When was the last time you ran two marathons in two days?
That’s what I thought.
What If I told you there’s a group of people who run the equivalent of a marathon every day for 100 days in a row? And that’s just their warmup.
They’re called the marathon monks, and they practice selfless sacrifice and devotion through “kaihogyo”—1,000 days of marathon running.
The marathon monks are part of the Tendai School of Buddhism, and they reside just outside of Kyoto, Japan, on Mount Hiei. Their ultimate goal is to serve Buddha, and they do so by pursuing spiritual athleticism.
Dressed in robes of pure white and simple straw sandals, the Marathon Monks run 18 miles daily for the first 100 days. Over time, the monks increase the distance they must run each day. By year six, they run 37 miles for 100 days in a row, and during the seventh and final year, they must complete 52 miles on 100 consecutive days.
That’s two marathons in one day!
All the while, the monks subsist only on a diet of vegetables, tofu, and miso soup. They wear no socks, sleep only three to four hours each night, and must carry a rope and knife while they run—a symbolic reminder that, once past the 100th day of kaihogyo, there is no turning back. Historically, monks who could not complete the challenge were supposed to take their own lives. Today, however, a rigorous selection process ensures each individual chosen to embark on the journey will complete all 1,000 days.
It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Since 1885, only 46 men have completed kaihogyo. It’s a challenge that even the greatest athletes in the world would struggle to finish. It pushes the limits of both the body and mind to their breaking points. But for those who make it to the end, it leads to enlightenment.
If you’ve ever run a marathon, you know that physical ability is only part of the equation. A study of ultra-marathoners by Staffordshire University researchers found that mental toughness accounts for 14 percent of racing success. That’s a lot of brain power. Imagine the amount of brain power it must take to run marathons for 1,000 days.
Recently, I was lucky enough to climb the trails along Mount Hiei to meet with and learn from the monks who have endured this unbelievably physical and spiritual journey. These guys push themselves more than anyone I’ve met, and their practice is not just disciplined, but patient. Yes, they push their bodies to do more every day than most do in their entire lives, but they also spread their journeys out over seven years to allow time to reflect on their purpose and mission.
After just a day of running the same trails and reflecting along the same stopping points, I already felt more sure of my own mission—to change millions of lives for the better. I also came to the conclusion that, if I ever want to keep up, I have more mental work to do. Luckily, I picked up three nuggets of wisdom from the monks that will help me get there:
1. Don’t waste your life being upset or worrying. Whatever happened last year, yesterday, or ten minutes ago is over. Just pick up and move on.
2. Time passes with or without you, so you better not waste it on trivial things.
3. Find your mission in life and pursue it tirelessly. Say no to the things that don’t help you reach your goals. Make time to do what you need to do. When you commit to something, anything is possible.
These guys have kept candles lit for more than 1,000 years. If they can do that, you can ace that presentation, finish that race, ask for that promotion, or whatever else you put your mind to.
I’m not saying you have to run 1,000 marathons to achieve enlightenment. I think what it really comes down to is ritual. Rituals help us connect with the mission at hand, commit, and develop a work ethic that will push us closer to our goal.
Find or create the rituals that push you closer to your goals. Whether it’s daily meditation and exercise, writing regularly, fasting, or other physical challenges, there are plenty of ways we can incorporate rituals into our lives to help us learn and grow.