217.9 kilometres is the distance, and only one team will be able to celebrate at the finish.
About 200 students meet at the beginning of every year on January 2nd and 3rd in the east of Japan, where the most popular race of the country takes place. Actually, it is a relay race between the fastest runners from over 20 universities of the "Inter-University Athletic Union of Kanto" (関東学生陸上競技連盟 Kantō gakusei rikujō kyōgi renmei). But for the participating students the Hakone Ekiden (箱根駅伝),is at least as important and prestigious as the famous boat race between the English universities Oxford and Cambridge.
10 runners per team compete against each other to cover the distance between Tokyo and Hakone and back. On each of the two days there are 5 stages to be reached where the sash is passed from runner to runner, the distances range from 18.5 to 23.4 kilometers and can each roughly be compared to a half marathon. The only difference is that you don't have to run comfortably through the city, but in winter temperatures into the mountains, where they have to fight not only against time and themselves, but also against many slopes and curves.
This race has been held since 1920 and the number of participating universities has increased from 4 to 20 over the years. For many students, it is already an honor to participate and a great opportunity to present themselves as self-sacrificing and ambitious teammates. Exactly the values that are important in the Japanese working world and a good performance at the Ekiden race could be the stepping stone into the professional life for some of the participants. Showing that they are willing to give their best would be a big asset in the upcoming job interviews, as many big companies also have their own company sports teams. So Ekiden is about much more than just winning a relay race.
The race is a major media event and television coverage normally reaches ratings of 30 percent. A value that other international sporting events can only dream of. And the running track is also lined with thousands of spectators who frenetically cheer on the tireless runners and push them way fast their limits.
The race starts in Tokyo and then it goes out from the metropolis to the mountains of the Hakone region, a popular holiday destination with many hot springs very close to the famous and scenic Mt. Fuji. The route leads partly directly along the ocean coast and the strong wind can make running quite a challenge. And there are many steep slops on most sections of the Ekiden which demand the runner's full commitment and concentration. There is no time to enjoy the often beautiful view, except for the spectators, who watch the race comfortably from their own armchairs.
In the afternoon of the first day, after five sections and 108 kilometers, the teams arrive in Hakone and for half of the participating students, the work is already done and they have to trust their teammates and hope that they too will give their all on the second day to finish the Ekiden race successfully for their own university.
On the second day they will return to Tokyo, the way back is 109.9 kilometers and little longer and eventually there will be only one team to cheer.
At the end of the two days the times of all runners will be added up and the fastest team will be declared the winner.
In this race only the first place counts, according to the Japanese view all teams that finish behind the champions didn't win.
The first ten teams will then be seeded for next year's Ekiden and will not have to qualify for the 100th anniversary race during the course of this year.
But first of all 200 young athletes will give their all today and tomorrow on the track from Tokyo to Hakone and back again and at the finishes of the different stages the camera will again capture pictures this year of runners who collapse after arriving because they have completely exhausted themselves.
For the last four years it was the Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo who at the end of the race was able to claim the victory. Let's see this year which university will celebrate at the end.
It will only be one!
PS: After the first day, it doesn't look like Aoyama will be defending last year's title. Even they were still in the lead after the third stage, in Hakone it was Toyo University that cheered the win of the first leg and now have a 74-second lead over the second placed Tokai University.