Going the Extra Mile: Japan’s Long-Distance Running Culture
Normally on January 2 or 3, Japanese runners kick-off the New Year with the Hakone Ekiden race.
Ekiden is a long-distance, multi-stage, relay race held mostly on roads over the course of several days. Each runner on a team runs from one station to the next, handing over a cloth sash or “tasuki” to the next team member.
The origin of the sport dates to 1917 when the first Ekiden was held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tokyo’s establishment as the country’s capital.
That race was a three-day, 23-stage run from Kyoto to Tokyo that covered more than 507 kilometers.
Ekiden come from the combination of the characters “eki,” which means “station” and “den,” which translates as “to convey.” The word comes from the way Japanese government documents were transported from station to station, or by a relay, long ago.
Races are held for all ages and at all levels from small children to veteran runners and elite athletes.
The Hakone Ekiden, covering 219 kilometers from central Tokyo to near Mt. Fuji, features teams of ten male students from different universities around Tokyo. Runners, who complete just over a half-marathon, compete to set individual records and support their teams. Televised nationally, the event attracts millions of spectators and is considered to display many aspects of Japanese culture, such as individual perseverance, identity within a group, and allegiance to a major university.
Middle and high school teams also participate in the sport, and national championships are held in December.
Despite its wide popularity in Japan, this form of long-distance running has caught on worldwide with races held in many countries.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the first virtual global Ekiden took place this past November with more than 56,000 participants from more than 100 countries covering a total distance of 277,000 kilometers.