Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. ~T.S. Eliot
One of the activities that I really enjoy is reading. Unfortunately, I never get enough time to do the reading I would love to do. I have months of running magazines sitting on the end table in my living room and several books that I want to read, but by the time I get through the Birmingham News and USA Today each evening, I usually fall asleep in the chair. If I drag myself upstairs to read in bed, that's a time-proven joke as I never get past 2 pages before I'm out, AND THAT'S READING SOMETHING I REALLY WANT TO READ!!
However, years ago, and then again recently. I read a book that, as an endurance runner, had me mesmerized. It's called The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei by John Stevens. You think running around Anytown, USA for 26 miles is a big deal? When I started running marathons more than three decades ago, if you ran more than two a year, you were an endurance animal! Now, the limits of endurance have spread far beyond what we thought possible even just a few years ago. Well, on Mt. Hiei, for over ten centuries, the monks have pursued enlightenment by putting themselves through the most incredible and dangerous feat of endurance. These men might be the world's greatest athletes.
The Monks of the mountain outside the old Japanese capital city of Kyoto have a quest to serve Buddha through many duties, but this Tendi sect is unique in using their physical running endurance as a vehicle to seek that enlightenment. There are many different disciplines the "gyoja" can use as a process of self-denial to attain this enlightenment, but if you're a nut like me about examples of endurance, then hold onto your trousers and listen to this.
The Mountain Marathon is called a Kaihogyo - this is the practice of "circling the mountain". The monk is given a white robe and a rope is tied around the waist that holds a knife. They have 80 pairs of straw sandals for this first 100 day term. In rainy weather, these sandals turn to wet hay! Talk about minimalist shoes! Anyway, for 100 days in a row, they awaken at midnight, have a small meal and around 1:30, they run 40 kilometers (just short of a standard marathon). They are allowed to sit only once during their daily journey. Then, when they return in the early morning, they go to service, eat, and attend to their normal daily chores and go to bed around 8 or 9pm. Up at midnight and repeat this for 100 days in a row!
Now, this was actually the "Fun Run" of the Kaihogyo. If they complete the first 100 days, they can petition the the senior monks to complete the remaining 900 days - this whole process can take up to 7 years to complete. In the first 100 days, withdrawal (DNF) is possible, but from day 101, that's it - if they can't complete the Kaihogyo, they have the choice of hanging themselves or using the knife to take their life (remember the rope and knife that was "given" to them at the starting line?). Sorta puts your commitment on the line, eh? ONLY 46 MEN HAVE COMPLETED THE 1000 DAY TERM SINCE 1585!
If you are accepted to continue with the challenge (kind of like a good news/bad news lottery I guess), the next 2 years are spent continuing to run 40K per day for 100 consecutive days per year. Then, in the 4th and 5th years, the ante is upped to where you run for 200 consecutive days. Complete this, and you've hit the big time - you get to use a walking stick and where a special hat!
After completing the 700th day (5 years), the hard stuff begins (What? Holy Crow!!). The gyoja must survive 9 days without food, water, sleep or rest. This is called a Doiri. I'm sure it's called something else, but not by a holy man! During this 9 days, they repeat a chant 100,000 times. On the 5th day, they are allowed to rinse their mouths out with water. They must stay awake and maintain proper posture at all times and at 2am every night, they must get up and fetch sacrificial water from a well 200 meters away. He always has two monks by his side to ensure he doesn't cheat - like fall asleep in 9 days!
In the 6th year, it's good news/bad news again. They reduce their consecutive days of running to 100, but the distance increases to 60K (36 miles). The final year of the 1000-day term is divided into two 100-day terms. The first consists of daily 84K (52 miles) runs, which usually take 16-18 hours to complete, and the FINAL 100-day term is like the original one done 7 years prior - 100 days of 40K runs. They are now declared as Daigyoman Ajari, which is "Saintly Master of the Highest Practice". I hope they also get one heck of a finisher's medal.
How come we hear on the news or read in Runner's World about some guy in a snail's outfit doing a marathon in 15 days, but you have to literally stumble across stories like the Marathon Monks? Simply amazing...that's about all I can say. I may kid around a lot while posting this story, but I honestly have nothing but the most highest admiration for the Marathon Monk's dedication and commitment towards their beliefs, and as an endurance athlete, I am absolutely awed by their obvious ability to push their bodies to physical and spiritual limits far beyond our horizons.
Whether you're running around the block, or around the mountain, I'll see you on the roads - AL
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