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October 6, 2020

Bringing Ekidens to America May Be Just What The Sport Needs

This week, Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project announced the Michigan Pro Ekiden, a long distance relay race on October 21st featuring seven professional/elite teams from across the country. In a normal year, the best distance runners in the country would be putting their finishing touches on a marathon buildup, rolling through their cross-country seasons or recovering from the Tokyo Olympics. This year, with nearly every mass-participation race canceled, delayed or having gone virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s best have been forced to get creative or clear their schedules.

Many teams have made it work, holding intrasquad exhibitions or virtual dual meets, with some lucky athletes traveling abroad to compete in a limited Diamond League season or the London Marathon. In September, Northern Arizona Elite Elite coach Ben Rosario and agent Josh Cox announced The Marathon Project, a limited-entry marathon in Chandler, AZ featuring top finishers from February’s U.S. Marathon Trials. 

But even as athletes, coaches, race directors, and brands have stepped up to approximate replacements to the lost 2020 races, the frustration and fatigue of the ongoing pandemic persist. It was thrilling to watch Shelby Houlihan destroy the American record, and it will be thrilling to watch a bunch of hungry marathoners toe the line in December, but attempts to recreate lost opportunities remind us of what we’re missing – the city-wide circus of a major marathon, the international spotlight of the Olympics. The eerie quiet of Sunday’s London course was a sobering reminder of what the race was and what it wasn’t. But what if, instead of trying to recapture what we know and love, we used this chance to try something new?

Enter the first elite American Ekiden. Ekidens are wildly popular road relay races in Japan, where participants cover courses ranging from 30 kilometers to 200 kilometers. The “triple crown” of Ekidens is the closest thing Japanese universities have to NCAA championships, if NCAA track/XC championships were the most-watched sporting events in the country. In the U.S., “Ragnar”-style relays are increasing in popularity, where teams will cover long distances, usually on trails or through remote parts of the western U.S., but although races like The Speed Project and Hood to Coast draw an increasingly competitive field, there has been no widespread adoption by professional runners.

In a sport where we are constantly trying to market to a wider popular audience, it makes perfect sense to try to adopt a proven winner from overseas. The drama and excitement of an Ekiden is hard to describe to running fans who haven’t experienced it firsthand but try to imagine that a 4×400 relay and the Tour de France had a baby. Huge deficits can be overcome by singular acts of heroism and a single mistake can change the dynamic of a race entirely. It’s not uncommon for legs of an Ekiden to end with participants literally crawling to the finish after paying the price of a fast early pace in hot weather. Legendary team rivalries have developed over the years and young stars are well-known across the country.

In 2017, I participated as part of the Ivy League alumni team in the Izumo Ekiden, and I’ve never seen anything like it. The atmosphere is comparable to the Boston or New York marathons, but it’s not a mass race – the thousands of spectators lining the streets and tuning in on TV all follow the sport, cheer for their favorites, and know the athletes by name. It was like entering a fantasy world where Bowerman Track Club or Hansons-Brooks has a fan base on par with the Packers or the Yankees. I doubt the Michigan Pro Ekiden will singlehandedly catapult professional running to the top of the ratings, but in a year when all the rules have been thrown out the window, there’s no reason not to get on board and see how it goes.

I love that so many teams are invested. I’ve long been a believer that the key to increasing the popularity of our sport is to generate sustained, widespread interest in teams and team competition. Making the event co-ed is also great – if there is a major downside to Japanese ekidens, it’s that the male races receive far more attention and support than the female ones. Co-ed races can energize a wider fan base since all the Scott Fauble fans and all the Steph Bruce fans can cheer for the same race. The race format increases the potential for surprise outcomes and breakout stars, since the star marathoners and most accomplished track runners may not, in fact, be the best suited to a 6.1K road relay.

I’m looking forward to following results, updates, and tuning in (is there a stream?) on October 21st, but mostly I’m just excited to see so many pro teams get on board for something truly new and unique (at least to the U.S.). Ganbatte!

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