Ekiden: A closer look at the Japanese way

High school runners are tightly packed near the start of the lead-off 10K leg at the 2010 national ekiden championships in Kyoto, Japan. Kazuyuki Sugimatsu

It is Sunday morning, Dec. 25, and all across Japan TV sets are tuned in to the spectacle of high school distance running championships held in the streets of Kyoto. Thousands of spectators line the streets to see 47 girls teams and 47 boys teams compete in the national ekiden championships.

Ekiden is the culmination of Japan’s massively popular year-round high school running scene and it is the crown jewel of a system that is entirely different from the way things operate in the U.S. This weekend’s championships are the 63rd annual for boys, the 22nd for girls.

At the national championships, the girls go first, with a five-member relay that covers the distance of a half marathon, winding through the streets of this ancient city of 1.5 million people. The girls transport the symbolic cloth loop, which is called a “tasuki,” rather than a baton. Kojokan Senior High School from Okayama prefecture is the reigning champion and comes into this year’s race as the heavy favorite. Kojokan’s five average 9:16.24 for 3,000 meters, which is about four seconds faster than a group of three schools whose girls average 9:20.

Two of the contending schools, Tokiwa High School and Sendai Ikue High School, are from the earthquake and tsunami zone in northeastern Japan. Some are lucky to be alive, and the teams are a testament to perseverance, having had nearly half of their annual training and competition schedule disrupted by the disaster.

The boys link seven runners to carry the tasuki the length of a full marathon. Their race snakes through Kyoto’s historic districts before the course turns back and the runners go back over their steps toward the finish line. A lot of lucky foreign tourists, hoping to view the complex web of ancient shrines and temples, will get to see modern Japan in action as well. Kyoto is a flat city with unusually wide and straight roads, nestled between stately hills.

The favorite in the boys race is Nishiwaki Kougyo High School from Hyogo prefecture. The seven boys from Nishiwaki have an average 5,000-meter best of 14:11.28, two and a half seconds up on Sendai Ikeu boys. Sendai is the only northern team in the top five. Historically, the top boys teams have come from the south and west; the girls are more evenly distributed nationally. The huge urban population of the Tokyo area is typically under-represented in this sport.

Steeped in tradition

Ekiden began in Japan as a road-race relay to commemorate the movement of the capital from the old Japanese capital of Kyoto to Tokyo. The first relay was in 1917 and was a three-day event between the two cities. Some 30 years later, the national high school championship began. Today, ekiden is a regular part of late fall/early winter, complementing the year-round sport of track and field.

The ekiden sometimes retains the point A to point B concept, but is usually modified to be an out-and-back relay, such as the two-day, 219-kilometer collegiate Hakone Ekiden. That race begins at sea-level central Tokyo and goes up to the small mountain village of Hakone. On those two days, Jan. 2 and 3, the nation will once again be glued to the television, watching 20 men’s teams from Tokyo-area universities compete. Think of it as Japan’s Rose Bowl.

Tokyo’s high school city championship is held in a riverside park, with each competitor going out and coming back to a centralized exchange point. Each leg runs to a different turn-around point according to the assigned distance. A few ekidens are run as loops within a park, such as the national junior high championships. In these formats spectators can more easily watch handoffs in addition to the start and finish.

Cross country, as practiced in the U.S., never really took root in Japan. Large open park areas are scarce and within urban parks the density of bicycles and dog-walkers make for perilous race conditions. Use of golf courses, where tee times are booked months in advance, is unthinkable.

Commitment to "we"

In ekiden, an individual overall “winner” does not exist. This sport is all about the teams. Plus, within a single race there are many winners. Besides the fact that there is always a team in the lead, every stage has a winner by elapsed time. Every stage has an athlete who passed more competitors than anyone else. The team positions are in constant shuffle.

When the first-place team crosses the line, it is an ecstatic “we” moment. When a runner trips and falls, or cramps, the time lost is also a crushing “we” moment. Receiving the tasuki in the lead and then turning it over in second carries a heavy emotional load. Tears do flow.

In the junior high national championships, held Dec. 18, there were 47 teams representing seven regions. Boys teams (six runners) race 18 kilometers; girls teams (five runners) complete 12 kilometers.

In the high school championships, the distances of each stage, or leg, have become fixed over time. The lead-off runners go 10 kilometers (in Kyoto, this leg also includes significant elevation climb). They hand off to a fast team member who sprints 3K. The next two runners run odd distances, designed to make the full race a perfect marathon length. The third goes 8,107.5 meters and the fourth 8,087.5 meters. The last three legs are shorter and more conventional: 3K, 5K and 5K.

Girls races start with a 6K opener, followed by legs of 4.1K, 3K, 3K and 5K.

Each stage brings unique challenges for coaches. There is the issue of length and elevation gain/loss (Who should be selected for the 10K vs. a 3K?). There is the issue of honor (who runs the final 5,000 meters and represents the team at the finish line?)

A recent ruling has removed the foreign students (mostly from Africa) from the initial 10K and 6K legs; they are typically placed in the 8K stages of the boys’ race or the 4 or 5K stages for girls.

Ekiden also sharpens self-discipline because it frequently requires runners to push the pace without reference to others. This becomes more and more important as the race moves on and runners spread out. Even the strongest mental racers, however, have difficulty matching their best times from the track season, when the pacing is shared. One of the mental challenges of the relay format is that runners of different ability may suddenly be side by side, confusing the sense of pace. In ekiden there is a constant reshuffling of team order as individual strengths and weaknesses play out to give every stage its own sense of drama.

One downside is that ekiden is a poor spectator sport. Thousands of people line the streets to watch, but the much greater audience tunes in to watch. The Japanese love of broadcasting high school sports on TV comes to the rescue. (Sunday's coverage is here). Runners enjoy the thrill of having the TV vans and motorcycle cameramen keeping pace, weaving in and out of the various packs, as they keep track of the hot contests and the leaders.

Curbside spectators watch the race unfold on their iPad, portable TV or mobile phone while standing at their favorite vantage points. Shopkeepers set up TVs and radios outside their stores so that even more people can stayed tuned in to what’s going on.

Ekiden meshes with track

The autumn ekiden season for secondary schools is really not a season, per se. For the majority of teams, the season is one race, the state qualifying round in early November. Top finishers move on to a late November regional meet. Then the best girls and boys team from each prefecture advances to Dec. 25.

In the autumn there are also a few track meets, too, which provide competition for members of the team who did not make the ekiden roster, or whose team did not advance. One of the most popular meets is the monthly long distance meet at Nittai University in Yokohama. This two-day meet will draw high school, colleges and open athletes from all over eastern Japan. There may be 30 or more seeded heats of the 5,000 meters – with as many as 30 boys in each race. Also, there are 10,000-meter races for the men and 3,000-meter races for the girls (a few girls will run 5,000 meters, too). The spring versions of this meet include the shorter 800-and 1,500-meter races.

Ekiden is the year-end reward for nearly 12 months of middle distance training. Since April, the athletes have been judiciously entered in track meets designed to bring them to peak performance for the ekiden. The process seems to work. The national high school performance lists are outstanding.

Elite lists deeper than U.S.

There are easily 40 high schools in Japan that can field boys teams with at least five athletes who have run sub-15 minutes for 5,000 meters. Some of them won’t race on Dec. 25 because they are the second-or third-best teams in their prefecture. By the middle of fall, the national list included 350 sub-15 minute boys and rising. By year’s end the number typically nears 600.

About 350 girls under had run under 10 minutes for the 3,000 by mid-October. That total climbs to near 500 by January. At least 40 schools have five or more girls who have broken 10 minutes during the school year.

These results are not explained easily, particularly as the Japanese high school age population is only one-fifth of the U.S.’s. Japanese schools are similar in size to American schools, although many are single-gender. In some places around the world, high school includes 19-year-olds. That’s not the case in Japan.

High school sports school-based, unlike the club-driven nations of Canada or Germany. As a school sport, track teams must compete for members with other year-round sports, such as baseball, soccer, tennis, swimming, gymnastics and basketball, several martial arts, plus a few sports that few Americans have heard of.

Favorable factors include the school calendar and the culture. The Japanese school year starts April 1, so the ekiden is at the end of eight months of preparation. Athletes rarely suffer from spring fever. Track is fresh and new at the start of the year. Ekiden precedes the February graduation and college entrance exams by more than a month.

Culturally speaking, belonging to a group is all-encompassing, for better or worse. Dedication to one’s team or club is complete and undiluted. Students cannot double dip in other school sports and cannot be in musical groups or other school clubs.

Mobility also contributes to highly successful teams. Only a few talented students attend their neighborhood public high school. Many students pursue their abilities and interests (academic and athletic) at distant high schools (public and private). Japan is the land of high-speed trains and superb public transportation so an hour-long ride to school is not uncommon. Schools here also require entrance exams or special entrance qualifications. Good athletes gravitate to schools with ambitious coaches in the sport of their choice.

Once they are gathered, highly motivated athletes feed off each other’s ambition and make each other better. Typical Japanese coaching involves a lot of delegation, with older students acting as coach-surrogate for the younger students. The head coach may just stand and watch the entire training process. This mutual accountability for the team members carries a lot of weight in Japanese society. There are very few lonely long distance runners.

Since students participate in just one sport during the school year, cross training in the brief winter and summer vacations is quite easy. It is even more effective because of the mutual accountability among athletes. Summer vacation is an effective training season because it is short and rarely involves long family trips. Team training camps during summer vacation are a fundamental part of the educational system.

Japanese have been noted for their dedication to training with infrequent competition. For example, a baseball team may practice 365 days for a chance at one game. Tennis players may chase balls for a season or two before, as a senior, they are given a chance to play a match.

Infrequent racing, focus on speed

In track and field, things are bit more generous, but the concept of long training cycles and infrequent competition still applies. Superior marks do not come from “racing into shape.” Carefully selected and spaced competition is designed to lead to two peaks – August’s national track and field championships and the December ekiden championships.

The strategy is quite clear. When there is only one race nothing held back. It is almost unheard of for a middle distance track athlete to compete in two races on the same day, unless it is a prelim. Many meets are held over two weekends, and in that case a few athletes may attempt a combination of events. Three races over eight days is a rare occurrence.

The best runners may go five or six weeks between big races. They may get their qualifying mark and not race again until they need to qualify for the next level, or if the coach feels they need pacing work. The qualification process for nationals provides three to five weeks between the three stages: locals in May, regionals in June and nationals in early August. Ekiden follows a similar pattern.

In parallel to the “pyramid” of meets leading to nationals, there are additional meets that showcase the other members of the team. The Nittai University meets are an example. If a team brings 10 or 15 runners, they will be distributed over several heats. This prevents a pack-running mentality and develops individual self-determination.

There is also a series of meets for sophomores, for instances, or novices. There are city and prefecture (state) meets that mix contestants of all ages. The top athletes usually skip these meets. Because of these opportunities, younger or less gifted team members will start their training in spring with a goal of peaking several months later.

The marquee event for boys is the 5,000 meters. It expresses the essence of being Japanese – the plucky, gritty determination to persevere on one’s own. Relatively few boys choose to focus on the 1,500 or 3,000-meter steeplechase.

Junior high boys focus on the 3,000 meters first, as do sophomores who lack experience.

The move up to longer distances is delayed longer for girls. Junior high girls rarely compete at 3,000 meters on the track and only move up to 2,000 or 3,000 for the junior high ekiden. When they move on to high school, most girls remain 1,500-meter runners for several months. By autumn, coaches begin entering more of them in 3,000-meter races and a select few will enter the 5,000.

In other words, the common Japanese coaching strategy is to stress speed before distance. That stands in contrast to the American system, in which the school year begins with longer cross country races in the park and closes with shorter races on the track.

Stress on speed is also evident in the way athletes compete. Just as each runner enters a race with the mindset that there is only one race and nothing is to be held back, they seem to share a compulsion to stay with the lead pack until they absolutely can’t take it any longer. At a typical track meet, when the field takes off at the gun the majority will stay with the lead pack as long as possible before slowing.

It is part of the Japanese ethic to stay with the pace until there is no other choice but to drop back. It is a feeling that goes into their shouts of “Gambaro!” – loosely translated as “try your hardest.”

Ekiden encapsulates the self-determining spirit of “Gambaro.” Carrying the tasuki is a supreme test of one’s ability to push to the limits. Every runner must balance the individual will to push with the risk of going hard to hard – and letting the team down.

Note: Bruce Carrick is an Associate Professor at Soka University in Tokyo. He will post results for this weekend's meet here and more can be found at Brett Larner's Japan Running News.