As Daichi Kamino crossed the finish line at the end of the first day of last year’s Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden (relay marathon) championship, he ran straight into the arms of his ecstatic teammates.

Kamino ensured Aoyama Gakuin University had a day to remember, seizing the lead from Komazawa University over the mountainous 23.2-km fifth stage and winning the opening day of the grueling road race for the first time in the institution’s history.

Kamino’s university would eventually go on to defend its lead on the second day as well, winning the annual race for the first time ever. Kamino took much of the credit for the victory, with his manager describing him as “Superman.”

“I can still remember the scene at the finish,” the 22-year-old team captain told reporters during a news conference in December. “I want to experience the same joy again.”

This weekend, Kamino has a chance to enjoy the thrill of victory once more. On Jan. 2, relay teams will run the five-segment, 107.5-km leg between Tokyo’s Otemachi district and Lake Ashi in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture. On Jan. 3, the remaining team members will retrace the route in a five-stage, 109.6-km dash back to the capital.

Last year, 200 runners from 20 universities took part in the race, as well as a team selected from the top runners of universities that are ineligible to participate. The Aoyama Gakuin team set a new record for the fastest cumulative time over two days and spent several months after the race nursing injuries (Kamino suffered a stress fracture) and preparing for the 2016 race and other national competitions.

Aoyama Gakuin manager Susumu Hara says the team had set its sights on winning three major marathons in 2015 (including the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden), but stumbled in its attempt to take top spot at the national collegiate ekiden championship in November — Toyo University won that event, with Aoyama Gakuin taking second place.

“We were challengers last year, but now we’re defending champions,” Hara tells reporters at a news conference in December. “I could never have imagined how stressful it is to be in this position.”

Hara says the team has been under a lot of pressure since winning the Tokyo-Hakone road race, forcing him to use other strategies to ensure the runners focus properly. “I’ve told them to run a race that will make them and the audience proud,” Hara says.

Aoyama Gakuin is defending champion in the upcoming race for the first time in the college’s history, so it’s easy to understand how team members are feeling under the pump.

Indeed, watching the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden is as much a New Year’s tradition as visiting shrines and eating soba. The relay marathon was first broadcast on Nippon TV in 1987 and its audience share regularly goes over 25 percent of the total number of viewers — one of the highest-rated sports broadcasts of the year.

“As a result of being broadcast on Nippon TV, the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden has became a national event,” says Jun Ikushima, a sports journalist who has written several books about the race, adding that the timing of the broadcast is crucial to the event’s ultimate success.

“The key is that it’s held during the new year,” Ikushima says. “It’s almost tradition for an entire family to sit down together and watch the ekiden on TV, sharing the emotion of the race with each other. Only the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden can truly make people of all ages share their experiences.”

The final leg of the Hakone-Tokyo ekiden’s first day sees runners climb 860 meters up a steep road on the approach to the finish line. “Watching the exhausted runners climbing this section leaves a strong impression on people,” Ikushima says. “This is usually where great upsets take place.”

The climbing section was extended in 2006, which has also led to several mid-race dramas in recent years. Runners who excel on this leg are called yama no kami (mountain gods) — an elite club Kamino was added to after last year’s effort.

Despite its enormous popularity across the country, the heartbreaking story of the man behind the country’s first ekiden isn’t widely known.

In 1912, Shizo Kanaguri was forced to pull out of the marathon at the Olympics in Stockholm after suffering heat stroke. This bitter experience inspired Kanaguri to nurture a team of long-distance runners who could compete in Olympic marathons overseas. In order to set a goal for his runners to aim for, he organized a relay marathon from Kyoto to Tokyo — a distance of 516 km — in 1917.

Influenced by the success of the race, Kanaguri persuaded four universities — Waseda, Keio, Meiji and Tokyo Koshi — to compete in a similar event between Hakone and Tokyo.

“The ekiden runners are aspiring athletes.” Hara says. “I’m just helping them to contribute to Japanese sports worldwide.”

University students who are not participating in the event as runners also get involved in the event. The Inter-University Athletic Union of Kanto, which features 20 student representatives from different universities in the region, is tasked with supporting the race.

“The Tokyo-Hakone ekiden is special,” says Sakura Kato, the union’s accountant. “We spend a whole year preparing for it.”

On race days, 20 students from the union and more than 1,000 assistants help to support the runners. Kato, 22, has been selected to manage the Odawara relay post, where runners hand over their sash to a team member running the last leg of the race away from Tokyo.

“My role is to ensure the relay can be conducted safely,” Kato says. “If a runner looks to be unsteady, I’ve got to make sure that medical teams are able to reach him quickly.”

On the second day, once all teams have passed the post at the start of their second leg to Tokyo, Kato and her crew return to Otemachi in order to hold the tape at the finish line. “It’s a wonderful experience,” she says. “Just holding the tape at finish line is inspiring.”

Kato has been a member of the student union for four years. Since her first year of study at university, she hasn’t had time to travel or work in part-time jobs like her peers. Working for the student union was tougher than she expected.

“I’ve spent the new year alone on a train back home for the past three years,” Kato says, laughing. “However, this is my last chance to help the team, so I hope to do my best.”

Kato says she is constantly buoyed by the appreciation shown by the runners on race day. “Our work is hard, but it helps to know that I’m supporting one of the most popular races in Japan,” she says. “I’m proud to be an essential cog working behind the scenes of the ekiden.”

As the runners go through their final preparations ahead of the starter’s gun in Otemachi on Jan. 2, Kamino insists he is ready for the big day. “I considered pulling out of the race because of my injuries,” Kamino says. “However, this is my last chance and I know I will regret it if I quit — that’s the last thing I want.”

Kamino says he wants to continue running long-distance races after he graduates, adding that he views this year’s race as an opportunity to end his university days on a high.

“The good thing about our team is its cheerfulness,” he says. “I want to end my four years on this team with a huge smile.”

Nippon TV will broadcast the Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden championship from 7 a.m. on Jan. 2 and 3.

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