Posts Tagged ‘marathon monks’

I’ve read a few books on running. I’m no guru don’t get me wrong. But I like to think I have an idea of what’s out there in the way of running folklore.

After last week’s Saturday morning long run, I popped into a friend’s place for a cup of coffee before heading home. He showed me a book called Running: A Global History. I opened it on a random page (as you do when handed a book to browse through). I’ve no idea what most of the book is about, but the first page I read was one of the most amazing running stories I’ve ever come across.

Nevermind the Olympic champions and the mileage they get through in training, nevermind the incredibly tough ultramarathons out there (Badwater for example), never even mind the magnificent Mexican running tribe, the Tarahumara and the hundred mile races they regularly participate in; what I read in that book has instantaneously become the new standard bearer in the “that is un-fucking-believable” category.

They’re called the running monks and they have something called the 1000-day challenge. It takes 7 years to complete. Briefly, it goes like this. In years one, two and three they must run 40km a day for one hundred consecutive days each year. In years four and five they must run 40km per day for two hundred consecutive days each year. Then they face the doiri. A seven day period where they have no food, no water, no sleep and must sit and meditate. They are observed by two monks who will tap them on the shoulder if they start falling asleep. After completing the doiri they are into year six, wherein they have to run 84km per day for two sets of one hundred consecutive days, i.e. 84km per day for two hundred days. Year seven reverts back pretty much to year one, one hundred consecutive days of 40km. If at any point in these seven years you don’t feel you can make it, you are expected to take your own life with the rope and knife that you have to carry with you every step of the way.

That description doesn’t come close to doing it justice, so rather than stumble on, I’ve pasted in a far better explanation below.

(Reference: Tendai Marathon Monks – The Run of A Lifetime, by James Davis – The London Observer)

There is a group of men who could claim – though they never do – to be the greatest, toughest, most committed athletes in the world. They run for no other reward than spiritual enlightenment, hoping to help themselves along the path of Buddha towards a personal awakening. They are the so-called ‘marathon monks’ of Mount Hiei, Japan.


The monks, known as Kaihigyo, are spiritual athletes from the Tendai Sect of Buddhism, based at Mount Hiei, which overlooks the ancient capital city of Kyoto.


The ultimate achievement is the completion of the 1,000-day challenge, which must surely be the most demanding physical and mental challenge in the world. Forget ultra-marathons and iron-man events, this endurance challenge surpasses all others.


Only 46 men have completed the 1,000-day challenge since 1885. It takes seven years to complete, as the monks must undergo other Buddhist training in meditation and calligraphy, and perform general duties within the temple.


The first 300 days are basic training, during which the monks run 40km per day for 100 consecutive days. In the fourth and fifth years they run 40km each day for 200 consecutive days.


The final two years of the 1000-day challenge are even more daunting. In the sixth year they run 60km each day for 100 consecutive days and in the seventh year they run 84km each day for 100 consecutive days.


Author John Stevens, in his book, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei describes the running style which dates back over a thousand years. ‘Eyes focused about 100 feet ahead while moving in a steady rhythm, keeping the head level, the shoulders relaxed, the back straight, and the nose aligned with the navel.’


What makes all these distances even more amazing is the manner and the conditions in which the monks run. These runs are usually begun at night and are over mountain paths that are uneven and poorly marked. During the winter months the low temperatures and snow are a great hindrance to the runners. These monks do not wear the latest in footwear and clothing, but run in straw sandals, an all-white outfit and a straw hat. They also run on a diet of vegetables, tofu and miso soup, which modern athletes and nutritionists would deem to be unsuitable for endurance events.


Not only do they wear clothes and shoes unsuited to running, but they have to carry books with directions and mantras to chant, food to offer along the way, candles for illumination, as well as a sheathed knife and a rope, known as the ‘cord of death’. These remind the monk of his duty to take his life if he fails, by hanging or self-disembowelment. The course is littered with unmarked graves, marking the spot where monks have taken their own lives. However, there have been no cases of monks’ suicides since the nineteenth century.


During theses long runs the monks must make stops at temples of worship that can number up to 260. This means that the 86km run can take up to 20 hours to complete leaving the monk with very little time for recovery or rest, but there is an old saying that goes: ‘Ten minutes’ sleep for a marathon monk is worth five hours of ordinary rest.’ They also learn to rest sections of their body while running, such as their arms or shoulders.


And then there is the doiri, where the monk faces seven days without food, water or sleep or rest. During this time the monk will spend his entire day reciting Buddhist chants and mantras – perhaps up to 100,000 each day. The only time the monk will leave the temple is at 2am to walk the 200m to a well and return with water to make an offering. He is not allowed to drink any himself and the 200m walk can take up to two hours in the final days of the fast. During his time spent meditating there are two monks who are in constant attention to ensure that he does not fall asleep.


For several weeks before doiri, the monk will reduce his food intake so his body can cope with the fast. The first day is no problem, but there is some nausea on the second and third days. By the fourth and fifth days the hunger pangs have disappeared, but the monk has become so dehydrated that there is no saliva in his mouth and he will begin to taste blood.


The purpose of doiri is to bring the monk face-to-face with death. During this fast, the monks develop extraordinary powers of sense. They talk of being able to hear the ashes of incense sticks fall to the ground and, perhaps unsurprisingly, of the ability to smell food being prepared miles away.


Physiologists, who have examined the monks after conclusion of the rite, find many of the symptoms of a ‘dead person’. Monks talk of experiencing a feeling of transparency where everything good, bad and neutral leaves their body and existence in itself is revealed in crystal clarity.


When the Japanese Emperor maintained his court in Kyoto, the monks were afforded a special thanksgiving service in the Imperial Palace after completing their 1,000-day term and the ‘marathon monks’ were the only people who were allowed to wear footwear in the presence of the Emperor.


Even today thousands will turn out to watch a monk nearing completion of a 1,000-day term, as he runs the old course that now passes through Kyoto’s shopping streets and the entertainment district, complete with its bars, restaurants and strip joints. Many turn up hoping to be blessed by these special monks whom they believe have powers to heal.


Japan has the largest number of marathon runners per capita in the world. From the Arctic northern island of Hokkaido to the balmy tropical islands of Okinawa in the Pacific, each and every town will organise a number of long-distance runs and each school will have a strong running club.

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