The Race that Captivates a Nation


Article by Sam Barbir, Writer

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Hakone Ekiden, held every year on the second and third of January, is a 217km long distance relay race that many in Japan come together to watch every year, non-running enthusiasts and running enthusiasts alike. 

Twenty competing universities start at Otemachi station and race to Hakone and back on the roads through city, shoreline, mountains, and more. Thousands of people stand roadside, cheering each runner on as they race to pass the tasuki, the equivalent of a baton.  

Each university selects its ten best runners, each with a unique skill set. For many, especially those who aren’t familiar with this race, why such a large group of people find this race so entertaining may come as a mystery. Truth be told, entertaining probably isn’t the best way to capture it. The heart, grit, and stories behind all these university students is what brings people to the sidewalk and in front of the TV. The result is never disappointing.

Because the distance is so long, the race is split into two days, five legs to Hakone on the first, and the other five on the second day going back via the same route.  Each leg is about 20km, and the runners maintain roughly an average pace of three minutes per kilometer, which is quite stunning given the hilly terrain of the course. Perhaps the most brutal is the fifth and sixth legs, which involve going up Mt. Hakone and then down.  

Running uphill is quite the challenge, but the difficulty of doing so for all 20km during the fifth leg speaks for itself.  The sixth leg is certainly faster going downhill, but the runners’ feet take arguably the biggest blow compared to other courses—many runners finish with bloodstains on their shoes. 

Nonetheless, all 10 legs are impactful for those both running and watching. Whether it be collapsing from pure exhaustion after passing the tasuki, smiling when they see a familiar face in the crowd, or tears streaming down their faces running one last time for their teammates and coaches, the event means so much to these college students.

This year’s Hakone, the 98th ever, saw Aoyama Gakuin university win their 6th title in 8 years, winning by a large margin of 10 minutes between first and second place. Aogaku, as they’re otherwise known, has been a dominant force since their first ever victory in 2014. Furthermore, three new record times were run in the first, ninth, and tenth legs, making it so every record has been set within the past four years.  

The second place team, Juntendo University, finished in the top three for the first time in 15 years, coming back after being in 17th place at one point. Besides that, many teams had best-ever finishes, and imposing performances by individuals provided much to look forward to in the future. All this amounted to what made this year’s Ekiden just as special as ever.