My Marathon Monk

Kaihogyo

Three years ago I read a book titled “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei” by John Stevens.  The book focuses on the Tendai Buddhist monks who complete Kaihōgyō, 1,000 days of long distance walking, meditation, and prayer over a 7-year period.  Kaihōgyō is by far more demanding than any modern-day athletic endurance event, so demanding that the monks are required to carry a knife and rope to kill themselves if they fail.  Since 1585 when they started keeping records only about 52 monks have successfully completed Kaihōgyō (one monk has completed Kaihōgyō twice!).  Their motivation to attempt such a grueling feat is to achieve enlightenment and become a living Buddha.  I was so fascinated by the marathon monks that I wrote one of my early blog posts about them.  I have wanted to visit Mount Hiei and the monastery where they live since I read the book.  I didn’t have time to travel there in 2015 when I ran the Tokyo Marathon.  Last week I returned to Japan and visiting the monastery on Mount Hiei was at the top of my list of things to see.  Little did I know I was going to see a lot more.

Mount Hiei is over 2700 feet high and straddles two prefectures – Kyoto Prefecture and Shiga Prefecture.  It is a beautiful mountain, covered in trees and flowers, and home to a wide array of wildlife.  The monastery on Mount Hiei was founded 1200 years ago and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View of Kyoto from the ropeway to Mt Hiei

Traveling to Mount Hiei from Kyoto was a bit of an adventure. I hired a Japanese guide, Maki, to help me get there.  We went by cab to a train station where we took a train out of Kyoto.  Then we transferred to a cable car followed by a ride on a ropeway (an aerial tram) and, after a short of walk, boarded a bus for the last part of the trip to the Mount Hiei monastery.  Along the way we were treated to breathtaking views of Kyoto, Lake Biwa, and Lake Shiga.  I even saw deer grazing along the cable car tracks.

Bell tower – visitors are permitted to ring the bell

As we walked around the monastery complex, Maki explained the history and significance of each building.  There were temples and shrines of all sizes, though the main temple, Enryaku-ji, was by far the most impressive.  Walking around the complex was not an easy stroll.  It was more like a stair master workout – between each of the buildings, we were going up and down very steep stairs.

Maki mentioned there is currently a monk in the midst of Kaihōgyō.  She lives along the route that the monk takes into Kyoto to visit the temples and shrines there.  Her mother has seen the monk on his walks.  I was thrilled to visit Mount Hiei but the thought of possibly seeing a marathon monk was incredible.  It is not something that happens every day.  Maki found out when the monk would be passing through Kyoto the next day.  He would be stopping at one of the temples I planned to visit, the Kiyomizudera Temple.  I decided to time my visit there so that I could see him.

My Japanese guide for the next day, Miho, was very agreeable to helping me see the monk.  We arrived at a location we expected the monk to pass on his way to the Kiyiomizudera Temple.  Miho checked with the surrounding shopkeepers.  One confirmed the monk would be coming past where we were.  After waiting nearly 45 minutes in the hot sun, we decided to keep making our way up the hill to the temple.  We stopped again halfway up where two roads intersected.  We weren’t sure which road the monk would take to the temple.  Another shopkeeper there assured us the monk came this way and had not yet passed by.  Again we waited.  Unfortunately marathon monks don’t wear tracking devices like runners do in races.  I had no idea where the monk was or when he would come.  I decided I was not going to see the marathon monk and we resumed our walk up the hill to the Kiyiomizudera Temple.

The monk passed so quickly that I was unable to get a picture of him. This photo was displayed in the cable car station on Mount Hiei.

There were hundreds of tourists around the temple grounds.  Kyoto is one of the top destinations in Japan for both Japanese and foreign tourists, and Kiyiomizudera Temple is one of the most visited sites. We stopped at several shrines and smaller temples as Miho explained the significance of each.  Finally we reached the main temple,  Kiyiomizudera Temple.   As we stopped to look at a Buddha who protects businesses, there was a flurry of activity behind me.  I was pushed aside by group of 10-12 men who were surrounding the man I recognized immediately as the marathon monk.  The group stopped in front of another Buddha where the monk knelt and began a chant.  After about 2 minutes, he got back up and continued on his way, still surrounded by the men who cleared a path through the crowd of tourists.  He moved swiftly and quietly, except for the rhythmic sound of his wood walking stick hitting the ground.  I was so amazed that for several minutes I could not speak.  I had never expected to be able to see a monk in the middle of one of his “marathons”.  It was a magical moment, one that I will never forget.

That evening I enjoyed dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant with low tables and mats covering the floor.  A Geisha in training was entertaining us during the meal.  I spoke to her through a translator about seeing the marathon monk.  We started to talk about my own running activities, including the 2015 Tokyo Marathon.  The Geisha, it turns out, is training to run the Honolulu Marathon as preparation to run the Kyoto Marathon.  It seems as if I can’t escape running even when I take a trip that doesn’t include a race of my own.

When I got back home, I was able to find out more about the current marathon monk, Kogen Kamahori.  He is nearing the end of his Kaihōgyō and expects to be finished this fall.  In 2015 Kamahori completed doiri, 9-days without food, water, or sleep, during Year 5 of his Kaihōgyō .  (Doiri translates to “living death”.  In fact, many monks have died during doiri.)  There were several news stories about him when he finished.

For anyone who wants to experience some of a marathon monk’s course on Mount Hiei, there is the Mount Hiei International Trail Run.  Runners can choose to run either 50 miles (with 5500 meters vertical) or 50 km (with 3700 meters vertical).  After I walked a bit on Mount Hiei, I can tell you that it would a challenging race.  (Here is a link to an interesting blog post by someone who completed the 2016 race:  http://alpine-works.com/2016/06/mt-hiei-50k-international-trail-run/.)  Runners have to be able to follow the whole trail without getting lost (even marathon monks sometimes get lost and they live there).  Among the equipment the runners must carry is bear bells.  I was tempted to take up ultra running so I could enter this race but common sense tells me this is a race for stronger runners than me.  Instead of running the ultra, I would be happy to return to Mount Hiei and hike down one of the trails from the top.  I can’t imagine what I would see if I did that!

Documentary Educational Resources put together a fascinating film about the marathon monks.  Here is a preview of the film.

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Extending a Hand

In my high school psychology class, we learned about the bystander effect, or “Genovese Syndrome”, named for Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who was stabbed to death outside her New York City apartment in the middle of the night in 1964.  In the newspaper account of her murder, it was reported no one came to her aid, even though 38 people had either witnessed portions of her 30-minute attack or heard her cries for help.  Psychologists used Kitty’s murder to analyze why people are reluctant to help someone.  The story was a provocative way to get students to discuss whether they would step in and help someone in a similar situation.  Over time it has been revealed many parts of the story were not true and people were not as indifferent as the news accounts led us to believe.  However, the discussion about the bystander effect still continues.

Kitty came to my mind when I saw a news report about a girls cross-country runner who stopped to help a runner from another team who had fallen during a state sectional meet.  Gracie Bucher, an 8th grader from Windom in Minnesota, collapsed not far from the finish line.  Despite several attempts, she could not get back on her feet to finish the race.  That was when Liana Blomgren, a senior from Mountain Lake High School, came by.  Seeing Gracie on the ground, Liana grabbed her by the arm and told her “I’ve got you. You’re with me.”  Liana helped Gracie finish the race.  That gesture of kindness resulted in both Liana and Gracie being disqualified.

I was sad to hear Liana ended her high school cross-country career with a DQ.  Gracie felt bad about it too.  In fact, she sent Liana flowers and gave her a Dairy Queen, DQ, gift card as a token of appreciation.  Liana said she doesn’t recall what place she was in at the sectionals for the prior two years but she will always remember this one.  Liana is a terrific young woman.

Over the years I have seen many instances of a runner helping another runner to the finish line.  This happens in all kinds of races, including marathons and half marathons.  There are a number of reasons why a runner might collapse – twisted ankles; falls from tripping; tendons that give out; dehydration; or, in Gracie’s case, an undiagnosed case of mononucleosis.  Who can forget the collision of Abbey D’Agostino (USA) and Nikki Hamblin (New Zealand) half way through a qualifying heat for the women’s 5000 meter race in the 2016 Summer Olympics?  Abbey and Nikki helped each other to get back up and finish the race. They personified true sportsmanship.  It is comforting to know some runners are willing to put kindness and compassion above competition.

The National Federation of State High School Associations Board of Directors has changed the rules for high school track and field in 2017.  With the new rule, “a participant who assists an injured/ill competitor shall not be disqualified if an appropriate health-care professional is not available.”  As I interpret this new rule, I think Liana still would have been disqualified.  Gracie collapsed not too far from the finish line where conceivably there would have been appropriate health-care professionals.  They would have seen Gracie struggling and could have intervened.  Maybe I am wrong.

img_7114I question rules that penalize someone for helping another person in need. Instead we should foster an attitude that encourages people to help each other.  The lessons we enforce in sports competition carry over into day-to-day life.  I experienced this first hand in 2014 when I fell and broke my arm during a training run.  I will remember forever Rebecca, a stranger who helped me until a friend arrived to take me to the hospital.  Although she could have finished her own run, Rebecca stopped to help me.  Without her help I probably would have gone into shock.  Rebecca kept me calm while we waited for my friend.   As runners, we are frequently alone but we are also part of a larger community.  We should always have each other’s back and never be afraid to lend a hand – in a race or on a trail.

Slow Down And Enjoy the Trail

Last year I followed Scott Jurek as he ran the 2,160 mile Appalachian Trail (AT).  He wanted to break the speed record for a supported thru-hike set by Jennifer Pharr Davis in 2011.  She completed the entire trail in 46 days 11 hours and 20 minutes.  (It normally takes hikers 5-7 months to complete the entire trail.)  Although Scott is a well-known ultra marathoner, he had a few injuries along the way.  It wasn’t in the bag that he would break the record.   Scott made it from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the AT’s north terminus at Mt. Katahdin in Maine in 46 days 8 hours and 7 minutes.   An amazing record!

This year another ultra marathoner, Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer, is going to attempt to break Scott’s record.  Karl has won 38 100-mile races, more than anyone else in the world.  While Scott ran the AT from south to north, Karl is going to start in Maine and head south.  Not only is Karl getting himself in shape, he is rehearsing his rest stops with his support team to ensure they are as efficient as a NASCAR pit stop.  He plans to eat dinner with ice on his legs while his crew clean and tape his feet.  Sounds like ultra multitasking to me.

I understand the desire to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible.  It seems like we have a need to do everything faster these days.  But it also makes me sad.  I consider the AT to be one of our national treasures.  The AT isn’t something one should rush through.  It should be savored like a fine wine.

An experience I had in 2013 taught me to spend more time enjoying the moment.  That year I participated with a group of women who ran Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon in one day.  It was an adventure that was important to me.  I wanted to prove to myself that I could take on an extreme physical challenge and succeed.

We started out at the North Rim before daybreak, wearing headlamps,  and went down the North Kaibab Trail into the canyon.  We stopped for lunch at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon then headed back up the South Rim via Bright Angel Trail.  I completed my Rim-to-Rim adventure in about 13 hours (including an hour stop at Phantom Ranch).  Except for that stop at the bottom of the canyon, we kept moving all day.  There wasn’t time to stop and linger to admire the view or look for the petroglyphs carved into the rock.  We had to be out of the canyon before dark.

One of my friends had tried to discourage me from doing the Rim-to-Rim before I left.  The Grand Canyon, she explained, is a beautiful place.  By running through it in one day I would not be able to really appreciate it.   I wouldn’t be able to take time to see all the different layers of rock or observe the different ecosystems within the canyon.

In hindsight I admit she was absolutely right.  I was more focused on getting from the North Rim to the South Rim as fast as possible, without getting hurt.  There were rocks everywhere along the trail and I had to be fully attentive to each step.  I spent most of the time looking at my feet.   Looking back on it, running through the Grand Canyon in one day seems wrong.  Although it was important to me at the time to run Rim-to-Rim, I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to do it.  To fully enjoy the Grand Canyon you need to spend much more time there than I did (and I was slow by Rim-to-Rim runner standards).  I plan to return to the Grand Canyon to see everything that I missed, including the petroglyphs.

So while Jennifer, Scott and now Karl scamper along the AT, I hope others take a slower route.  One that allows them to stop and listen to the birds, to pause at an overlook and enjoy the scenery.   Because there is more to life than just getting from Point A to Point B as fast as you can.

Read more about Scott’s AT adventure at his web site: http://www.scottjurek.com/appalachian-trail

Brooks Running put together this video of Scott Jurek’s 2015 Appalachian Trail speed record.

Karl has a web site – http://karlmeltzer.com – where you can read more about his achievements as well as his blog.   His sponsor, Red Bull, has set up a web page for people to follow Karl’s attempt to break the record.  It should be interesting to watch his progress.