Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Kurahashi Ekiden

(Lost photos for this)

Now I get the pleasure of writing about my first “Ekiden” (Relay-race) in Japan. 駅伝Ekiden’s characters mean station/transmit.  I guess many years ago, information used to be passed by runners running between stations and passing off written information.  Now an Ekiden is varying distance relay races generally having 7 runners on each of the teams.

I was inviting to run for the villiage that I live in, Uwagi. Leading up to the race, several nights a week I ran with another member from team Uwagi and middle-school student Ryuma Nakamoto. Generally we would run 3 laps around Uwagi which was about 3.4 miles total. Often we would see another team Uwagi member Iwashiro-san running at night. On Ryuma’s and my runs we were accompanied by his mother sometimes running with us and sometimes biking.

Team Uwagi had 7 members and each of us had a short segment of the relay race to run ranging from 2km to 3.7km. I was selected to the in the #6 position which was 3.6km.
On my return trip from the USA to Japan from Christmas break, I watched some of the Hakone Ekiden on TV at the airport and was surpised to see how intense it was. Runners would look completely wiped at the end of their segments and would often collapse after finishing.

Two days before the race, Ryumas mom drove Ryuma, Daichi and I to the actual relay course and surpsingly I was requested to run my best time on the section of the relay. Pretty much jumping out of van, I began running the #6 segment of the relay. It was very hilly and the others trailed from behind in the van. After finishing my segment, we watched Ryuma and Daichi run their segments and I was getting very excited for the Ekiden on Sunday.

Sunday morning rolls around and we relay members meet at Fuji-san grocery store before going to the Kurahashi gymnasium for the opening ceremony. The arriving members of team Uwagi were decked out in matching brand warm-up suits.

 Coach Nakano passed out full athletic warmup gear suits which were purple drape coats that kind of looked like boxing warmup jackets. 
After sorting out our sizes for the shorts and Uwagi jerseys we received amino acid supplements, sports drinks, and a recovery drink for after. I’ve noticed Japan seems to be really into the whole accessory and detailed preparation of events. 7 relay runners, two managers, and Coach Nakano all crammed into the van and we headed to the gymnasium.

Arrived at the gymnasium and walked into the the facility feeling like goofy royality in our matching purple suits and red draw string bags carrying out supplies. Only several other teams were decked out to the extent that we were.
Each relay team lined up in the gym and Morimoto-Sensei greeted us in the introduction ceremony. Center Jo-san and Idehata-san spoke briefly. Team Uwagi was lined up on the far right side of the gym, bearing number 1 race bibs because of last year’s victory. Coach Nakano informed me that I would be doing the “Runner’s Oath”  which I assumed each relay team would have a representative give. To my surprise, the Runner’s Oath that I gave was actually for the whole relay event. Cripes.

After the introduction ceremony, we hung outside for a bit and then driven to our respective relay locations. It was exciting knowing the race had begun as we were waiting.

The course was an out-and-back and I was #6 running back towards the start. Also running out as number #4 was another member from Team Uwagi. I expected the first #3 relay runner to be a member of Team Uwagi but I believe they were from Team Murou 1. About a minute or so later, the second place team comes in and I think it was Team Murou 2. Was getting nervous about how far back we were at this point and wondered if we could make up the few minutes that we were behind. At last, I saw Iwashiro-san, making his way to the #4 runner exchange. Watched Iwashiro-san pass off the purple shoulder strap and our #4 runner was off.

By this time, Ishihama-Sensei and Kenshu had showed up to cheer me on and I began a second warm-up. The expected time of our runner was :53 and it was :43. Many cars drove by and I was told to get ready quickly. Now, two runners had run by and I knew that the #5 Uwagi runner would be arriving soon.  I scrambled to get my warm-up clothes off and lace up the shoes. Frantically had to unpin the race bib but I accidently pinned it to my warm-up longsleeve underneath. Not 30 seconds after finishing, I saw Team Uwagi’s Taku running towards me for the pace off. My heart was racing and I was getting exciting to run. Taku passed off the ribbon and I dashed off as I put it around my shoulder and tucked the strap into the back of my pants. I knew there was lots of ground to make up but I was so energized by the sitation of running together as a team and needed to catch up to them. The beginning section was flat and the first time I looked at my watch I saw 4:45min/mile and think I swore outloud and tried to slow down a bit. My section was 3.7km (2.3 miles) which is my shortest race to date. Obviously I didn’t know how to pace myself at a race this short but you learn quickly what kind of pace you can keep. Started the first hill climb and was breathing pretty heavy. Legs felt a bit slow but it was a pretty decent sized hill I was climbing. I knew I was making up ground on the other runners, but could not see any yet.

Kenshu caught up to me on his bike and he was rooting me on. Ishihama Sensei drove by several times cheering and taking pics. Also many cars drove by and would clap and cheer. Our team car was following behind me for a bit and cheering. I caught up with the 2nd place runner and passed him quickly.  Saw the first mile split at 5:35min/mile and I was impressed at the pace with how big of a climb and descend I needed to do. Kept trying to push at the maximum pace for the distance and the legs were getting tired.
 I saw the town/pass-off area which was the exchange spot for the end of my leg, but I wasn’t quite sure if it was the finish. When I realized it was in fact the exchange placed, pushed as hard as I could to pass off the ribbon to our “anchor” Nakada-san.  

Was greeted by 5 other enthusiastic Team Uwagi members who jumped out of the van to say “good job”. We quickly hopped in the van and drove to catch up to Nakada-san trying to catch the 1st place runner.

Our #7 runner was also by chance, a 2:59 marathoner.
We droved passed Nakada-san who was cruising and I screamed loudly at him out the window. Despite him not knowing what I said in English, I am sure he got the point. We caught up to the 1st runner and he appeared to be running significantly slower than our runner which made me hopeful that Nakada-san could pass him in the remaining 2 or so miles left. We drove to the finish line where we would wait for the first sight of a runner. Our teamed to not be very quite sure if Nakada-san would catch him and I was scared I was being overly optimistic. After waiting for some time, we saw the first runner come around the corner.

We saw the purple and white colors of Team Uwagi and we all screamed in excitement. Nakada-san had passed the 1st place runner and ran through the finish line. We congratulated each other at the finish line. What a dramatic finish!

We watched and cheered for the other runners as they finished. After the runners finished we went over to the community center area and had zenzai (liquid azuki bean paste and pounded rice). It was super good (all 5 bowls of it).

The race ended in a closing ceremony. Again we were greeted by Morimoto-Sensei in which he also announced the awards. As he was announcing the awards for each section he announced my award in English which was cool to hear.
After basking in our 1st place jolly spirits for a bit hanging around the community center, we were drove home by Ryuma’s mom and I showered quickly to go back up to the community center to watch the “20 year old ceremony”. Took some pictures with the Kimono girls and some guys in traditional clothing. (ahh lost all these pictures! :(

Quickly rushed from the ceremony to meet Ryuma’s mother again over at Komeri Hardware Store. We drove to Saijo where our team went to an all-you-can-eat/drink yakiniku place. So many good foods.. salad, curry rice, sushi, ramen, meat, and drank many beers. Nakada-san was pounding the beers and I was trying to keep pace We had quite a large group and it was fun hanging out with Uwagi people for the first time. Had 3 glasses of wine before we left and from there we went to karaoke in Kure-city. Details from beyond this moment, remain in the pictures that provide evidence of the fun night we all had.

This was my first experience of an Ekiden and it was very exciting. It was such a communal feeling to not only be running for yourself, but for a group of 6 other guys who were depending on you. 

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