Last year JRN covered the Izumo Ekiden for Meter, a boutique running magazine published by clothing manufacturer Tracksmith who produced the uniforms for Izumo's Ivy League Select Team. The article printed in Meter included a number of typos, grammatical errors and other problems not in JRN's original text which its editor declined to correct in the version it published online earlier today. Below is the original unedited and error-free version of the article with previously unpublished photos.
text and photos by Brett Larner
race photos by Kazuyuki Sugimatsu
Fall, cooler breezes and changing leaves, the country’s runners turning not to the trails and golf courses but to the roads. Ekidens, Japan’s long distance road relays, a century of history backing massive modern popularity. For the best university men it’s a three-month season. October’s Izumo Ekiden, short, fast and sweet. November’s National University Ekiden Championships, longer and more strategic. The peak of the season, the year, the runners’ lives up to that point, the biggest sporting event in Japan, January’s two-day Hakone Ekiden from downtown Tokyo into the foothills near Mt. Fuji and back.
Hakone, the oldest and most prestigious of the ekidens, held every year for nearly a century except at the height of World War II. Ten stages around a half marathon in length each, the centerpiece around which everything turns. Nationals, first held in the late 60’s, a mid-season step toward Hakone’s massive scale, eight men averaging 13 km each, the anchor the only one to tackle the kind of distance they all will face in Hakone. Of the Big Three the season-opening Izumo is the newest, launched in 1989 to provide a transition from track to road, each team’s six runners averaging just 7.5 km apiece.
All three, along with the college women’s equivalents and the championship high school and pro ekidens, are broadcast live to devoted fans nationwide. It’s easy to reduce their mass appeal to generalizations about how they speak to cultural values, how every runner counts, the entire team rising or falling on each member contributing their best, continuity from those that came before and on to those still to come. Not a baton, a straight line from one point to another, but a sash, the tasuki, a circle, continuity, woven from cloth that absorbs and blends the sweat of each runner to form a physical bond between them that mirrors their spiritual bond of shared work and sacrifice for the benefit of the group, a source of strength in times of individual hardship.
True these may be, but contending that they are the reason ekidens attract tens of millions of fans is no more meaningful than contending that college bowl games are popular because football audiences consciously appreciate the game for its representation of core American values of militarism. Just like bowl games or Final Four, ekidens rose from the love of the college team, the advent of TV bringing larger, wider audiences and the resulting fame, excitement and money pushing performances higher and higher, begetting more fans. A circle, continuity. It’s all too common to invoke the mystical Orient when talking about things Japanese, but this completely overlooks what ekidens, and especially the university ekidens, really are: a high-octane team sport of action, energy and passion. Look up any fan-made highlight video on Youtube and you won’t hear plaintive bamboo flute soundtracks. You’ll hear screaming hard rock and high-energy club beats like you would on the same kind of video made by fans of all the big American and European ball games.
That’s the spirit in which the audience is watching, and the incredibly high-quality TV presentation plays it to the limit. At the Olympics and World Championships people love the relays, and the success of the World Relays has shown how great all-relay competition can be. Japan has known it for a hundred years. Ekidens give distance running a larger context for the action, the true team framework missing everywhere else, killer plays within a game, a clear-cut winner. What people want to see.
The same era Izumo was born saw a blossoming of ekiden internationalism. The Yokohama International Women’s Ekiden, the International Chiba Ekiden, even an IAAF World Road Relay Championships, university teams from the U.S.A. invited to both the men’s and women’s Nationals. The Ivy League Select Team was part of that, getting its start at the 1990 men’s Nationals, the product of an idea shared by Brown alumnus Vern Alden and future JAAF president Yohei Kono to help recent Ivy League graduates get international racing experience. The team quickly found the distances too long to handle on NCAA training, but the shift to the shorter Izumo Ekiden at its 10th running in 1998 put them in a position to compete against the Japanese teams more familiar with the format and with running on the roads.
In the nearly 20 years since then the popularity and quality of the Big Three university ekidens have skyrocketed. But at the same time shifting economic and political tides saw the disappearance of first the World Road Relays, then Yokohama, then the reduction of the International Chiba Ekiden from separate men’s and women’s races to a mixed-gender team format. Chiba’s unceremonious cancellation last spring meant that apart from the scattered teams to bring in an African or two to bolster their ranks, the eight members of the Ivy League Select Team to accompany coach Jack Fultz and manager Bill Okerman to Izumo this year were the last remnant of an international component to the history of the ekiden as a sport in Japan.
The Ivy League team arrived in Izumo on Japan’s southwestern coast to find themselves treated as guests of honor, meeting English-speaking student guides, running with local schoolchildren and visiting Izumo Taisha, Japan’s key Shinto shrine and the starting point for the race. Harvard’s James Leakos, along with Princeton’s Alejandro Arroyo Yamin one of two previous team members to be returning to Izumo, was off before dawn to hike up a nearby mountain in time for sunrise.
Race day dawned with heavy rain, an echo of the typhoon that had caused the cancellation of the race the previous year. Arriving by bus at the massive wooden Izumo Dome in the center of town the team said their good lucks before splitting up, shuttled off to their individual handoff zones to await their turns. Princeton’s Sam Pons, the day’s first runner, warmed up inside the dome with other lead runners, the rain stopping just as they were taken to Izumo Taisha for the start. On the front steps to the shrine under roiling clouds, with the live TV broadcast a go, they were off on the steep downhill through the enormous concrete torii arch before the shrine grounds.
There’s a time for play and a time for work. 6:00 a.m. the next morning and the Japanese teams’ runners were out for their morning training, already regrouping for the buildup to Nationals and on to Hakone. The Ivies headed to Tokyo for one more night on the town before the flight home, talking eagerly about coming back and kicking some ass next year. Rising in domestic popularity even as the urge to internationalize fades, for one weekend at least the Ivy League’s return to the Izumo Ekiden showed a glimmer of what could be, an alternate reality where the best of one world face the best of another in front of legions of adoring fans. For all the talk about how to save the sport, the answer is already there.
text and photos © 2015 Brett Larner, all rights reserved
race photos © 2015 Kazuyuki Sugimatsu, all rights reserved