70th Okutama Ekiden – REPORT

This year’s Okutama marked the 70th edition. Perfect conditions greeted the Namban Rengo horde in the mountains west of Tokyo. The weather was cool and crisp, but the sun made running in shorts and singlet possible.

Namban fielded a womens team, which came 12th (a fine effort against some really strong univerity teams); and two mens teams, who did well, finishing mid-pack and, more importantly, avoiding the dreaded “White Sash” that is given to teams that don’t make the cut-off time.

The event is great - how often do you get to mix with pros and top university teams, and be served by an army of timekeepers, police escorts and other officials? It makes you feel special to be running in such exalted company.

Okutama is a proper ekiden in that it runs from eki (train station) to eki. This can, however, mean you need to catch a lot of trains — one or two to get to the start and pick up your number in Kabe, another one to get to your start point, another to get back to the finish.

The start point for the third leg was a very low-key affair. A small laneway became a makeshift changing area. Blue coated officials set about marking the main road through the town of Kori with tape and setting up tables. Three portaloos serve the needs of 120 nervous runners (note to self: bring a peg for nose next time). The area transforms into a sea of university tracksuits — mainly the distinctive green of Asia University, which fielded five teams, and the dark blue of Tokyo Metropolitan, which had three teams.

All of the runners crush toward the edge of the road as the runners on the second leg begin to appear, each hoping the next runner to come into view will be from their team. A few are caught unware and have to burst through the pack of waiting bodies and out onto the road to collect their sash.

The event is set in the mountains, and the climbs on stage 3 really dragged, but hills are great for your form. And while the crowds on the road were thin, they were very encouraging for the foreign guy.

But it can also be a lonely event - there are no kilometer markers, so it’s an odd race in terms of judging how you went.

I’d been told that “a tunnel” marked the end of stage 3, but what I hadn’t been told was there are four or five tunnels on the course. I picked up the pace after the first tunnel, but then saw a second and realised I couldn’t be near the end. The tunnels made everything sound very strange. All I could hear was my feet slapping on the ground and my laboured breathing. I was like a Kraftwerk song - all synthetic breathing sounds and Teutonic beats.

A couple of kilometers came and went, then I saw police lights and realised that this meant the fast guys were on the return leg. Amazing. So far ahead. An Asia University runner came flying past (at least, his green outfit makes me believe his was an Asia runner). I listened to the tap, tap, tap of his shoes as they skimmed the ground. He was not only turning over his legs twice as fast as me he was also travelling much further with every step.

Asia University E won the race in 2 hours 24 mins 24 seconds; Overpace A came second; and Tokyo University came third.

Incredibly, Overpace isn’t even a pro team. The team comprised six guys who entered for the first time because, to quote them “We thought we could do OK.” It’d be interesting to know the histories of these average Joe runners!

The fastest runner on stage 3 did it in 20min 35sec! For an uphill 6.5km.

AC Kita won the women’s race in 40min 42sec.

This event is special, one of the oldest team relay events in the world, top class runners, superbly organized and well worth the number of train journeys involved.
Official Namban results will follow soon. Thanks to Gordon Knight for the report, and Chiba-san for the photos.