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In 1966, 15 of the top 17 times in the world were run by Japanese men.
Today, however, the ekidens have surpassed the marathons in terms of popularity – with the Hakone ekiden the biggest of them all.
I estimate there to be around 1,500 professional distance runners in Japan. In fact, the system in Japan is so developed and well supported that I soon realised the really interesting question is not why they are so good, but why they are not even better.
These were modelled on the ancient courier system that saw runners relay messages between Kyoto and Tokyo during Japan's Edo period (1603 to 1868).
High overhead, helicopters appear and disappear between the cut-glass skyscrapers.
This is the Hakone ekiden; one of the toughest mass-participation endurance events in the world.
It's no wonder that most of the Japanese corporate teams, and many of the country's university and high-school teams, have scouted east Africa for runners to sign up to help them win the top ekidens. Try as they might, in every big global race, the Japanese almost inevitably finish behind the top east Africans. I asked the Kenyan runner what he felt was wrong with the training in Japan, and his answer surprised me. "Too many long runs." There is a belief, held strongly in Japan – but also shared by many runners in the UK – that to do well you just need to work hard. If they are feeling tired, it is not unusual for them to skip a session or train slowly.
Yet one of these Kenyan runners living in Japan told me: "Here, they love athletics, it is amazing. It sounds simple, but it is a trick few runners manage to get right. Another reason the Japanese don't do so well in the big global races is because all of their focus is on ekiden.