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The World | COLUMN ONE

2 Days of Torment, Triumph

In Japan, it isn't a new year without the Hakone Ekiden, a 130-mile race that pushes runners to the brink and keeps the nation glued to its TVs.


TOKYO — It is the sheer grit, and heartbreak, of runners such as Yuji Nakamura that once again will keep tens of millions of Japanese glued to their TVs for 13 hours Wednesday and Thursday.

Nakamura ran with all his might on the second and longest leg of the brutal, 130-mile Hakone Ekiden relay a few years ago. But his bum knee kicked in, and for miles seemingly all of Japan watched as Nakamura--then an Olympic marathon contender--hobbled and grimaced but refused to throw in the towel.

His coach finally took matters into his own hands, giving Nakamura the feared tap on the shoulder, meaning "You're out." Nakamura covered his eyes with his hand, grabbed on to his coach's car for support, and wept.

His entire squad was disqualified, but his teammates ran their paces anyway, forced to wear a yellow sash--a sash of dishonor.

The annual Hakone Ekiden is to New Year's in Japan what the Rose Bowl is to the United States, and then some. Maybe with the NCAA Final Four thrown in.

Fifteen 10-member, all-male squads from Japan's universities compete. Schools go so far as to recruit athletes from Africa, who stand out among the otherwise homogenous Japanese runners.

It is a grueling competition, with runners frequently collapsing from dehydration; no water was allowed until recently, and even now it is permitted only once each relay leg, at the 10-kilometer mark, roughly the halfway point. (In a marathon, it is furnished every five kilometers, about three miles.)

"It's only 20 kilometers. They don't need water," says legendary marathoner and ekiden racer Toshihiko Seko, who won the Boston Marathon twice and now coaches a corporate team for other ekidens.

Millions line the asphalt route from downtown Tokyo to the resort town of Hakone, while millions more watch from home during the O-Shogatsu (New Year's) holidays that virtually shut down Japan for the week.

"The fact that the Japanese are getting drunk on sake while the kids are out there killing themselves adds to the drama," says Robert Whiting, an expert on Japanese sports. "Leave it to the Japanese to think of something more difficult than a marathon."

Some call the race a metaphor for the samurai spirit. "It symbolizes life itself," says Kenji Asai, 58, a company worker. "Even if you alone win your leg [of the race], it's not that meaningful. You have to work as a team and trust each other. You have to pass something [the tasuki, or team sash] to the others to get to the goal."

Adds his wife, Yoko, 55, a homemaker whose heart aches for runners who struggle: "It's so profound. I see the greatness of human strength and will through ekiden."

But the race also shows a dark side of Japan's vaunted teamwork.

While there are no superheroes in the ekiden--even a superhuman performance by a runner won't guarantee a win--anyone who lets the team down shoulders an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility. Athletes who get sick or injured and can't complete their legs often find that the race haunts them forever, ruining their running careers and even their lives.

Historical failures are dredged up annually on television programs and in magazines previewing the race.

Takashi Sugisaki was anchor of the 1974 team when he stumbled about a mile before the end, picked himself up, then fainted from exhaustion not far from the finish line. "Because of me, the sash of Aoyama Gakuin University was dishonored," he recalled in the 1994 book "Enjoy Hakone Ekiden 10 Times More." "It's been more than 20 years, but I'm still struggling with that 150 meters."

Nakamura, who got the tap on the shoulder in 1996, considered suicide. "I was so sad, had so many regrets and was in shock because I'd done something from which I could never redeem myself," he recalled in a telephone interview.

The first ekiden, in 1917, was 304 miles long and lasted three days. Runners stopped at 23 eki, or postal stations, along major roads to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the transfer of power from the ancient capital of Kyoto to Tokyo.

Ekidens are now run in places around the world, with races tailored for high schoolers, girls, professional squads sponsored by corporations and others--and with courses that are usually far shorter.

But the Hakone Ekiden, which dates to 1924, seems to border on the sadistic. Each squad member runs close to a half-marathon. (Five racers run each day, and the entire thing is televised live.) To train, teams run up and down mountains in Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

One leg of the Hakone course is virtually entirely uphill, a slow climb up a mountain that makes the Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill look like an anthill. The next leg, coming down, is brutal on the knees.

Runners sometimes battle snow and ice, heavy winds and freezing rain--that's part of the poetry, apparently.

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