Monday, October 17, 2011

The Marathon Monks

"There is an order of Buddhist monks in Japan whose practice is running. They are called the marathon monks of Mount Hiei. They begin running at one-thirty AM and run from eighteen to twenty-five miles per night, covering several of Mount Hiei’s most treacherous slopes. … The monks run all year long. They do not adjust their running schedule to the snow, wind, or ice. They wear white robes when they run, rather than the traditional Buddhist black. White is the color of death: there is always the chance of dying on the way. In fact, when they run they carry with them a sheathed knife and a rope to remind them to take their life by disembowelment or hanging if they fail to complete their route.

After monks complete a thousand-day mountain marathon within seven years, they go on a nine-day fast without food water or sleep.  

I read about these monks in a book entitled The MarathonMonks of Mount Hiei, by John Stephens."

- Natalie Goldberg, from the Introduction to Long Quiet Highway 


  1. i remember reading this book in college and the intro about the marathon monks being the one lasting thing i took away from it.

    there is an interesting write-up here:

    and i remember watching a youtube video or something similar that showed one of the monks in part of his journey. i think they mostly do fast walking... or at least we aren't talking about fast running, but it's still pretty remarkable what they do in a stretch of time.

  2. Here is an NPR story, which certainly suggests the practice involves walking, not running:

    And, some Buddhist sites describe it as hiking:

    It seems that the (ultra)running community may have created a little bit of a myth here. But a fun one!

  3. Damn, thanks for the links! I love what you can find on the internet.

    I love this story, and regardless of their pace, think their feat and dedication is incredible. I can only imagine the state of their bodies (and minds!) after such effort and such a fast.

    Having said that, i'm starting to think that becoming a marathoner involves more than just devotion and time. Kind of like the old joke that you can't be a good rock n' roller on talent alone: you have to have the liver to keep up with the lifestyle; you really do have to have a solid enough body infrastructure to withstand the pounding that so much running puts on your body. Perhaps the monks have it right in that they're not running on pavement (and they're probably barefoot as well!) and they're not concerned with pace, only finishing.