Sunday, January 5, 2014

Some Reflections on the Ekiden

by Brett Larner

This ekiden season I've had a few thoughts kicking around, and watching this week's Hakone Ekiden a few of them became clearer.  These are still in progress, but at the moment this is what I'm thinking in terms of running as a spectator sport and about the quality of Japanese men's distance running right now.



Quality: Japanese men's running is coming up very, very quickly.  I was in the lead car at November's Ageo City Half Marathon, where 18 men, 17 of them university runners, broke 63 minutes.  As it was going on we all thought it was a slow race because there were so many people running that pace all the way, no separation at all in the mass of the pack. See the JRN header photo above, taken just past halfway.  That's pretty unusual in Japan, especially at the university level; generally you'll get a handful of guys who run an aggressive pace and a mass running dead on a safe pace, 3:00/km in a half marathon, for example.

The First Stage of Hakone this year was exactly the same: Waseda University star Suguru Osako, fresh back from training with Alberto Salazar's Nike Oregon Project before Hakone, took the 21.4 km stage out at sub-60 minute half marathon pace, and the entire field of 23 went with him.  The announcers immediately said, "This is an extremely fast pace.  The pack will break up very soon."  When it didn't they said, "Well, it must actually be slow.  Everybody is still there."  Not until 5 km, which the group hit almost completely intact in 14:09, 59:42 half marathon pace, did they realize what was happening.  Sure, a lot of the guys who went out at that pace died, some badly, but compare the results to when Osako won the First Stage in 2011 and 2012.  In 2011 he ran 1:02:22 and won by nearly a minute, nobody daring to run that kind of pace.  In 2012 he ran 1:02:03, the fifth-fastest time ever on the First Stage, only one guy trying to go with him and ending up almost 30 seconds back.  This time Osako ran 1:02:14, a time that would have been all-time #7 before this year, and ended up 5th.  4th-place Kei Fumimoto of Meiji University ran 1:02:02, one second faster than Osako's 2012 winning time.  The top six were all faster than his 2011 time.  Winner Hideto Yamanaka of Nittai University ran 1:01:25, 1:00:33 half marathon pace, not quite sub-hour but just off national record pace.

The character of the running here and in Ageo was completely different, 180 degrees from the mindset seen even last year, and it was there on other stages too, more like the type of marathons we've seen in Dubai and elsewhere the last few years: throw lots of young, unknown guys together and have them run some completely unrealistic pace.  Most of them are going to die, but a few will break through with something more.  Either way, just look at some of the numbers: in 2011 there were 15 men in the Hakone field with times under the "ace" level of 13:40/28:30/59:30/1:03:00.  In 2012 there were 19.  Last year there were 32.  This year there were 42, with 18 of the 23 teams at Hakone having at least one athlete at that level.  Every single one of those 23 teams, three more second-tier schools making it in than usual in honor of Hakone's 90th running, had runners with 10000 m bests under 29 minutes.  American writer Jesse Squire tweeted me that in all American universities in 2013 combined there were 13 men who broke 29 minutes.  Winner Toyo had 8 including 27-minute twins Keita and Yuta Shitara. 6th-place Meiji University had 11 men with 5000 m bests under 14 minutes, the fastest, Genki Yagisawa, having run 13:28.79 this fall.  In the entire Hakone field there were 64 men sub-14 for 5000 m, two of them sub-13:30, 81 men sub-29 minutes including 4 who have run 27 minutes, and 34 sub-63 half marathoners, 6 including the Shitara twins who had run 61. Just five years ago these kinds of numbers would have been unthinkable, and they don't include the runners at that level at other schools that didn't qualify for Hakone or were outside the Kanto region, of which the number also increased this year.

This generation of Japanese collegiate men is the one that will hit its peak at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  I have the feeling that this new attitude, this new willingness to take risks and throw it all away in search of something higher instead of taking the safe, conservative approach, is going to last at least until then. With the front end of this generation just now hitting age 22 who knows how far they will go once they begin to seriously run marathons?



Context: People in the industry in other countries frequently talk about how to make elite running more popular with the general public.  Why is it that it's so popular as a spectator sport here, with tens of millions of people tuning in to watch a fifteen-hour broadcast of a small number of university guys running over the course of two days?  The easy answer is just to brush it off on culture; the Japanese value tradition, self-sacrifice for the greater good, perseverance in the face of hardship, or whatever other cliches about the exotic Orient you want to dish out.

But watching Hakone this time I could really feel that a big part of what makes the ekiden great entertainment is that is provides a larger context for the action of running, something multi-dimensional and whole.  Watch a regular race and most of the time you will only see a few people going head-to-head or somebody time trialing.  It's exciting for serious fans and the average person might watch it once or twice, but there's no overall story there, no larger drama or plot.  It seems to me that the situation in track and field and road running now is much the same as if baseball were just a series of home run derbies or soccer an endless series of penalty kicks.  The hardcore fans might like it and the average person might be entertained by it once or twice, but build an entire sport on it? Baseball and soccer both have a lot more going on, requiring a range of skills from different people to build something complex and compelling.

That's what you have in an ekiden relative to an ordinary track, road or cross-country race. Just like home runs and penalty kicks factor into their sports, pure speed and head-to-head competition factor into an ekiden, but only as elements of something bigger, killer plays in the overall game. There is strategy, not just tactics, room for somebody like Ichiro and other skills that runners who are not the fastest can bring into play to contribute to the evolution of the overall game. Just as baseball and soccer appeal to mass audiences as multi-dimensional team sports, so does the ekiden in Japan.

In terms of it being a team sport, I was struck this fall by something that Robert Johnson of Letsrun.com wrote about reasons why running would never be popular as a team sport.  One of the things he wrote was that team scoring in cross-country means that it's often a long time after the race before anybody knows what team won because it is based on an arbitrary scoring system of individual performances in a crowd.  I think he's right on the money there.  If you look at the one place where running is popular as a team sport, it's crystal-clear who won, because it is a genuine team performance.  Individuals race head-to-head, win their stages and are recognized for that, but it's actually about the team performance, and the fans like that.  Like Yamanashi Gakuin University at Hakone this year, if one person goes down, the whole team goes down.

The emphasis on the team also means that, like other team sports, there is less impact when an individual doesn't race.  How many times have you been looking forward to a marathon, road race or track race where one of your favorite runners, Galen Rupp or whoever, is scheduled to run, only for them to pull out at the last minute?  When the big names dodge each other?  Or when people's careers come and go prematurely?  Like in other sports, if the emphasis is on a team it's less of an issue for fans if one guy doesn't play.  Look at Hosei University at Hakone this year, for example.  Their star runner Kazuto Nishiike, one of the best Japanese collegiate runners this year, had a mishap and got hurt on Dec. 29 and couldn't run Hakone.  If it were a regular race it would be a big blow for the organizers, fans would be disappointed, and the race would be lessened. Instead, Hosei spent most of the race battling to stay in the top ten to get a place at October's Izumo Ekiden and a guaranteed place at Hakone next year.  Its battle, which it ultimately lost, with Daito Bunka University for 10th place on the last stage was one of Hakone's highlights this year; sure it would have been different with Nishiike and he probably would've run great on whatever stage he ran, but Hosei's fans still got a great race, maybe a greater one.  Everybody's going to remember Hosei vs. DBU for 10th, not Nishiike.

And that's something the TV producers understand.  When you have a complex, multi-dimensional event going on, cover more than one dimension.  People respond when there is different action going on and they get to see it.  When someone has a lead of over a kilometer it's good to check in sometimes and see them balling, but what about all the other competition going on inside the race?  You keep people hooked, keep them watching when you're switching between different races-inside-a-race.  OK, this is a great race between this group of guys.  What's up with the guy up front?  Still solid.  Whoa, check out this dude coming up fast in the distance.  Hold the phone, that one guy in the group is in trouble!  It's actually entertaining to watch, gripping, and the Hakone broadcast producers at NTV do a better job of presenting it that way than anybody else in the sport, anywhere.

The same aesthetic spills over into Japanese marathon broadcasts.  In comparison I can't help but think back to last year's NYC Marathon broadcast on ESPN.  NYC does a great job these days of putting together interesting, varied fields with a range of different athletes. ESPN's broadcast was good from a technical standpoint but completely monotone.  Only the famous names up front, period.  How about showing what the top Americans are doing?  How about showing that guy in the red singlet by himself in the distance who's coming up and running people down, or at least saying who he is?  What's the point in having an intriguing, multi-dimensional event if you're only going to present one dimension?

Anyway, it's not as though the ekiden is a quick-fix, that if USATF or the IAAF suddenly switched to an all-ekiden format there would suddenly be tens of millions of fans lining up or tuning in; Japan has decades of fan base buildup that is pushing things forward.  I remember the World Marathon Majors saying that the series' creation was partly out of recognition of the need to provide some sort of larger framework to appeal to fans.  That's one approach, regardless of whether or not it has been successful.  But on some level in Japan they've identified some of the same problems and developed other effective solutions.  Some of those solutions might be worth looking at more closely.

(c) 2014 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

18 comments:

Pablo Villalobos said...

Great Post ;-)

Ekiden, like Relays in USA NCAA, will be a solution ;-)

Joe said...

First, I love JRN and LOVE the Hakone Ekiden. Without this blog there is no way I would be able to enjoy it half as much. Thank you so much.
Second, I was wondering about the foreign runners in the collegiate programs, Hakone contenders specifically. Why is it that the top teams don't have foreign runners, just the 6-10 placers? Is there some unwritten code that riding a Kenyan ringer to victory is no-no? This would seem to have interesting implications for the future or the half Japanese half Kenyan girl in high school right now, right?

Toni Reavis said...

Brett,

Great column, and I certainly agree with your analysis. But as a member of the ESPN2 crew covering the 2013 NYC Marathon last fall (and many, many more such marathons over the years), I can tell you that the reason American TV doesn't show the runner in the red singlet coming up from behind, or the top American way back in the distance, is because there is only a budget for two cameras for the entire men's elite race, and two for the women. That's it.

I was on the lead men's motorcycle in NYC, and it wasn't until Geoffrey Mutai pulled away from Stanley Biwott after 35Km that our producer instructed us to drop back and show the fight for second place with Tsegay Kebede coming on strong hunting down the $500,000 World Marathon Majors circuit prize.

Running in the USA isn't a big enough sport with big enough stars to warrant Japanese or Tour de France style coverage with multiple cameras following several story lines throughout the course.

Running in American is thought of more as a healthy lifetstyle activity and charity fund-raising mechanism than a top-end sporting competition. Until that dynamic turns around, we will continue to cover the sport in this same fashion. Happy New Year, and thanks for the continued excellent blogging.

Toni Reavis
San Diego, California

songsta said...

great post. wish we had ekiden in the US.

Li Hang said...

Hi Brett

Great post and analysis as usual. I've been reading JRN for a while now and JRN has had several comparisons with NCAA DI. I am wholly convinced, and I think most readers of this site would have been convinced by now, that Japanese collegiate running, particularly in the Kanto region for the past few years, is well ahead of the NCAA.

Perhaps with having surpassed the US on most counts, it is time to look ahead and wonder Japanese runners are unable to regularly compete with the East Africans? Without looking at the world class level, it seems Japanese runners struggle to or are reluctant to challenge the Japan-based Africans. Only one guy went with the Africans at Yosenkai last year, fading badly.

Are Japanese runners taught, explicitly or perhaps implicitly, not to try to follow the Africans? Is there a mindset that the Japanese runners are running one race amongst themselves, and the Africans another race? JRN alluded to this in an earlier post: http://japanrunningnews.blogspot.sg/2012/12/how-i-learned-to-love-ekiden-and-why.html.

Hopefully the incredible depth of talent we are currently seeing is not wasted just being the best of the rest, beating Americans/Brazilians/Europeans but unable to challenge East African dominance in distance running.

Brett Larner said...

Lots of good comments, thank you. One at a time.

I've had some questions on email about why there are a few gun starts with a small number of runners on a few stages. The answer:

If teams fall more than a pre-determined amount of time behind the leaders they have to start the
next stage at a particular time, usually with a white or other colored sash to show that they did not pass on the original one. The time difference between when they start and when the preceding runner comes in is then added to the running time.

The cutoff at the end of the Second Stage was 10 minutes, so at exactly 10:00 after leader Komazawa came through the last remaining team, Kokushikan, started the Third Stage (along with YGU which had been eliminated by Omwamba's DNF but allowed the honor of still completing the remaining stages without their times being counted). Kokushikan's second man came in at 12:10, so Kokushikan carried a 2:10 time handicap that was added to its total time at the end of the day.

The cutoff at the end of Day One was also 10:00, so every team that was further behind than that (11th~22nd place plus YGU, as it turned out) started Day Two at 10:00 behind leader Toyo and had the time handicap added to its running results. Most of the stages on Day Two have a 20-minute cutoff, so you had up to 7 teams starting at once on one of the later stages. It's down to the second, so even though two teams' runners were right there their next guys had to start on the gun.

Next to a DNF getting white sashed is the worst thing that can happen to a team in an ekiden because the continuity of the tasuki is broken, the piece of cloth that holds the sweat that symbolizes the efforts of the teammates that came before you is stopped and doesn't make it to the finish line. That's why you see the guys coming in who don't get to hand off crying and lying on the ground in devastation afterwards. They're not joking around or acting. Ultimately it's an issue of road closure permits and not all ekidens have it, but the white sash start rule definitely adds something to the event. If nothing else it creates an emphasis on excellence: if you don't measure up as a team you're going to wear a mark that shows that fact to everybody, and that's a shame they all want to avoid.

Brett Larner said...

Joe and Li--

Good questions. Joe's first. I think the situation you describe is a little bit of a fluke right now. Yamanashi Gakuin, the first school to start having Kenyans on their team, became a Hakone champion because the Kenyans were there. Nihon has been a top-three contender for much of the time that it's had Kenyans. Both schools just happen to have been relatively weak as teams over the last 4-5 years.

As you'll notice, very few schools have non-Japanese runners. Off the top of my head for men's teams I think there are just Yamanashi Gakuin, Nihon, Takushoku and Tokyo Kokusai in Kanto, and Daiichi Kogyo out west right now. I can't remember whether Hiroshima Keizai has one these days but I don't think so. A few other schools, Asia, Ryutsu Keizai, Senshu, etc. have had them in the past.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this that vary from school to school, some good, some bad. It would take up too much space to talk about them all here and I can't really speak authoritatively for any particular school, but one of the main issues would just be language/academic requirements. It's hard to bring someone over and learn the language quickly enough to handle a university environment. Yamanashi Gakuin often brings Kenyans over to go to its prep high school and so they are functional by the time they're college students.

Other schools might not want to deal with the hassle that goes along with foreign recruiting. The head coach of one of the top five teams this year told me personally that he is very interested in recruiting a non-Japanese athlete but not an African. I don't mean to say that he has anything against Africans at all, he just wants to try something different that other teams have not, and in this case that would mean a foreign student runner from somewhere else. (Interested, talented and motivated high school students feel free to get in touch with me.) So, the absence of non-Japanese doesn't necessarily mean a lack of interest. I'm sure even the best schools would be interested if a top U.S. high schooler were to express curiosity about their programs as an alternative to the NCAA.

Another part of it that partially addresses Li's question is that especially among the top schools the level is coming up so much that the advantage gained by bringing in non-Japanese runners is much less than it used to be. Especially over the longer distances there's not much difference any more between the best Japanese collegiates and the Africans they bring in. Omwamba might have won the 2nd Stage if he hadn't gotten hurt, but neither Muthee or Kitonyi were close to winning theirs. At Nationals in November Komazawa's Kenta Murayama beat the stage record set by the best Kenyan university runner Japan has had, Mekubo Mogusu, who broke 60 minutes for the half marathon three times the year he set that record. Murayama might have beaten Mogusu's Hakone 2nd Stage record this time too if he'd used his head a little more in the first 5 km (14:02!).

Brett Larner said...

Continuing on with Li's question, I think the attitude of not trying to compete with non-Japanese is a little bit of a relic and is changing for the better. It hasn't been that long since there have been Africans here, and most Japanese don't get many opportunities to race non-Japanese competition even if they wanted too. Especially at the corporate level, the older coaches are still in place and keep things segregated in the New Year Ekiden and whatnot, but as I've written elsewhere the university scene has more and more younger coaches taking over who grew up around Africans and are not afraid of them, and who are looking at what is going on in the U.S. with people like Rupp, Solinsky and Ritzenhein's success. Access to information is much easier these days.

This generation of athletes, too. Osako spent a lot of this year training in the U.S. and I'm sure is different for it. Kenta Murayama, Yuta Shitara and Kento Otsu all ran the NYC Half in the last two years against world-level medalists. Shitara outkicked Ritz and almost caught Meb in '12 and has won both of his Hakone stages since then. Otsu ran NYC twice and came back and almost got the Hakone anchor stage record this year.

Kenta Murayama tried to drop Wilson Kipsang in NYC last year, beat Bernard Lagat and came back here completely transformed. His twin brother Kota was the guy you mentioned who was the only one to go with the three Africans at the Yosenkai last fall. He and Kenta are very close, and before the race he asked Kenta how he thought he should run: attack the Africans or hang back and run conservatively. Kenta told him: DEFINITELY GO WITH THEM!!!!!

It takes time for things to change, especially here, but I think they're starting to change.

TokyoRacer said...

As far as running with the Africans is concerned, there is another aspect to consider. Especially in track races (5,000 and 10,000) over the years, the Africans would be out in front and the Japanese in a pack a ways behind them. Well, the reason was, the Africans were just much better runners. The Japanese didn't go with them for the simple reason that they couldn't. Now with the new generation of Japanese, as Brett says, we're seeing that change - not just because of the mindset, but because the Japanese are finally getting to be able to run those kinds of paces.

Interesting comments by Toni Reavis about the budgets and producer decisions, and the reasons for them.

Brett Larner said...

Hello, Toni, thanks for the response.

I don't have any experience with broadcast television so I'm sure you're right about the budget issue being a major hurdle, but what you're saying falls right in line with the overall question I'm thinking about in this post. How can elite running be made more popular as a spectator sport in other countries? It's popular here, and it's presented in an interesting way, and that's a chicken and an egg. Is it presented in an interesting way because it's popular or is it popular because it's presented in an interesting way?

Some of both, probably, but especially in the last ten years I think the presentation/production is doing a lot to turn people on to the sport here. You seem to have said, "Running isn't popular enough in the U.S. to justify being presented in an interesting way," but even with budget limitations there have to be ways to present more facets of the race and what makes it compelling than just the same old approach. You're laying another chicken and egg by saying, "We're not going to do anything differently unless racing gets more popular." How can it be more popular if you don't do anything differently? Having the NYCM on ESPN was a great step forward, but how could it be better? With today's technology there have to be other cost-effective ways to do that.

Which sounds unfortunately like Edith Heare:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/somebody-should-do-something-about-all-the-problem,11018/

At any rate, as I said in the post we're not talking about any quick fixes, but I don't think settling for the status quo is going to make the situation better.

Happy new year.

Li Hang said...

Thanks for the response, very interesting.

Metts said...

I understand the situation. Here in Koera, they bring in 3,4,5,10 Kenyans or Ethiopians for the 2 or 3 big marathons, and the TV coverage is basically only about them. They might show a Korean up front trying to keep pace, but once he drops off thats it. And they might show him finish. And they will show the women's race throughout. That's it. No other stories or angles to the marathon. How can the average viewer be intersted if they see the same Kenyans or Ethiopians every time. Nothing agaisnt them, just there are more stories lines in the races than that. I remember the epic battles in the US marathons of the late 70's and early 80's. Coverage was better then, I think. But only slightly.

And there is no running system here in Korea. A few good marathoners every now and then, but no system, no infrastructure, no foundation, to develop an elite running culture like Japan.

wataru22 said...

As you noted, there is a lot of entertainment value in watching not only who wins, but in who finishes in the top 10 to keep their auto-qualification, and who can avoid the dreaded kuriage. The heartbreak and drama of the kuriage especially, is what brings in the viewers. Judging by my wife's reaction, the most exciting part of the 2nd day was watching the poor Kokugakuin and Tokai runners fall seconds short of passing on their tasuki to their 10th stage teammates. At that time, the winner's outcome was all but decided, so you knew NTV was going to milk it as much as possible.

Also, I wonder why Japan and some other countries don't try lobbying to get the ekiden added as an Olympic event. Logistics would be the biggest barrier for sure, but it would be a great team event.

Joe said...

That's really interesting. Thanks so much again, Brett.

Brett Larner said...

Wataru--
I just came on to respond to your comment about Oyagi dealing with big stars and see that it is gone. Did you delete it? I thought your guess about the change involving Komazawa recruiting big stars was pretty insightful and was also glad to see someone who remembers that Komazawa had a quartet, not a trio, and that Hoshi was part of it. It won't surprise me that much if he ends up having the best career of the four of them in the end.

Last night JRN assoc editor Mika Tokairin also had some insightful things to say with regard to how Murayama ran for himself, not the team, and how Oyagi has not been able to bend him into being an ekiden runner. Your comment about how Oyagi has been struggling to deal with star runners at the expense of developing the mid-pack guys fit with that pretty nicely.

Metts said...

Perhaps its time Komazawa/Oyagi realize the competition is so much improved, especially related to Hakone, that they can't dominate all the major collegiate ekidens like they did in the early 2000's. Toyo, as seen the past five years, seems to be able to focus/peak for Hakone and maybe just using the other two ekidens as training and or time goals in preparation for Hakone.

While Komazawa is still trying to do it all, like they did before. The skill level, as Brett as documented well, has grown expotentially the past few years, any one team such as Komazawa, might not be able dominate in all three ever again.

Just like Colorado/Wetmore where they know their strengths and what they can and can't do. They focused on the NCAA XC championships and used the other meets as preparation meets.

Maybe its time Komazawa realize this if they ever want to win Hakone again.

Too many good teams that focus on Hakone, and when Komazawa gets to Hakone, they are either too tired, too mentally exhausted from the effort required to win the other two ekidens. Whether its Nittai, Toyo, Waseda, peaking at the right momement, and mabye Aoyoma in the future, maybe one team dominating all three are days long gone.

Metts said...

Sorry Brett, one last comment, while Komazawa certainly ran great this year at Hakone, my point was that no matter how good/great they've run recently, someone else is more focused more ready to peak at Hakone, and the other ekidens are just preparation runs for them. Because the competition is so much greater, and Komazawa hasn't won it since 2008, maybe they now need to focus only on Hakone if they want to win it again. The competition is just too great now to try and peak at all the major collegiate ekidens. Even it they think they aren't peaking at the the other ekidens, it seems obvious the the other schools haven't placed as much emphasis on them as Komazawa has. Maybe they need to change their strategy. Just some ideas.

wataru22 said...

Brett - I thought I posted that about the big 4 but the refresh must have deleted it for some reason. My fault for not being patient and just letting it load. Just to reiterate my point, it seems that Oyagi's struggles began once he began to recruit the cream of the crop. His intentions are good (assuming he is telling the truth), because he emphasizes that college is just a transition period and the real goal is to prepare his kids to become the best they can be later on in life. Perhaps with the speed runners (such as Ugachi/Takabayashi/Fukatsu/Hoshi), he didn't want to destroy their track capabilities but focusing solely on the ekiden season. But with the extra attention he may be giving to the top runners, he may be failing to address the growth of the lower level runners, resulting in the lack of depth that haunts them in Hakone. I'm sure it is difficult to strike a balance when dealing with a group of runners where the end goals are totally different, but the discord and lack of unity may be a symptom of Oyagi's struggle with this balancing act.