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The Izumo Ekiden - Director's Cut

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  Below is the original unedited and error-free version of the article with previously unpublished photos.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.

Guided by Atsushi Yoshimura, an executive at the race-organizing Inter-University Athletic Union of Japan, the team toured the course by bus, scouting the location of each kilometer mark, each hill and curve, each handoff zone. The night brought the highly formal opening ceremony, taiko drums, a live orchestra, every team introduced onstage before a packed hall of dignitaries and local fans. Fultz gave the team final instructions on handling the tasuki embroidered with the Ivy name that they would wear throughout the race across the chest and over one shoulder, its loose end tucked into the shorts. Take it off and wrap it around one hand before kicking to the handoff zone at the end of your stage, a matter both of practicality and a way of drawing spiritual strength from the runners before.

Having at times bolstered the team lineup with non-Ivy League runners, Fultz was confident that this year’s all-Ivy team would deliver its best performance ever. The competition was tough. The course record-setting winner at the last Hakone Ekiden, favorite Aoyama Gakuin University’s six best men had 5000 m, 10000 m and half-marathon averages of 13:51.62, 28:40.58 and 1:02:10, more than enough to represent in the NCAA.

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.

On the only stage to offer familiar head-to-head racing Pons ran 23:20, good enough to win the 8.0 km leadoff leg the last two years but only landing him 9th. 2015 World University Games 10000 m bronze medalist Keisuke Nakatani of Komazawa University led the stage in 22:34. “Usually in a race you’re racing the guy next to you, but I could sense this was different,” Pons said afterward. “I could tell it was about trying to gain every second you could for the runners who were coming later.”

One of many unfamiliar mental challenges the Ivy League runners faced. Above all was the waiting, tension building, at each handoff zone every runner going through their warmups, checking the TVs to find their teammates’ positions, wordlessly watching the road for the sight of their school colors and the signal to step out. Where in single-start cross-country and track races you’re usually amongst runners of similar ability, in an ekiden the relative abilities of nearby runners depend on coaches’ strategy and the ebb and flow of luck on the day. Second runner Tyler Udland, another Princeton grad with solid track credentials, found himself being run down by 30 km national university record holder Yuma Hattori of Toyo University and this year’s 3000 m steeplechase national champion Hironori Tsuetaki of Chuo Gakuin University, locked in mortal combat with each other.

Later in the race runners often find themselves facing solitude with no competitors in sight ahead or behind. Harvard’s Will Geiken, running fifth through rice fields at the foot of the mountains to the north of the city, found himself alone and called it a “time trial,” but for the Japanese runners it represented something different, more abstract and primal. If running was key to human evolution in terms of the hunt the ekiden represented it in its purest form, pursuit and the pursued, the ability to remain focused on the unseen quarry, the unseen predator. The secret to success as an ekiden runner.

The differences came not just in the race itself. Where at a football game the two teams’ cheerleaders and marching bands decorate the sidelines in front of packed grandstands, here 20 schools’ worth did their routines along the roadside together with alumni booster clubs waving hundreds of banners in school colors, thousands upon thousands of fans from across the country, many in wild costumes, and local residents proud to have an event like this in their town. “I was really impressed with the level of community involvement in the race,” said Princeton’s Chris Bendtsen. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.”

Up front, Aoyama Gakuin and defending champ Komazawa ran a thrilling head-to-head duel that lasted until halfway through the anchor stage before Aoyama Gakuin’s Tadashi Isshiki put it away to set a new course record. Ivy League anchor Leakos slipped doing strides while waiting for Geiken and ran his stage with bloodied knee and backwards baseball cap but still picked up two places to put the team into 9th, meeting Fultz’s goal of its best-ever finish with an all-Ivy lineup. On live national TV Leakos scored fans across the country when he turned and bowed to the course, a traditional sign of respect. Fans waited for photos with the team after the closing ceremony inside Izumo Dome before runners headed to a nearby track to cheer on their alternates, including the Ivies’ George Galasso, as they ran 5000 m. The racing finally behind them, all that was left was the goodbye party at Shimane Winery.

No big game is complete without a tailgate party, alumni, fans, family, athletes and staff celebrating and bonding over barbecue and brews. The Izumo Ekiden Sayonara Party is the biggest tailgate party you’ve ever been to multiplied by ten. Most of the 21 teams joined their alumni booster clubs at tents outside on the winery grounds for barbecued beef, crab and vegetables, beer and local wine for the so inclined, iced tea for the underage and non-partakers. Teams from farther away gathered at tables inside the winery’s sprawling complex together with local residents and volunteers, another facet of the event’s connection to the local community. On the party stage the mayor and other dignitaries kicked things off with the inevitable series of speeches before a toast – Kanpai! – with the winery’s best vintage for all. The Ivies quickly discovered the secret to making friends at a Japanese party: pick up an open bottle of beer, walk up to any random table and hold it out to pour. Instant friends for life.

Back on the party stage, top-placing teams’ cheerleader squads delivered their routines between more speeches. The Ivy League’s contribution? “YMCA,” joined onstage mid-song by Aoyama Gakuin’s 2015 World University Games half marathon gold medalist Yusuke Ogura, anchor stage winner Dominic Nyairo of Yamanashi Gakuin University and other star runners keen to swap shirts for Ivy League gear. Fireworks brought the party to an end, teams and their supporters bidding goodbye before filing onto busses for the trip back to their hotels.

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


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