The Marathon Monks of Japan: The World’s Toughest Ultramarathon

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The Marathon Monks (gyoja) of Mt. Hiei, Japan take on kaihōgyō, a spiritual challenge of endurance in pursuit of enlightenment

The journey lasts over seven years and the stakes are high. 

If they fail, the monk must perform Hara-kiri – ‘honourable suicide’. 

If they survive, they become a living saint.

They wear white, the Buddhist colour of death, a reminder that the journey will take them to the limits of life itself- and beyond.

The ‘Marathon Monks’ have been conducting the kaihōgyō for more than 1000 years. 

Only 46 monks have completed the 1,000-day challenge since 1885. Many have failed and can be found buried under unmarked graves on the side of Mt. Hiei.

Here’s their story.

We’re going to look at . . .

  • What the kaihōgyō entails,
  • why the monks do it,
  • how they stay mentally tough,
  • what shoes they wear,
  • what they eat,
  • how fast they go,
  • and what we can learn from them.
marathon monks gyoja

An overview of the Kaihōgyō

  • For the first three years, the monks have to run 30km (18.6 miles) a day for 100 consecutive days, or 3000km (1860 miles) per year.
  • For the fourth and fifth year, the monks have to run 30km a day for 200 days; that’s 6000km (3720 miles) per year. 
  • After five long years of running, the monks then have to go a full nine days with no food, water, or sleep. 
  • The sixth-year calls for 60 km (37.2 miles) of running a day for 100 days, that’s another 6000km (3720 miles) across the year. 
  • Finally, the seventh year requires a mind-bending 84 km (52 miles) a day for 100 days, followed by 30km a day for the remaining 100 days; totalling 11,400km or 7000 miles in the final year.
marathon monks

The Rules of the Kaihōgyō

The monks ascribe to a strictly regimented lifestyle. During the kaihōgyō, they must adhere to the following rules:

  • No drinking or smoking.
  • Whilst running the hat and robe must not be removed.
  • No deviation from the prescribed course.
  • No stopping for personal breaks.
  • All required chants, prayers, and stops at the shrines must be correctly performed. 
The Marathon Monks of Japan: The World's Toughest Ultramarathon 1
Unknown author – Japanese magazine “International Cultural Pictorial, July 1954 issue” published by Kokusai Bunka Joho Sha.

What Motivates Them?

The marathon monks are Buddhists from the Tendai sect.

They believe in the teaching of Ekayāna (One Vehicle); everyone is equal and anyone can attain spiritual awakening

The way in which the Marathon Monks achieve this awakening, or enlightenment, is through extraordinary feats of physical endurance. 

This is no ordinary ultramarathon. For the monks, the kaihōgyō is a deeply spiritual pilgrimage.

On our quest, we are intermediaries between the Buddha and humanity

The purpose of the kaihōgyō ‘is not to walk, per se. We visit places of worship and we go there on foot. Then we go to another object of worship. It’s like a pilgrimage.’ 

Along their journey, the monks must stop off at holy sites and shrines, performing prayers and chanting as they go.

The time spent out in the wilderness of Japan allows the monk to connect with nature, and in turn to discover their inner nature. 

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How Do They Stay Mentally Tough?

The monks wear a robe during the kaihōgyō- under which they carry a rope, and a knife – a reminder that if they fail on their journey, they must immediately end their own lives. For them, this is the only honourable option. 

Given this, it seems that positive thinking would be almost impossible. But during the kaihōgyō being mentally tough becomes absolutely critical for survival. 

One monk says “you must think positively. Thinking positively, I believe I can continue until the end. I cannot allow myself to think ‘what if?’’

According to a senior monk on Mt. Hiei, the theory is that once the monks come face to face with death, they develop a remarkable awareness of life and special powers of perception. 

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What Shoes Do They Wear?

For their journey, the monks wear handmade straw and linen sandals, offering little protection from the jagged terrain over which they run- jagged rocks and snake-filled forests. 

During the kaihōgyō It is common for the monks to go through four, sometimes five pairs of shoes a day.

Given the insanely advanced technology that has been developed for commercial running shoes, these sandals seem a world away. 

But regardless of running shoe advancements, and the steep price that comes with them, it is extremely common for athletes who compete in multi-day endurance events to report horrendous foot issues. Pictures I’ve seen of the feet of Marathon Des Sables athletes spring to mind…

This makes it even more surprising then when a friend of the Marathon Monks reported meeting a monk on the last day of his challenge. She was amazed to discover that his feet were “smooth and clean”, “As though he had been floating over the ground”.

One monk says that the reason their shoes are the same as they would have been 1,000 years ago is that the kaihōgyō is not about the individual. It is something that is passed down from generation to generation. The individual is not significant. 

The Marathon Monks of Japan: The World's Toughest Ultramarathon 4
Tanno Kakudo from the Kyoto monastery lacing up his running sandals. Photo by Dr. Michael Yorke, Anthropologist and Filmmaker. mike@upsidefilms.co.uk 

What Do They Eat? 

The Marathon Monks eat around 1,000-2,000 calories a day. Their diet is incredibly simple and is made up of rice, miso soup, and green tea.

In year five, the monk’s running is interrupted by the Doiri- a period of nine days of extreme depravation.

During these nine days, the monks don’t eat, drink, or even sleep. Two other monks watch them at all times to make sure that they stick to the rules. 

Just to clarify, although it is interesting to learn about people who put themselves through this, we would never recommend it! This level of fasting is extremely dangerous, and we would never advise this at Marathon Handbook!

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How Fast Do They Go?

Seemingly, the only break the Marathon Monks get is that speed is not an issue. They may walk, just as long as they reach their daily checkpoints. 

In fact, reaching the day’s ‘finish line’ quickly can be interpreted as a sign that the monk has not taken enough time to contemplate or pray at the shrines which he passes along the way.

They often walk, but they travel at speed. They inevitably have to move at a consistent speed which they can keep up over such a long period of time. A real feat of endurance. Walking is essential as they must keep their RPE low to stand a chance of completing the 7 years.

What Can We Learn From The Marathon Monks?

Although there is absolutely no reason to take on a challenge such as this one, if not for the religious reasons which are at the core of the monk’s philosophy, there is still much to be learned from the kaihōgyō. 

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1. Focus on the process, not the goal

There’s a reason the post-marathon blues are a thing. 

With your focus lasered in on the goal, it is easy to feel flat once it is achieved. You build it up in your head and then *poof*, life is just as it was before you finished that marathon. It can be a bit disheartening. 

During the kaihōgyō, the focus is on the process. The monks are discouraged from rushing to the finish lines each day, and they must meditate and ground themselves in the present. 

Yusai Sakai is an extraordinary athlete who miraculously completed the kaihōgyō twice, from the ages of 41 to 61. In an interview he says “live each day as if it is your entire life. If you start something today, finish it today- tomorrow is another world”.

Focusing on the now is something we can all do more of. 

Taking the emphasis off race day and putting it on the training is a good place to start. This not only takes some of the pressure off, but it also inevitably means that you will be better prepared come the big day!

marathon monks

2. Have a reason for reaching a goal 

The Marathon Monks are only able to undertake the kaihōgyō because they have a higher purpose – their faith. Surely no one would put themselves through that for the sake of having done it. 

When taking on your own challenges; your first half-marathon, marathon, or ultramarathonit can help to have a deeper reason beyond the challenge itself.

This might mean raising money for a charity close to your heart. Or your reason could be a desire to find the limits of what you are capable of. 

Whatever your ‘why’, it can help guide you through those tougher times on your way to achieving a goal.

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3. Minimise distractions

The Marathon Monks live on Mt. Hiei, a remote mountain that bars tourists and can be accessed by invitation only. 

Living a simple life deep in the forest means that the monks never fall to the time-wasting temptations which are all too common nowadays- you won’t find a Marathon Monk scrolling Instagram or playing video games. 

Their stripped-back life which minimises distractions is one of the reasons that the monks can hone all of their focus to take on the mammoth task at hand. 

No one is telling you to become a hermit for the sake of a running goal, but minimising unhealthy distractions is never a bad thing. 

For some, this may mean working on kicking an unhealthy drinking habit, and for others, this could mean reducing their screen time. We all have our vices. 

Stripping back distractions means freeing up time- time which can be spent working on our goals!

Always aim for the ultimate, never look back, be mindful of others at all times, and keep the mind forever set on the Way. “If you do this…there is nothing that cannot be accomplished.”- Stevens, John (2013).The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei.

Photo of author
Maria Andrews is a runner, adventure lover, and UESCA certified Ultramarathon Coach. When she's not running around the woods or plotting adventures, she's spending time with her nearest and dearest, cooking up a storm, or working on Marathon Handbook's sister website, yogajala.com :)

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