Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Hakone Ekiden

When I was a child I remember going to a family friends' house for a New Year's Day supper and evening of games. As I recall, the men folk sat around the TV all day watching football.

It's not so different in Japan. January 1st had other programs on TV but January 2nd and 3rd are devoted to something that is called Hakone Ekiden, the Annual Hakone Collegiate Rely.

Just as my father never played a day of football in his life but still loved watching the Superbowl or Rosebowl or whatever it was, Tetsu and I have never run a rely in our lives either but we can stay close to the TV and will even turn to the race on the car radio if we have to be out.

The Hakone Ekiden has a history beginning in 1920. On January 2nd, 20 college teams compete with 5 runners each to run 108 kilometers up to the town of Hakone not far from Mt. Fuji. Most of the first day is an uphill race.

On January 3rd, a different 5 runners from each team will run back DOWN the mountain another 108 kilometers. It goes without saying that all roads in the immediate area are closed down for the event and the television coverage and police support is worthy of a presidential parade!

There is all sorts of excitement along the way. Of course every team wants to win, but the most important point is to be able to pass the relay sash to the next team member. And then there is also a time limit so that unless a team member gets to the relay point within 20 minutes after the first team, the other teams get sent on without receiving the sash... That is a terrible blow to the whole team. At the end of the first day, only the first 10 teams get their times counted up and the NEXT day they are allowed a lead of the day's before finishing time. The other 10 teams have to start all together at a later time point.

Yesterday's race included a runner slipping on the icy downhill road (but he bounced back up and his team won the overall race) and another runner getting off course just barely making up the time to get "seed placement" for his team next year. Only the first 10 teams automatically get "seeded" for next year's race. The other 10 positions will be fought for by colleges all over Japan for the next 12 months.

Some years the drama includes runners who end up with heat stroke or a torn ligament and they are forced to retire which of course is a loss for the whole team. We will see runners stumbling along trying to make it to the relay point with tears streaming down their faces and it is a bit of a tear jerker for the spectators too. All these young men so determined and focused on their team responsibilities...

Tetsu was especially engrossed in this year's race because the college he attended had one of the 20 positions this year... Unfortunately they came in 16th so they didn't get the "seeding" for next year's race. Still, it was exciting. (And that's saying a lot for a non-sports person like me!)

All my pictures are off of my TV. I don't like sports enough to actually GO to an event.

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