The ekiden is what lies at the core of the Japanese prowess in long distance running. Ekidens are long distance relays, which can take place over multiple days and have legs of varying lengths. The most prestigious of all is the Hakone Ekiden, a race which sees the top universities of the Kanto region around Tokyo compete, captivating the nation every January. Hakone Ekiden was inaugurated in 1920 by Shizo Kanakuri – known as the father of the marathon in Japan – with teams running from 108km from Tokyo to Hakone on the first day (January 2) and 109.9km back to Tokyo the next.

Tokai University took the crown in the 2019 edition of the race, with the ten athletes covering the whole course in a stunning 10:52:09. That’s 3:00.2/km, the fastest time ever run on the current version of the course. This year’s iteration of the race, the 96th time it has been run, saw a demolition of the records. Seven of the ten segment records were beaten, and Aoyama Gakuin University was the winner with a total time of 10:45:23, Tokai came in second in 10:48:25, also well under their old course record.

During our trip to Japan this year Tokai’s assistant coach – Noriaki Nishide – kindly invited us to join a session taking place on the university’s royal blue track. It was an absolute pleasure to watch Nishide working closely with head coach Hayashi Morozumi, overseeing the orderly procession of their athletes ripping through mile repeats.

Morozumi was one of Japan’s most successful high school coaches before moving to Tokai. Suguru Osako, the national record holder for the marathon (2:05:29 – set at the Tokyo Marathon 2020, the day after the session we watched), rose to prominence under his tutelage, among many other top athletes. Under Morozumi’s guidance the Tokai team have made steady improvement over the past few years.

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