While this unique group of runners is not technically a tribe or people group, the unique cultural running tradition of the Tendai monks (or the Kaihigyo) of Mount Hiei, Japan, is certainly worthy of review. Known widely as the “marathon monks,” the Tendai may be some of the greatest, toughest, and most committed athletes on earth. We review their legacy here based on some partial research completed by the authors of the barefoot running book due out this next year.
What makes their efforts all the more amazing is that members of this
religious sect run only for the spiritual enlightenment they receive on the treacherous paths they tread in the mountain country. On the trail of Buddhist awakening, their commitment is demonstrated by their participation in the intensely demanding 1,000-day challenge. This event goes way beyond even the most strenuous ultra-marathons and iron-man events, and it has been documented that only forty-six men have completed this challenge since 1885.
In the first stage of their “training,” the monks must spend seven years in Buddhist training, learning meditation and calligraphy, while doing all of the rudimentary duties of temple maintenance. In the initial 300-day period, the monks are required to run approximately 40km a day for 100 consecutive days. Then in the fourth and fifth years, they must run for 200 days in a row. Yes, that is the equivalent of a full marathon every day for more than six months. The sixth year includes a 20km a day increase while the seventh see the number reach 84km a day for 100 consecutive days, adding up to two marathons back-to-back each day for just over three months.
Yet, the running is not the half of it. To the sheer distances they must traverse each day, you must add the fact the Tendai monks are running over mountain paths, often at night. They do not wear the best clothing or footwear for these types of activities. Most participants wear straw sandals, white outfits, and a straw hat. Along with their attire, the monks must carry implements for meditation and devotional rites like candles, knives, and the like. They endure times of little rest or recovery, times without food or water, and other physical hardships.
In the distant past, when Kyoto was the functioning court of the Japanese emperor, the Tendai were treated to a special thanksgiving ceremony once they had completed their 1,000 day trials. These marathon monks were the only ones who were allowed to wear sandals in the presence of the emperor.
It is still common for crowds numbering in the thousands to turn out to see a monk finish this impressive race. Some ask the monks for blessings, believing in some cases, that they possess sacred healing powers.
Written post by Shaun C. Kilgore