If you’ve been watching Run with the Wind or have heard through the grapevine what it’s about, you’ve seen the characters talk about something that’s called the Hakone Ekiden. Through the first two episodes, not much has been said about what exactly that is, other than Haiji being adamant that the group can run it and Kakeru disagreeing. Obviously it has to do with running, but here’s some basic facts about the Hakone Ekiden: The Guardian called it potentially “the greatest race on Earth.” It’s also viewed by around 30% of Japan’s population on TV—for context, the Super Bowl is the highest-rated TV broadcast each year in the United States and pulls in roughly 30-35% of the population watching. So, it’s a popular sporting event, but what does it entail?
The Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, or Hakone Ekiden, is one of Japan’s biggest ekiden (relay marathons) that occurs from January 2nd to the 3rd. There are plenty of ekiden events throughout Japan, but the Hakone Ekiden brings out the best collegiate talent from all over the country. Over the course of two days, teams will run a combined total of 217.9 kilometers (135.4 miles). The keyword there is teams, as having someone run that much by themselves would probably be impossible.
With ekiden races being relay marathons, how do they differ from a regular marathon race? The two biggest are the length and participants. With ekiden utilizing teams, it cuts down on the distance an athlete would run. Compared to a marathon, the Hakone Ekiden is roughly 175.7 kilometers longer as well. Since the Hakone Ekiden is a two day event, it’s also split up into ten different sections: five on the first day and five on the second. These sections actually could be classified as mini-marathons since they range from 18.5 kilometers as the shortest to 23.4 kilometers being the longest—that’s still a lot of running.
Now, you’re probably reading this and thinking “what makes this such a popular event?” How does over a quarter of the country tune in each year to watch it, and why? One reason can be that it’s a historic and time-honored event. People enjoy tuning in and watching events that have that sort of clout and prestige regardless of what it is, but that’s not the sole reason.
Sports are enjoyable for numerous reasons, but two that come to mind and connect to the Hakone Ekiden are a love of competition and drama—this is a race that gives both in large amounts. With the race being the best collegiate talent in Japan and only 20 teams, that means only the best of the best are involved. Ten teams qualify from the previous year’s top ten, nine others join via a qualifying race in October, and the final team is a mixture of individuals that are from teams that don’t qualify for the Hakone Ekiden. If you make it to the starting line, you deserve to be there.
Some people will tell you that the greatest drama that can be watched comes from sports. With that level of competition, the athleticism, and the drama is going to be at the pinnacle of intensity. When you watch the Hakone Ekiden, you know you’re seeing the absolute best, which in sports can mean you’ll see something special. In fact, with the high level of competition, if a team has a runner unable to complete one of the sections, the entire team is disqualified. That raises the stakes not only for the viewers, but for the teams as well. However, compared to other races, the Hakone Ekiden has the benefit of being a relay marathon, which brings with it its own drama that is hard to replicate.
This race has immense drama in spades, with battles for position throughout each section and not just for the win overall, but to finish in the top ten to ensure a guaranteed entry in next year’s race. The relay portion also brings incredible drama because of the handoff: whether or not a runner is able to be successful there can be the difference between victory and defeat. There is also a time rule where if a team is 20 minutes behind the lead team, the next runner has to go without receiving a handoff, and a time penalty where fans and spectators will eagerly watch the time to see if this occurs.
Since we’ve gone through what makes up the Hakone Ekiden and how to qualify, how exactly are Haiji and his group going to qualify when most of them probably aren’t ready for a running event at this elite of a level? Well, they have two options: one is to race in the qualifier and earn a spot that way. Since that’s only a 20 kilometer race, that could be doable. The other is to be the select team, which would be harder, since that’s made up of individuals all over the country. This is, of course, if the series follows the same rules as the actual event. Regardless, it’s going to be anything but easy.
It’s not often that a single sporting event can bring together large swaths of a country, but the Hakone Ekiden is able to through its history, competitive spirit, and incredible drama. With the race being a prominent aspect of Run with the Wind, perhaps the 2019 iteration will see an even higher boost in viewers both domestic and abroad. Maybe you’ll want to check it out after watching the anime to see what all they hype is about, or start running yourself. If you start now, by the time Run with the Wind has finished airing, you might be ready to run a race as well!