If They Build an Ekiden in Michigan, Will Anyone Come?

If They Build an Ekiden in Michigan, Will Anyone Come?

The first edition of the relay race in Michigan was successful by the athlete’s standards, who hope there is another edition in 2021.

If They Build an Ekiden in Michigan, Will Anyone Come?
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 027, October 2020

Words and photos by Liam Boylan-Pett 

Late this summer, Lee Troop reached out to Brett Larner. Larner, who lives in Japan and is the founder of Japan Running News, is often the first stop for English-speaking runners seeking advice on Japanese running culture. Troop, who coaches T.E.A.M. Boulder and soon-to-be Olympic marathoner Jake Riley, had a request: He needed some authentic tasuki. 

A tasuki is a sash runners wear in an Ekiden, a multistage distance relay race that originated in Japan. And Troop, who was working with Kevin Hanson, Amy Begley, and Ben Rosario to put on an Ekiden in Michigan during a pandemic, wanted to do things right. Larner consulted on Ekiden rules and etiquette, and he offered to help secure authentic tasuki. 

Larner, who is the former agent and often-times translator for 2018 Boston Marathon champion Yuki Kawauchi, reached out to some folks at Sanwa Shokai, a manufacturing company in Osaka who could make tasuki according to official specs. Using an online ordering system, Larner selected colors and entered stitching instructions and styles—Larner wanted embroidered sashes rather than print—for eight custom tasuki; one for each team set to run the Michigan version of the Ekiden. 

One week after putting the final touches on the design, the tasuki were with Larner. About one week later, the sashes, a 65/35 percent cotton/polyester blend with embroidered team initials, were with Kevin and Keith Hanson, the brothers behind the Hansons Brooks Original Distance Project, in Michigan, ready for racing.

On October 21, seven men stood at the start line of the Michigan Pro Ekiden in Stoney Creek Metro Park, about 45 minutes north of Detroit. They fidgeted one last time with their tasuki, which were draped over one shoulder, under the other, and—for most competitors—tucked into their shorts. The gun fired, and they took off for a 10-kilometer leg. After about 4 miles, Northern Arizona Elite’s Tyler Day broke away from the pack. At points, with the wind howling around, Day’s tasuki untucked from his shorts, and he grabbed it to keep it stable. Once he hit the final 100 yards of his leg, with teammate Lauren Paquette in sight, Day, who said he hadn’t worn a sash since his Boy Scout days, took the sash off and “white knuckled” it, as he said, around his hand. Then, he stretched it out between two hands and handed it to Paquette, who carefully yet hurriedly placed it over her left shoulder and wriggled her right arm through it while beginning her 6.1-kilometer leg.

Just minutes after finishing, and still catching his breath, day walk-jogged over toward the start line where Paquette was doing a loop early in her stage. He cheered her on. This was his first race with N.A.Z. Elite, and he was excited to be doing it with a team. He was also excited about the future. Paquette was less than five minutes into her run and Day told me, “I would love to come back here if they make this an ongoing thing.” 

The question is, will the Michigan Pro Ekiden be back next year? 

Distance relays are not a new concept in the U.S. Races like the now defunct Fred Brown Relay around Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire or the Hood to Coast Relay from the top of Mount Hood to the coast in Oregon have been around for decades. And other relay races like the invite-only Speed Project—a race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas—have popped up in recent years during the content-driven social media era.

But Wednesday’s race around a park in Michigan was one of the first professional Ekiden races in the United States. 

The first official Ekiden in Japan was a three-day race covering 508 kilometers from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1917. Written in Japanese, the word “ekiden” combines the characters for “station” and “transmit” (as seen in the page breaks of this story), with the tasuki being transmitted at each station or exchange zone. There is no set rule on distance or number of legs in an Ekiden, but its popularity in Japan is more akin to the U.S.’s biggest marathons—if they had the T.V. viewership of the National Football League.

The most popular Ekiden races are the Chiba Ekiden (which splits up legs of 10, 5 and 7.195 kilometers to reach a marathon) and the Hakone Ekiden (where ten-athlete teams each run roughly a half-marathon over the course of two days. There are also smaller Ekiden runs, like local road races that could be something as simple as four-person teams all running a 2.9-kilometer loop, like Larner’s local race in 2012. 

Larner noted that he believed for the Olympics to ever pick up an Ekiden-style road race, it would be the Chiba Ekiden, with the marathon distance of the relay being an easy distance for the casual viewer to understand. In fact, from 1986 to 1998, the I.A.A.F. (now World Athletics) put on a world championship road-race relay with legs of 10, 7, 8, 5, and 12.195 kilometers. The race petered out, however, and is no longer run.

When Troop reached out to Larner to ask for help securing tasuki, the idea was to run the marathon distance in the Michigan Ekiden, too. A group text chain with coaches Kevin and Keith Hanson of Hansons Brooks Original Distance Project, Amy Begley of the Atlanta Track Club, Ben Rosario of N.A.Z. Elite and Troop had concocted a plan for a coed Ekiden in the Detroit area that would have six athletes run 26.2 miles. With three men and women on each team, each would take up a 10-, 6.1-, and 5-kilometer leg. If they were going to do an Ekiden, the coaches all thought, they might as well do it right. 

That is why for the eight teams signed up for the race, some flying and driving in from all over the country, there were tasuki and rules for exchange zones based on the consultation of Larner. In many of the pre-race releases and interviews, Hanson and the other coaches said how much they were hoping to pay homage to Japanese Ekiden races. 

Due to the pandemic, the 2020 racing season in the U.S. has been a patchwork of small track races at undisclosed locations. But runners, based on their social media feeds, it seemed, were eager to race. The pandemic may have rid the U.S. of its normal track meets, but it did allow for some experimentation. Whether a blue jeans mile or an Ekiden, race directors and coaches have been able to throw ideas at a wall. 

It will be interesting to see which ones stick.

In the end, only seven teams toed the start line. The Bowerman Track Club, known for picking and choosing their races sparsely, had originally signed up. Unfortunately, one of the runners was exposed to a known case of COVID-19, so they made the right decision to stay home.

So, on October 21, teams from N.A.Z. Elite, , Atlanta Track Club, T.E.A.M Boulder, Minnesota Distance Elite, Roots Running, and two from Hanson’s Brooks Original Distance Project lined up for a 26.2-mile Ekiden.

Moments before the race, after helping Day pin his bib number on, Rosario, the coach of N.A.Z. Elite told me he hoped the race would happen again next year. Behind his mask, his excitement showed. He loved the idea of an Ekiden. Running over a rolling, turning course on a windy day, Rosario—who had run for Hansons in the early 2000s—was not concerned about pace. He said his runners were early into training, but he wanted them to get something out of the race. The night before, one of his athletes asked about the plan for her leg, thinking he would give her a race plan. “I want you to go hard,” he said. 

That is exactly what his team did. Day handed off in first, running the first 10 kilometers in 28 minutes, 44 seconds to give N.A.Z. Elite a 15-second lead over Hanson’s “A” Team. Day passed the tasuki to Paquette in front of about 75 people watching in masks. There were about 150 people there to watch the race, with some walkers and joggers in the park to do their own exercising. Paquette had the fastest leg on the second leg to extend the lead to 24 seconds. 

From there, each N.A.Z. Elite team member extended the lead. Rory Linkletter went after Paquette and passed the sash to Kellyn Taylor who passed to Scott Fauble who passed to Danielle Shanahan, who crossed the finish line first in a combined time of 2 hours, 10 minutes, 11 seconds. The Hanson’s “A” Team held on for second in 2 hours, 12 minutes, 8 seconds, and Minnesota Distance Elite was third. A few N.A.Z. Elite runners joked that they had not even beaten Fauble’s best over the distance, the 2 hours, 9 minutes, 9 seconds he ran in Boston in 2019. 

The ending was anticlimactic. There was no award ceremony. The N.A.Z. Elite team posed for a few photos for fans with phones. Keith Hanson, Kevin’s brother and another organizer of the event, handed out envelopes with the prize money. There were, however, plenty of happy faces. A lot of people mentioned how they hoped the event would happen again, including Nick Willis, the two-time 1,500-meter Olympic medalist for New Zealand who was on-site providing Instagram updates for his followers.

In 2013, Willis put on a track meet in Saline, Michigan, just south of Ann Arbor. On short notice, he pulled together a slew of elite and sub-elite runners to race the mile before he jetted off to Moscow for the world track and field championships. That day, Willis led the way as seven athletes broke 4 minutes. 

I was there, running 3 minutes, 59.5 seconds for seventh place. The race was a joy. Thousands filled the bleachers on the homestretch and screamed as we sprinted down the backstretch.  I was there again the next year, too, when Willis once again won the race—now the Michigan Track Classic—which also hosted a women’s 800 meters. It was bigger and better. Willis talked about making it even bigger and better in the following years. On the Michigan Track Classic’s website, the meet’s stated mission was to “hold the 2016 Michigan Track Classic at Eastern Michigan University’s 30,000-seat Rynearson Stadium weeks before the Rio Olympics.” I was one of the many hoping that mission statement would ring true. 

However, there was no Michigan Track Classic in 2015. It did not happen in 2016, either. 

The best laid plans of meeting directors and track and field promoters in the U.S., it so often seems, often go awry.

This is not to pick on race directors. Remember the Tracktown Summer Series that took place after the 2016 Olympic Trials? Athletes were put onto teams and the event was hosted over several meets in different cities. ESPN and ESPN2 even broadcast a few of the competitions. The series returned in 2017 but disappeared the following summer.

Some meets continue to improve and seem to be building—see the Portland Track Festival and its series of Big Friendly track meets this summer—but it is not easy to put on a track meet or road race.

The Michigan Pro Ekiden was streamed on Facebook. With only three weeks to prepare, the production team was put in a less than enviable position. Using phones, drones, and a small production team, they did their best, but a park in Michigan with sometimes spotty phone service made for a tough stream. Over the approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes on air—which had over 10,000 views, according to Facebook’s external numbers—only bits of the race made the show. The hosts brought in athletes to fill the dead air, but if there is to be a second edition of the Michigan Pro Ekiden, a better streaming situation would be necessary. 

The rest of the event, however, seemed to go on without a hitch.

Which was why spectators and racers alike were talking about the potential of making the race a yearly event. 

“We want to put this race on again,” Kevin Hanson told me after the event, “but we know it won’t necessarily be as easy next year.” 

Hanson explained that athletes were itching for a chance to race. Next year, pandemic willing, there will be marathons and other events to contend with. When an athlete is offered $5,000 to go race a half-marathon in Philadelphia, there is a better chance they will be there than in Detroit for an Ekiden that, this year, had $5,000 in total prize money. The coaches were the ones who pooled together $5,000 in prize money for the athletes. The winning team split $2,000 and the fastest athlete on each leg received an envelope with $500. 

On October 28, the Hansons are hosting a half-marathon, too. It will be in Stoney Creek Metro Park, too. There is no prize money in that event. While Hanson hopes that event goes well, too, it was the Ekiden that mattered. 

It is important, Hanson knows, to give the athletes a reason to return. Yes, the athletes had fun, but they are also professionals. Racing is how they make money. 

In the future, it will be about money. Money for the athletes. Money for the meet directors. Money for the broadcast. 

Will it be there? 

In a 2019 podcast for ESPN titled “Back Pass,” the 30 for 30 crew took a deep dive into the founding of the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first women’s professional soccer league. The episode looks at the mismanagement of the league from many angles, and the ways in which the stars of the 1999 World Cup champions “fought to keep it alive.” 

The league, which began in 2001, folded in 2003 due to a myriad reasons, mostly related to funding.

It, simply put, never had a chance. 

Meanwhile, Major League Soccer was founded in 1993. In the closing moments of “Back Pass,” host Meradith Hoddinott makes a note about the men’s soccer league. “Don Garber is still the commissioner [of M.L.S.],” she says. “He recently said that he hopes M.L.S. will turn a profit in 2026, 30 years after its founding.” 

To make something work, one must be willing to invest in it.

The thing about the Michigan Pro Ekiden is that Kevin and Keith Hanson are invested in it. They are not, it seems, trying to turn a profit. They are simply trying to put on a great event that pays homage to the Ekiden in their home state and hometown. 

The first ever Ekiden was not put on for the money. Times are obviously different from 1917, but much remains true. The Ekiden remains a stage race with a tasuki being passed from one runner to another.

The Michigan Pro Ekiden is perhaps the first of its kind in the U.S., but it does have something to build off. There is room for more prize money. Room for more spectators. Room for a better broadcast. Room for sponsors. Will that be enough for a group of runners to come back to Detroit for a race around a metro park next October? 

Ask anyone who was there October 21, and they sure hope so. Kevin and Keith Hanson, at the very least, are going to try.

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