Home > Training

What is an ekiden relay race?

You may remember hearing of the announcement of the Canadian team selected to race in the 2013 Chiba Ekiden, an international relay race that takes place each November in Japan. Unless you are fluent in Japanese, the term ekiden likely doesn’t mean much to you.

But what if you heard that a Banff ekiden takes place annually each fall? Or that there is a Honolulu ekiden? Seems like it might be a word worth adding to your running vocabulary.

imagesThe word ekiden comes from the combination of the Japanese characters for “station” and “transmit.” In the Edo period of Japanese history (1603-1867), couriers traversed the Tokaido road between Edo (the historic name for Tokyo) and the imperial capital city of Kyoto — a distance of approximately 508K, to deliver messages.

Nowadays, ekidens are a popular type of relay race. There is no specific ekiden distance or number of team members. One of the most renowned is the Chiba ekiden, an international event in which countries send co-ed teams of six to complete a marathon distance in relay style.

Breakdown of the Chiba ekiden: 5K (men), 5K (women), 10K (men), 5K (women), 10K (men), and 7.195K (women)

One thing that all ekiden races have in common is the tasuki, which is the sash that each runner hands off to the next. While running, the tasuki is worn over one shoulder and under the other arm. When entering the transition zone, the tasuki is usually wrapped around one hand, then unwrapped and held out horizontally for the other runner to grasp in the middle. The tasuki is symbolic of the nature of ekidens— sharing the sweat of each team member is representative of communal effort in support of a larger goal.

ekiden relay
Runners wear their tasuki sashes across their chests during the Chiba Ekiden.

In Japan, ekidens are run at both the secondary and post-secondary level. While North American cross-country at the secondary and post-secondary level involves a team element as top finishers are awarded points to tally a team score, that sense of teamwork is a far cry from a relay.

The Hakone ekiden in Japan showcases teams of 10 male students from different universities in the Tokyo region. Each runner completes just over a half-marathon and the race generally draws over a million spectators. The level of performance is comparable to the NCAA. The ekiden is seen as a showcase of the values of Japanese culture, as it demonstrates participation within a larger group through individual perseverance, as well as loyalty to tradition and the established institutions of the universities.

Relays are fun events to race and bond with fellow teammates. If you’ve got a group of running buddies that would make a great team, you might want to break out your new-found knowledge of Japanese and suggest signing up for an ekiden.

Check out the latest buyer's guide:

The best online sales on running gear

Now's the time to stock up on some of your favourite brands