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Ekiden...who?

In: Staff's Blog  -- Posted: 12/11/2009 8:19 PM  -- By: Nobby Hashizume

The word "Ekiden" is fast becoming a household Japanese imported word but here's some background story of the event...


Some of the hard-core readers might recognize a word “Ekiden” and know what it means.  Like “tofu”, “sashimi”, “sushi” and “bento-box”; “Ekiden”, sounding more like name of a person from Russia or Germany, seems to have become one of the Japanese imported words.  It is used as “Road Relay” for translation.  Literal translation, however, means “connecting (railway) stations”.  When we talk about the birth of Ekiden, there is one name that we cannot go around not mentioning.

Earlier this year, I was at Boston Marathon with Lorraine Moller.  At Breakfast with Champions, we got together with our friend in Boston area, Rich Englehart.  Out in the lobby of Copley Plaza, we ran into a tiny Japanese gentleman by the name of Keizo Yamada.  Many of Boston marathon officials recognize him – he was Boston marathon champion back in 1953 and had been returning to this footrace for nearly 50 years! (not every year!!)  Rich, as a regular contributor for a popular running magazine, “Marathon & Beyond”, was thinking about writing a story about this tiny Japanese ironman who had completed some 300+ marathons in his life-time!  When I introduced Rich to Mr. Yamada as one of his admirers, he got excited and he stuck his hand in a pocket and got a small plastic box out.  “This is a medal I received for a 300,000km club.  I would like to present this to Mr. Englehart,” he said.  “Wow, 300,000km,” I said.  “How many times around the earth, I wonder…”  Mr. Yamada stood straight and announced clearly, and quickly; “Nine times around the earth!”  I didn’t expect him to know; but he did.  Okay, the person I was referring to earlier is not Mr. Yamada.  Mr. Yamada is old; but not THAT old!  But on this particular medal was an engraved face of an old man.  He is Shizo Kanaguri; the father of Japanese marathoning.
 
Mr. Kanaguri was one of two athletes Japan had sent on their first participation to the modern Olympic Games in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden.  His first name, “Shizo” literally means “Forty-three”.  He was named this way because he was born when his father was 43-years-old as the 7th of 8 brothers.  It would have been like some sort of made-for-movie story had he been born when his father was 42-years-old (for 42+km of the marathon distance).  He was a far-thinking man.  He ignored some of “traditional thinking” and experimented what worked for him in real life experience – much like Arthur Lydiard.  Back then, it was believed that sweating a lot was supposed to be good for you as a marathon runner, because you will be lighter in weight.  So they would fast and not drink water, not just during the race but also in preparation days and weeks leading up to the race.  One time, he was so thirsty and he couldn’t even sleep.  So he sneak out of bed and sipped cold water with some sugar in it.  It felt so good and he ran well the following day; so, while all his opponents were struggling with thirst and hunger, preparing for the Olympic trial, Kanaguri ran well and won the first ever Olympic marathon trial held in Japan in the time of 2:32:45 which was, supposedly, the world record time back then.  Of course, nobody knew for sure what the distance was – it is reported that it was “approximately” 40km.  It was November, 1911. 
 
He was supposed to be one of the favorites, going in to the 1912 Olympic race, having set “the world record” in the trial.  But, back then, all the traveling to Europe was by ship, spending weeks on the ocean.  I’ve seen a picture of Mr. Kanaguri “training” on the ship.  Once in Europe, foods were very much different; plus the surface of the course was hard pebble stone road which he had never run on.  He hurt his knees and dropped out at 32km.  He would go on and participated 2 more Olympic marathons; 16th place at Antwerp in 1920 and another DNF at Paris in 1924 (the 1916 Berlin Games were cancelled due to World War I).  His contribution to Japanese marathoning, however, would start in fact AFTER his athletic career was over. 
 
One of those contributions was the development of more comfortable and effective marathoning shoes.  Some of you may have seen split toes canvas shoes that Kee Chung-sohn (as Kitei Son) was wearing on his gold-medal wining marathon performance at Berlin Olympics.  It was nothing more than “tabi” socks with layers of rubber sawed together at the bottom of the sole.  Interestingly, some years ago, Nike had come up with split toe shoes in the late 1980s.  Such construction was supposed to generate more power more effectively for the gripping of the ground with toes.  His brand (not split-toe shoes) actually continued well into the 1980s under the name of “Harimaya” with mainly specialty road running shoes as well as some track spike shoes for distance events.  The owner of Harimaya, Kisaku Kurosaka, worked together with Kanaguri to develop more comfortable and durable marathon shoes.  At first, they continued with split-toe “tabi” shoes.  The 1936 Berlin Olympic marathon champion, Korean, Kee Chung-sohn, running under the Japanese flag, raced in the same split-toe “tabi” shoes and so did the first Japanese to win Boston marathon, Shigeki Tanaka.  By the time Keizo Yamada came to Boston, they moved on to create regular toe-box shoes.  The story is told that, when the news of Yamada’s victory at Boston came in, Kurosaka cried the teas of joy.  The team captain/ manager for the Japanese squad to Boston that year was Shizo Kanaguri.
 
Another big contribution that Kanaguri made was that he started “Ekiden” (A-ha!  Finally!!).  Just as Arthur Lydiard started a road relay event to get Finnish runners out in the winter to do the distance work (as their aerobic foundation development for the summer track season), Kanaguri thought of a team event as a stepping stone to a full-marathon challenge.  Conveniently, 1917 was the 50th anniversary of the Japanese Capital moving from Kyoto to Tokyo.  Kanaguri organized a road relay footrace from Kyoto to Tokyo, some 500km of the distance.  At first, it was named “a marathon relay” but later re-named, based on those ancient 53 “stations (=eki)”, as “Ekiden (=connecting stations)”.  The race was run in 3 days in April of 1917, dividing total of 508km into 23 legs, starting at Sanjo Ohashi in Kyoto and finishing near Ueno Park in Tokyo.  It was a big hit and Kanaguri continued to organize various Ekiden road relay races throughout the country.  Famed collegiate road relay championships, Hakone Ekiden, started 3 years later with 4 schools battling it out.
 
Ekiden road relay had remained very popular in Japan, not only among athletes but among the entire nation of Japan as well.  Hakone Ekiden is run every year on January 2nd and 3rd.  They would run the outward bound from Tokyo, heading for Lake Ashino by Mt. Fuji, on January 2nd.  Then they’ll turn around and head back to Tokyo on January 3rd.  Total distance is 217.9km, divided into 10 legs.  The final and the 5 leg on the first day is traitorous uphill, going up 864m while running 23km (actually much worse than Waiatarua!).  Sometimes the temperature drops as much as 10 degrees F, particularly run in the heart of the winter.  Of course, on the returning journey, they would fly down the hill and that could be just as bad.  The TV coverage started in 1979 but, at that time, it was just a highlight of 2 hours.  The entire relay takes over 10-hours long in 2 days.  But the live coverage of the entire competition started in 1987 with a very high viewing rate.  Interestingly, one of the main sponsors of the race is Sapporo Beer.  Many people watch the race coverage at home and drink beer for New Year relaxation...  What brand of beer, I wonder…  They estimate a half a million spectators line up along the course each day.
 
For collegiate runners, they have 2 other major Ekiden competitions:  Izumo Ekiden in October where they cover 44.5km in 6 legs; and All-Japan Ekiden Championships in November where they run 106.8km in 8 legs.  Both of them much more forgiving, yet, not as dramatic, hence not as popular among the viewers.  Of course, Shizo Kanaguri’s objective in starting all these Ekiden races was to make them as stepping stones for young aspiring runner to become a world beater in the marathon.  But all these Ekiden races always bring a debate.  Some say that mid-distance of approximately 20km, particularly the case with Hakone Ekiden, is a perfect distance for younger athletes to “acclimatize” their road racing skills before they move onto the full  marathon.  Runners like Toshihiko Seko and current Waseda University coach, Yasuyuki Watanabe, think that it helped them.  Others say that racing a hard 20k while your body is still developing can be deterimental to nurturing of a fully-developed marathon runner.  They should be running track events FAST.  There had been a very interesting comparison done by Japan Running News’ Brett Larner (check out the article at the bottom of this page titled "University Men's Weekend in Review: NCAA Pre-Nats vs. Hakone Ekiden Qualifier" and top of this page titled "Credit Where Credit is Due: American and Japanese Men Aged 18-22 pt. I").  It seems that, while young Japanese runners tend to lag on track (5,000m and 10,000m) once they graduate from college, but they certainly do excel in the marathon later on.  US seems to have a few exceptionally good marathon runners (Ritzenhein, Hall, Goucher) while Japanese definitely seems to have a herd of good, but not so exceptional, marathon runners.  It’s a tough draw…
 
Nevertheless, Ekiden brings team event qualities to otherwise solo-effort sport.  Just as American cross country races, but actually a bit less forgiving.  In cross country, even if one runner couldn’t finish, it is the placing of the top finishers that matters; whereas in Ekiden, if one runner couldn’t finish and couldn't relay the sash, the entire competition is over for that team (thus "Ekiden", connecting stations).  So it’s a bit more nerve-wrecking.  It requires total commitment to the team and Japanese love that.  If Hakone is the big target for collegiate distance runners (although it is actually only limited to East Japan colleges and not for the entire country); Kyoto Ohji (=main streets of Kyoto) is THE Ekiden for high school runners, to be run in December annually.  For boys, they run 42.195km, the marathon distance, divided into 7 legs.  For girls, it is 21.0975km, the half marathon distance, run in 6 legs.  This is another very popular event and there had even been a comic book about high school Ekiden competition (titled “Naoko” but nothing to do with Naoko Takahashi; that’s another story called “The Wind Child”).  And for corporate teams, for men, they have New Year’s Corporate Team Championships, being contested on the New Year’s Day since 1988 (the competition has been around for 50+ years but not on the New Year’s Day until 1988), covering 100km in 7 legs.  Naturally, there is no Christmas vacation for them!!  For women, it’s a 42.195km All Japan Corporate Team Championships in Gifu which will be contested this coming weekend.  All these events, by the way, including high school championships, are televised nation-wide.
 
Our close colleague and good friend, coach Watanabe (aka Nabe), is going to face a tough challenge of keeping up with a strong tradition of Mitsui Sumitomo women’s running team which had won 6 national titles in the past 8 years.  This is the first year since he took over the head coach’s position at Mitsui Sumitomo.  The team had lost the preliminary competition, East Japan championships, a month ago for the first time in 10 years (more on this competiton here).  After Yoko Shibui had to withdraw from Berlin World Championships marathon, he must have been feeling a lot of pressure.  We spoke with Nabe while they were still in Kunming, preparing for this championship event.  Yoko is fully recovered and most likely expected to cover the glamour section of 3rd leg (10km).  I know I’ve been covering a lot of Japanese races in the historical point of view lately.  But, before I’ll write about the women’s Ekiden championships this weekend, I just wanted to cover some background stories of Ekiden for our audience of the Western society. (*Author's Note: It was just announced that the 3rd leg would include Kayoko Fukushi, Hitomi Niiya, Yurika Nakamura as well as Yoko.  The bronze medalist from Berlin World Championsips marathon, Yoshimi Ozaki, would be running the first leg)
 
Shizo Kanaguri (going back to the old man…) surely left such a legacy, not only to Japanese athletes and, in fact, the whole nation of Japan; but also to the rest of the world as well that now they host International Ekiden Race in Chiba (read about this year's Chiba Ekiden here) and the word “Ekiden” has become a household name among enthusiastic distance running fans around the world (just like “tofu” and “sushi” and…).  Not necessarily that this is the original idea; New Zealand always had a road relay races (they usually use a baton or a simple tap on the back by hand) and now, thanks to Arthur Lydiard, in Finland as well.  At any rate, Kanaguri dedicated the rest of his life to betterment of Japanese marathoning.  Not too many people, not even Japanese, realize that the trophy the winner receives at Fukuoka marathon is named after Kanaguri.  In fact, Barry Magee, the winner of 1960 Asahi (later became Fukuoka) marathon, remembered that it was the Kanaguri Award when I talked to him.  Kanaguri’s dream was to see a Japanese runner winning the gold medal in the Olympic marathon.  His inspiration was from his devastating defeat in the Stockholm Olympic marathon on July 15th, 1912.  His dream would be fulfilled 88 years later in Sydney when Naoko Takahashi wins the gold medal in the women’s marathon – years after Kanaguri had passed away. (*Author’s Note: While Kee Chung-sohn won the gold medal at Berlin Olympics marathon for Japan, I personally feel the victory should have been for Korea though we, Japanese, should feel grateful that he won the gold medal, along with Nam Sung-yong’s bronze medal, for Japan.  A very sad and complicated situation in the very sad and complicated period in history…).  
 
There, however, was a happy post script to the Kanaguri story.  In March of 1967, Swedish Olympic Committee invited Mr. Kanaguri to Stockholm.  They hosted a little event for this 75-years-old man from Japan.  Mr. Kanaguri would run the final part of the footrace into the national stadium, filled with bitter-sweet memories for him, and “complete” HIS marathon.  As he crossed the finish line, the announcement was made: “Shizo Kanaguri of Japan now completed the marathon.  His time; 54 years and 8 months and 6 days…”  At the press conference, Mr. Kanaguri said, “It was a long journey…  It took me 5 grandchildren along the way before I finish this race!”  This has got to be the longest marathon race in history for anybody!  But then again, his was the marathon race called life...
 
 
1) Keizo Yamada (left) with Rich Englehart at Copley Plaza at this year's Boston Marathon
2) The image of Shizo Kanaguri, representing Japan at Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912 (image from "Marathon" from Kodansha)
3) Kee Chung-sohn, running as Kitei Son for Japan, winnng Berlin Olympics marathon in 1936, wearing Kanaguri "tabi' split-toe marathon shoes
4) Today's "tabi" split-toe shoes
5) The monument at the start of first ever "Ekiden" road relay between Kyoto and Tokyo in 1917
6) One of the famous wood-prints by Hiroshige, "53 Stations along Tokaido (path between Tokyo and Kyoto)"; this particular piece is of Nihon-bashi by Tokyo
7) Imate of the start of 2008 Hakone Ekiden (from Hakone Ekiden official website)
8) Japan's marathon star, Toshihiko Seko, handing the sash to Yutaka Kanai (1984 Olympic 10,000m finalist); he used 20+km ekiden effectively as a transition to move up to the marathon from middle distance events (image from "Courir")
9) Cover of Japanese comic book, "NAOKO", a story of high school ekiden
10) Image of "Kanaguri Award" presented at Fukuoka marathon
11) New Zealand's Barry Magee receiving "Kanaguri Award" after winning 1960 Asahi Marathon in Japan (image from "History of Fukuoka Marathon" by Asahi Newspaper)
12) Naoko Takahashi winning Sydney Olympics women's marathon
13) Portrait of Shizo Kanaguri at 1977 Fukuoka Marathon (image from "History of Fukuoka Marathon" by Asahi Newspaper)

 
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