Ultramarathon Monks

On November 5, 2006, famed ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes crossed the finish line at New York City Marathon. His time was strong at 3 hours and 30 seconds — about an hour slower than the winner, but only about a minute slower than champion cyclist Lance Armstrong (and over two hours faster than former Arkansas governor and one-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who clocked in at about five and a half hours.)

But the race was the end of a larger one for Karnazes.  Over the fifty days ending with the New York City race, Karnazes ran fifty marathons, one in each of the fifty U.S. states. And perhaps just as amazing, he was not the first person to do so.  As he began his trek, a man named Sam Thompson ran fifty-one marathons — adding the District of Columbia to his list — also in fifty days.

Incredible — unless, that is, you are a Japanese monk from Mount Hiei, pictured above in the background, outside of Kyoto.  For them, the feats achieved by Karnazes and Thompson are, pardon the pun, pedestrian.

These monks — known colloquially as the “marathon monks” — endure something called Kaihogyo, an test of endurance which boggles the mind.  It is a 1,000 day challenge spread across seven years, including a 100-day “introductory” one which, itself, requires stamina akin to that of Karnazes.

In this first year, a monk who wishes to participate in Kaihogyo must prove his mettle.  To start, the monk must complete (walking or running) a 30 kilometer (roughly 18 mile) marathon during a single day.  If he completes this task, he must repeat it the next day. And the day after. And the day after that, and onward — until he has completed 100 marathons of this length in as many days.  Once successful, he can apply for entry into the full Kaihogyo training program.  If accepted in, there is no going back: one either completes the next six years, and 900 days of marathons — or one is expected to take his own life.

Year two and three of the Kaihogyo are the same as year one — 30 kilometers a day for 100 days.  But the rest of the Kaihogyo make these first years seem easy.  In year four, the number of marathons double, requiring 200 days of 30 kilometer travels.  The monk repeats this in year five, sometime after which he goes through another feat of endurance, called “Entering the Temple.”  The monk, guided by two others, enters Mount Hiei’s temple for nine days of prayer — and only prayer.  During this nine day period, he is not allowed to eat, sleep, or drink — as ensured by the other two monks with him — except for a quaff of water from a spiritual fountain every day at 2 AM.

The monk is met with a reprieve of sorts in year six, as the Kaihogyo returns to “only” 100 days.  But rest assured it remains difficult, if not more so, as the distance requirement jumps to 60 kilometers.  And the final year? Another 100 days of 30 kilometer runs, preceded by 100 days of 84 kilometer runs.  That second set of runs is the equivalent (as 84 kilometers is roughly 52 miles) of running two marathons a day, every day, for 100 days straight — twice the distance as Karnazes’ quest, for double the days.

The Kaihogyo has been practiced since 1585.  In its over 400 year history, only 46 men have completed it.


Bonus fact: Each year in Tennessee comes the Barkley Marathons — a 100 mile race through wilderness (and a flooded prison) which includes a net ascent of nearly 55,000 feet, and a mini version, called the “Fun Run,” consisting of 60 miles.  (Mount Everest’s peak is 29,000 feet above sea level, for comparison’s sake.)  The 100 mile race consists of five twenty-mile loops, each of which must be completed in under twelve hours. Since the race’s inception in 1986, only ten people have completed it in time.  An excellent but long article about the Marathons can be found here.

From the Archives: “Marathon Madness,” the ridiculous story of the marathon of the 1904 Olympic Games.

Related: “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei” by John Stevens. Four reviews, three of five stars and one of three.  Unfortunately, it is out of print and not available on Kindle, either.