by Brett Larner
This fall the Japanese ekiden season attracted a level of talent it hasn't seen for a while, with a U.S. team on a par with the best collegiates at October's Izumo Ekiden and medalists from the last two Olympics including American darling Galen Rupp lining up at November's International Chiba Ekiden. With last weekend's National Corporate Women's Ekiden and National Junior High School Ekiden on the books and the National High School Ekiden coming up this Sunday we are well into the best time of the year in Japan, the winter championship ekiden season with no less than eight major races on six successive weekends, all but two with incredibly well-produced live nationwide broadcasts. Apart from Ken Nakamura's IAAF reports on the bigger races and my own coverage they're all bound to pass almost unnoticed outside Japan apart from one or two "Huh, the Japanese sure do love their ekidens"-type mentions. I started Japan Running News, having run in the NCAA and come to Japan for reasons unrelated to running, largely because I saw races like the Hakone Ekiden, the biggest and best of them all, couldn't believe I'd never heard of something so awesome before, and thought, "People should know about what's going on here. They're missing out." For the last five years I've tried to convey some of how exciting and engrossing they can be, both to watch and to run, but I realize that it's hard for most people elsewhere to find them accessible. Like anything else, it's a lot more enjoyable when you know something about it and have some idea of what's going on. So, let's spend some time looking at what they're about and where the appeal is.
What's an ekiden?
This isn't going to be a history of how ekidens came around. What's on Wikipedia covers that pretty well. But, for basics, ekidens are long-distance road relays. There's no fixed distance or number of runners. You have races like my local Shibuya Ekiden with four-person teams all running the same 2.9 km loop, the New Year Ekiden with seven-man teams running stages between 8.3 and 22.0 km with a total distance of 100.0 km, the Hakone Ekiden with ten-man teams each running roughly a half-marathon over the course of two days, and the Grand Tour Kyushu, a massive eight-day, fifty-leg race around Japan's southernmost main island. Many, like the National High School Ekiden, are subdivisions of a half-marathon for women or a marathon for men. The start and finish points are usually based on the availability of a parking lot or other staging ground off the side of the road, and so you end up having people competing over completely arbitrary distances like 8.3 or 22.0 km. The International Chiba Ekiden represents an attempt to make an international standardized format, dividing a full marathon into 5.0 and 10.0 km stages with a 7.195 km anchor stage. It's a pretty good bet that if the ekiden format ever makes it into the Olympics it'll be something similar to Chiba.
The one thing they all have in common is the tasuki, the sash that each runner hands off to the next. It's worn over one shoulder and under the other arm, tightened with a loop and the end tucked into the shorts. Coming up to the handoff zone, runners usually take the tasuki off and wrap it around one hand before starting their last kick. Just before handing it off they unwrap it and hold both ends horizontally between both hands. The next runner grabs it in the middle with one hand and then while starting to run puts it on, tightens it, tucks in the end, and gets down to business. Getting it across the line is the only thing that matters, and you are only a part of making that happen.
The important thing to realize is that the tasuki is not just a piece of cloth. Especially at the championship level, and especially especially at Hakone where it extends to the point of animism, when you run an ekiden you aren't just running alone wearing a piece of cloth over your shoulder. You are carrying the weight of all the years it took the other runners to get there, all their workouts, all their injuries, all their dreams since they were kids. It's not just that if one person DNF's then the whole team goes down that year, it's more. When you put on that soaking wet, stinking piece of cloth and your own sweat mingles with it there is a physical bond formed between your life and theirs, your own years of work becoming part of something bigger, and others are waiting to join you. Giving anything less than your best is not sacrificing your gift, it is sacrificing everybody else's gifts.
That's the tasuki. It's no joke. At Hakone the tasuki has spiritual significance. Past teams' tasukis are treated like sacred relics. Next time you're in Tokyo go visit the Raffine run center near Kanda Station. The director, Yasuto Kimura, was captain of Chuo University's Hakone Ekiden team back in his day. Proudly framed on the wall is the tasuki they wore, never washed, stained and crusted with salt that testifies of what he and his teammates gave to be part of it.
The individual and the team
Let's go back to a point or two there. In traditional team race scoring you have, for example, seven guys in the race, five of them scoring. That leaves a built-in margin of error. If you have a bad day and run slow or drop out you know that, barring a total disaster, someone else will clean it up if you slack off. Although the front-end competition for the individual win usually leads to as big or even bigger a share of the laurels than the team win, in this respect, in this style of racing the individual doesn't really matter as much. You can afford to have some people fall by the wayside.
In ekidens, everybody must finish or nobody does. Even one bad performance will pull everybody down. There is no margin of error. They have awards for the fastest individuals on each stage but they are footnotes to a team title. If everybody gives it what they have then everybody can have something good. Every single person on the team matters, and in that respect, counterintuitively, maybe, the ekiden actually places more importance on the value of the individual. Not to say that one way is necessarily better than the other, but I tend to see these differences reflected in the social models of the societies in which they take place.
So, looking at an ekiden, whether watching or running one, what can you expect? Jeff Schiebler, who spent his best years in the corporate leagues, once said that he didn't watch ekidens on TV because it was just hours of shots of one guy at a time running by himself. Several people on the U.S. team at this year's Izumo Ekiden also said they had a hard time coping with running their stages because it was essentially a solo time trial. To me that's like saying chess is just two people moving pieces of marble around on a board or that a move itself is just picking up one piece and putting it down on another square. Only true if you're not familiar with the game. Let's look at that game.
The First Stage
This is the only place where you have head-to-head competition in the normal sense you see in other kinds of racing. Teams usually put one of their fastest runners, at least one of their best kickers, here, especially on televised races where they will have a chance of maximizing their screen time. If you're a corporate team coach and you put one of your slower guys on first they will either not be on TV or, worse, will be shown as an early straggler behind the pack. The sponsor company will not be happy. That's also part of the reason for the general ban on non-Japanese athletes on the First Stage in the championship races. When they allowed them, most of the time they would run away from all the Japanese competition right from the gun. You could say that this made for bad television for the home crowd along with extra logistical headaches for the broadcast companies, usually among the main sponsors. With this ban in place even at the high school level you could also say that it is reinforcing a mindset in Japanese runners that they are inherently not as good as non-Japanese athletes and that it's better just to race other Japanese. Since the ban became commonplace the First Stage in championship races has tended to become more tactical, going to the athletes with the strongest kick.
The International Stage
As a consequence of the ban, Africans are lumped together in one stage, I believe without exception the shortest stage in each race. Yes, the fastest runners are forced to run the shortest distance. This is nominally to minimize the advantage that richer teams have in being able to recruit people like Samuel Wanjiru, Paul Tanui and Ibrahim Jeilan, but it's also great for the TV broadcasters. Take last weekend's National Corporate Women's Ekiden, where the International Stage is 3.6 km. That's around 11 minutes of airtime. Like on the other stages, keep showing the incoming runners handing off, do a graphic showing a CG map of the course, cut to a commercial break or two, and interview the winner of the previous stage. Where on longer stages you would still have say 20 minutes of airtime in which to show the race, on the International Stage you only have to show around 1 minute of Africans thrashing whatever Japanese competition is on that stage. Of course, since it's the shortest stage teams that don't have Africans will put their weakest runners on, making the thrashing look even worse than it really is, which needless to say, reinforces the mindset of Japanese athletes being inferior to any African who runs against them.
Stage bests, passing records and psychology
Winning a stage is where the individual glory aspect comes in. There is an award, the kukansho, for the person who clocks the fastest time on a stage. Although the First Stage plays out like a normal race, after that the runner in front is not necessarily the fastest one running that stage. You have to remember that a runner's position is that of the combined efforts of the team. It's hard to lead all alone, and so the fastest runner on a given stage is often someone further back who is trying to run people down. The last few years at Hakone the Second Stage, where most coaches put their star runners, has seen the person clocking the fastest time start way back in the field after a weak opening leg and just eat people up. This makes for great TV and is key to the psychology of running an ekiden stage. Even if there is nobody in sight ahead of you, you're not out there doing a solo time trial, you are a greyhound going after that damned rabbit. It's not about your pace or the time on your watch, it's about, "I want that guy and am I getting closer to him?" It's about gauging what you have to do to run someone down in the amount of ground that you have or at least to get within a given margin. For those who do well, there is recognition for passing exceptional numbers of people, another mark of individual glory. For those who don't, it is settle in, keep a good position for the next runner, and try not to get caught.
If you are leading, the variables are greater. If you know another team has someone big coming up or that your team has a weaker runner after you, the incentive is there to make your margin as big as possible. If you're more secure in your chances then you can play possum. You know that the next runner behind you will be going out hard to try to catch you and will probably not be able to cover the whole stage at that kind of pace. It's common, especially later in a race, to see the leading runner in that position, running conservatively, letting the chasing athlete get close, and then turning it on. There is nothing more disheartening than going as hard as you can to catch someone, see them come within range, and then they suddenly take off and pull away again. When this strategy works it usually breaks the person chasing and leads to an even larger margin for the leader.
Stacking a team
That leads to the question of how you set up a team. Do you want to be in the race from the start and try to hang on or do you want to try to run people down late in the race? How do the other teams stack up? How are they likely to set their teams up and how might that impact your runners' situations on each stage? "If Team A puts runner X on first and runner Y on second then my third runner will be playing catchup. If they put runner Z on second instead then we'll have the lead on third and they'll be running us down. What would these scenarios mean for our fourth runner? Which is more likely?"
This overall strategy is what sets the ekiden apart as a form of racing. It's a big picture that evolves over time. What approach is a team taking? Who are they putting where and how does that play off against what another team chooses to do? This is where the beauty and the fascination come in. What secrets and surprises lie ahead? In a documentary after this year's Hakone Ekiden they showed footage from inside defending champion Waseda University coach Yasuyuki Watanabe's chase car. Rival Toyo University had a supreme specialist, Ryuji Kashiwabara, for the massive uphill Fifth Stage. Watanabe knew that Waseda needed a lead of at least three minutes by then to stay ahead and have a chance on the remaining five stages and had gauged how much each of the first four runners needed to contribute to make that happen. Waseda's first man did his job, but on the Second Stage Toyo's Keita Shitara caught Waseda. His strategy shattered with eight out of ten stages still to go, Watanabe just shook his head and said, "I thought Shitara was hurt. That's it, it's over." And he was right.
Of the two basic scenarios Japanese coaches almost always go for option A, better people earlier, both for the sponsor/TV broadcast reason mentioned earlier and because of the possum threat. You rarely see coaches go for option B, putting your best guys late in the race to try to run the competition down, although Izumo Ekiden course record setter Aoyama Gakuin University's head coach Susumu Hara is talking about doing that at Hakone next month, which would be pretty interesting. Another reason to avoid option B is the white sash.
The white sash start
Japanese police are very strict about road closures and race organizers like to do things efficiently, so almost all ekidens feature a white sash start on stages after the first. If runners from opposing teams fall farther than a specified margin behind the leader, they have to put on a white sash and start at the cutoff time. When the incoming runner arrives, the difference between the outgoing runner's start and the incoming runner's finish is added to the team's total time.
For example, say the white sash start time is 10 minutes after the leader. One team's incoming runner has not arrived, so the waiting runner puts on a white sash and starts on a gun at the 10 minute mark. 2 minutes later his teammate comes in. Although the outgoing runner is physically 10 minutes behind the leader, the team is actually 12 minutes behind and the 2-minute differential will be added to the final time.
This has the advantage of keeping people closer together, generally leading to better performances, but can get a bit confusing, especially in the two-day Hakone Ekiden. There, teams start the second day with the same margin with which they finished the first day. If Team B finishes Day One 30 seconds behind Team A, then on Day Two they will start 30 seconds behind Team A. Any teams finishing Day One more than 10 minutes behind the lead team start Day Two together 10 minutes after the leader. If Team C finishes Day One 10:05 behind Team A and Team D finishes 11:00 behind, both Team C and D will start Day Two 10 minutes behind Team A. Team C carries a 5 second handicap throughout the day, while Team D carries a 1 minute handicap. Team D could spend the day 30 seconds ahead of Team C physically but they are still actually 25 seconds behind on time. Not that tricky, but if they start getting white sashed on Day Two then they carry two handicaps, sometimes three. It gets very hard to keep track of the actual standings versus the running order for the back half of the field.
The most significant thing about the white sash start is that it means the original tasuki does not finish the race. The efforts of the runners up to that point as embodied in the tasuki are lost, the continuity and connection to the later runners severed. Apart from a DNF this is the worst thing that can happen in an ekiden. Runners missing the white sash cutoff by seconds, holding the tasuki in their hands and crying, are always one of the most dramatic and heartbreaking parts of watching an ekiden, again especially in Hakone where the symbolism and stakes are so much greater.
The seeded bracket
For the winning team there is glory aplenty, especially in the championship ekidens which have audiences in the tens of millions. In some races teams finishing within the top bracket are seeded for the following year, while the teams below that bracket will have to run a qualifying race to get back in. That cutoff point keeps things interesting well back from the race for the top, and especially in Hakone it is as exciting to watch the battle for the last seeded spot in 10th as it is to watch the winner.
A lot of the time it's more exciting. You might remember Koku Gakuin University's Natsuki Terada a few years ago taking a wrong turn with 200 m to go on the anchor stage in a four-way battle for the last three seeded spots, 8th through 10th place. Although the video was a viral hit overseas as a laugh at some idiot taking a wrong turn while leading a race and losing, the real story was that even though he went off-course Terada still managed to get back and outkick one competitor to take 10th and give tiny Koku Gakuin its first-ever finish in the Hakone seeded bracket. His wrong turn was hillarious but it was actually a video of triumph, not loss. Pity the guy he outkicked for 11th.
I could write something like this every year for the next five years and there still wouldn't be much change in international interest. People will still say, "Huh, the Japanese sure do love their ekidens," if that even. That's partly self-inflicted; how much effort do the Japanese make to make something like the International Chiba Ekiden internationally-available, much less something like Hakone or any of the others? But really, you should know about what's going on here. They don't have these ekidens because the Japanese love them, the Japanese love them because they are an enthralling, complex and multi-layered form of racing. The arbitrary stage lengths mean that the times do not refer to anything outside of that stage. Given that the winter championship ekidens are what Japanese runners are trained to focus on above all else, that means that their best performances are invisible, nowhere to be found on their IAAF, or even JAAF, profiles, but at the same time it frees the racing from being chained to the one dimension of time, of being the single fastest person. It's about competition, about having the drive and snarl to run that guy down. It's about every person in the race truly mattering, and about being part of something bigger. Even as elite times around the world get faster and faster, popular interest in track, cross-country and elite marathoning is on the wane. Everywhere except here. The Japanese sure do love their ekidens. Maybe they're on to something. You're missing out. Don't.
(c) 2012 Brett Larner
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