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2 Days of Torment, Triumph

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

“The true pleasure is found after going through agony,” the late Shoichiro Takenaka, recalling at age 80 his ekiden races in the 1930s, said in a television documentary. “There’s no play without struggle and agony.”

The runners get sick, dehydrate, collapse, swoon, and still they don’t give up, for there are no substitutions allowed once the race starts. They press as hard as they can to deliver the tasuki even one second faster to their teammate. If any runner falls more than 10 minutes behind the leader, the entire team forfeits. And any team that is disqualified forfeits its automatic berth in the following year’s race.

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“Because my school has a long tradition, and so many fans and graduates are supporting us, I feel the great importance of the tasuki,” said runner Makoto Yabana of Waseda University, which lost its seeding last year and is ranked 10th this year. “So I must not stop--even if I die.”

The ekiden requires more complex strategies than Western relays, in which the strongest runner usually runs the last leg. The second leg in the ekiden, about 14 miles, is the longest, so it is usually given to the top runner. For other legs, coaches must consider criteria such as who runs best uphill and who performs best in the morning cold and afternoon warmth.

In the U.S., sports have long been played for enjoyment and to release tension, motives that are secondary in Japan to doryoku, or effort--which is an end in itself, says Whiting, who lives in Japan and wrote “You Gotta Have Wa,” a book about Japanese baseball.

“Japanese grafted the philosophy of martial arts, based on zen-samurai thought, onto imported foreign sports--a philosophy stressing endless training, dedication, development of spirit, obedience and self-sacrifice,” Whiting says. “The idea was to teach the all-important lesson that nothing comes easy in life.”

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Hence, Japan’s “Thousand Fungo Drill” for baseball fielding and throwing practice. Instead of letting players quit when they tire, that’s the time Japanese coaches really turn up the heat, continuing the drill until the athletes literally drop from exhaustion.

Naohiko Arai, producer of the ekiden television program for the NTV network, argues that enjoyment is becoming more important in Japan. “Now most runners respond like an American--'I’m doing this for my own sake.’ ”

Seko, the marathoner and ekiden coach, says, “Of course I love running, but there’d be a problem in Japan if I said it was all about me, me, me.”

Pressure to win is intertwined with national identity. When marathoner Kokichi Tsuburaya won a bronze medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he apologized. Four years later, after suffering an injury while training for the next games--and finding his former fiancee, whom his coach had refused to let him marry for fear of disrupting his concentration, wed to someone else--he killed himself, leaving behind a note again apologizing for letting his country down.

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Apologies, and tears, abound in Japan for anything less than a gold-medal performance. “How disappointing,” said Olympic swimmer Yasuko Tajima upon earning the silver in the 400-meter individual medley at the Sydney Olympics.

Seko, who previously coached Waseda’s ekiden team, says the pressure becomes particularly fierce as an athlete gets more prominent.

Runners feel they owe something to their schools. Pressure ratchets up all the more as fans wave school flags and cheer the runners on. “Gambare!"--fight harder--they scream. In some years, the coaches have run alongside their charges, singing the school song, bringing tears to the eyes of both runner and coach.

But coaches must also be mindful that the Hakone Ekiden can ruin a good runner, Seko says.

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In his first year as a coach at Waseda, Seko put Seiji Kushibe in the race the day after he’d gotten food poisoning from sashimi donated by an alumnus.

There was great pressure for him to run: Kushibe’s time was five minutes faster than the substitute’s, and he seemed fine the morning of the race. But as he ran, he began to swoon, became delusional and could barely keep himself upright as he handed over the tasuki in dead last place.

In later years, Kushibe worked hard and ran tremendously well in practice sessions--but he faltered in marathons and ekidens, developing blisters or becoming dehydrated, Seko says.

“Ten years later, he’s still dragging that feeling around,” he says.

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Takashi Ito, who last year couldn’t complete his leg of the race because of a fever, says frankly that he’s “still sort of depressed. I just can’t forget it.”

Ito, now with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, blames himself. “There was criticism of the coach to let me run,” he says stoically. “Yes, Japanese do try to internalize the blame, but overall in my case, I still think it’s my fault. . . . I had a mission to pursue and I couldn’t pursue it. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine. It’s also my fault that I had a fever the previous night.”

Coach Seko agrees that, indeed, athletes are to blame if they get sick.

“If they catch a cold, it’s because they should have been careful. I tell them every day, don’t eat sashimi or drink cold milk in the morning. Go to bed early.”

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He also tells them to avoid crowded places, which is akin to telling a driver in Los Angeles to avoid the freeways.

Yuji Nakamura’s televised breakdown came during his junior year at Yamanashi Gakuin University. He rarely left his dorm room for four months afterward and barely uttered a word to anyone. Moreover, his knee injury had ruined his chances to compete as an Olympic marathoner.

Then, after watching his kohai, a younger student whom he had mentored, compete in a race, Nakamura began to feel miserable being on the sidelines.

In June 1996, he was invited by a corporate team to do high-altitude training in Boulder, Colo., and he got back into a rigorous training schedule.

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As New Year’s and the Hakone Ekiden drew closer that year, however, his nerves became tighter. With two weeks to go, chronic diarrhea kicked in. He couldn’t sleep, could barely eat. The night before the race, he was so exhausted that he slept as if he were in a coma.

On race day, Nakamura awoke refreshed. His coach jogged with him to see how he was holding up. “He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t say anything,” Nakamura recalls. “Everything was communicated without words.”

When he got the Persian-blue tasuki after the first leg, his team was far behind. Somehow, he managed to summon his energy and focus as never before. He fell into a trance so deep, he didn’t notice his parents or all the supporters on the sidelines cheering him on. All he could see was an image of himself running a step at a time. One by one, he overtook all eight runners ahead of him; when he handed over the tasuki, his team was in first place. An enormous wave of relief washed over him.

The team’s lead waxed and waned over the next several legs, and his team ultimately placed second.

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The comeback didn’t alleviate Nakamura’s misgivings over his failure a year earlier. But his spirits were bolstered when he received a homemade video of a fourth-grade class acting out his trials in the earlier race and his triumphant return.

Now, after running on a corporate team for five years, the tall and willowy Nakamura, 31, is back on his family’s farm in southern Japan, growing melons and rice. He still runs in shorter local races.

If he had it all to do again, would he run that dismal year? He says it made him stronger. “Such huge pressure is one of the attractions. Many students want to break through the pressure and achieve.”

And if he ever has a son, “I’d wish for him to run Hakone too.”

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Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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