The Culture and Tradition of Ekiden
Happy New Year Triathletes!
The new year is a special time in Japan, filled with rituals and beliefs about what will bring good luck and longevity, people welcome another year eating long noodles and rice cakes (mochi). During this time, there is another feeling in the air; it is not obvious to the unsearching eye, but is powerful, widespread, and seemingly indiscriminate.
This is a story about my father, Japan, and a passion for running.
My father is a first generation Japanese immigrant to the United States. Throughout the year, he gets his daily fill of Japanese goings-on through online media. One of these is long-distance running relays – Ekiden.
He will sit me down and explain who the favoured teams are, why one athlete is the 4th leg of the relay versus the 2nd and comment on how the Japanese running style is so different from Kenyans. In his words “Ekiden is both individual and team work sports so there is a lot of drama.”
What is Ekiden?
The term – combined from the characters for “station” and “transmit” - was inspired by one of the methods of communication in 18th Century Japan. Stations would be set up along roads and couriers would stop for refreshments or pass the message on to another courier. Today, relay runners wear a sash called tasuki to symbolize is idea of passing something to the other runners.
The first ever ekiden was in 1917 began in Kyoto and went all the way to Tokyo, 508km away. Since then, the ekiden style of race has become more variable and widespread. There are races for highschool students, for professionals, men, women, kids almost all year round.
Distances of races and the different stages vary, making it interesting to see what strengths runners have to use to their advantage.
For example, Hakone ekiden – probably the most famous race in Japan – is held for professional runners over two days: January 2nd and 3rd every year. On the first day, the route starts in a central region of Tokyo and runners traverse about 100km to the foot of Mount Fuji. On the second day, the runners make their way back to the capital city. While the whole race is run on the road, there are sections that are mostly up hill, some that are mostly down, and some that are mostly flat. Coaches select runners with different strengths to tackle the various sections of the race.
The power and the passion
What is it about ekiden that has my father sitting at the edge of his seat, and has thousands of followers on a Japanese instagram site called “Ekiden Mania”? Why, as author Adharanand Finn asks, are many of the running times in professional ekidens faster than individual road races?* What can other athletes around the world learn from this peculiar phenomenon?
In the professional arena, even though we are talking about distance running, races are fast paced and dynamic. In Hakone, for example, each leg is about 20km and runners typically run at a pace equivalent of under a 63-minute half marathon. With the hand over of the tasuki after each stage, a new runner enters the race, and positions can change dramatically.
Watching runners you can see the strain and the fight they put into the race. Onlookers are overcome by emotion. There is a distinct sense of running for more than just oneself, and for more than just the win. “The purpose of training is not health, but forging of the soul” (Finn, 2015). Running is seen as a method of bettering oneself, an avenue to express hard work and dedication. How can I elevate myself above the person I was yesterday**.
“In Japan, not only winning, but being a good team member is important” (Finn, 2015). It plays into the collectivist nature of Japanese culture as a whole. You walk out on to the street and go to work and represent more than just yourself, you stand for the name of your family, your community, and your company.
When you step up to your next start, whether you are in the starting blocks or on the beach try thinking of what you run (swim or bike) for – what is bigger than yourself that makes you get to that finish line? Consider taking a Japanese approach, and embracing your sport as a way toward personal development.
*The Way of the Runner: a journey into the obsessive world of Japanese running (Faber & Faber Limited, 2015)
**Haruki Murakami sees running both as exercise and metaphor in What I Talk About when I Talk About Running (Knopf, 2008)