My Marathon Monk


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:  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.












Setting Records in January

Winter is not the time of year I expect to hear about new running records.  But that is exactly what happened in late January.

Ron Hill probably has a big pile of shoes

Ron Hill probably has a big pile of shoes

First there is Ron Hill, a 78-year old former Olympian who lives in England.  Ron was a running streaker who had run at least one mile every day.  During a run in late January, Ron started having pains in his heart.  Ron was concerned about his wife and family so he decided it was time to hang up his running shoes and end his streak at 52 years and 39 days.   I would call Ron the Cal Ripken of running.

Although Cal’s record for most consecutive baseball games played will probably stand for a long time, there are a number of people who could break Ron’s impressive record.  I wrote about the US Running Streak Association (USRSA) a year ago because I was following the running streaks of several runners (Did They Make It?).  In looking at the current active streak list on the USRSA’s web site, I saw 66-year-old Jon Sutherland’s streak is over 47 1/2 years.  As long as Jon stays healthy, he has a good chance of breaking Ron’s streak record in less than 5 years.  In the meantime, I hope Ron basks in the glory of having the longest streak record.  That is one heck of an achievement.

The other records set at the end of January were all associated with the 2017 World Marathon Challenge.  I wrote about the World Marathon Challenge at the end of 2015 (7x7x7).  Participants run 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days.  If you think about it, the World Marathon Challenge is also a running streak of sorts.  The only difference is that it ends after 7 days (though I am sure somebody somewhere is thinking about how many days in a row they could run a marathon, if they haven’t tried it already).  When I wrote about this challenge last year, I thought it was a flash in the pan (the price alone would deter a lot of people).  But the number of runners has grown every year with only 9 men and 1 woman in the first year (2015) to this year’s challenge with 22 men and 9 women.

The records set with this year’s participants are impressive.  Sinead Kane from Ireland became the first blind person, guided by John O’Regan, to complete 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days.  Guoping Xie set a new world record for women by completing 7 marathons on 7 continents in 6 days 8 hours and 30 minutes.  Nahila Hernandez became the first woman to run an ultra marathon (50K or 31.0686 miles) on all 7 continents in 7 days.  And to think there was a time when women were not allowed to participate in the marathon because there was a fear it would physically harm them.

But the big record was the one set by Michael Wardian, a 42-year-old ultra marathoner who has a day job working as an international ship broker.  From the first race in Antarctica where the windchill sent the temperatures to -30C to the last in Australia, Michael set a blistering pace for each race.  He won all 7 stages of the challenge.  Michael set a world record for the average time for completing each of the 7 marathons – 2:45:57.  Michael’s overall time to complete the 7 marathons on 7 continents was 6 days 7 hours and 25 minutes.

Michael is no stranger to world records.  In 2007 Michael set the record for running the fastest marathon while pushing a stroller with his son in it.  He even finished that race in third place.  In 2015 Michael set the world record for the fastest 50K run on a treadmill in 2:59:49. In 2016 Michael set the record for the fastest runner to complete each of the 6 Abbott World Marathons (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York) in one calendar year, averaging 2:31:09.

I am not sure what is left for Michael to run.  He has run the most challenging ultra marathons all over the world.  He even ran at the North Pole (in the 2014 North Pole Marathon).  Michael isn’t the type to stay home, running local 5K and 10K races.  In a recent interview, Michael said he likes to do stuff that scares him.  I don’t doubt for a moment Michael has something he wants to try.  No matter what it is, I will be cheering for him.  He is an incredible athlete.

Interested in running 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days?  They are currently taking applications for the 2018 challenge.  Visit their website for more information

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:

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

Karl has a web site – – 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.

Man versus Beast

Many people think being a runner is unnatural, even dangerous.  They probably have this perception after hearing stories about runners developing knee problems or back problems, even dying prematurely.  They argue that cars were invented so there is no need to run.

There is no way that a human could run as fast as a cheetah, which is the fastest animal with top speeds of 68-75 miles per hour.  But cheetahs are sprinters, not distance runners.  That is where humans have the advantage.

According to Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Biological Sciences at Harvard University, the anatomy of the human body has features that help endurance running.  Humans have spring-like arches in the feet, short toes, long tendons in the legs, large gluteus maximus muscles, and unusually large joints in the legs and spine.  Additionally, there is a ligament at the base of the skull that stabilizes the head when running.  The human body is not covered in fur like many animals and has lots of sweat glands so humans perform better in heat.  Cheetahs, like other cats and dogs, only have sweat glands in their paws and have to rely on panting to regulate their body temperature.  The bottom line is humans may not be built for speed but we are built to run long distances.  We just need to learn how to run and use our bodies as they were intended.

In the documentary “Fair Chase” ten elite distance runners went to New Mexico to prove that a human could run down an animal.  Their prey was the second fastest animal on earth, the pronghorn that can run up to 55 miles per hour.  They were trying to prove before the bow and arrow was invented, early man survived by using persistence hunting where a team of hunters track an animal over long distances.  The objective of persistence hunting is not to outrun the animal but to run it until it overheats.  At that point, the hunters can overtake and kill their prey.  Persistence hunting is still used today in Africa, Australia and parts of Mexico.  Amazingly, the runners in “Fair Chase” chased a buck for over 20 miles in temperatures upwards from 88 degrees before the buck disappeared into a herd.

Although the runners were not successful in taking down their prey, I don’t think that we can say that it would not be possible to run down an antelope.  The antelopes knew the terrain much better than the runners.  The runners also had to climb over barbed wire fences the antelopes easily jumped.  In the prehistoric times, there wouldn’t have been any barbed wire fences.  Fortunately for us, today we just need to hop in the car and drive to the nearest grocery to pick up dinner.  No running involved there.

If you want to try your endurance running skills against an animal, there are a few options.  First, there is the “Man vs Horse” race in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales every June where runners compete against horses on a 22-mile course.  The race has been held every year since 1980.  A human runner has only won twice –  in 2004 and 2007.  The other race is “Man Against Horse” in Prescott, Arizona held in October.  That race was started in 1983.  There are three distances – 12, 25 and 50 miles.  The 12-mile course is over rolling terrain while the 25-mile and 50-mile courses are more challenging, over steep rocky terrain, mountainous trails and back roads with elevation climbs of up to 7600 feet.  Weather can be at either extreme – sunny and warm to snow and hail.  Horses seem to be the overall winners in that race too.

While I have no desire to try racing an animal, I am glad to know that my body is designed to run all these marathons and half marathons that I do.   I don’t worry about knee problems or back problems.  In fact, I feel pretty good.   Yep, I am a marathon racing machine.

Professor Lieberman has co-authored a paper on endurance running with Dennis M. Bramble titled “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo.”  If you want to learn more about why humans are such good endurance runners, check it out.   

Outside Online published this article about the elite runners attempt to catch a pronghorn

Fair Chase was a very interesting film.  Here is a link to their web site.