While the words Hakone Ekiden may not mean much to the average American (even to the devout runner), it’s tantamount to the Superbowl in Japan. An ekiden (駅伝) is a long-distance running multistage relay race popular in Japan that garners nationwide viewership in the millions. What is it about the ekiden that inspires a nation to run long distances? We sat down with Ryo Miyata, an ekiden runner from Reitaku University, to explain just what makes this event so captivating, the importance of the sash, and what he’s learned along the way.
HOKA: First of all, what is an ekiden? What kind of competition is it? Compared to other forms of road running, what’s different about an ekiden?
Ryo: In an ekiden, a runner relays their team’s sash to the next runner, forming a chain for the run. In other races (like a marathon), the runner likely runs for their own interests alone. In an ekiden, the runner can’t afford to do this, because you can’t help but be aware that you are running the race for others. Members who didn’t make the team, or for the next runner, and so forth. I think that’s the biggest appeal of this race called ekiden: the competition calls for that kind of mental preparation.
HOKA: For the overseas audience, ekiden in Japan appears to be an inspiring competition. What is it about the ekiden that brings such inspiration to the audience, compared to other competitions?
Ryo: I think it comes down to that moment of passing the sash to the next runner. It’s the real appeal of the competition: just look at the faces [of the runners]. The runner comes and passes the sash to the next runner, and at that point, he might give a good pat [of encouragement] on his back or [the next runner] might say a word of appreciation [back]. The audience notices such interactions, making that moment obviously a touching a scene, which I’d say is the biggest appeal.
HOKA: Tell us about your teammates.
Ryo: Well, we spend time together while we practice, obviously, and we focus seriously during practice. Other than that, we do spend the whole day – meals, baths, and so on – pretty much together. We know one another very well, and even when we are not practicing, we hang out with our teammates, too. So through this dorm life, you do get to have relationships that are much deeper than those with other friends, I think.
HOKA: Compared to a half marathon, is there anything different in the ekiden in terms of what goes through the runners’ minds while running?
Ryo: So, that’s again what I mentioned earlier about ekiden. With an esteemed competition such as a half marathon, I feel there is not much of this mentality to “run for others,” but in contrast, an ekiden is truly a team sport. It is a sport in which the performance [of the team] depends upon how each runner has managed to bring out his best. There is of course that aspect of running for my own interest too, but there is also this wish to run in a way that is worthy of my team, my teammates, and various other people who have supported me all this time.
HOKA: How do you continue when it becomes painful?
Ryo: So that’s when this sash that I am wearing [plays a role.] You reach and grab it, and you remember: This sash reminds you of where it has been. It is the same sash that has been passed on from all the previous runners. It is soaked in the sweat of your teammates: a testament to the efforts that they have already put in. A sash carries our wishes. I am wearing it now, and since I am the one carrying this sash here, I am now the one responsible to run for the team. And that is how we encourage ourselves when things get painful. Think of the other teammates. Remind yourself of them, through this sash. That is how I try to deal with rough situations.
HOKA: In a deeper sense, what is the sash?
Ryo: For me, a sash represents a commitment. Something that you wear and that which gives a determination toward how I must run even a second faster for my teammates. What do you call it? — something that activates a switch of sorts. It’s become something that flips that switch inside of me.
HOKA: Have you always wanted to become an ekiden runner?
Ryo: I was in the first grade when I started running track and field, and it was then that I watched the Hakone Ekiden on TV and saw this serious expression on one runner as he was handing off the sash. I realized he really was thinking about the team rather than himself and running earnestly with them in mind. I began to think it was cool, and that is how I started to see the Hakone Ekiden as a goal for myself.
HOKA: How did you feel when you participated in the race?
Ryo: I was nervous, of course, but it was also the moment that my dream since middle school had come true, and I was so happy about that. When things got tough, I really felt it, and thought that I was running the ekiden of my dreams. I felt I was in a dream.
HOKA: Do you have a mantra, or something that you repeat to yourself when you’re in pain?
Ryo: There’s a phrase that my high school coach told me: “return the favors through your run.” I so wanted to run the kind of race which would stir inspirations and encouragement for people who had supported me and cheered for me. I had that strong longing, so I repeated that phrase over and over in my head even when the situation got rough. In the largest ekiden, the cheers that you get from the audience is extraordinary, beyond what you get from other marathons and races. You are constantly showered with cheers from the roadside audience right from the beginning, calling out the name of the school or even your name.
HOKA: What have you learned competing in ekidens at Reitaku University?
Ryo: What I learned the most here is how to think and act on my own. What I mean is…when you get into a depressed state when, say, you’ve sustained some injury and are unable to run for a long time, it becomes necessary to think and act on your own. What can I do in this situation? What kind of practice I can still do now in order to get back to the race in the future? That, I think, is the kind of skill that would be called for even after you graduate, as you become a part of the workforce outside the world of track and field. I think that skill, learned about thinking and doing things independently, will prove useful in my life going forward.
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