Facts about the Hakone Ekiden

Starting times: Jan. 2 at 8 a.m. (Tokyo to Hakone); Jan. 3 at 8 a.m. (Hakone to Tokyo)

The runners: 20 all-male college track and field teams from the Kanto region (around Tokyo), each with 10 runners.

How to participate: Teams that finish in the top 10 are entitled to compete again the following year. Another nine are selected through a qualifying race in October, in which 45 teams competed this year. The final team allowed to take part is picked by the Kanto university runners’ association, and features individual runners from different universities whose teams did not qualify to compete. The 2009 race will have 23 teams, a bonus of three more than usual, to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the first running of the event.

Highlights: The 23.2 km second leg often features the best runner from every team, as two notorious slopes near the end make it especially challenging. Then, the other dramatic highlight is the 23.4 km fifth leg, which takes runners to the first day’s destination at Hakone. The leg is famed for its steep slopes and curves, with the runners having to climb 864 meters to reach the town in Mount Fuji’s foothills. Every team has a “mountain specialist,” who trains specifically for that leg. Juntendo University’s Masato Imai, who in 2007 set the current record time of 1 hr. 18 min. 5 sec., earned the nickname “Mountain God.”

Tasuki: Teams regard the tasuki (cotton cord) that runners wear during the race and hand to teammates at the end of their stage as a symbol of group solidarity. Nihon University even has its pink tasuki purified at Hakone Shrine.

Gobonuki: One of the attractions of ekiden is to watch runners chase down and overtake others in a single spurt. The word gobonuki comes from the act of pulling (nuki) a burdock (gobo) out of the ground. Daniel Gitau, an international studies major at the Tokyo-based Nihon University campus in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, tied the all-time gobonuki record by passing 15 runners in the 2008 race.

Kuriage sutato (Boosted start): At handover relay points, where runners are on standby to receive their team’s tasuki and start the next stage, members of any teams that have not arrived less than 20 minutes (10 minutes at two of the eight relay points) after the leading team must — to minimize traffic disruption — set off anyway using another “standard-issue” tasuki given by the organizers — except at the last relay point each way, where teams are allowed to have their own “backup” tasuki waiting in order to save face. Runners who fail to hand over their own team’s tasuki at a relay point in time are thus haunted by feelings of guilt and shame for years after.

Follow the races

Ekiden races other than Jan. 2 & 3’s Hakone Ekiden live on TV this year:

New Year Ekiden (TBS)

Start time: 9:05 a.m., New Year’s Day

Participants: Amateur runners from 37 corporate sports teams nationwide

Inter-Prefectural Women’s Ekiden (NHK)

Start time: 12:30 p.m., Jan. 11

Participants: 423 runners representing 47 prefectures

Inter-Prefectural Men’s Ekiden Hiroshima (NHK)

Start time: 12:30 p.m., Jan. 18

Participants: 329 runners representing 47 prefectures