Friday, October 7, 2016

A Quick Guide to Ekiden Season

by Brett Larner

Ekiden season is the peak of the Japanese racing year, the long-distance road relays being the main event for most Japanese runners.  The season is already underway but Monday's Izumo Ekiden marks the start of the championship races.  Below is a quick guide to the season's main high school, university and pro ekidens and related events.  There are more, to be sure.

High School
After the high school season launch at the Kurayoshi Women's Ekiden and Nihonkai Ekiden October sees prefectural high school ekiden championship races across the country, followed up in November by regional championship races.  The peak of the season comes in late December with the National High School Ekiden featuring the top teams from each prefecture, both the girls' and boys' races broadcast live and commercial-free across the country.  It's sometimes the site of the birth of future greats, none more so than the late Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya whose 22:40 record for the 8.1075 km Third Stage still stands 12 years after he set it while running for Sendai Ikuei H.S. There's also a National Junior High School Ekiden held around the same time as the high school Nationals.

University
Monday's Izumo Ekiden is the first of the university men's races that make up the Big Three University Ekidens.  With six stages averaging 7.5 km it's short and fast, the 21 teams in the field featuring ten schools from the Tokyo-area Kanto Region, six schools from other parts of the country, four regional select teams and an Ivy League Select Team from the U.S.A. The ten Kanto Region teams are the top ten from the Hakone Ekiden, of which more later. Instead of Izumo, five days later the other schools in Kanto run the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai 20 km, the qualifying race for Hakone from which another ten schools and one select team are added to the Hakone field.  Both races are broadcast live nationwide.

The first weekend in November universities from across the country line up again in Nagoya for the National University Men's Ekiden, eight stages averaging about 13.4 km.  Like Izumo, Nationals are dominated by Kanto Region teams and broadcast live.  Kansai Region schools wrap up their season two weeks later at the Tango University Ekiden.  The same weekend their Kanto counterparts race the Ageo City Half Marathon in prep for the longer distances at January's Hakone Ekiden.

Hakone is the biggest sporting event in Japan, 21 teams taking on ten stages of around a half marathon in length each over the course of two days, all broadcast live to an audience in the tens of millions.  There is simply nothing else like it in scale, drama, presentation or popularity anywhere else in the world.  Only Kanto Region schools run it, a quirk that makes a regional event more important and competitive than the national race.  The top ten schools are seeded for the following year, also gaining entry to Izumo.

University women's ekidens don't have the same kind of mass popularity, but things are going in the right direction.  The regional championships already happened in September in preparation for the Morinomiyako Ekiden, the shorthand name for the National University Women's Ekiden, six stages averaging 6.3 km.  Morinomiyako is broadcast live, but not so, yet, for the season's second main race, the Nikko Irohazaka Women's Ekiden.  A new event in just its third running, Irohazaka is an all-uphill event.  With six stages totalling 23.4 km and 875 m of ascent it is almost exactly the same dimensions as Hakone's legendary Fifth Stage, but where one university man tackles the mountain in Hakone, Irohazaka divides it between six university women averaging 3.9 km each.  Make of that what you will.

The last of the women's Big Three is December's Mt. Fuji Women's Ekiden, aka the National University Women's Invitational Ekiden.  Having drifted from location to location, the event is now in its fourth year in the foothills of Mt. Fuji and continues to grow in popularity with a live TV broadcast, shifted a week later to Dec. 30 last year to put it three days before Hakone.  Like Irohazaka it has a net uphill course, its seven stages averaging 6.2 km each.

Pro
The corporate league ekiden season is often cited as the main factor in the diminished competitiveness of Japanese marathoners internationally.  True or not, the season does place demands on Japanese runners' focus and training. For women the season has continued to undergo changes.  In past years there were are a series of regional qualifying ekidens for December's National Corporate Women's Ekiden, marketed as the Queen's Ekiden.  Last year the regional qualifiers were condensed into a single national qualifier, the Princess Ekiden, of course, with the top bracket of teams from the preceding year's Queen's Ekiden seeded for the following year and able to skip being Princesses.  This year both events have shifted earlier, the qualifier happening in late October and the national race in late November.  Both feature TV broadcasts.

Men's teams are still obligated to run their regional qualifiers, the Jan. 1 New Year Ekiden national championships obstinately refusing to add a seeded bracket that would free up the fall marathon season for the best teams.  The regional qualifiers happen in late October and early November, some like the East Japan Corporate Ekiden broadcast on TV.  Starting bright and early the morning of New Year's Day, the New Year Ekiden is made up of seven stages averaging 14.3 km, all broadcast to a bleary-eyed national audience. With Hakone coming the next two days the New Year Ekiden tends to be somewhat overshadowed, but the Mt. Fuji Women's Ekiden's move to Dec. 30 means four days of ekidens on TV over the course of five days, heaven for fans.

Mixed
Championship ekiden season comes to a peak at January's National Women's Ekiden and National Men's Ekiden.  Both events have the same entertaining format, with teams made up of top local junior high school, high school, university and pro athletes representing each of Japan's 47 prefectures. Olympians and national champions hand off to the next generation in a literal way, and with live nationwide commercial-free broadcasts both races are usually the first place where fans get to see future stars.  Earlier in the season the East Japan Women's Ekiden operates with the same format for the eighteen prefectures in East Japan, while the same day the Fukui Super Ladies Ekiden pits top corporate and university teams against each other. January's Kitakyushu Women's Invitational Ekiden goes one further, adding national-level high school teams to the mix.  Susumu Hara, head coach of two-time defending Hakone champ Aoyama Gakuin University, has called for the creation of a men's equivalent, an ekiden that would see the national champion high school, university and pro teams face off.  Given how far Hakone has progressed in quality over the last ten years there's not much doubt how that would play out.

By Month
October
Oct. 2:  31st Kurayoshi Women's Ekiden, Tottori - high school girls
Oct. 2:  36th Nihonkai Ekiden, Tottori - high school boys
Oct. 10:  28th Izumo Ekiden, Shimane - university men
Oct. 15:  93rd Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai, Tokyo - university men
Oct. 23:  2nd Princess Ekiden, Fukuoka - pro women
Oct. 30:  34th National University Women's Ekiden, Miyagi - university women

November
Nov. 3:  57th East Japan Corporate Ekiden, Saitama - pro men
Nov. 3:  53rd Kyushu Corporate Ekiden, Fukuoka - pro men
Nov. 6:  48th National University Men's Ekiden, Nagoya - university men
Nov. 13:  59th Kansai Corporate Ekiden, Wakayama - pro men
Nov. 13:  55th Chugoku Corporate Ekiden, Hiroshima - pro men
Nov. 13:  32nd East Japan Women's Ekiden, Fukushima - mixed age women
Nov. 13:  32nd Fukui Super Ladies Ekiden, Fukui - mixed age women
Nov. 19:  77th Kansai Region University Men's Ekiden, Kyoto - university men
Nov. 20:  46th Chubu/Hokuriku Corporate Ekiden, Aichi - pro men
Nov. 20:  29th Ageo City Half Marathon, Saitama - university men
Nov. 27:  36th National Corporate Women's Ekiden, Miyagi - pro women
Nov. 27:  3rd Nikko Irohazaka Women's Ekiden, Tochigi - university women

December
Dec. 18:  24th National Junior High School Ekiden, Shiga - junior high school boys and girls
Dec. 25:  28th National High School Girls Ekiden, Kyoto - high school girls
Dec. 25:  67th National High School Boys Ekiden, Kyoto - high school boys
Dec. 30:  11th National University Women's Invitational Ekiden, Shizuoka - university women

January
Jan. 1:  61st New Year Ekiden, Gunma - pro men
Jan. 2-3:  93rd Hakone Ekiden, Tokyo - university men
Jan. 15:  35th National Women's Ekiden, Kyoto - mixed age women
Jan. 22:  22nd National Men's Ekiden, Hiroshima - mixed age men
Jan. 22:  28th Kitakyushu Invitational Women's Ekiden - mixed age women

© 2016 Brett Larner
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