Japan Sport Stories

The Epic Ekiden New Year's Special with Brett Larner

January 02, 2021 Mike Salter and Noel Thatcher
Japan Sport Stories
The Epic Ekiden New Year's Special with Brett Larner
Show Notes Transcript

What captivates millions of Japanese TV viewers to watch 21 university teams run a  210KM course from Tokyo to Hakone every year? Why do people breakdown in tears when they can't hand over their sweaty sash to their team mates? And why doesn't our guest want to ever run the 6th stage of this event? 

This episode we find out all about the world of Ekiden, a type of long distance road relay event that isn't unique to Japan, but that has certainly captured the national spirit. We talk to Japan Running News' Brett Larner, one of the leading authorities on Japanese running, about the history and significance of this amazing racing. 

Episode 11.5 The Epic Ekiden New Year_s Special

Tue, 3/2 1:09PM • 57:11


japan, race, runner, running, people, japanese, stage, athletes, event, year, university, team, tokyo, kilometres, universities, academic, bit, half marathon, marathon, metre


Happy New Year everyone. This episode is being released on January 2, which coincides with one of Japan's biggest sporting events. As this episode is released, millions of people across Japan are tuning in with their friends and family to watch the Connie a cadet. a two day long distance road relay event that runs from Tokyo to have money in Kanagawa Prefecture, and it's contested by 21 University teams. If I'm totally honest, if it wasn't the being friends with a distance runner, I would probably never have heard of this event will realise quite how significant it is. We're really curious to find out why so many people tune in to watch this event over the New Year's holiday. So we caught up with Japan running News's Brett Lana to find out, we find out about the honour and sanctity of a sweaty search the unpleasant six stage of the race, and why that cultural phenomenon avec Eden might not be as comfortable as we first thought.


Brett Lana, thank you very much for joining us on Japan sports stories podcast and giving up some of your sunny Saturday afternoon.


I'm delighted to be here. Thanks. Thanks for asking. Brilliant,


fantastic. Maybe you could start just by telling us a little bit about how long you've been in Japan, he come to be in Japan, and how the the what you do what tell us a little bit about Japan running news. And also how you came to be in the position to probably understanding as a non Japanese native understanding the role of Japanese running better than anyone else in the world.


So I first came to Japan in 1997, for a graduate school to do a master's degree. And it was going to be two or three years. And then that turned into four years. And that turned into six. And then one thing led to another and I've been here for 23 years now, my area of study was unrelated to running but I was a runner. And the first year I was here, when I started running races, I started noticing that everybody was really good. There are a lot of people who a lot of people, you know, just even like average hobby runners were really good. And started noticing that there were races on TV, just about every weekend from you know, like October through March or so. And in particular, the Hakone Arkadin on January 2, and third really caught my interest. It just had that something. So I started to start doing my homework and trying to, to read up, you know, as much as I could understand Japanese at that point reading up on, on what was going on, you know who people were following races and you know, trying to track like this, athletes through different races to get an understanding of how things fit together. Around the time of the Osaka World Championships in Athletics in 2007. My wife, Mika and I, Mika is involved in the running publishing industry here. And we had a conversation about how there was basically no information in English about any aspect of the Japanese running world. So kind of as a result of that conversation, I decided to start Japan running news. And my website, which is pretty much updated daily, English language information about races, athletes and such. And so yeah, so that began in 2007. And really quickly, I guess there was it was kind of an exploited niche. Because really quickly, I started getting contacted by you know, people in the running publishing industry, people in the running industry looking to ask me how they could get Japanese athletes to come to their races, that kind of thing. And, yeah, just one thing led to another. That's how I got to where I am now.


And we spoke about you know, who was the first Japanese runner that you kind of noticed that sort of got you fired up, fired up.


And that was actually a prior to me coming to Japan, or even thinking about coming to Japan at the time of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. I was 19. And I watched the the men's marathon and you know, I was on the the cross country team at my university. At that point, I'd run cross country in high school, and some time in university. So I was a runner, watch the men's marathon and was really captivated by the battle between Koji moister and Japanese runner. And quoting the Japanese runner, I said the Korean runner, for whatever reason, even though mauritia lost in that race, he really impressed me. And so that watching that, you know, his name was kind of in the back of my mind. And that raised kind of inspired me to do my first marathon. So I ran my, my debut marathon when I was 20, just over a year after that, you know, largely inspired by that race. And when I came to Japan, that was pretty much the limit of my knowledge of Japanese running. You know, I had kind of a background knowledge that a few Japanese guys had one in Boston, and yeah, like I said, came here, that was the extent of my knowledge, and then just started noticing that there was a really highly developed scene. There was a clear system for development and a large population of athletes in a very high level system upfront,


non running geeky listeners here, sorry, Mike. This is gonna be like when we did the fencing episode.


I just sit back and enjoy the ride.


When you think of distance runners you immediately think of Easter Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, and Japan may not, you know, probably won't actually spring to the forefront of the man in the streets. Mind yet, can you tell us a little bit about the position of Japan as a distance running nation within the world scene,


it's definitely right up there. If you consider Ethiopia and Kenya, as you know, number one to not necessarily in that order, I would Japan is certainly a contender, depending on how you want to look at it. For number three, it would be one of the countries that you consider, like one of the great powers, you know, distance running, and particularly when it comes to the marathon. You know, the Japanese national records are very good. There's 219, on the women's side 205 on the men's side, which certainly ranks ahead of most other countries, there hasn't been an Olympic medalist for a while now. But there's a long history of Olympic World Championships, medalist and marathon. And you know, more than necessarily like the absolute fastest time what really, I think sets Japan apart from the others is the depth of quality, the sheer number of people running fast times is incredible. No, maybe Fast Times are worth a little bit less than they used to be with the current shoe technology. But as an illustration, I don't have the exact status, but I looked it up a few months ago. But at this year's Tokyo marathon, I believe it was more Japanese men ran under two hours and 10 minutes than in the other three world marathon majors, host countries, United States, England and Germany combined. In the last, I want to say 25 years, there's a system that produces just huge numbers of really good people, you know, maybe not like the very, very, very world beating people but like the next tier down, the depth here is just incredible. What is it you


think that makes that puts them in that bracket? So consistently? Like they're not the world's best, but they are better than your average? What do you think that is?


There's a huge development system a very well established development system that, you know, has history that stretches back, you know, it by by some criteria, you can say 100 years, you know, there's certainly decades it's a system that produces a large number of athletes that will go on to have a post, post collegiate support system, and enable them to continue producing improvements in their own careers. And a lot of that is centred around the Iki den, which I think we'll talk a bit more about later. The ecchi den is style of racing road, basically a road relay, long distance road relay, and that's kind of the centre of the running world here. Which instead of necessarily like one coach focusing on one athlete, the focus will be on developing a group of athletes.


Getting back to getting back to strength, strength in depth, I think amongst our listeners, I'm sure there are people who who do parkrun near five k on a Saturday morning and I may not get this completely right. But I understand that last year a couple of years ago, over 900 Japanese high school age runners ran under 15 minutes for five k Am I correct?


Yeah, that's roughly correct. Yeah.


Which is incredible by by any means my PB. If at the time I won the Sydney Paralympic five came was 1456. And I turned up to a village village fund run somewhere in the in Oita. prefecture. One New Year was introduced a young 16 year old asked him what is the personal best time for five k words? And he said 1447 and I got a bit of a lightning This is in the middle of nowhere in it. Yeah. What essentially was a fun run. So you mentioned it in certainly it's right at the centre of the of the running SR run running culture and the Japanese sporting year. So we'd like to spend quite a lot of time talking about Econet and can you sort of take us back to sort of the the origins of the academic and particularly, you know, the roller, she's kind of pretty hard in that Japan's participation in the Olympic movement or in with athletes dates back to the 1912. Stockholm Olympics,


calm Japan had two athletes, one of which was a sprinter, and one of which was a marathoner. And marathoner. She, so Conakry was considered a contender for a gold medal, but unfortunately had a DNF during that race, kind of based on that experience of being the first one to go and compete outside Japan. Just since running and seeing kind of like, what the level was in the rest of the world. You know, how good people were the number of athletes not even at that point in history, when he came back to Japan was very motivated and very active in trying to establish development system to produce marathoners. And so in 1917, there was the first epidemic the first long distance road relay was held. And it was a three day event, I believe, commemorating the moving of the national capital to Tokyo, a three day event running from Kyoto to Tokyo and There's actually there's still a monument yet. We know park in Tokyo next time you're in Tokyo if you haven't seen the money, but there's a monument showing where the finish line was for that first decade and kind of based on that kind of glory was very motivated to establish a similar event specifically to cultivate University athletes as distance runners. So he he was involved in organising a large number of races, but in particular, this university rates that, that he was inspired to put together was called the Hakone again, and it was a two day race from Central Tokyo, up to the foothills of Mount Fuji, this area called Hakuna and on one day and then running back on the next day, as I said it was the concept was it would be for university athletes, each athlete handling in a roughly like a half marathon distance or so for universities took part in that first mission and it was a huge hit, there was a lot of attention paid to it by the public and the just the excitement of the relay really caught on and so that became an annual event and other academics, you know, largely with categories blessing began to spread across the country.


So it's a long distance relay race as someone who's not a runner for me a long distance races about 26 miles, I think that's about as long as a race should be, you know,


quite how long is the Haqqani academic like you then the the current formation of the Haqqani, he then is 10 stages, so 1010 legs, over the course of two days, each one is roughly a half marathon and distance. So you can think like roughly 21 kilometres, you know, plus or minus about two kilometres, some of the stages are slightly shorter, some are slightly longer. And each university field a team of 10. Guys, five of them will run the first day from each of them running roughly a half marathon in distance from Central Tokyo going up to Hakone. And the second day, five other guys running, you know, again, roughly a half marathon apiece, heading back towards central Tokyo. So it took him about 200 kilometre relay race. And if you look up the exact distance between 210 215 kilometres, yeah.


What do you think it was that immediately struck a chord with the Japanese public about this 200 kilometre in a running event? Because I'm pretty sure that if Mike and I decided to move in a proposal together to host an event like that in the UK, people would just do, we probably wouldn't get a lot of take up. And from a public sort of viewing perspective, I'm pretty sure we find ourselves with zero viewers. So why do you think it was it resonated with the Japanese public so much about that, you know, the lock isn't


taken in format, at the time that it began, it's hard to say, I mean, that's a completely different era. It was something new, and, you know, kind of grey had a good name, as you know, Japan, even though he had a DNF Olympics, he was, you know, Japan's first Olympian, you know, certainly I think, like the, the involvement of universities, you know, pulled in a lot of the, the alumni of the University. So there's a lot of alumni support. And that's a tradition that continues to know, the event kind of grew along the same timeline as development of Japan as an industrial power. So, you know, there's probably a lot of different elements that played into it. I can't say for certain, but yeah, kind of disinclined, generally speaking, to attribute things to like cultural reasons. Like I'm kind of more interested in like, the practical questions and like how things happen. So, like, I'm a retired former musician. And my, the instrument that I played was, the reason I originally came to Japan was to study the cutoff, which is a traditional Japanese string instrument. And so I'm actually like, a licenced master on the on the photo. And in my musician days, I think, like, the review that I was proud of stuff that I got was a French critic who said that my work totally rejected, like cliche, exotic, and yeah, that's, I think that's kind of like my general aesthetic. And so like, when I'm looking at the question of like, how did the epidemic become so popular here? Like, certainly, there's gonna be some cultural elements to it. But I think like, that's a lot less meaningful, in some ways, then kind of exploring the the practical things. I mean, Japan's a modern first world nation, and there's a lot that can be answered in terms of, you know, marketing, you know, investment and those kinds of some of the things that we talked about, and, you know, there's like, why does any sport become popular in any given culture? You know, I mean, like, you know, you can say, like, the end appeals, because it represents the Bushido code of the Samurai or something like that, you know, but I mean, that's, I think that's like a pretty trite thing to say, it would be ridiculous to say, or maybe it wouldn't be ridiculous. I'm not British, but I think it would be if somebody said, you know, football is popular in the United Kingdom, because it appeals to the British sense of the chivalric code of the Knights of the Round Table. I mean, I think like, maybe that's true. I don't know I'm not British. But to me, that just sounds like kind of like a ridiculous condescending thing to say, you know, it might appeal to if you don't really have the frame of reference to like, understand things, but it doesn't really give much of a practical explanation of how things become popular. I think like the reason In that we are where we are here in terms of the popularity of icon A is the same, largely the same or, you know, the popularity of distance running as a whole in Japan is largely the same as the reason that any sport is popular, like any high level, professional sport is popular in any country, which is that it's on TV, and the country has stars and kids see that, and they're like, that's what I want to do. I want to be part of that, right. And then they, they learn that in school, they practice in school, and with a target of being successful in that sport, and they become successful in that sport. And I think, to me, kind of like understanding that is the more important aspect.


Now it's a fantastic answer, because one of the reasons we started this whole podcast was to try and demystify Japan a bit, because a lot of the Rugby World Cup coverage and other kind of major Japan sporting events always come with the the same images of Samurai and calligraphy and, you know, Japan is uniquely Japan. And so let's kind of abuse this for marketing purposes. But isn't it mysterious?


Yeah, yeah. I mean, and it's, that's, that's fine. And that plays a role, I guess. But if you really want to kind of get into trying to understand and maybe like, take lessons from it in terms of like, what are they doing right here? How can we take what they're doing right here and apply that to improving the situation in the sport in our own countries, you know, like saying, like, Oh, it's because of the samurai. And that is not really a productive line of reasoning to take, and you can look at it in much more practical way.


One more thing I'd like to go into more detail on is kind of coding. You've said You said you had a DNF in that race. It goes a little bit further than that. Eventually, he did finish that race, I believe. Yeah, he did. He went back sometime later, ceremonially completed the completed the race. Yeah, so the story I've heard is that he disappeared from the track halfway through in so much and had at that time, there's a huge sense of pride and shame in in Japan, he went back to Japan silently didn't tell anybody lived his life. Sweden thought he was missing for around 50 years, found out he was alive and then invited him back 50 years later to finish his marathon in a time of 50 years X number of hours and X number of minutes


classic story


wasn't good company because I dropped out at my first marathon in Japan. I went back 12 months later so I only took me a year getting getting back to to clinic and you know why that the course that that particular distance were chosen from automatically to Hakone got a maybe speak a little bit about the sort of the course because it is it is quite neat. quite unique, isn't it in five legs day when five legs they do but particularly late legs five, leg six, a kind of unique army. So can you speak a little bit about the Corps first.


So each day is an each stage is a point to point course. Like I said, the first day, of course travels from Central Tokyo going up to the town of Hakone. The first four stages on the first day are, you know, rolling, generally flat but small hills and such. And then the fifth stage, which is kind of the most celebrated of the entire event. It's where a lot of the most dramatic running happens over the course of you know, again, roughly a half marathon distance climbs from roughly sea level to close to 900 metres in altitude, and then has short steep downhill to the final kilometre which is relatively flat for the finish. So yeah, they're climbing primarily in the middle 10 kilometres at that stage, they're climbing closer to 900 metres. The first stage on the second day, the runners run the opposite direction. So they have you know, a short steep uphill at the beginning and then they have 900 metre descent roughly 900 metre descent over the course of roughly 10 kilometres before like a flat section. And you know, that kind of times they run there, they run faster than the 10,000 metre world record for the middle 10 kilometres on that downhill, like just screaming downhill. Really, really, super exciting. I think the fifth stage, the appeal stage is certainly the hardest, but the sixth stage, the guys who were in the sixth stage, the downhill stage are really crazy. That's just It's a crazy stage to watch. And


is that the stage that 9191 talk your world champion, World Championships, marathon gold medals,


is that tiny Taniguchi Yeah, yeah, he was a famed downhill six stage runner. Yeah, for sure. I mean,


that's got to be your quads up your thigh muscles up significantly.


Yeah. And, you know, they, the the TV broadcast, which I think we'll talk more, a little bit more about in a bit, but the TV broadcast always is sure to show a close up. You know, almost every runner who who finishes the sixth stage, the downhill stage, collapses at the finish. And it's not just drama, because the TV broadcast always shows they make a point of finding one kid whose teammates are appealing his shoes and socks off and he's got no skin left on the bottoms of his feet. It just tears the skin off the balls in their feet. You know, the heels and such. It's It's It's a brutal stage.


I don't think we're sending this to Mike anymore.


Getting it you see why this is popular event Come on.


So in terms of in terms of eligibility, and this, this isn't an event but with teams from all over Japan that this, can you tell us a little bit about the sort of eligibility criteria for you know, how people qualify to take part in in Hong Kong and get the honour of having their skin peeled.


It's kind of a strange phenomenon, where, you know, there's University athletics all across Japan, of course, like the national level races are, are the key races at every level, you know, from from high school through the pros, with the exception of Hakone, which is limited to the Kanto region, which is you can kind of think of as like the greater Tokyo area, like, you know, the Tokyo Metropolitan Area plus the surrounding areas, universities in that area are eligible to run Hakone. That field consists, typically the field consists of 21 teams. So there are 20 teams representing universities from within the Kanto region, the 21st team we'll talk about in a second, but every year, the top 10 teams that place at Hakone are seated for the following year. So that's a big deal is getting into the top 10 at Hakone. Because that means you're automatically going back the next year. And that really affects the progress of the entire year to come the 11th through 20th place teams have to run what's called the Hakone, iPad and iOS and guide, which is a half marathon in October. That's a qualifying race to get into how can it and at the USA and chi teams that meet the any university from content that meets the eligibility requirements in terms of times the number of athletes running certain times can run in this, this half marathon and in the half marathon, they can run up to 12 runners and the universe, each university is scored by its 10 fastest finishers. And so the combined times their 10 fastest finishers determine the university's score. And the 10 fastest team scores go on to click on it. Okay, so that's like the top 10 teams and how many were there from the year before. And then numbers 11 through 20, come in through this qualifier. And then the 21st team is a select team made up of top placing individuals in that qualifying race from schools that don't qualify as a team. So the idea is to give like really talented individuals a chance to experience you know, like the biggest race in Japan. And you know, to also kind of broaden the appeal of the event to a wider range of universities than just the 20 schools that make it. I mean,


the Orson Kai alone is is an incredibly dramatic event isn't I mean, getting into those top top 10 places. And the announcement of the results At the end of that is something else, isn't it?


It's It's unbelievable, really, it's, you know, this year, of course, was a little bit different. They did have the race this year. But in a typical year, each university has, you know, a marching band, cheerleader squads, you know, alumni booster clubs are there 10s of 1000s of fans turnout to watch this, this half marathon, every qualifying, and then after the race, they have the announcement ceremony at the teams that qualify, as you said, and in show at Kenan Park, which is where the race finishes, they have this the instead of a stage in the middle of a field 1000s and 1000s. And 1000s of people gather around. And one by one, starting with the first place team at the qualifier they announce the teams that qualify and when it gets down to like the eighth or ninth team, it's really, really, really dense. Because getting into Haqqani, is everything, right? That's the teams that get into Hakone. If a kid goes to university with the dream of running Hong Kong someday, if they get to qualify once they're happy with the rest of their lives, it's a huge deal. And so when you when it gets down to the eighth or ninth place, the tension level goes up dramatically. And then when they announced that 10th place team, you know, the difference between 10th and 11th is sometimes a matter of seconds. And you know, the 11th place teams are just devastated every time. It's just incredibly dramatic moment like one obviously one of the most dramatic moments in the sport worldwide.


You touched there on how valued participating in the hockey game is for young runner in Japan. And you know, if you get the broadcast again, not not limited to the professionals and universities. I mean, we get the Kolkata High School academics is broadcast live every year. So for for a young runner in Japan making haqqanis is a big deal. Yeah.


Yeah, yeah, I mean, this, you know, there's several different questions or several different issues that are kind of interlocked here. And this, this all kind of plays into, you know, the the overall development system that develops large numbers of athletes, and it plays into the question of how the event is so popular. And there's so many different aspects to it. But since Hakone, is a massively popular event, it's on TV. The TV broadcast is enormous. It's the single biggest televised event in Japan every year. And so, you know, kids grow up when they're young, seeing the Hakone ekiden on TV, they show some talent, you know, junior high school night, they're going to go to a good running high school. And if they if they're good in high school, they have a chance of getting into a content area University, and if they get into a condo area University, that means they have a chance of running Hakone someday that's it's a huge motivation, and not everyone's


gonna Make a national team you know World Championships or you know, Asian Games or, or Olympic Games. But, you know, just to just to take part in icon a must, it must be incredible.


A lot of a lot of young athletes, you know, my goals are runner, they don't say My goal as a runner is to win an Olympic marathon medal. There's certainly people who do say that, but a lot of them, you know, they're thinking of it in terms of after university, I'm done, you know, so Hakone is my Olympics, you know, that's, my goal is to run the Hakone Aikido, and the beautiful thing in that respect, because it really does give you a chance to for, you know, 200 210 guys, university kids every year to get like, a real moment in the sun to really like experience something great as an athlete, and most of them will then you know, go on with the rest of their lives. And that's something they carry with them.


Is there much of a foreigner participation in this so kind of foreign students who are studying in in Kanto in the same way they have with a boat race for Oxford and Cambridge? Or is it very much just the Japanese students who feel that this is something that they want to go for?


A few universities have Kenyan or Ethiopian athletes who are you know, to varying degrees actually students at the universities we won't really go there but but you know, most of them most of them are actually studying you know, do learn to speak Japanese. Each team is limited to actually fielding one non Japanese athlete in their in the Hakone Arkadin in a given year, you might see three or four it's a little bit higher lately, but in a given year, you might see like three or four Kenyans maybe one Ethiopian in the race, but apart from that, it's it's all Japanese,


that everyone else took a look at the ball, the skin coming off the balls of feet and went now this is fine.


Stay in Japan, how fast do you need to be to make the final cut for Haqqani in most universities. So again, just using that kind of parkrun analogy, because that all sort of resonate more with people who are who are not necessarily into the sort of the club or international running scene,


you got to be really good. These days, the numbers are crazy. As an example, just off the top of my head juntendo University, which was the winner of the yo sankai, the qualifying race this year, so you can kind of think of them as like the 11th best team this year. At the O sankai. Half Marathon, their 10th. Fastest guy, the 10 fastest team member university student ran one hour, two minutes, 40 seconds.


So no district to juntendo they got good Academic Team, but the slowest guy you haven't seen is a 102 half marathon?


That's right. Yeah, I think like for most of the best teams, you know, these days, large proportions of their teams, you know, if not all of their starting numbers are running, you know, under 14 minutes for 5000 and or under 29 minutes for 10,000. And or under 63 minutes for a half marathon, which are, you know, very, very, very good times, I don't know how many people run those kinds of times in an entire year in in the UK, most of the universities will have, you know, 40 or 50 guys on their roster. And so even if you get into one of these universities and are on the team, it's very difficult to actually make the starting roster for for the race. And what about


the support structure for the runners in in the top university team? So our young, green digregorio engine $10 toy daigaku What's their kind of I mean, this this studying right now students have between 18 and 2122 years old, I'm guessing


Yeah, there's very little, what's known as red shirting in the United States where people might take it, if they have five years of eligibility to compete, they might take a year where they don't compete in order just to train and get and get stronger. That almost never happens here. I mean, I wouldn't say never, but it's extremely unusual here. People come in, you know, basically as an 18 year old and are graduating as a 22 year old. Again, there's like a little bit of variation from university to university with regard to academic standards, and the degree to which people are actually studying things are much looser here in that regard than in the NCAA in the United States. But, you know, I would say certainly at the majority of universities, you know, people are going to classes, you know, scholarships are very common, you know, decent financial support team like Alabama gakuen University, which is the current number one team this year sacani camp has significant support from adidas and so you see, like the university student athletes appearing in Adidas commercials and things like that, which would be unthinkable a lot of other places, but it's, it's quite commonplace. And there is


something about the I mean, we can talk in a second about why you think you know, haqqanis is so unique and so special to you as an event but one of the things that I think stands out for me is is the age of the runners and there is something about the passion and commitment and kind of do or die mentality about these guys that does make this such such a unique event and distinct from, you know, the most of established professional


running scene when I said you know that when I was when I first came here, and I started noticing that there were races on television, you know, almost every weekend through the fall and winter and early spring and Hakone really stood out. It was for that reason, you know, like you could really see, there's something different about it. There's something different about the attitude that the people are bringing into the race the day before Hakone, which is Hakone is January 2, and third the day before Hakone. On January 1 is the new year academic, which is the corporate or professional men's teams national championships. And, you know, that's a brilliant high level race as well. They're running you know, long distances, long distance road relay as well. Now, there's just something different there, when you're watching, you know, professionals doing their job. And when you're watching, you know, college kids doing it, and for the majority of them, this is it. This is their Olympics, and everything like that, you know, it's it's a beautiful thing. It's just it just it has something different to it. You know, I guess you could be a little bit cynical maybe and say that the broadcaster Anupam tetapi really plays up that element of it. I mean, I think like, earlier on, we talked a little bit about maybe why Hakone initially started to become popular, certainly in over the course of the last like the last few decades, I don't know, say 30 years, but the MTV broadcast has played an enormous role in the popularisation of the event. The sheer quality of the broadcast translates into conveying the drama of the event to the viewers, and the viewers include the future athletes, and they see that and they're like, that's what I want to do. And then they're going into it and that's pulling in better athletes, which is producing more exciting race, which is pulling in more viewers and that's producing more investment by the broadcaster into the event. And it's just spiralled and spiralled and spiralled into this enormous popular High Level Event


Now touch again on on, you know, the quality of the broadcast.


It's unbelievable. Yeah,


marketing, branding. Can you speak a little bit about that? Have you got this USB? I can


know the beer. So yeah, Sapporo is one of the principal sponsor and supporter of beer is one of the principal sponsors of the event, you know, which is also interesting. You know, you have a beer company as one of the principal sponsors of a college race. It's, but yeah, every, every year they they produce limited edition, according Vicodin beer can, which is pretty awesome. It doesn't actually come out until December 2. So no, I don't I don't have this year's beer can yet but I will. But yeah, there's there's a large amount of money involved from corporate sponsorship. The TV broadcast is, I mean, I would contend it's the best broadcast of any sporting event in the world. Certainly, in running. Somebody who's involved with us race broadcasting asked me like to specify exactly what a couple of years ago. And it's really difficult to put my finger on it. But they have like just a few examples that they have all the camera angles workout. So like, when the runners or the when the first few runners are coming to the start of the series climb on the fifth stage, there's a shot, they do have the water in the stream coming down, like the stream that they follow, they should do this like close up shot on the water trickling between like the frozen water trickling between the rocks, and then they kind of pan across, you know, the the side of the mountain. And just as they get to the road for the winter is coming by. They have like all these like really really skillful artistic shots worked out. And it's just it's beautiful to watch, they have it down to I don't know if I'd say a science or an art of having the mobile cameras on motorcycles in exactly the right place at the right time in order to catch every dramatic moment that happens. So every time somebody is passing somebody, it's there. And you know, they cover every element of the race, which, to me, I think that's one of the biggest factors in the quality of the broadcast is that they're not just showing the front end of the race, the way that you might see in most like major marathon coverage, they're showing what's you know, a complex multi dimensional race is being shown as a complex multi dimensional event. And so you're not just invested in what's happening at the very front. And often, in the scale, in an event on the scale of a 210 kilometre two day race. A lot of the time by, you know, midway through the second day, or even early on the second day, what's happening up front is pretty much a given, you know, it's you know, who's going to win, who's gonna come second, who's gonna come third. And a lot of the drama is happening much further back in the race. And it's just extremely the broadcast is extremely skillful in covering all those different elements and kind of like weaving this complex tapestry of action. And it really keeps you engrossed in it, the sheer artistry of the camera angles, everything, it's just it's incredibly compelling viewing. The announcers are unbelievably knowledgeable about every single runner in the field. Everybody you know, because you never know when somebody's going to have a blow up or somebody's going to have a miracle breakthrough, you know, some kid you've never heard of who's like, this is it, this is the last race and if we're gonna run, let's do it, you know that they have a really exciting performance. They know everything about every single one, it makes for extremely compelling viewing, you know, they on screen, they have all the different data you want, you know, elapsed time, stage, time, distance, overall distance, placings everything, and it's, it's treated as is treated with respect, you know, that's, I think a big part of it. The distance running is treated as a serious spectator sport. And it's presented in a high level professional way. And the audience reacts to that.


So Doug, you said it's a relay race, obviously, there has to be some kind of handover. Can you just explain how they how they swap over legs, and do they just carry a baton for for 12 or 21 kilometres each,


I'm sure they, they use what's called a passkey, which is basically a sash that's worn, you know, kind of over one shoulder and across the chest, and then tucked into the shorts. On the other side, it's, you know, essentially a loop, it has a lot of, it's come to have a lot of symbolic value. Before I get to that, I think like, ultimately, if you think about it, when you're doing a relay, you have to have something to exchange, right, obviously, they can't just do like, I guess they could just do a high touch or something like a high five. But typically, in a relay race, you have a physical object that you're going to hand off. And so like so in, if you're talking about running more like a half marathon distance of batons, pretty impractical, because the chance of dropping it over the course of an hour, an hour, three minutes an hour, five minutes of running for, for whatever reason, originally, they decided to go with the sash. And I think it's personally I think it's just because it was like a practical solution to the problem. It's very comfortable to wear, it's easy to wear, it's adjustable, so you can tighten it to each one or can tighten it to, to their own their own body, and then take it off, it's very easy to hand off, there's very little chance of dropping it. It's not doesn't interfere with you when you run. So I think it's just like, originally, and, you know, now, as well, to some degree, largely a practical solution to the question of how to conduct a relay. But yeah, like, I think like humans, have the tendency to ascribe what like emotional value or sentimental value or like spiritual value to inanimate objects and natural processes, that kind of thing, the the task is really taken on very serious kind of symbolic value in that way that we tend to do. You know, it really represents a continuity continuity from one writer on the team to the next runner on the team. And also from the continuity from the teams that came before you to the current lineup of the team, the teams that are still to come. Yeah, and so it has a lot of importance is treated with a lot of respect.


So is there any kind of any kind of ceremony when you get the sash from one athlete to the other? Or is it just you know, sash off,


like you go, if there's not really a ceremony, there is definitely an etiquette. So what you would typically see is, if the first the first one will have the task on when they start running, and then when they're coming up to the exchange zone. At some point, they're going to take it off, and then hand it to the next runner. But what you usually see in the high level academics is before they're about to go into their last kick. So like typically, if you're head to head with somebody, or even if you're running on your own on your stage, when you're coming up to the end of your stage, of course, you're going to go faster, you're going to sprint faster, to try to get to the end as fast as you can, like any other race, if you're going all out at the end of a half marathon distance, and you're trying to deal with taking the sash off at the last second. And there's a lot of room for accidents. And so people will tend to take it off, you know, four or 500 metres before the finish, before they start their last kick. And they'll wrap it around one hand so that it's kind of out of the way and have it around one fist and then be sprinting. And then just before they hand off, we'll take it out with the other hand and hold it horizontally between two hands, so that it's easy for the next runner to take it. So when they come to the handoff line, there's that there's a an exchange zone, just like on a track track with a team. And when they come up to that zone, the waiting runner will take it with one hand in the middle between the incoming runners to hands and then put it on as they start running. And, you know, there's there's some aspects of that have kind of taken on, you know, symbolic value over time. So the whole thing about wrapping the kaski around your hand and holding it in a fist before you start your last kick is like by doing that you can kind of squeeze it and then get energy from like this, the stored efforts of all the miners who have come before you. And you know, very often it's it's like actually literally contains the sweat of all the runners who have come before you and so you know, basically isn't that you're kind of getting a bit of that you also see in the course of races, sometimes a runner who's struggling a bit will kind of grab the taski with one hand like over their heart and kind of squeeze it. And that's the same thing like trying to like draw energy from from other people who have come before them.


So can you just touch on the Korea gay starts as well as Noah has written in the notes here.


Part of the symbolic value of the taski is a representation of continuity. And so the the continuity from start to finish of the taski making it all physically making it all the way from the start to finish, you know, represents the continuity of each one or his efforts and all the hard work they put into it. And so anything that's going to interrupt that continuity is like the worst thing that could happen in a negative, whether that's you know, DNF whether like somebody is unable to continue Or, you know, a disqualification, which believe or not disqualifications do happen. Those those kinds of things happen. But some academics, you know, including Hakone have what's called a curiosity start, which I usually call a white sash start, because in many cases, the academics that have this, this feature, use a white sash. So basically what happens is it's if teams fall too far behind the leaders, so like a predetermined amount of time behind the lead team, then say like, if a team falls more at a given academic falls more than 10 minutes behind the lead team, then at the next exchange, the runner who is waiting will start on a gun at the 10 minute mark. So like the the lead team will come through, other teams will come through. And when it comes up to 10 minutes, the team that's still waiting, their runner has to start, and they'll start wearing a white sash, they'll start and then the time between the time that they start, and when their incoming winner comes in, like say the runner comes in 20 seconds later, then that team will carry a 22nd handicap for the rest of the race. And at the end of the race, 20 seconds will be added to their time. And it's really again, just like a practical issue of road closures. And so not every academic has it. And it depends on the course depends on the police in that city, whatever symbolically, what it means is the interruption of the continuity, the incoming runner is carrying the taski that runners before had used, and it contains all of their efforts, because you know, the symbolic representation of all their efforts didn't make it didn't get to hand it off. And so to the to the other runner, the other runner is running with a fresh task. And it's typically like a different coloured task that shows that the team, you know, had its continuity interrupted. That's the worst thing that could happen in a negative. And you know, especially at Hakone. That's another thing that TV loves to play up the TV broadcast loves to show that, because it's super dramatic, that you know, a lot of the time the runners who come in after one of those white sash starts and don't get to hand off the test game will collapse in tears and just be weeping lying on the ground grown college kids, you know, 22 year old guys, just like lying in the ground crying holding the task in one hand, because you know, they didn't get to, to maintain continuity. And the


margin, the margins can sometimes be horrendously narrow, aren't they? I mean, I've seen at least one or two occasions where you know, the incoming runner can see the guy he should be handing over to


Yeah, sometimes it's a matter of two or three seconds even.


And what happens to taski at the end, is it I'm guessing they don't use it for years and years and years. Does it get retired or put up somewhere?


Yeah, teams, you know, especially for hacohen a, the the taski are treated like holy relics, really. You know, they'll have them in a place of honour. I have a friend who was the captain of one university team back there in Hakone. Back in the day, and at his office, he has the team taski framed and it was never washed. So it's all like stained and discoloured with the sweat from all the runners, but


it's honourable, original condition, putrid.


Wash it because it would wash out all the efforts. Yeah. I don't know if every team goes that far. That's not the norm. But certainly, like,


Am I right in thinking that all three members of next year would be next year's men's Olympic marathon team have all run halfway? Oh,


yeah. Yeah. Not only all run Hakone they were all stage winners at Hakone. The the 10 stages, you know, some of them are more competitive than others. But if you win a stage at Hakone that's a big deal throughout the rest of your career in Japan, and they know that you like a one stage winner. And yeah, all three of those guys. suguru osako. I start with the winner. I'm Chicago, Nakamura, Yamaha Tory and pseudo Osaka. We're all stage winners at Hakone in college.


Incredible. And there is there is a sense of tradition. I know that some coaches some teenage sons go on to run the race and grandfathers and fathers and sons have have run the race. And there really is this sense that this is you know, it's a it's a within Japan it's a it's a family, you know, community prefectural event isn't in that everybody's bought into this and on on the day, everybody from newborn babies to orgy cha cha cha, you know, the 78 year old but we standing normally not this year, on the side of the road sharing everything, everyone in


iKON a it's been going for long enough that Yeah, you know, people's grandparents, you know, great grandparents might have run it, you know, like I said, like the quality of the TV broadcast and has generated more popularity and now at the New Year, you know, that's what people do January 2, and third, you know, New Year's in Japan, as you know, is kind of like a traditional Christmas in western countries where like, people might go back to their hometown and you know, be with their families and have like special food and all that. And then what they do on January 2, and third is sit down and watch the hacohen he did. You know it's not it's not just a standalone event. In that respect, you know, there are mostly just been talking about Hakone, you know, in talking about NC Muslim talking about how can a but, you know, there's we talked a little bit of the high school again, but there's loads and loads and loads of academics at all levels, you know, their local community ecotones schools, you know, how Becky diamonds companies will have, like, academics within their company, not for like people who run just for like, the average workers, you know, like, where one department will run against another department and that kind of thing. So, yeah, the whole thing, you know, the whole event brings about a kind of, like, unity, morale, that, you know, every level of society really,


and I love the talking Aikido. So the


Yeah, yeah.


Can you tell us a little bit about that the sort of makeup of the teams that because that's, that's pretty unique, isn't


it? It's a really special event. Yeah. I would say like next to Hakone, that's probably my favourite. They have two different races that are sort of connected n, which is National, men's, academic and national, women's academic. And so what they have in that are teams representing each of Japan's 47 prefectures, and the teams are made up of top junior high school or middle school, students, top high school students, top university students and top pros from each prefecture. Many of the stages are designated like this stage is for junior high school students. And so like the best junior high school kid from Tokyo is gonna be racing, the best junior high school kid from Osaka, who's gonna be racing, the best junior high school kid from Kagoshima, they're all together. And, you know, you get to see like future stars when they're young, which is awesome. And in terms of like, the overall development scheme that they have here that I talked a little bit about earlier, this is also a big part of it, because you have Olympians in there as well. And you have how many stars in there and everything. And so you have some junior high school kid who's handing off to an Olympian, or, you know, there you have another like, junior high school kid, or high school boy, who's getting the taski from some guy who just rocked a stage record at Hakone, you know, like, really big stars, you know, again, like, you have to keep in mind, like, those guys are really big stars. And so it really matters. You know, like the young kids who are really good and have some talent, get to have this kind of like one on one, like, this is my teammate, and this is somebody who's made it, and that's going to be me someday. And so it just feeds into the system. And it's a really exciting thing to watch. you've, you've run


the Haqqani, cause I'm sure we would do to run the fifth stage. And I and something went wrong with my travelling plan. So we never got to do that. And how is that fifth? fifth stage to run? Right?


It's hard. It's really hard. Yeah. I'm, it's, I'm an uphill runner. I've always been like, at my best and uphill. So naturally, when I when I started watching Hakone a lot was like, I'm gonna go try right now and see what it's like. And it's really hard. Yeah. It's a, it's an incredibly fun course to run. Once you get up into the mountains, it's just it's like a tour de france stage is winding, winding, winding, winding, winding and just Up, up, up, up, up. And then just before you get to the peak, there's kind of a Saddleback, so he go over one peak, and then drop down a bit, and then come back up, and there's the meal peak. And there's the screaming heart downhill after that down to the lake where the finishes. And it's, it's, it's really tough, but extremely rewarding thing to do, when you're actually watching the race. If you've run in particular, at that stage, you really, like get a sense for like, what they're going through and it really like enhances the enjoyment of watching the event.


So one day Mike,


I will be clear and cheering you on from this


Yeah, that's I haven't been able to do it for a few years but for just cuz I've been travelling a lot up until this year, around the new year for quite a few years now. But for a long time, Mika, my wife and I would go down every year like December 29 or 30th or so so just a couple days before Hakone and go run the fifth stage and it was always super exciting because you know the the camera crews are out there practising the runs and you know how to handle the curves and all that and all the decorations are going up and it's it's it's starting to feel like Hakone is coming and so running it in like two or three days later watching the races is really exciting. But every time we did it, Mika was like next year let's run the sixth stage. Let's run down. No, no. I will never run the 16 That's crazy. I'm not doing that. Right. We


could have you talk I mean I could have you talk all day about distance running in Japan but I think it's been absolutely fantastic. You come in everything that we we hope to cover and so much more. Yeah. Right. Not no I better hand you over to Sir Galahad.


Recommendation popular because of the


you nailed it.


Okay. The first recommendation we'll take from you Brett is can you recommend one place that you're visiting Japan should definitely visit?


Absolutely, sir. goshima Yes, the island off the west coast. of near near Niigata is an incredible place love it. That's where me and I went on our honeymoon, it was for about 1000 years, from up until about 1700 give or take. It was where they exiled the political and cultural dissidents. And that's kind of like the history of the people there. And then around the time, or part of like the the impetus to end that as the place where people were exiled, was that gold was discovered there in the I think like the mid 1600s. And there was an enormous gold mine started up there like one of the most productive gold mines in the world at the time, I believe. The Emperor said, Great, we've got a goldmine in Japan, send all the homeless people there to work it so that they had instead of exiling you know, the the cultural dissidents they were then sending all of the the poor people there to work the minds literally to death. And so like the ancestors of the island are like largie those people and it has a very, very, very for just kind of with that kind of history. It has a very different vibe from any other place. I've been in Japan. The island itself, the geography, the island is stunning, and I would highly recommend if anybody visits they're renting a car and driving around the periphery of the island because on the north shore of the island, there are just ghost towns. achingly beautiful.


It's amazing. That's definitely my radar now. So for our for our listeners, those people who haven't travelled to Japan or even for those who have who are looking to experience something new, can you recommend one activity probably not going to be running the sixth stage of cycling that they should try that might not I think you did a great job here of of myth busting and demystifying Japan for us. So give us something to do that might not be on the normal sort of,


I did rent a car and drive around the North Shore of South Oshima and see the ghost towns It's seriously you'll thank me, you will thank me. It's actually the reason we did we did our honeymoon there is there's actually long distance triathlon on the island, which is Ironman distance, except the bike goes around the entire periphery of the island, or the majority of the periphery of the island. So the bike distance is longer. And Mika was doing that. And then we stuck around for a week afterwards was our honeymoon and just saw more of the island. That's like a stellar event for anybody who's coming over, I would highly recommend that. But yeah, just driving that North Shore is incredible. I haven't seen any other place like that in Japan.


He got his getting a lot of love. Recently, we had to film a security, I think recommended the food from the doctor as well. So Oh, yeah, yeah, the Tourism Board is doing quite well. And that's it. And the last one, which is always the highlight of the episode, can you recommend one one food that everyone has to try when they're in Japan?


My my answers are going to be kind of like one theme here and kind of tedious, I guess. But Niigata is like one of the prime rice growing regions in Japan, like kind of like the whole like, northeast of Japan is well known for its rice. I guess just you know, being non Japanese, if you wanna be stereotypical a lot of the time, like I have a hard time differentiating between the different types of rice, you know, like the it's the same type of race, but the different geographic varieties. But on subtle goshima the rice we had was unbelievable. Just just the plain rice, plain white rice, it was like I've never had anything like it. It was it was incredible. If you ever come to Japan, when things are back to normal, you know, go out to soda goshima you know they have a ferry take the ferry out of out of Mishima rentacar drive around the North Shore stay at IDEO consommer up there and have rice. It's It's It's beautiful. Beauty and simplicity.


We love that that response. We need to get one more question. So I'm getting slightly worried about answering this one because do you have a Japanese word or phrase that either in sort of represents the spirit of an accident? Dare I say it or you can have your own experiences in Japan something just a word or phrase that for you. You know you associate with Japan at home?


Yeah. With the academic that I won't give you one in Japanese. But if I can give you one in English, I think really encapsulates it. Yeah. Are you familiar? You know, Steve Prefontaine, the great American athlete. You know, his his famous is? To me, I think it's his most famous quote, but maybe there's there are others but you know, to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. That was he was well known for saying that. To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. And I think what I would say in regard to that is the attitude here, which completely encapsulates what the end is about is to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice everyone else's gifts.


is very Japanese. I


really enjoyed that phrase. Actually. It says it all and I think like the the difference in the nuance between what Prefontaine was saying and difference in that says a lot about the difference in the mentality. I think, the difference in the orientation, mentality, you know, cultural difference, if you want to put it but not to say one Better than the other. But certainly, I think that idea that if you're not all in, then you're robbing other people. Of all the work they put in. It says a lot about, you know, the event and about the society as a whole.


And very pertinent to where we find ourselves in, in 2020. So, Brett, it's been an absolute pleasure privilege to because we, we've, we've spent some time talking together, but we've never had a deep dive into into you know, your feelings about equity. And so this has been fantastic for us. I'm sure our listeners will love it. And thank you so much for giving up so much of your time.


Oh, yeah. My pleasure. Thanks for having me on. I know, um, you know, probably compared to some of the other sports that you might cover. This is very niche. But, you know, it's, it's, it's a fascinating thing here. It's a fascinating element of the country and in the sport here. So yeah, thanks for having me on.


Thank you for listening to Japan stories. I'd like to thank Brett one last time for being such a great knowledgeable guest. If you want to know more about running in Japan, be sure to check out the Japan running news website. If you haven't already. Take a listen to our interview with Olympic marathon runner Mara Yamaguchi that we did back in July of 2020. She gives some fabulous insight into what it's like training in the Japanese system. I'd also recommend our interview with Jackie Okada, who tells us about how important grassroots running can be in an increasingly isolated world. As Tokyo 2020 approaches, we're getting more and more excited about spreading the stories of Japanese sport. We love hearing your feedback and seeing you share these stories with your friends and family. If you want to get in touch with us, we're on twitter at j s stories. And to make sure you don't miss an episode, subscribe to us on your podcast app. Join us next time we'll be diving into the world of Japanese football, covering everything Jeff united to the unprecedented success Japanese women's football team