Ideally, maybe sometime in the future we'll take some of the concepts of the Japanese ekiden and bring them back over to the States with us and get something similar started, because I think that it's an amazing system for building huge numbers of incredibly strong athletes.

Brendan Martin (Columbia Univ., Alternate, 2nd in 5000 m, 14:06.03 - PB)
I thought the Izumo Ekiden was awesome. It was unlike any race I've ever been a part of thanks to all of the excitement surrounding it as well as the relay-style nature of the event. Not many races are shown on live TV in the USA. Even the Olympics were tape-delayed. For a university race to be on TV with everyone in the community watching was incredible. The great opening and closing ceremonies, attention to detail and community-level importance made this event feel very special.

The different race tactics necessary for a long relay and the planning that goes into arranging which leg each runner completes were things I had never considered before and adds great character and excitement to the event. I ran the 5000 m track race after the ekiden and it was a very cool experience to race in an all-Japanese field. I could not understand any of the splits that coaches were calling out, though. I was extremely impressed by the depth of Japanese distance running. The Japanese runners are fierce competitors and I respect them greatly. There are so many talented athletes on every team. I noticed many runners wearing magnet belts while they raced/trained. Wondering if I need to get myself one of those...

Everyone I met was extremely welcoming. I have not experienced that level of hospitality in the USA. Last but not least, I learned that Japanese girls are very beautiful. I can't wait to come back to Japan.

Ethan Shaw (Dartmouth College, Alternate, 8th in 5000 m, 14:12.86)
I ran the track race. Izumo was an inspired race. Japanese runners tend to run extremely strong through the entire leg, and I think there are a lot of things that we could learn from them. Being able to experience Japanese culture, Japanese racing, Japanese life is extremely important for American runners and American culture. It's something that you can't recreate in any other way. Coming to another culture is something that you can't expect people to understand without the experience, so this is a program that just could not exist in a classroom environment. I’m really excited for this to happen again next year and for decades beyond this.

Matt Duffy (Brown Univ., alternate, DNF in 5000 m)
This is my first trip to the Izumo Ekiden and my first trip to Japan. It was great to experience the entire culture of what the ekiden means in the university system there. They focus very much on the team, where I think the NCAA focuses more on the individual. Individual glory is the king, where in Japan the individual is praised for his performance but only as it adds to the team's performance. I think this is a style of racing that really tests the true distance runner, and I think that the American university system could benefit a lot from looking at the lessons of the Japanese distance runners, their discipline and their commitment to the team.

I had known about this race for four or five years ever since my preview trip to Brown University, and it was great to be a part of it, great to see it. Unfortunately I wasn't able to run, but I was very happy to see the United States team finish 8th again and be disappointed about that finish because I know that in the past we have looked just to go there and run. But every now and then you need to step up and make the team better, so I was very glad when people like Elliott Heath, Matt Llano, Brendan Gregg and others came and performed as well as they did. I look forward to coming back next year, hopefully, and contributing to the team, and hope that the team finishes higher. Thank you.

(c) 2012 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

photos (c) 2012 Kazuyuki Sugimatsu
all rights reserved


TokyoRacer said…
Thanks very much for posting all of those comments. Interesting to see how uniformly impressed they were with Japanese runners and the whole ekiden experience. I hope some of them come back here and run for Japanese corporate teams - or at least to run in some races.

Guys, my club (and Brett's), Namban Rengo, runs a big ekiden the first Sunday of December every year. We can always use a good leadoff leg runner. :)
In fact, last year, we did have a very good collegiate runner, Joe Stowe of Georgia Tech, who was in Japan on an internship, run leadoff for us.
Brett Larner said…
I'll second the plug for the Okutama Keikoku Ekiden, one of Japan's oldest and most old-school ekidens, run on a longer version of the famous Ome 30k course along a river gorge in the mountains of western Tokyo. My favorite race in Japan and one made all the better by being able to watch Fukuoka and eat sushi immediately afterward. There are always a couple of Hakone teams and some good high schools, sometimes the odd pro team, so the competition up front is pretty good.
Jack-san said…
Thanks for this great post Brett. And all the more for your most generous hospitality during the team's post-race visit to Tokyo.

This year's team enjoyed one of our best post-race adventures to date - matched only once by the occasion we visited the Yamanashi Gaukin team years ago when we lived and trained with them for a few days following the Izumo Ekiden.

I'm already looking forward to returning again next year.

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