by Brett Larner
October marks the start of the best part of the Japanese year, university ekiden season. The key races among these road relays are big, high-level and massively popular with live nationwide broadcasts, and now that university women have finally achieved parity with the men at three major ekidens it's better than ever. A quick guide to the season's main races, with detailed previews to follow.
Technically the women's season began last weekend with the regional qualifiers for the first of their big three races, the Oct. 25 Morinomiyako Ekiden in Sendai. Serving as the National University Women's Ekiden Championships, Morinomiyako has been dominated by Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University for years and there is little sign of that changing. The second main race on the women's calendar is its newest addition, the Nov. 29 Nikko Irohazaka Women's Ekiden. Still finding its feet, so far Irohazaka has proved popular with its unusual one-way uphill course that mirrors the most famous ekiden stage in Japan, the legendary Hakone Ekiden Fifth Stage. The season-ending National University Women's Invitational Ekiden has struggled to find a permanent home but its current incarnation seems to have hit the target with a new course in the foothills of Mt. Fuji that, unsurprisingly, supplies its new name of the Mt. Fuji Women's Ekiden. With a new race date on Dec. 30 Mt. Fuji joins the long-running men's ekidens on Jan. 1-3 to make four days of live TV ekiden mania over the course of five at the New Year holidays, a good move for everyone involved.
The entire university men's year revolves around two of those days, the Hakone Ekiden on Jan. 2 and 3, but the season itself begins with the Oct. 12 Izumo Ekiden in Shimane. Short and fast by Japanese standards, following the sudden demise this year of the International Chiba Ekiden Izumo is now the sole remnant of any kind of international aspect to the ekiden thanks to the presence of the American Ivy League Select Team. The Japanese teams include the top ten from last season's Hakone Ekiden plus invited teams from across Japan. 49 schools in the Tokyo-centered Kanto Region not running Izumo line up a week later in Tokyo's Show Kinen Park for the world's greatest 20 km road race, the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifier where they are scored by the total times of their top ten finishers, the ten fastest schools making the cut for Hakone.
Nov. 1 is the date for the second of the men's big three races, the National University Men's Ekiden Championships near Nagoya. Longer in distance than Izumo, Nationals again feature most of the best Kanto-region schools, notably four-time defending champion and course record holder Komazawa University, with top schools from the rest of the country. It's a banner day for any non-Kanto school that can crack the top ten. Two weeks after Nationals, most of the 20 schools in the Hakone field send the majority of their rosters to Saitama to run the Ageo City Half Marathon so that coaches can pare down the contenders for their final Hakone lineup of ten starters and six alternates. In recent years the NYC Half Marathon invite available to the top two Japanese collegiate finishers in Ageo has also attracted some of the country's top university stars, who previously had usually sat Ageo out given that their places at Hakone were already secure.
December consists of final training, mental and physical, for the peak of the season, Japan's greatest road race, the Jan. 2-3 Hakone Ekiden. Two days, ten stages of roughly half marathon distance including the Fifth Stage with over 800 m of climb and the Sixth back down, all with a live TV audience in the tens of millions. There is simply nothing else like it in the sport anywhere else in the world. In March, 2012, Aoyama Gakuin University head coach Susumu Hara told JRN that with his incoming class of first-years AGU would win Hakone in 2016. In December, 2014 with that group of runners now third-years he again told JRN that while the team could win the 2015 Hakone Ekiden it wasn't a big deal if they didn't as their senior year in 2016 would be the culmination of his long-term development plan. AGU then duly rocked an incredible course record win at Hakone 2015 that made the team and in particular Fifth Stage star Daichi Kamino into national celebrities. What can they do this time? Needless to say, the anticipation levels are high.