Ekiden Runner passes crowds | © mrhayata via Flickr
Ekiden Runner passes crowds | © mrhayata via Flickr

This month saw the Hakone Ekiden take place, a major event in Japan’s sporting calendar. The race takes place on 2nd and 3rd of January, on the back of the New Year celebrations. The race is slightly different from normal athletics and is often cited as one of the most exciting races for spectators, as it combines team strategy with individual performances.

What is the Hakone Ekiden?

Hakone Ekiden is one of a series of long distance relay races that are popular in Japan. Teams from major universities compete to win the race. The race has ten legs, with 5 run on the first day and the second 5 run on the following day. The race is particularly exciting for spectators as while there is a winner for each stage, there is an overall winning team too. The race was inaugurated in 1920 and has been raced every year except for during WWII.

Each runner wears a team sash, which is handed over to the next runner in the relay. The twist is that once the fastest runner hands over his sash, the other team’s runners can leave once their runner arrives with the sash OR twenty minutes passes, whichever comes first. This means that each stage is a self contained race, with no team allowed to fall too far behind (although teams who take longer than 20 minutes behind the lead runner to reach the handover point have this time added as a penalty at the end.) Strategy and psychology is a key features as a team doing poorly on one stage can use this rule to put a faster runner on the next stage and put extra pressure on the other teams.

The route is also hilly in some stretches and changeable weather with strong winds along coastal sections make the course tough and unpredictable. Again, this gives some weaker teams an advantage if they have a runner who is ok on the flat but good at hills – even strong runners struggle with the steep and long slopes. Even downhill sections are tough as runners have to keep control of their speed to avoid falling. A further issue is the time of year; the race starts at 8am when temperatures can be very low.

Finally, if one runner retires and does not finish a stage, their whole team is disqualified. This again adds an element of excitement, as an otherwise strong team can be knocked out instantly by a sudden injury or illness. The remaining runners in that team can still run their stages, which can result in them setting unrealistic paces to unsettle their rivals still in the race.

The race is broadcast live on Nippon TV, and many sections of the race have large crowds lining the route to cheer on the runners. Some of the most famous runners have screaming fans in the same way you might expect of a pop-star or actor.

How Long Is the Ekiden?

The Hakone Ekiden is 217.9km, with 108km run on day one and 109.9km on the second day. The race goes out to Hakone and then back to Tokyo – the route is slightly varied on the way back hence the longer distance.

Who Competes in the Hakone Ekiden?

Generally competitors are from university men’s running teams. There are usually 20 teams each consisting of 10 runners. The race is taken extremely seriously and times for each leg are often near to world class. Each leg is around a half marathon (21km) and it’s not unusual for runners to finish in just over an hour; the world record is 58m 23 secs.

Teams that finish in the top 10 are seeded and get an automatic entry to next year’s Hakone Ekiden. The remaining teams are selected by performance in a qualifying race (Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai) held in the previous October.

Where Does the Ekiden Take Place?

Day 1

First section (21.4 km)
Ōtemachi, Tokyo to Tsurumi, Yokohama
Second section (23.2 km)
Tsurumi to Totsuka
Third section (21.5 km)
Totsuka to Hiratsuka
Fourth section (18.5 km)
Hiratsuka to Odawara
Fifth section (23.4 km)
Odawara to Lake Ashi, Hakone

Day 2

Sixth section (20.8 km)
Lake Ashi, Hakone to Odawara
Seventh section (21.3 km)
Odawara to Hiratsuka
Eighth section (21.5 km)
Hiratsuka to Totsuka
Ninth section (23.2 km)
Totsuka to Tsurumi
Tenth section (23.1 km)
Tsurumi to Otemachi, Tokyo

Hakone Ekiden 2014

The Hakone Ekiden 2014 was won by Toyo University, in 10:52:51. This was only 1 minute 45 seconds behind the overall course record set in 2012.