Can you imagine running a marathon, or even an ultramarathon, as part of a long-distance relay team? Over the course of a morning or even multiple days, each of your teammates would run a long-distance leg before reaching an exchange zone and passing along a wearable sash, or tasuki, to the next runner to continue the race. I had the chance to participate in one of these races while competing for Team USA in Chiba, Japan and it was an experience I will never forget.

This unique race style is called an ekiden, and it is a hugely popular race format in Japan, where it originated. Ekidens have since expanded to other countries around the globe. The term ekiden roughly means “to convey between stations” and was the name of the transportation system government officials once used to relay documents throughout the country. For the Chiba Ekiden, each participating country invited three female and three male athletes to run legs of varying distance to total 42km, or a full marathon. After being bussed with the other female runners in my leg to the designated spot along the course, I warmed up and then stood in an exchange zone at the beginning of my “station” waiting for my US teammate to hand off the team tasuki.

I knew I was being welcomed into a long-standing tradition as the ekiden holds a strong place in Japanese culture. The first running ekiden occurred in 1917 in the celebration of Tokyo’s 50th Anniversary as the nation’s capital. Today, runners ranging in ability from school-age students to professionals take part in these events throughout the country, many of which are high-level athletic events. It is popular for businesses to boast professional racing teams made up of their employees. These teams often constitute the most competitive ekiden races. 

Because of the importance placed on both collective success and group identity over the individual, as well as persevering internally through challenging times, the ekiden resonates with ethics that drive the nation already. Running has become popular in Japan due in part to the strong mind-body connection it fosters which is seen in many aspects of traditional Japanese customs. 

As Japan’s biggest sporting events, ekidens receive full network television coverage and are attended by hundreds of thousands or even up to one million spectators along the race course. Many races take place on bank holidays where most of the public can tune in and cheer the runners along. They are not only entertaining sporting events but ones with strong ties to sponsors and the local economy. I saw this first hand while competing. Once I had my tasuki in hand, I began my 5K leg, placing the sash around my body as I looked ahead to some of the competitors who had gotten a head start on me while knowing the others were close behind. Despite not having any competitors right alongside me, I didn’t feel alone. I was amazed at the cheers heard along the way, with little flags representing all the participating countries waving in the hands of local fans as we ran by. 

The race started and finished in a track stadium, weaving through hilly, turning streets around the city of Chiba. The sports complex held shorter track races while broadcasting the longer road-based relay event, with entertainment provided by musicians and mascots. 

I finished my leg in exhaustion, not knowing any of my splits or my final time aside from the intermittent data I had received on my GPS watch. Once I was bussed back to the stadium, I met up with my teammates where we awaited the arrival of our final runner to the finish line. Team USA placed 6th that day, behind teams representing Japan, Kenya, Russia, and New Zealand. Despite missing the podium, being part of such a historical tradition and cultural event still felt like a win.