Tendai "Marathon" Monks

posted 2017 Jun by

Name: Tendai Buddhist “Marathon” Monks

Place: Mount Hiei, Japan

Feat: Run 1000 marathons in 7 years.


If you were to have a conversation about which type of athlete is toughest, who would be in it? Answers would vary person to person, but most short-lists might like look something like this: martial artists, power lifters, rugby players, endurance athletes, etc. But regardless of who you include, your list would be missing a top contender: the Tendai Marathon Monks.

Running tests the mind unlike any other physical exercise. If you don’t buy that, consider the following. In Navy SEAL training - often regarded as the toughest military training in the world, they’ve found one exercise to be the greatest predictor of a candidate’s success by far, can you guess which? Hint - it’s not bench-press, deadlift, pull-ups, or swimming. Yep, it’s running.

Navy SEALs Running On Coronado Beach During BUD/S

So just how far do these monk fellas run? Far. Very, very Far. So far that endurance athletes who have tried to train with the monks tapped out after a few days.

Over 7 years, those who become true Marathon Monks will rack up over 26 thousand miles, which is enough to run around the equator. To put that into context, even if you ran 10 miles every single day for 7 years straight, you would not reach 26 thousand miles.

At this point, you may be wondering “why 7 years?”, “why 26 thousand miles?” and “why monks?” Let’s back up.

The Tendai Buddhist monks are a group of monks who live on Mount Hiei in Japan and who believe that enlightenment can be attained through a rite of passage called kaihōgyō. This is a 7-year gauntlet that makes the world’s toughest endurance races look like fun runs. In the rare event that a monk completes the gauntlet, he earns the title “Saintly Master of the Highest Practice” and instantly becomes a national celebrity. In feudal Japan, these guys were so revered that they were the only ones allowed to wear shoes in the emperor’s presence.

Enryaku-ji Monastary in Japan

Here’s how the kaihōgyō breaks down:

Year 1: 25 miles/day for 100 days.

Year 2: 25 miles/day for 100 days.

Year 3: 25 miles/day for 100 days.

Year 4: 25 miles/day for 200 days.

Year 5: 25 miles/day for 200 days.

Year 6: 38 miles/day for 100 days.

Year 7: 53 miles/day for first 100 days, 25 miles/day for second 100 days.

Total: 1000 days - 26,500 miles.

In 7 years, they move more miles than most will in a lifetime and they do it in a robe, a pair of rope sandals, and an inconveniently large hat. No Nikes here.

Not only do they do this in clothing that’s meant for a monastery, but they also do this on a ridiculously small amount of food. They don’t get energy gels, Gatorade, or an aid station every two miles. They get a bowl of rice and a bowl of noodles. That’s it.

So every day these monks have to move distances between 25 and 53 miles and they do this in sandals and with minimal food, but we haven’t even reached the wildest part.

For the first year, a monk is allowed to quit whenever he wants for whatever reason. But if he chooses to continue on after that, there is no quitting. Instead, he must carry a dagger and a rope at all times. Why? To kill himself if he fails.

You read that right: if a monk chooses to continue after the first year, he either has to finish the Kaihōgyō or kill himself for failing. No excuses. Doesn’t matter if you get sick, injured, or get attacked by wild animals. Finish the kaihōgyō or finish yourself. There is no motivator that is more brutal or more effective.

The kaihōgyō is so difficult that in the past 400 years, only 46 monks finished. And, of the 46 that have completed the kaihōgyō, three have completed it twice.

If the accomplishments of the Marathon Monks weren’t so well-documented, they would be simply unbelievable. Running one marathon is a significant accomplishment and these guys run one-thousand of them in 7 years. So what separates them from you? They don’t have special gear, special food, or special training, so what do they have? What they have is an indomitable will.

Next time you think that you can’t workout or go for a run because you don’t have your special running shoes or your expensive athletic clothing, think of the Marathon Monks and know that you don’t need any of that. They run 26 thousand miles in sandals. You can run 2 without your new running shoes. All you need is the will to do. Once you have that, you’ll be able to do more than you ever thought possible. Much more.  

If you have a historical figure who you think embodies the human spirit of grit and perseverance, send your suggestion to perspective@atlasbars.com 

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