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Are Japan’s “Marathon Monks” the Toughest Men on Earth?

So, who's the toughest person you know?

Maybe it's an Ironman triathlete, a Navy SEAL or an MMA fighter.

Guys that regularly push themselves beyond what most folks would consider impossible.

But the "marathon monks" from Japan's Mount Hiei operate on a whole different level.

Put it this way, marathon runners that have tried to keep up with them typically don't last longer than a week.

Hardly surprising, since these monks undertake a 1,000-day test that takes a full seven years to complete, and sees them covering over 27,000 miles on foot.

(That's equivalent to the Earth's circumference plus the distance from San Diego to New York City)

Here's what we're talking about:

Marathon monks 7 year distance

But, believe it or not, that's the easy part...

Year 1

Now, the first year is relatively plain sailing.

(There's that word, "relatively")

Everyday for 100 days straight, the monks walk an 18-mile pilgrimage through the mountains near Kyoto...

...stopping to pray at over 250 places like temples and waterfalls along the way.

Just to be clear, the monks don't run, they walk.

But these are rough, unlit mountain trails, and they're dressed like this:

Marathon monk wearing straw sandals and white shroud

(It's kind of hard to make out, but that long woven object is actually a hat)

Keep in mind that for the first three years (that's 5,400 miles) they don't even get to wear socks with those straw sandals.

So they're not exactly dressed for a good day's hiking.

Now, the monks typically start out around 2am, and it takes something like 6½ hours to complete the 18-mile route.

Going faster than this is frowned on as it's not about setting times or racing through the course.

So, clothing aside, that doesn't sound too bad, right?

But remember that they have to do this for 100 days straight (in addition to all their normal duties)...

...and they get to eat only 1500 Calories per day.

Think rice, miso soup, tofu and vegetables.

But all that changes in year 2 when things start to get serious.

OK, make that very serious.

Years 2 and 3

Now during the first 100 days, withdrawal is possible.

But once you commit to that 101st day, starting in year 2, you've got only two choices:

1. Complete all 1,000 days, or

2. Take your own life (the monks carry a length of rope and a dagger)

Fudoo Moo Mount Hiei

(You can see these represented in one of the statues where they pray)

Other than that, years 2 and 3 are pretty much repeats of year 1 - which means an 18-mile pilgrimage everyday for 100 days straight.

Again, that doesn't sound like such a big deal if you say it quickly enough.

But let's just think for a second...

After all, monks get sick and injured just like the rest of us.

Feet get slashed on stones, ankles sprained and knees twisted.

One monk described how his knees were so painful that he had to walk backwards down a steep part of the course...

...and what would normally take him just a few minutes took closer to an hour.

But the price of failure was more than he was prepared to pay.

Years 4 and 5

Year 4 sees the monks finally being allowed to wear a pair of socks to protect their feet against the straw sandals.

(Until that point, they just have to put up with the chafing)

But to offset that, the 18-mile pilgrimage is now made for 200 days straight for both of the next two years.

Which means that by the end of year 5, they've completed 700 days and over 12,500 miles.

Then comes arguably the most daunting part...

Dōiri (Entering the Temple)

Once the 700th day has been completed, the monk endures 9 days without food, water, or sleep.

(Day 7 is considered the point at which this ordeal becomes life threatening)

The monk is accompanied by two other monks to ensure he stays awake, and he continuously chants over 100,000 mantras to avoid passing out.

He stands just one time per day, when he walks 600 feet to collect water from a well and take it as an offering to a nearby shrine.

Now, at the start of dōiri, this task might take just 10 minutes or so...

...but by the end, the monk is so exhausted that it can take closer to 1½ hours.

By this time, he isn't sure whether he's alive or dead, and his senses are so heightened that some claim to be able to hear ash dropping from burning incense sticks.

If he makes it through dōiri, the monk then has just three weeks to recover before year 6 begins.

Years 6 and 7

In year 6, the distance doubles to 36 miles per day for 100 straight days.

Which means each pilgrimage might take a full 13 hours or more to complete.

Now, as impossible as that sounds, everything's relative.

How come?

Well, get this:

In year 7, the distance increases to over 50 miles per day, again for 100 straight days.

That means the monk might only be sleeping for just 2 hours per night for over 3 months.

(Keep in mind they're still on that 1,500 Calorie per day diet and wearing those straw sandals)

That takes them to 900 days in total.

And after all that, the final 100 days must seem like a cakewalk.

Put it this way, at just 18 miles per day for 100 straight days, it seems pretty tame in comparison.

And once that's completed, they just have to get through the final test...

The 100,000-Prayer Fire & Fasting Ceremony

For many, this is considered to be the biggest trial of all:

Eight days spent reciting 100,000 prayers, in front of a blazing fire.

As the monks say:

It feels like being roasted alive in hell

(You can see what it's like for yourself in this video)

After all he's endured, the monk is then finally considered to have reached enlightenment, and is regarded as a living saint.

Now, let's be honest:

Does the Hawaii Ironman, BUD/S,  or any other activity you can think of come anywhere close to that?

I mean, only a few dozen "marathon monks" have completed this 1,000-day feat in the past 130 years.

In fact, it's easy to start thinking that they're superhuman...

...and that's a problem.


Because that makes it almost impossible for us to relate to them.

But the reality is that they're still guys - some used to be salarymen, some used to have bad habits, and some used to be just plain lazy.

And here's what that means for you and me...

While we might not be up to completing the 1,000-day marathon, here are the key things we can learn from the "marathon monks":

1. We're all capable of so much more than we think we are

2. Nothing focuses your power and concentration like making a real commitment

3. You break a big task down into manageable, bite-size chunks, and simply do what you can each day

4. You find pleasure in the process itself, not just in the act of reaching your goal

5. You surround yourself with people who inspire, encourage and believe in you


6. Everything is relative

Like we said, the 1,000-day marathon dwarfs the Hawaii Ironman, BUD/S or pretty much any other endurance feat you can think of.

But get this:

Even the difficulty of the 1,000-day marathon is all relative.

Just ask Yūsai Sakai.

After all, within a few months of completing his 1,000 days at the age of 53...

...he committed to doing the whole thing over again.

And, at the age of 61, he became one of only a handful of monks to complete the "impossible" twice.

So, if the "marathon monks" are the toughest men on Earth, that makes Sakai one of the toughest men that has ever existed.

And what better way to finish than with this extraordinary man's recipe for a happy and fulfilling life:

The message I wish to convey is please live each day as if it is your entire life.

If you start something today, finish it today.

Tomorrow is another world.

Live life positively.

Wise words.

– Tim


立石光正 by  唐山健志郎 (唐山健志郎) - CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Okunoin Fudomyoo - CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enryakuji shikikodo1 by I, KENPEI - CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons



ABC - Foreign Correspondent

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