Now Reading: Japan’s Most Extreme Race
Read Next: The Religious Experience of CrossFit
A male model in stands in boxing shorts and red gloves

in Body, Fitness

The Religious Experience of CrossFit

Explore the exalting thrill of high intensity training.

in Body

Japan’s Most Extreme Race

Almost unknown outside Japan, the Ekiden marathon has produced some of the fastest and most tenacious long-distance athletes in the world. Guardian editor Adharanand Finn discusses the phenomenon of Japan’s long-distance Ekiden races, and the ambitious ideals that define a new generation of elite runners.

First Ekiden then everything else.

Adharandand Finn
black and white image of flags waving as a long distance runner

First Ekiden Then Everything Else

The Ekiden (駅伝), or long-distance relay race, has captured the imagination of Japanese sports culture for the past century. This notoriously challenging marathon is defined by its gruelling training and punishing distances that confront the limits of mind and body. Run over a period of two days, the Japanese Ekiden exists as one of the longest mass endurance races in the world, with each runner in the relay running the equivalent of a half marathon (219 kilometres) in each leg of the race. As a physical testimony to the mental endurance and tenacity of each participant, the Ekiden is perceived by corporations and universities as indicative of a man’s work attitude and place in society.

The Story Behind the Race

Comprised of the characters for “station” () and “transmit” (), the Japanese Ekiden (駅伝) pays homage to the hikyaku messengers or ‘flying feet’ of the medieval and early modern Edo period. Shuttling between road stations on foot, the hikyaku couriers of medieval Japan transported currency, letters and packages across major highways connecting capital cities like Osaka and Edo. This distance spanned a total of 500 kilometres and took an average of six days to complete.  However, by the end of the 17th Century, the indomitable energy and speed of these pioneer runners brought a greater expediency and efficiency to the practice. Haya hikyaku , or quick messengers, ran through the night, making fewer stops and were able to complete the journey in as little as three and a half days.

Esprit de Corps

As an incredible feat of endurance and perseverance, the nature of the Ekiden resonates deeply with the Japanese philosophy of work and is often used as a yardstick by which corporations and universities measure a man’s worth and character. In most cases, running teams are founded by Japanese institutions such as Konika, Minolta, Honda and Toyota. Cumulatively, these Japanese companies have supported the professional running careers of hundreds of athletes and represent the ideological and administrative backbone of the sport. “Many companies are really into getting the best runners in the country, ” says Finn. This practice dates back to an era following the Second World War, when individual endeavour expanded beyond the self to serve company and country. By aligning themselves with an Ekiden team, runners and workers are unified under a strong esprit de corps.

The Only Way Out is Through

“You will never see anything like it in the world,” remarks Finn on the dramatics of an Ekiden race. “When they cross the line, there are people on hand with gas and air as if they are about to die from lack of oxygen; they are rolling around on the floor, they are crying, their teammates come and wrap them in towels and try to get them up”. “The traditional Japanese approach is to work hard”, observes the author, “effort is hugely valued in Japan and runners often get more coverage if their finish is dramatic. It is more important than winning”. With sport often perceived as a form of work, participating in the Ekiden is undertaken with the same relentless dedication and commitment brought to one’s professional career.

There are many philosophical and cultural concepts that underpin the spirit of the Ekiden. None more than the belief in the transformative potential of physical pain towards building character, social responsibility and self-awareness. In the process of training, athletes will endure sustained periods of strain and effort that continuously test their commitment to a greater cause. Across the nation, staggering broadcasts of fatigued runners on the brink of victory will elevate runners to the status of icon and myth. In his book, The Way of the Runner: A Journey Into the Fabled World of Japanese Running, the author states, “running too, can be a way to self-fulfilment. It has a purity, a power, a way of clearing the mind that few other activities possess. Sometimes it may seem unlikely, as we creak and struggle along, our legs heavy and tired, but then come those moments when we break through and our bodies begin to feel light, strong, at one with the earth”.

Read More

Share the Article


Adharanand Finn

Adharanand Finn is an editor at The Guardian, freelance journalist, and the author of The Way of the Runner: A Journey Into the Fabled World of Japanese Running. His latest book Running with the Kenyans was nominated the Sunday Times Sports Book of the Year and won Best New Writer at the British Sports Book Awards. To research his latest book he moved to Japan to discover more about this unique running culture and what it might teach us about the sport and country. For more information on Adharanand Finn follow him on Twitter @adharanand.

Article from the issue :


Change Your Mind