On Wednesday I board a Boeing 777 for a thirteen hour flight to Tokyo. I am part of the nine-man Ivy League Select relay team bound for Izumo, Japan for the 25th edition of the All Japan University Izumo Ekiden Relay Race. It consists of six stages run on the roads of Izumo in the Shimane Prefecture with lengths 8.0 kilometers, 5.8k, 7.9k, 6.2k, 6.4k, and 10.2k for a total of 44.5 kilometers.
Roughly the Japanese equivalent of the American fall cross country system, (but on roads) Ekiden racing is run at the high school, university, corporate, and international levels all over Japan. Races vary in number of stages (usually between five and nine) and length of stages (from 3k to 13k). Our race in Izumo serves as the kickoff for the university Ekiden season and is part of the “big three” of university Ekiden events, along with the All-Japan Collegiate Ekiden Championship in early November and the Hakone Ekiden in January. Most of the races, including ours, are gender-specific, but the International Chiba Ekiden, which draws teams from all over the world, features stages run by both men and women. Ekiden is a unique Japanese sporting event: these races draw hundreds of thousands of spectators roadside and attract huge national television audiences.
Alone, a trip to Japan is an amazing experience – but I believe we are going to encounter more than the average American tourist ever will. Sure, we’ll see the sights, enjoy the food, language, and culture of the country. But on Monday the fourteenth of October, when we line up alongside twenty one Japanese teams in front of the Izumo Taisha Shrine, I expect we’ll be seeing and feeling, through the hurt of the race, a lot more.
Of the week long trip, I am specifically looking forward most to an approximately ten minute period: the last ten minutes of my relay leg. I have imagined it many times now: an unspoken understanding, an absolute focus, a complete determination to win in my competitors. I have heard and read of, and experienced myself in the US and most recently in Belgium on the track, how fiercely competitive the Japanese are. They won’t pack up. They won’t wait and kick. They will be doing everything in their power to deliver the sash to their next man with a lead, to give their remaining runners a better chance. When the freshness of the start has worn off, the acid has begun to accumulate, when the pounding of the road begins to add up; that’s when I’ll learn about Japan. From men from Tokyo, from Yamanashi, Komazowa, Fukuoka, and Sappro. From places I’ve never been to, and perhaps never will. I’ll learn a little bit about each of them in that ten minute battle.
I have huge respect for who us Ivy League boys are up against. In the fifteen years the US has sent an Ivy team to Izumo, the highest we’ve finished is a respectable eighth. The quality of competition in Izumo is stellar – I would venture to predict that the winning team there would do a great deal of damage at NCAA D1 Cross Country Championships every year (yes, even against Wisconsin or OSU)
In recent editions of the race, guys from outside the Ancient Eight have been used on the American team, potentially expanding our firepower. But this year the Japanese required Ivy Alumni exclusively, and we’re bringing a very good team. All of us have continued training and racing at a high level since college. We have speed in guys like Kyle Merber (Columbia, 3:35, 14:02) and Trevor Van Ackeran (Princeton, 3:39, 8:46 SC), who now run for NJ*NY track club. We have strength in Dan Lowry (Brown, 3:59, 13:34, 29:22), Brendan Martin (Columbia, running for Hansons-Brooks, 14:06, 64:38 HM), Tommy Dialynas (Princeton, 29:41), Ethan Shaw (Darmouth, 14:06, 29:17, 64:45 HM), and Jonathan Gault (Dartmouth, 14:25). And we have good combinations of strength and speed in Mark Amirault (Princeton, 7:53, 13:45) and myself (Princeton, running for Reebok / Zap Fitness, 3:39, 7:49, 13:33). Many of us have former team mates in the group, making us a cohesive unit, much like all the Japanese teams will be. And we’re coached by 1976 Boston Marathon Champion Jack Fultz – that can’t hurt.
I hope to take away from this trip a new perspective on running – one that reflects the culture and work ethic of the Japanese. The more I see of the world, and the more I learn about athletes outside the American system, the better a competitor I become.
The teams competing in the 2013 edition of the Izumo Ekiden on October fourteenth:
1. Aoyama Gakuin University
2. Toyo University
3. Chuo University
4. Hokkaido University Ren selection
5. Tohoku University Ren selection
6. Nippon Sport Science University
8. Teikyo University
9. Waseda University
10. Juntendo University
11. Meiji University
12. Hosei University
14. Hokushinetsu science Ren selection
15. Chukyo University
16. Kyoto Sangyo University
17. Kwansei Gakuin University
18. Hiroshima University of Economics
19. China Shikoku University Ren selection
21. First Institute of Technology
22. Ivy League selection
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