Towards the end of last year, in prime ekiden season (after Okutama ekiden and leading to Hakone ekiden), I was so fascinated by this part of the Japanese running culture that I spent a few hours on YouTube one night, watching ekiden videos… and that’s when I stumbled upon a Fuji Ekiden video, with its dramatic stamp at the top, forward flip relays in volcanic sand, and cutoff times. I immediately thought that we had to try to get a Namban Rengo team to participate. The following Wednesday, I asked Derder if he thought it was possible, he checked, said yes, and the week after we had a team of road and trail runners ready to commit to take on the toughest ekiden in Japan!
The race is known to be the toughest Ekiden of Japan, and rightfully so as we were about to find out.
Each team consists of 6 runners, and 11 sections or legs. Each runner runs twice (uphill and downhill) except for leg 6, the summit section. The first and last 3 sections are roads, and sections from 4 to 8 are trails.
The team we had was probably one of the best combinations we could have hoped for.
We had the 4 fastest current marathoners in the club, Yuta (2:33), Gary (2:33), Harrisson (2:38), and Kengo (2:38). Then Vincent (2:49-marathoner) probably within our top 5 trail runners, and Derder, by far our best technical downhill descender.
The race has one particularity: the extremely harsh 4 hours cut-off time by the end of section 8. Those who make it on time can keep running with their original Yellow Tasuki (coincidentally Namban’s color). Those who do not, usually two-thirds of the teams, have to start in a peloton at 12:00 pm, regardless of where their teammate is, with a Red Tasuki, aka the Tasuki of Shame.
The race is a bit of a logistical nightmare too. First, you have to attend the opening ceremony the day before, early morning. Then the 6th leg runner (Derder) has to climb the day before and stay in a hut overnight.
The night before, we started to make prognostics and share our ETAs. Then we realized that despite our seemingly strong team, our estimation was still 6 minutes behind the cutoff time.
In total, 70 teams in the general category were set to start. We are number 69
One surprise, once we arrived at the race venue, was to see that the vast majority of the teams came with a large supporting crew. All had their own cars, and most teams had 1 to 2 supporters per runner.
As we get into the shuttle bus, we realize that it is almost empty. Most teams had already gone up to their starting spots with their crew. We were one of the few lonely teams with no support. So be it, that will just add it to the drama!
When I arrived at the track, many 1st leg runners were already warming up. They all had good form and looked faster than me, which made me realize how competitive this event was (Note from Harrisson: Kengo, I had the exact same impression the first time I saw you! I’m probably not the only one… just saying)
At the same time, I was confident that I could compete with them on this course since road uphill is my strong area. Preliminary research showed that the 1st leg would add about 40s per km on your 5k race pace, so I set an average speed of 4:00/km as my target. For the first kilometer, I paid attention not to over-pace and clocked in at 3:14, but my heart rate quickly reached 180 as I started climbing around kilometer 2. I was already at my limit from kilometer 3, so I just concentrated on taking one step at a time.
The last 500m was so steep that I could not see the relay station at all.
It was mentally demanding, but when I was able to overtake Kowada-kun, a red-haired fast Youtuber, who was much quicker than me. I felt a little better and could make a slight final surge. I finished the 1st leg at 23:56 (3:51/km), more than one minute faster than my target time, which satisfied me. Each team brought their camping mats and massaging tools to the relay station, which made me realize how unprepared we were.
(Translated by Harrisson)
After running the 2nd leg with all my might and somewhat naive enthusiasm, I handed over the Tasuki to Harrisson and took a brief rest. Only then did I closely check the estimated schedule Harrisson had made the night before. Then, I was confronted with the fact that we were lagging, a full six minutes behind the cutoff time. In other words, this meant we needed to push way beyond our current pace if we hoped to make it to the 9th leg on time.
Our projection for the 9th leg was a 12:06 finish, just 6 minutes past the 12:00 cutoff. The times were almost the same as predicted until the 3rd leg. This means that the three runners tackling the rugged mountainous terrains from legs 4 to 8 had to push really hard.
Such a challenging and harsh rule I kept thinking. In the meantime, I tried to stay positive by contemplating and reading the clouds above the hill and listening to the live radio that was broadcasting news and statistics about the race.
The worsening weather added to our challenges. In places, visibility was down to just 50 meters.
My anxiety just inevitably kept increasing.
I had the chance to witness Yuta running an ekiden a few times and also being teammates during the last Okutama Ekiden. His facial expression is the same each and every time: on the verge of dying.
Needless to say, receiving the yellow Tasuki from him comes with an exacerbated feeling of accountability… and a boost of adrenaline.
The week before, I had spent a lot of time studying the 4.5km course on Strava. Checking the leaderboard and the elevation profile. As it is a road section, there is no room for mistakes. Optimizing energy distribution along the course was key. It was basically 3km up at 8% incline, 0.5km undulating, and 1km between 12% to 20% incline.
Saving energy for the last km was crucial. I managed that not too badly. But the last kilometer still felt like shit. I was in agony, the taste of blood in my mouth. After 23 min and 26 seconds, 26 seconds behind my target, I passed our yellow Tasuki to Vincent, waiting for me and smiling.
Then a long 3h awaited me, alone in the parking lot of the 5th station. Time passed rather quickly. As the weather switched in an instant from scorching sun to torrential rain, my hope to keep our yellow Tasuki faded away rather rapidly, in tune with the change of sky color.
Live updates from the website and from Vincent via Messenger were on the pessimistic side of the equation. By the time Gary passed our yellow Tasuki to Derder, we were already almost 5 minutes behind my estimated schedule. And that schedule had us already 6 minutes late, in other words, we were already 11 minutes late.
Now, it came down to Derder, Gary and Vincent’s downhill to make up for that.
During our wait, all runners were given the Red Tasuki, the Tasuki of shame.
If Vincent does not come back by 12pm, I will have to leave before he arrives, in a peloton start. Each year, about only one-third of the teams manage to make it before the harsh cutoff. The chances were very thin.
But I kept hope because I knew that Derder was our wild card.
I saw the first few teams hand over the Tasuki in awe at their speed running uphill and then got ready as I knew our road team would be among the top teams. After hearing “69”, I get to the line, and after a few seconds see Harrisson appear around the corner, in a 20+% slope! I’ve never seen him running so slow lol, and never seen him look so white (except maybe that one time after his MxK 5000m when he suffered a heat stroke but that’s another story!) But I don’t really have time to think about that, I start running, and adjust the (already soaked in sweat) Tasuki. I know I received the tasuki around the time we had planned yesterday night, so I got myself ready to run in my expected sub-40’ for 3km and 640m D+. I manage to run the first 800m or so, pacing myself, already being passed by a few teams.
As soon as I see one competitor in front of me walking, my brain tells me to do the same, and I basically fast-hike the rest of the way with some short running bursts when the slope gets more gentle, the terrain not as slippery, or I try to hang on to a passing team. I feel like I’m passed by many teams, turns out to be “only” 6, plus some Army teams.
Everything is burning and I’m doing my best; yet another team is passing me 300m before the handover, right at the same time as I hear Gary shouting at me. I tell my legs there will not be any walking anymore and I hang on to the heels of that runner until the handover. The handover is so steep and so deep in the sand that I basically only look at Gary’s shoes as I reach out to give him the Tasuki, and we do not make eye contact. A look at my watch as I sit down to catch my breath: less than 37’. Better than our planned schedule, but disappointed that I got passed by many teams.
A short message to the team, then I sit down on our tarp (surrounded by runners who have their own tent and supporting crew!) and get dressed as a huge cloud is now covering us and a big rain shower hits us.
After a couple of months of on/off injury niggles and limited training, I knew my fitness was nowhere near where it needed to be for this race. However, I was super excited to take part with my friends and to give it my all.
This was probably only the first or second mountain running I have done this year and on the steep and sandy 5th leg, I ended up just walking most of it and was not happy with my performance.
I was actually really worried that I had f**ked it up for everyone.
To adjust to the high altitude, all 6th leg runners are required to hike up to the 8th station (3200m) and stay in the hut the day before the race. I’m not very strong at altitude, even though I had been up to the top of Mount Fuji 3 weeks in a row. My heart never actually feels rested. On top of that the sleeping area was extremely narrow.
That being said, except for these small details, life on top is pretty chill.
I went to sleep at 9 pm and woke up at 4 am. After watching the sunrise, I took a 1.5km walk to the summit and thought about pacing strategy and stepping/footwork. But in the end, my constant elevated heart rate only made me lose confidence and more anxious.
As the race started I started listening to the live streaming on the radio about the other teams. I tried to figure out where my teammates were, and how they did. I tried to calculate what time I should bring the Tasuki back to Gary. A lot was going on in my head.
It was sunny and hot until 10:00. But the rain made a sudden appearance which made me feel cold.
I started to get worried and nervous.
But after getting the Tasuki from Gary, all the negative thoughts just instantly vanished.
I was surprisingly so calm and so focused on the climb and moving forward. Head down, breathing hard, I could hear people cheering alongside me but I could not respond nor even see who they were.
I managed to pass 5 teams and got passed by 1. After 40min of very intense climbing, I finally saw the Shrine. I realized the summit was near and got the stamp on our yellow Tasuki.
Then the next battle began: the steep and technical downhill.
It’s not extremely difficult (I would say 7 out of 10). As the recruited muscles during an ascent and a descent are somewhat different, my legs did not respond the way I wanted them to. Without the time to even realize it, I stumbled over a big rock, head down, and crashed on the left side of my body, sliding a meter or so along the way at the very beginning of the descent.
I truly experienced a 0.2-second lifetime review. I thought I was done. But I rapidly got back up on my feet and realized in a split second that I miraculously had no serious damage. I instantly refocused on the completion of my mission. I kept heading down the 2.2km slope in 14 minutes and passed our yellow Tasuki back to Gary.
I had no idea how it went, whether we made the cutoff time or not, but I did my best. All I could do was to believe in my teammates and hope for the best.
After a storming 6th leg from Derder, I knew we still had a chance of doing well. I was a bit timid on the technical parts of the descent but managed to open up the stride a little bit on the fast, sandy sections. Despite a tumble before the end I got the sash safely into Vincent’s hands and prayed for the best.
Two days after the race, as I am writing this, my quads are still in absolute agony…
Right after I passed the Tasuki to Gary I hid under the tarp for about 20-30 minutes. Then I hear about his leg but then the system freezes so we don’t know how our team is doing anymore… As the first teams come back, I send Harrisson a message telling him to get ready to leave with the red Tasuki as only 10 teams have passed as we are approaching our planned schedule…
I am pessimistic but get ready anyway.
We exchange looks with teams around me, knowing that we probably won’t make it on time. That fits with the atmosphere around: fog and light rain.
And then. I hear it.
In the megaphone. “69”. Gary’s coming back!!! My heart starts racing as I head to the line. I look at my watch: 11:51. The cutoff time is 12:00 and I had planned to run down in 10 minutes. Is this too late? Then I see Gary emerge from the cloud, only 50m out, at the same time as another team. A last look at my watch: I have a bit more than 8 minutes to go down to Harrisson. I don’t know if it’s possible but we have a chance!
I take the Tasuki from Gary at the same time as the other team, drop the other runner after 10 seconds, and I’m running alone down the mountain. But I can’t see anything or anyone. Is this the right way?? After a short hesitation, I realize I am running straight down the mountain, so can’t be too wrong anyway! Finally, I see a military uniform showing me the way, and I consciously accelerate. No time to put on the Tasuki nor to look at my watch. Even though it’s not dangerous (if I fall down, I won’t hurt myself too much), but at this speed it’s really hard to adjust your steps on this uneven ground.
My watch vibrates after 1km: 2’48”!
I can’t believe what I’m seeing, I’ve never run a sub-3 min/km in my life, and it means we actually have a chance!! That gives me extra energy to try to accelerate. But soon this thought is replaced by the idea that I might get to the handover only a few seconds too late and will see Harrisson leave in front of my eyes. That would be the worst. I refocus on running as fast as I can and decide that when my watch vibrates the second time, I will switch the display to the time of the day, rather than my running time. Second kilometer: 2’42”!! I’m super excited now, switch the display and see 11:57:xx but can’t see the seconds at this speed! I know there’s only 6 to 800m left so I know it’s possible as I’m passing one team. Final stretch, I try to decipher people’s expressions when they see me coming and they look at the time on their watch,
I hear the guy calling out “69” and I know Harrisson has just heard that!
The final turn and I see Harrisson a hundred meters further. I actually mostly hear him as he is screaming as loud as I’ve ever heard someone scream (pardon his French, I can’t repeat here what he actually shouted!) I slightly slow down to enjoy that moment, take the Tasuki in my right hand, and raise it above my head, I’ve never felt anything as strong while running. I hand over the Tasuki with the biggest smile, turn around, and see that the team I just passed also made it by only 8”, I’m super happy for them, and then see the peloton of 50-odd runners take off at the gunshot. I can’t take that smile away from my face. I get interviewed for the TV in Japanese, but I really want to rush to my phone to tell the team we’d made it!
Gary: The look of joy on his face when I got down to meet him and he told me he had made the cut and got the sash to Harri in time was priceless!
11:50, we hear the announcer calling the team numbers so that the 9th leg runner can get ready.
11:58 on my watch, and still no news from our team as the live update had stopped long ago. About 20 teams had started the 9th leg. I put on the Red Tasuki and line up in the front of the peloton. All my hopes had gone to zero now. I think about Vincent who must be disappointed. The night before, he told me that the most heartbreaking scenario would be that he sees me leaving in front of his eyes, missing the cutoff by a mere few seconds. I think about that and somehow hope that he doesn’t show up during the last 10 seconds. Then, out of nowhere, against all odds, the announcer calls “69”.
In a blink of an eye, from despair to pride
I could not believe what I heard. I froze for a couple of seconds as if time had stopped. A genuine scream of joy came out of me. People watching me as if I saw a demon. I rush to the start line and throw my red Tasuki in the air. At 11:59:00 I see Vincent sprinting his way down the slope, waving our Yellow Tasuki in hand, with a smile on his face.
“You made it, you son of bitch!”
Among other profanities that I scream at him in French, I feel a rush of adrenaline and goosebumps all over my body. At 11:59:31, 29 seconds before the cutoff, I take our Yellow Tasuki full of sweat from Vincent, and rush my way down, running the first downhill kilometer in 2:47.
I had done a downhill practice session the week before, running 3 x 1500m at 3:10 pace on a 10% downhill slope. I had felt close to being maxed out and deep in the red zone. So I thought in race condition, if I stretch it, I could – maybe – connect the dots and run 4.5km at a 3:10 pace average.
Fueled by adrenaline and a surge of renewed energy I maintain an average pace of 2:54, despite a slight uphill part. My quads are hurting like hell but I didn’t care, I wanted to pass the Yellow Tasuki to Yuta. I managed to pass two runners. After a frenetic 13:00 run (1 min faster than my target) I get a glimpse at Yuta’s face. He is smiling and I am grimacing. But I knew we shared the same feelings. Enraptured, emotionally charged, and proud, I give him our Yellow Tasuki.
“I will run as if tomorrow does not exist” were the words Yuta told us the day before.
No one else can say those words better than him. By the time I caught my breath back, I could barely see his shadow. The man had already vanished in the midst of the mountain.
“Yeah, Unfortunately, I think you have to get ready to go with red Tasuki.
Only 10 teams have passed here, and we were 30th after the 5th leg.. “
というかなりネガティブな投稿が。 （By Gary?）
スタッフからは、49チームが繰り上げスタートです！とのアナウンスが。。（大体）70 – 49 = 21 チーム（実際は一般カテゴリー67チーム中44チームが繰り上げ）
(translated by Harrisson)
Suddenly a disheartening update came from Vincent on our Messenger Chat:
“Yeah, unfortunately, I think you have to get ready to go with red Tasuki.
Only 10 teams have passed here, and we were 30th after the 5th leg…” (By Gary, perhaps?)
With just the 6th to 8th legs remaining, hope was dwindling. Afterward, updates stopped coming in. Time was pressing, so I began my warm-up for the imminent 10th leg.
Doubt clouded my mind
Is it over? Or was there still a glimmer of hope? I’m in a mix of hope and despair, feeling restless, and filled with anxious energy. The leading teams were swiftly passing Tasukis, but many more were behind.
11:50 – I got ready.
11:55 – Poised at the relay point, I waited for my turn, ready to take the Tasuki at any moment.
The staff suddenly announces that 49 teams will start early, leaving only 21 teams making the cut.
It felt like the odds were stacked against us, then in my head: Hope at 5%, Despair at 95%.
12:00, the whistle blew, marking the cutoff and the peloton for late teams.
Despite so many teams still in the race, we were cautioned about the rush of teams from the early peloton start. What a cruel and heartless ekiden I thought. My hope dipped to 2%, with despair skyrocketing to 98%.
By 12:12 – The first runner with the red Tasuki of shame and sorrow arrived... and then a couple more followed. It seemed like the end of the line for us, it was over… everything… I assumed Harrisson too had been handed the red Tasuki.
But then, against all odds, Harrisson emerged with our yellow Tasuki! Namban Rengo has miraculously returned alive from the depths of Hell. Elated, I take the Tasuki from Harrisson yelling “IKEEE” (meaning “Go”)
An explosion of madness and joy
Surprise, happiness, on the edge of tears… the surge of emotion was overwhelming. Fired up, I covered the first downhill kilometer in just 2:32.
Eventually, our anchor runner, Kengo, brought our Yellow Tasuki across the finish line.
Second to last among the yellow Tasukis and 22nd overall at the start of Harrisson’s leg, we placed 17th, narrowly escaping the bottom. Our Yellow Tasuki of pride and honor had survived by a mere 29-second margin over 8 legs, that is 3.6 seconds per leg – a testament to every second’s significance.
From the blistering beginning, braving rain and wind, our team covered 48 km, climbed 3,200 meters elevation gain, and continuously connected with each other to pass our Yellow Tasuki seamlessly.
I’m eternally grateful to my resilient teammates and our wonderful supporters. That triumphant August day, with its emblematic Yellow Tasuki, will forever be etched in my memory.
Since the cut-off teams were scheduled to start at 12:00 p.m., I started the second warm-up of the day around 11:30. As a result, we were able to avoid the cut-off and hold on to our yellow Tasuki, but I was so focused on the race that I was not aware of the color. Maybe I took it for granted that we defended our yellow Tasuki, believing in my teammates.
Imagining that the Tasuki came from Mt. Fuji felt a bit heavier because of our sweat and sense of responsibility.
As for the 11th leg, I had difficulty setting an accurate pace for the downhill, so I just tried to get in the rhythm and keep my legs moving. Thanks to the continuous descent, I passed the 5km at 15:38, almost 30s faster than PB, but I started to slow down. Even though the last 1 km was one of the most challenging experiences in my past races, I managed to bring the Tasuki to the finish. I was thrilled to have finished in the top half of the race with my teammates, especially considering the race’s competitiveness. There is still much room for improvement, and I hope to participate again next year.
(Rotate your screen if read on your mobile)
Leg 1 to 5: uphill, Leg 6: uphill and downhill (summit), leg 7 to 11: downhill
|Estimate||Actual||Cumulative Estimate||Cumulative actual||Team Rank||Leg rank|
|Leg 1 – 5.4km||Kengo||25′||23’56”||25′||23’56”||23||23|
|Leg 2 – 4.6km||Yuta||20′||20’34”||45′||44’30”||13||9|
|Leg 3 – 4.5km||Harri||23′||23’26”||1h08′||1h07’56”||15||24|
|Leg 4 – 2.8km||Vincent||40′||36’53”||1h48′||1h44’49”||21||44|
|Leg 5 – 4.2km||Gary||55′||61’44”||2h43′||2h46’33”||30||37|
|Leg 6 – 2.4km||Derder||50′||40’00”||3h33′||3h26’33”|
|Leg 6 – 2,4km||Derder||13′||14’21”||3h46′||3h40’54”||22||22|
|Leg 7 – 3.6km||Gary||10′||10’54”||3h56′||3h51’48”||24||24|
|Leg 8 – 2.6km||Vincent||10′||7’43”||4h06′||3h59’31”||22||13|
|Leg 9 – 4.5km||Harri||14′||13’00”||4h20′||4h12’31”||20||22|
|Leg 10 – 4.6km||Yuta||13’30”||12’33”||4h33’30”||4h25’04”||17||11|
|Leg11 – 5.5km||Kengo||18′||17’24”||4h51’30”||4h42’28”||17||29|