Lessons from The Marathon Monks – How to Achieve the Impossible

marathon monks

I’m big on goal setting. While I don’t always reach my goal, I know that I get a lot further toward it than I ever would had I never set the goal in the first place. Some of the goals I set are quite difficult and there are definitely times that I want to give up on them, but more times than not, I reach down inside and keep moving toward the goal. Whenever I want to give up, I think about the Marathon Monks.

The Marathon Monks are a group of Japanese Buddhist monks that are part of the Tendai sect located in the mountains looking over the ancient capital of Kyoto and have a quest called Hieizan Sennichi Kaihogyo (Mt. Hiei 1000 Day Journey) that would seem impossible. Yet over 45 have completed it, the last being Genshin Fujinami in late 2003. The goal is to run the equivalent of the entire equator – or once around the world over an 8 year period. Here are the details of the journey for those that try:

The first three years the monk will run approximately 18 miles a day along narrow paths in the mountains in nothing more than a pair if straw sandals and a robe (sorry, no state of the art running shoes or other gear). He must do this up and down trek along the mountains paths for 100 straight days during each of the three years. He starts at 1:30 in the morning each day and he needs to return by 9:00 AM because he is not excused from his regular daily chores which he also must complete each day.

In years four and five, the monk will travel the same narrow mountain path in the early morning hours, but increase the time to 200 straight days no matter what the weather – come rain, come snow, even come hurricanes.

In year six, he will increase the distance to 37 miles a day, or more than a full marathon each and every day for 100 consecutive days. He must return each day to do his normal, everyday chores just as all the other monks are required to do.

When he has completed the sixth year, he will endure the doiri: seven days and nights – 168 straight hours – (this is actually a recent relaxation of the rule because too many monks were dying when the doiri used to be 9 days and nights) sitting in a proper prayer position without any food, water or sleep. There will be two monks watching over him at all times to make sure he doesn’t sleep and he keeps the proper prayer position.

In year seven, the monk will increase the 100 consecutive day run to 52 miles a day, or the equivalent of 2 full marathons. While the daily chores he is required to do will be reduced during this time, they will not be eliminated.

The final year he will go back to where he began and run the original 18 mile course for 100 straight days.

Oh, and lest the monk decides somewhere along this stretch of eight years that it’s too difficult and he wants to give up, each and every day that he runs, he carries a rope and a knife with him. If he should fail to complete the course, the monk is ready to use one of these to either hang or disembowel himself.

Whenever I think about this story, the obstacles that I am facing with my goals seem pretty minor in comparison and the story gives me the motivation to keep going after my own goals. Here are some of the lessons that I come away with from this story:

Consistency pays off: While I wouldn’t exactly call starting off by running 18 miles a day for 100 straight days as taking baby steps, it does show that getting into a routine and consistently moving toward your goal on a daily basis will eventually get you to your goal no matter how impossible it may seem. As I have mentioned previously, 90% of game is not quitting. There will be times that you want to, but if you can come up with ways to motivate yourself to keep going during these times, you will eventually reach your goals.

Make the consequences of failing worse than to keep going: Being expected to kill yourself if you decide to quit is a pretty good motivating factor to keep going even at the lowest points. While I would never suggest that you make quite this drastic a consequence if you should give up on your goal, I know that putting in place consequences that make it more difficult to give up is important when I set up my goals. If I keep my goal to myself, then it is much easier for me to quit because nobody but me knows that I didn’t accomplish it. This is not the case if I tell everyone I know about the goal since I know many of them will hold me to it. Be willing to make consequences for not reaching goals and you will work much harder at achieving them.

Continue to do your regular daily stuff even when pursuing your goals: There are a lot of people that believe that they should give up everything else to concentrate entirely on one specific goal. While this may be appropriate in certain circumstances, I think it is a bad idea most of the time. Even during this impossible journey, the marathon monk is required to do the same daily chores as the rest of the monks.

When I started the sites and blogs, it was in my free time. While I did work a lot of hours each week on them, it was after finishing up my regular job. Had I quit my job and tried to build the income from day one, I would have failed. The income that I was earning at the time allowed me to live while putting in all my extra time into the sites and blogs. That’s not to say that you don’t have to make major decisions on time allocation, but in most cases you can reach your goals while still maintaining the daily necessities. Disregarding your daily tasks will often lead to failure.

Plough through obstacles: There are going to be a lot of obstacles no matter what your goals are and you are going to have to fight through them. Just as the Marathon Monk has to run no matter what the weather conditions, you are going to have to face the obstacles that are put in front of you and plough through them. While it would certainly be easier to wake up in the morning, look at the crappy weather and say that you were not going to work toward the goal that day, being able to get yourself out of bed and face the obstacle will get you closer to your goal.

The impossible is possible when you set your mind to it: Take a minute and reread what the Marathons Monks do over an eight year period. If you asked anyone if they thought it is possible, I would guess that most people would simply laugh in your face. Having run a marathon and being able to barely walk the next three days after finishing (this despite training extensively for it), it boggles my mind that 1 person has completed it, let alone more than 45. It goes to show that when you set your mind to reach a goal and if you are determined to reach it, the impossible often becomes possible.