Going inside Japanese running culture and their fascination with the ekiden
Towards the end of 2019, I spent four weeks in Japan. I was there visiting my fiancée who, somewhat recently, moved to Tokyo for a job. Obviously, the goal was to spend time with her, but four weeks is a long time for a vacation, especially when your reason for taking one spends eight hours a day working. So a few weeks before I left the states, I racked my pea-sized brain for a way I could fill my time. After a few conversations and a handful of emails, I was put in touch with a number of coaches from various Ekiden teams that might be willing to let some floppy haired American with a camera hang around.
The goal, I suppose, was to see what Japanese Running Culture was all about. It’s something that—like many fans of the sport—I was intrigued by. The beating heart of the Japanese running scene is the Ekiden, a long distance relay race undertaken by high schoolers, college athletes, and professionals alike. But the roots of Japanese running interests extend deep into the marathon, a distance they consistently dominate (as of February, the number of Japanese men that have broken 2:10 is up to 100).
But the content mill isn’t turning out too many stories on Japanese running, despite the nation’s rich running tradition. You’ll have an easier time finding detailed photo essays on a group of runners in a remote Kenyan village than you will on running in Greater Tokyo, an area boasting nearly 40 million inhabitants.
"As of February, the number of Japanese men that have broken 2:10 in the marathon is up to 100."
"I wanted to find out a few things: how they trained, what set them apart, what motivated them—basically, why does a country with a third of America’s population routinely trounce the US in terms of high-level marathoning depth? Of the five coaches I reached out to, two got back to me and invited me to a number of their practices.
The two groups, one university team and one corporate team, were in the throes of Ekiden preparation. To help give some context to this, I reached out to Brett Larner, editor of Japan Running News, and asked him about the Ekiden.
“The Hakone Ekiden is the most-watched sporting event in Japan, with viewership ratings of 30% for its two-day broadcast, millions of people cheering along the course, its own museum and a hundred years of history.
It is the focus of the entire year for the university athletes and coaches, and making it even once is the ultimate goal for generations of young Japanese runners. No other race, whether in Japan or anywhere else in the world, is as expressive and passionate, and ultimately this is what pulls fans in.
More than just a race, it is a cultural icon.”
DECEMBER 2ND 2019, SHIN-YOKOHAMA PARK, KANAGAWA PREFECTURE, JAPAN
In the shadow of the 72,000 seat Nissan Stadium, the members of Kanebo Cosmetics Distance team crowd together to begin the day’s workout.
“This is the Japanese way,” head coach Toshinari Takaoka says, gesturing towards the cluster of runners that just took off for their first of four three-kilometer reps. “Together,” he continues, intertwining his fingers demonstratively. I watch as the group, running in two columns of 6, disappear around the curve.
A few hours earlier, I met Assistant Coach Satoshi Irifune outside of the athletes’ apartment complex in Setagaya, a few train stops outside of central Tokyo. It’s a large, block tiled building that a handful of the Kanebo athletes call home. Our meeting time that day is 10:30 AM and we stand around the parking lot as the athletes slowly start to trickle in. While researching the team, I read that Coach Satoshi was a fairly accomplished runner. Back in the day, he was a member of the Kanebo team, and he ran at a number of World Championships in the early '00s representing Japan. His marathon PR is 2:09:23 (fast).
I ask him if he still runs and he just kind of laughs and shakes his head. It feels like the type of universal answer given by someone who has spent any amount of time at the pinnacle of sport: do I look deranged? Of course I don’t do that anymore.
A few minutes later, Coach Takaoka arrives. We exchange a few pleasantries before jumping in a set of vans to drive to Shin Yokohama Park, some 40 minutes south of where we are. Coach Takaoka’s English is near fluent and he lets slip that back in the day he spent some time living and training in the States. A quick Google search weeks later reveals that he’s actually the former Japanese Record Holder in the 3000m, 5000m, 10000m and marathon. Outside of Japan, he’s probably best known for his performance in the 2002 Chicago Marathon. Takaoka led the thing down to mile 24 before getting reeled in and finishing 3rd in 2:06:16 (a Japanese record that stood for nearly 16-years. Also: fast), an agonizing 22 seconds off the winner.
In the van, we ride mostly in silence. The athletes scroll through their phones while Coach Satoshi navigates the bustling toll road. We arrive slightly ahead of schedule and the athletes immediately roll into their warm up with the same demeanor they had in the van: silent, business-like.
Kanebo is a corporate running team, meaning that most of the athletes on the team are technically employees of Kanebo Cosmetics. Though they train full time, they are—even if it’s nominally—employees of their corporate backer. This means that not only is running their full time job, but their time during the week should be treated as company time. I think about this as the workout begins exactly at noon and not one second later.
The team is less than one month out from the New Year Ekiden, which serves as the national championship for the Japanese Corporate teams. In a brief email exchange after the workout, Coach Satoshi explains to me the significance of the Ekiden to his team.
“The Ekiden is an inspirational event. Its importance is ingrained in the culture beginning in grade school, all the way through high school and college,” he said. “My job is to utilize my experience and make sure our athletes understand our team goals.”
What started as a group of eight has dwindled down to four by the time the workout is done. The four frontrunners finish their last 3k somewhere in the high 8:20s and everyone looks a little cooked. Coach Satoshi and another assistant distribute small pouches of a recovery drink and bottles of Pocari Sweat (in my opinion, the best sports drink money can buy). The athletes waste little time cooling down, changing, loading back into the vans and heading back to the dormitory.
I ask Coach Satoshi how he thought it went. He mulled it over and let me know they’ve got a big block on tap: the following Monday the whole team is heading down south for a training stint in the Yamaguchi Prefecture.
“This week is not hard training,” he said. “Because it is before the training camp.”
I take a look at the athletes sprawled out in the passenger van. I think about the workout I just witnessed, curious if I should take the “not hard training” comment with a grain of salt or if I should book a ticket to Yamaguchi Prefecture so I can see what a real ass kicking looks like. I opt to just take him at face value.
A few weeks later, the Kanebo Cosmetics team finished 9th place at the New Year Ekiden.
DECEMBER 6TH 2019, TOKAI UNIVERSITY, KANAGAWA PREFECTURE, JAPAN
"Ekiden is rooted in Japanese running culture and its popularity is what helped the marathon become popular in Japan. Our goal is to spread the greatness of the Ekiden." - Coach Noriake Nishide
I arrive at Tokai University about an hour and a half ahead of when I am scheduled. This is a habit of mine. Mostly rooted in anxiety over arriving late, I arrive heinously early and then stand around shuffling my feet until my appointed time.
I wander around campus for a while, weaving through various athletic fields and administrative buildings. In the middle of campus, between a big academic looking building and a baseball field, is the track. Down near the final curve stands the record board. It includes both track and road records, and I can’t help but notice the times grow more impressive the higher the distance gets. On a bulletin board a few feet away, a huge poster for the team’s victory at the 2019 Hakone Ekiden--arguably the country's most prestigious ekiden--hangs proudly.
Eventually, I’m greeted by assistant coach Noriake Nishide. He walks me down to the west side of the track where his team is currently standing in rows and columns, listening intently to head coach Hayashi Morozumi. A deep bow concludes his monologue, and the athletes depart for a five kilometer warm up.
I follow the coaches and assistants to the infield of the track, where they begin setting up a small table. Meticulously, they arrange a number of small blood testing machines, boxes of latex gloves, disposable needles, and alcohol swabs. Not the usual workout fare.
Coach Noriake explains that today’s workout is effectively being used as a tryout among the distance crew for the Ekiden team. Being taken into consideration is not just how everyone looks during the workout, but also the athletes’ lactate thresholds, which will be tested between the reps of the scheduled 3k/6k/3k workout.
As far as performance metrics go, this one is by far the most intriguing. Testing blood goes well outside the more intangible metrics you generally think about when considering high level performance. Gutsiness. Pain tolerance. A general neglect for one's well being.
I’d like to think that on any given day, someone with a lower lactate threshold could go toe-to-toe with someone with a higher lactate threshold. The x-factor being one of the aforementioned athletic platitudes: guts. But maybe here in Japan we’re operating from an already elevated baseline of mental fortitude. Time will tell.
With the warm up concluded, the 20 or so athletes vying for a preliminary Ekiden spot take to the track to begin the workout. The assistants perch over the table containing the blood testing machines, ready to pounce--three minutes rest isn’t a lot of time to finger prick 20 or so panting athletes. The group of runners is single file by the first 400m, and they all come through at the prescribed pace of 8:50 or so.
Quickly and silently, runners descend upon the blood testing table. It’s a kaleidoscope of outstretched hands, cotton swabs, and alcohol pads. Silent pin pricks ensue as one assistant scribbles down the readings coming from the small machines. Runners quickly clamp down on their bleeding digit, jog back to the starting line, and wait for their next rep.
On the final three-kilometer of the workout, Coach Nori points out three athletes that are jumping into the last rep. These are high school recruits, the equivalent of 11th graders, cutting their teeth on a three-kilometer rep assigned to go through in 8 minutes 30 seconds. It’s dark by the time this one gets underway and the team finishes strong, including one of the high schoolers who clocks a very casual looking 8:35 for his 3k.
The blood testing song and dance resumes one last time. Athletes one by one disperse from the small makeshift clinic and begin their cooldown. As they disappear into the dark, I thank the coaches and make my way towards the train station to take me back to Tokyo.
On my walk, I try to recall if I’ve seen any workout on my various assignments as elaborate as what just took place. I wasn’t just impressed in terms of coordination. It had an air of casualness that made it feel like just another day at the office. I’ve seen 30-minute shake out runs deteriorate for less.
The next day, Coach Nori invites me to their training camp in a place called Futtsu. It’s their final stretch of training before the Hakone Ekiden. After witnessing this workout, I figured it’d be a crime to miss out on the training camp so I accept his invitation and begin figuring out how to make my way to Futtsu Cape.
DECEMBER 11TH, 2019, FUTTSU CAPE, CHIBA PREFECTURE, JAPAN
"Just like the Olympics and World Championships, athletes are expected to perform well in the Ekiden. We train our athletes so that they peak at the Hakone Ekiden" - Assistant Coach Nori Nishide
I’m standing in the parking lot of a 7/11 in Futtsu—well outside of Tokyo—using its wifi in order to orient myself. It took me four trains and nearly as many hours to get to this parking lot, and by my estimations, I have one more bus ride to go. The prospect of another ride on public transit wouldn’t be that daunting if it weren’t for the predicament I find myself in: other than the oddly placed, glowing 7/11, Futtsu seems to be mostly abandoned. At various moments I found myself standing in the middle of the empty road looking left and right, trying to spot an oncoming bus.
My phone buzzes. It’s a photo of a bandshell in a park with a handful of athletes on stage in various phases of warming up.
“I am here,” reads the message. “The workout is scheduled to start at 11:30.”
With my marching orders in hand, I look around the lifeless streets and head to where I think the bus stop is. After a few minutes of gesturing and map consulting with the only other person I see on the street, I get lucky and catch the one bus that is scheduled to come that hour. Ten minutes later I’m deposited outside the aforementioned bandshell.
Here, the relative peace of Futtsu is interrupted by what can only be described as a scene. Cars wait impatiently behind vans driving between 12-15 mph, as coaches inside monitor their runners. Assistants stand on the shoulder with water and stopwatches. TV crews lugging cameras as big as moderately-sized carry-on luggage jog by. Stray cats sit lazily in the sun, rubbing up against anyone idle for more than 30 seconds, which realistically, was just me.
This orchestrated chaos is an Ekiden training camp. I fail to get the exact number of teams that descended upon the small town in the Chiba Prefecture, but from the looks of it, it’s at least four. Most teams, including Tokai, are at the park today to take advantage of a small three kilometer road loop.
Outside the bandshell, I’m greeted once again by coach Nori. With less than a month to this year’s Hakone Ekiden, these next few weeks are crucial, not just for the athlete’s preparation, but for the coaches as well. Between now and January 2nd, they need to whittle the teams roster from sixteen down to the ten that will race. The added pressure of coming into the race as the defending champions doesn’t come up. But I’m sure it’s in the back of his mind.
While we stand there, a handful of runners go by, spaced out evenly by about a minute.
“They’re practicing for the Ekiden,” he says. “For most of the race you are running alone, so they practice running workouts alone.”
Coach Nori walks me down to a small parking lot where the athletes are gathered around a few vans. Lacing up various pink and green shoes, the mood is jovial despite the workout written on a whiteboard looming over them. On deck today is four X three kilometer reps with three minutes rest. This is the second time in a week’s span I’ve seen this workout, leading me to believe that over the course of the 200km relay, this sort of stimulus is highly important.
The three kilometer loop is essentially a big rectangle, and we’re met at the bottom right corner by head coach Hayashi Morozumi. Dressed in a knee length trench coat and sunglasses, he rests one hand on a motorized scooter while addressing the team. When Coach Morozumi is finished, the athletes give him a quick bow and jog to the start.
Unceremoniously, the 16 or so men of Tokai University set off at a steady 4:40 mile clip. Adding to the frenetic madness, their bespectacled coach buzzes alongside them on the bright orange scooter, two assistants keep pace on bicycles, and a van carrying the six or so members of the TV crew zips around, capturing it all. I’m left somewhere in the lurch, catching glimpses of the group twice a rep, while trying not to get run over by the other groups using the loop that day.
Roughly 45 minutes go by and by my observations the entire team nailed the assigned paces of 8:40, 8:50, 8:50, 8:35. The last thing they have to do for the day is cool down. After coach Morozumi gives them a quick speech, the athletes again bow, then disperse.
Due to some miscommunication, I find myself in familiar territory: in an empty parking lot, this time with no wifi, trying to figure out how to get back to the train station. I begin walking down the road I came in on, and after about half a mile, through some sort of divine intervention, see some of the Tokai athletes mulling around the front of a hotel.
I walk inside and see Coach Nori and Coach Morozumi pouring over some notes as their athletes wind down for the day. We exchange a few words about how the day went (“very good,”) and he offers to drive me back to the train station. We ride silently through Futtsu, this strange little town that for a week seems to be the epicenter of elite Ekiden runners. He deposits me at the train station and I wait there alone for 45 minutes before catching my train back to Tokyo.
A few weeks later, Tokai University went on to finish 2nd at the 2020 Hakone Ekiden. Their finishing time of 10:48:25 was nearly four minutes faster than their record-setting time from last year. The winner, Aoyama Gakuin University, broke Tokai’s record by almost 7-minutes.
I reached out to Coach Nori to see how he felt about things.
“We trained the best we could,” he replied. “We even ran 4 minutes faster than we had planned. We have great respect for the Aoyama Gakuin University team, who beat us. They were a little bit braver than us on race day, as they ran the 20km legs as if they were a 10km race in the first half of the Ekiden.”
We quipped a little bit about the significance of the Nike Next% (“definitely had some influence”), and about what they could do differently. For some reason I found myself hoping for an answer that included harder workouts, faster splits, longer training camps. But Coach Nori left me with a simple response that seemed emblematic of my time with both Kanebo and Tokai.
“We need to prepare physically, yes.” He said, “but mentally we must prepare as well.
We must train to run fearlessly.”