Ultra Marathoners Going Beyond The Normal



Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

After crossing Lake Biwa in 1989, I was introduced to the monks of Mount Hiei near Kyoto, Japan,” recalled Steven Munatones. “The monks were impressed that people would swim across the largest lake in Japan, but there is no way I could compare what swimmers do with what they do. I love learning from people like this – or swimmers like Sarah Thomas – because their exploits put everything else into proper perspective..”

Their athletic feat has much more meaning than swimming across a lake. Selected monks of Mount Hiei attempt and occasionally complete a 46,000 km journey where they walk, meditate and pray in the Kaihōgyō ritual for 1,000 days.

Their road to enlightenment and process of self-denial requires requires incredible stamina and mental and physical discipline over a seven-year period including a 9-day period of no food, drink or sleep. “When they explained the ritual to me while sitting down in a tatami mat room overlooking a tranquil Lake Biwa, their journey sounded so mind-bogglingly difficult with extraordinary levels of unnatural endurance that a relatively simple 10+ hour swim is so insignificant and relatively easy in comparison.”

In Year 1, the monks walk 30-40 km per day up and down the difficult trails in Mount Hiei above Kyoto for 100 days of the year.
In Year 2, they walk 30-40 km per day along the same course for 100 days of the year.
In Year 3, they walk 30-40 km per day along the same course for 100 days of the year.
In Year 4, they walk 30-40 km per day along the same course for 200 days of the year.
In Year 5, they walk 30-40 km per day along the same course for 200 days of the year.
In Year 6, they walk 60 km per day along the same course for 100 days of the year.
In Year 7, they walk 84 km per day for 100 days, followed by 30-40 km per day for 100 days of the year.

During the fifth year, their ritual is temporarily put on hold for them to go for 9 days (216 straight hours) without food, water or sleep of any kind. The monk sits in the temple and prays constantly with two monks on either side to ensure he does not fall asleep. At 2 am every night, the monk must get up and walk 200 meters to offer sacrificial water from a well.

These monks willingly put themselves through this 1,000-day journey of extreme asceticism where they come face-to-face with their physical limitations and desires with a serenity, courage and commitment. Only 46 men have accomplished since the 16th century.”

What is also inspirational about this ritual is that during their nine days of non-sleep, non-eating and non-drinking, they must walk 200 meters to the well every morning. On the first night, the 200-meter walk is done in a matter of a few minutes. By the ninth day, the same 200-meter walk takes an agonizing hour due to the physical toll on the human body. And, then on the very last moment before the ritual is completed, the monk walks to his first meal and drink in 9 days…but they must first kneel in front of the food and water and pray.

The amount of self-discipline and courage to sit in front of food and water and first pray after 9 days in a principled, quiet and scripted manner is an unbelievable culmination to this ritual on year five.

Copyright © 2008-2017 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones