Runners World recently listed the “25 Worst Questions to Ask a Runner.” The list had many questions that I have heard over the years, including my favorite “How long is a marathon?” The #1 question on the Runners World list was “Why do you run?” I have to admit that this is a question that I have been asking myself lately.

“Why do you run?” is all about motivation. When I first started running, I was running to show support for a friend with an incurable form of lymphoma and raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. After my first marathon, I didn’t stop; I kept going. I ran for different charities including Ishan Gala Foundation’s Team Curing Hand (children’s neuroblastoma) and the New York Road Runners Club Team for Kids. But now I run for me; I have Transverse Myelitis (TM). I read recently “exercise promotes functional recovery” in TM patients. That has been my motivation to keep going.

Despite my physical need to exercise, I still find myself sometimes struggling to get out of bed and go for a run. I am training for a marathon and after 3+ months of training, my motivation is starting to peter out. My longer runs are getting more challenging because my mind tries to tell me it is time to quit.

While I was running today, I thought about the motivation of the monks of Mount Hiei in Japan. Mount Hiei is the home of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. If granted permission, a monk may embark on a Kaihōgyō, one thousand days of long distance walking, meditation, and prayer over a 7-year period. Their motivation is to achieve enlightenment and become a living Buddha.

A Kaihōgyō is grueling. During the first three years of a Kaihōgyō, the monk will walk 30-40 km (18-25 miles) per day for 100 days in a row, up and down Mount Hiei. During the 4th and 5th years, the monk will walk 30-40 km per day for 200 days in a row. During the 5th year, the monk also completes a 9-day fast during which he cannot eat, drink or sleep. In the 6th year, he will walk 60 km (37 miles) per day for 100 days straight. Finally, in the 7th year, the monk will walk 84 km (52 miles) per day for 100 days straight and then 30-40 km per day for another 100 days.

The monk completes his daily walk, regardless of weather, visiting the 250+ sacred places on Mount Hiei, pausing to pray at each. The monk wears straw sandals and in bad weather, he can go through several pairs in one day. The terrain is not easy on Mount Hiei and he starts his walk in the dark at 2 AM. The monk suffers from the same aches and pains that long distance runners experience but he does not stop. The monk only gets about 2 hours of sleep a night. To compensate for his limited sleep, he develops the ability to rest sections of his body as he moves along – his shoulders, his hips, his legs, etc.

What is remarkable is how the monk connects with the meditational aspect of a marathon. By focusing on his breathing, the rhythm of his walk, his mantra, or just emptiness, the monk is able to ignore his physical pain and quiet his mind, and hopefully achieve enlightenment.

If the monk successfully completes his Kaihōgyō, he will have walked the equivalent of the circumference of the globe. Only 50 or so monks have completed a Kaihōgyō since 1585 when they started keeping records. Many have died in their attempt.

During a long run, my mind can wander, focusing on an ache, trying to solve a nagging problem, or thinking about a long list of to-do items that need to get done. But there have also been times when I was out running that my mind focused on nothing; it was still. I just ran. Thinking back, those were the runs where I felt the most rested afterwards. Maybe that is what we can learn from the monks of Mount Hiei – how to use a long run to focus on nothing and clear our minds.

If you are interested in learning more about the monks of Mount Hiei, I recommend reading “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei” by John Stevens. The second half of the book describes their training and the Kaihōgyō in detail. I also found an interesting documentary on YouTube that followed a monk as he completed his Kaihōgyō.