An annual ekiden road relay race took an unfortunate turn Oct. 21, when a female runner fractured her leg, then crawled with determination on her bloodied knees for hundreds of meters unaware that her manager had notified officials to have the team drop out.

The unusual incident during the long-distance Princess Ekiden qualifying run straddling Munakata and Fukutsu in Fukuoka Prefecture set off not only praise for the woman's spirit, but also criticism of race staff for failing to withdraw her.

After the woman broke her leg, the team's manager decided to have her drop out of competition. However, the judge concerned could not be immediately reached, according to sources.

The runner dragged herself forward on all fours, despite her bleeding knees, for 200 to 300 meters. The next runner waiting for her at the relay point shed tears as she saw her teammate struggling.

An 84-year-old male spectator of the race shouted "Hang in there!" as she was crawling.

"She has a strong sense of responsibility. I admire and want to applaud her," he said.

Another man, 77, who saw the runner handing over the relay sash to the next runner, said: “She is still young and has potential. They should have stopped her even though I understand her feelings.”

The 42.195-kilometer marathon route is divided into six relays, with each section assigned to a runner.

The teen athlete concerned, who belongs to Osaka-based Iwatani Co., fell while running the 3.6-kilometer second section.

After the race, Iwatani was inundated with comments from the general public, such as "We were moved by her perseverance," and "Why didn't you stop her?"

Iwatani has since released an official statement, saying: "What happened was very regrettable. We hope management of the race is improved in the future so there will not be a recurrence."

The runner's team manager, Hisakazu Hirose, was told what had happened over the phone by a staff member watching the race live. He then decided to have her pulled out of the race, meaning the entire team would be out of the competition.

Mitsuo Kamakura, an executive of the Japan industrial track and field association that organized the event, said that it took some time before Hirose's decision was communicated to the judge, and that by the time it reached him, the runner was 20 meters from her goal.

"I struggled to decide whether I should stop her, but I felt (she could do it), as she was almost at her goal," a source quoted a judge as saying.

Masao Yagi, an executive of the Fukuoka Amateur Athletic Association in charge of the race, said a monitoring car carrying the judge was ahead of the runner. When the judge recognized the incident, he exited the vehicle and approached the runner. She asked the judge, "How many meters are left until my goal?" according to Yagi.

After reaching the relay point, the runner was transferred to a hospital in the prefecture, according to an official from Iwatani. Three to four months are expected for her recovery.

The team manager visited the runner at the hospital, quoting her as saying, "I'm sorry."

A former participant in an ekiden race himself, sports commentator Tetsuhiko Kin noted that runners of the relay race face enormous mental pressure, as they are required to hand over the sash to the next runner.

"She seemed driven to somehow arrive at the relay point, which she could see (when she fell)," he said.

"It is possible that she received further damage from crawling," Kin added. "The team's decision to pull her out of the race should have been conveyed to the judge earlier. I hope the runner will come back stronger from this incident."