Some of the world's
best athletes gave a very good run for their money in the
London Marathon, others picked up their appearance fee and
pottered round without threatening to win. The world's top
distance runners are well rewarded - the best earn one million
dollars a year - and they reckon to run only two or three
marathons a year.
a comparison that is to a group of men who can 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.
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.
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 so-called
iron-man events, this endurance challenge surpasses all others.
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.
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.
That's more or less a full marathon every day for more than
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. This is the equivalent of running two Olympic
marathons back-to-back every day for 100 days.
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.'
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.
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.
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 as an old saying 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Relatives of those who undergo
this rite of passage talk of the difference that the seven
days makes to those who undergo it. One remarked, 'I always
dismissed Buddhism as superstitious nonsense until I saw my
brother step out of Myo-o-do [the name of the temple] after
doiri. He was really a living Buddha.'
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.
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.
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 organize a number of long-distance runs and
each school will have a strong running club.
is even a corporate-sponsored running league, whose teams
are even allowed to have one foreigner in their team. Jeff
Schiebler, a Canadian Olympic runner, is the only non-African
foreigner who competes. He described what it is like to run
in Japan. 'It is totally different from anything in North
America. They have multimillion-dollar contracts, team chefs,
great training facilities. That kind of thing makes Japan
a power in long-distance running. They go mad for road races.
Kids there grow up wanting to be the next marathon champ.'
love of marathon running was epitomized with the incredible
outpouring of emotion that followed Naoko Takahashi's victory
in the women's Olympic marathon in Sydney last year. The race
and the prize-giving attracted a massive 84 per cent TV rating
as the fresh-faced girl from the mountains of Gifu became
the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
became an overnight superstar and her face was splashed across
newspapers, magazines and on talk shows. She even received
The People's Honour (only the third woman ever to do so) from
the then prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who said: 'You have
given inspiration and encouragement to youngsters as well
as a whole people by crossing the finish line with a refreshing
few runners will cross the finish line in London with a 'refreshing
smile' after 26 hard miles. Grimaces of exhaustion and relief
will be a more common sight. However, after looking back at
the 26 miles and a bit, there will be a feeling of great personal
pride and achievement in their performance. Many will have
achieved personal best times and others will have raised hundreds
of pounds for charity. But will many of them be able to say
they have gained something spiritually, as with the 'marathon
monks' of Japan?
piece was originally published in The London Observer.