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The Marathon Monks: Stretching the Limits of Human Endurance

There are no running events in the Winter Olympics, currently being staged in Nagano, Japan. One of the most talked about features by CBS however, was the ten-minute piece delivered by Charles Osgood on the "marathon monks," a group of Buddhists who push the limits of human endurance in search of a higher plane of spirituality.
By Don Allison
Posted Tuesday, 17 February, 1998

There are no running events in the Winter Olympics, currently being staged in Nagano, Japan. One of the most talked about features by CBS however, was the ten-minute piece delivered by Charles Osgood on the "marathon monks," a group of Buddhists who push the limits of human endurance in search of a higher plane of spirituality. The ritual followed by these monks is almost beyond belief: 100 consecutive days of 26.2-mile marathons, beginning at 1:30 a.m., each day after an hour of prayer. Throughout the night they run and pray, dressed in a white robe and straw sandals. Upon completion of each day's marathon, the monks perform chores and pray throughout the day, until retiring at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. The ritual begins again a few hours later. If the monk finds himself physically unable to complete the 100-day ritual, he is required to commit suicide by hanging himself with the belt from his robe. And you thought there was pressure in your last marathon.

It doesn't get much tougher than that, but indeed there are people from all corners of the globe performing incredible feats of running endurance. Things have certainly changed since the days of the marathon "boom" of the late 70s. Back then, the 26.2-mile traditional marathon was considered by most runners to be the pinnacle of running endurance. If you were able to complete a full marathon back then, you could be pretty much assured of the awe and respect of all your friends and co-workers. Running one or two a year was about all anyone did. In the current era, finishing a marathon is a fairly commonplace achievement, albeit a worthy one.

Indeed, compared with some of the running feats of athletes these days, a marathon is an easy stroll. The marathons monks notwithstanding, there are thousands of runners from around the world turning in fantastic ultra-distance runs. And not just a few odd folks either. According to UltraRunning magazine, more than 10,000 individuals from the USA alone completed races farther than 26.2 miles in 1997. Among this group were several hundred who completed races of 100 miles, led by Andy Jones, who pounded out a century in 12 hours and five minutes, the fastest time in the world. That's 7:15 per mile for 100 miles. So not only do some of these ultrarunners go far, they go fast as well. Ann Trason, America's ultra queen, finished the mountainous 56-mile Comrades in South Africa at under 6:30 per mile.

For some, 100 miles or 56 miles is a mere warm-up. In Queens, New York last summer, guru Sri Chinmoy staged a 3,100-mile race around a half-mile loop. Six runners took up the challenge, spending the better part of their summer churning out laps on the urban street course. Ed Kelley from California was the first to finish, in a bit over 47 days. Said Kelley after the run, "You make a goal for yourself, and you take nothing less until you hit that goal. There are rewards all the time. I break the day down into periods from breakfast to lunch to dinner to when I get home, and I get satisfaction in completing all those goals." Joe Schlereth, a mile-mannered family man from Fresno, California has logged more than 6,000 miles every year in this decade, capped by a 9,000-mile year in 1996. That's 175 miles per week for 52 weeks, on average.

All of this of course begs the question: Why? Why push oneself past the reasonable limits of endurance? Is there anything out there to be gained physically, mentally, or spiritually by racking up huge mileage? Well, the marathon monks seem to have the spiritual angle covered. The rest of us however, are seeking more earthly rewards. As for breaking new ground competitively, forget it. Many of us would like to think that if we can't run faster, we can at least run longer. Yiannis Kouros does both. The planet's most accomplished ultramarathoner, Kouros has set records that are almost beyond comprehension. He ran 303 km (186 miles) in 24 hours last October. That's 7:40 per mile average for a full day. He has also run more than 100 miles for six straight days. So, record-setting is pretty much out of the question.

Most anyone who does go beyond the marathon extols the virtues of the pursuit. One by-product of running long is that you can actually get somewhere. Many of the USA's 17 100-mile trail runs are staged in some of the most scenic vistas in the country. Running on remote narrow trails throughout the night and seeing the sun come up the next day is something you just will not find in a big-city 26-miler.

There is also a unique camaraderie among runners. Ultra races are usually small affairs. The biggest race in the USA last year was the JFK in Maryland, with 719 finishers. Most are more likely to have 40 or 50 runners. As such, many runners either know each other, or get to know one another during the event. The less frenetic pace of an ultra affords time to socialize. In that way, these races are a lot like marathons were a few decades ago, when those who participated were part of a small fraternity.

Is there something missing in our society today that lures people into undertaking such seemingly excessive pursuits? Some people feel the need to test their limits. Long distance athletic challenges are a way one can create a "life and death" situation, where otherwise it does not exist. Many people thrive on the challenge of "living on the edge." Running in a big city marathon in which there are 20,000 other runners and an aid station every mile does not offer this type of challenge.

Is it physically or mentally healthy to push the limits of your endurance? Like any sporting endeavor, running ultra long distances is an individual thing; it comes more easily to some than others. Women in particular, seem to possess the ability to trot along for hours on end. In addition, advances in nutrition knowledge and producers, along with high-tech gear and shoes have made ultra runs easier than they used to be. For all of us however, running like this will take a toll on joints, tendons, and connective tissue. Furthermore, the training can be time-consuming and tiring. It's tough to squeeze a 30 or 40-mile training run into a busy schedule. It's ironic, that in this day and age of overwhelmingly busy schedules, more and more folks are undertaking runs that consume pretty much the whole day, or even longer.

Should you too try to stretch the limits of your own endurance? As cited earlier, there are some good reasons why you might want to try. As with anything in life, the maxim "nothing ventured, noting gained" applies. The investment you need to make in the sport is substantially larger, but otherwise there are no other requirements needed to try to run farther than you ever have run before or run more marathons more frequently than you have other had before. Sure, someone else has probably already done it, but by reaching beyond what you think you are capable of, you might learn a lot about yourself. You really don't have a lot to lose just by trying—unless of course you are a marathon monk.

What you need to know if you are planning to test your own endurance limits I talked with Karl King, a respected and knowledgeable expert in the field of ultrarunning and nutrition for long runs. Here's some advice he has to offer:

DA: Can the typical marathon runner complete an ultra distance run?

KK: Marathon training toughens the legs and enhances glycogen storage, but doesn't do much to improve the reaction of the endocrine system to prolonged stress. So, the typical marathoner is close to being able to run an ultra but need to do some longer training runs of 20-25 miles to stress the endocrine system, prompting it to grow and respond to ultra marathon conditions.

Typical marathoners walk as little as possible in their runs. Ultrarunners need to intersperse their running with 4-10 minute walking breaks, especially when running a hilly course. Ultra runners commonly walk the uphills in a race. Marathon runners need to add short walking breaks to their long runs.

Having done that, any runner who is fit enough to run marathons can do an ultra. It would be wise to start with a 50K, and then advance to a 50 mile ultra.

DA: What gifts do some runners possess that allows them to perform such incredible feats of endurance, such as Kouros, Ann Trason, and Andy Jones?

KK: World class ultrarunners have natural speed, tremendous cardiac fitness, physical toughness, and great mental toughness. Such runners would have very fast 5K times if they concentrated on that distance. Their cardiac fitness allows them to maintain pace for hours on end. When Kevin Setnes set the North American 24 hour record of 160.4 miles, his pace over the 24 hours slowed only gradually. That kind of fitness is rare, and a function of both genetics and a long history of quality training.

Such runners run 70-100 mile weeks, often on hilly courses. That training toughens the legs to withstand the hours of pounding. Courses such as the Vermont 100 and Leadville 100 have 15,000' feet of climb and 15,000' of drop. If a runner doesn't have tough legs, that much downhill running will turn quads to jelly before the run is over. The average runner who does 10K to marathon distance on relatively flat road courses is not prepared for such ultra courses. It usually takes three years of running hilly courses to be ready. Of course, some ultras are held on a track, so hill training is not necessary for those runs.

DA: Have improvements in sports nutrition made running ultras easier?

KK: Improvements in running nutrition have made great strides. Diet while not running is not much different for the typical marathoner or ultrarunner. The difference comes in training and racing.

Nutrition for a 10K runner is exceedingly simple. Nutrition for a runner in a 100 mile race is far more critical. Food and sports drinks that work well in a marathon may be terrible choices for an ultra. Electrolyte replacement is usually not an important factor in runs of less than three hours, but can be come absolutely critical after 6-10 hours of running in hot weather.

Fortunately, various companies have researched the problems of food consumption in ultras and have come up with drinks, gels and electrolyte products specifically designed for use in such long runs. The prospective ultra runner should look for these products, try them on long training runs and determine which work well for them.

DA: How does the mental aspect come into play during ultras?

KK: Good ultra runners are uniquely strong in their belief that they can finish any run. Nobody doubts that they can finish a 10K, few ever drop from a marathon. But when you are standing at the starting line, and consider that the finish line is 100 miles away, it takes mental strength to believe that you can cover that distance. Any runner who believes that he or she can't cover the distance will find it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is common to feel very tired after running 40 to 70 miles. Some runners give up, while others rise above fatigue and finish. Finishing a run when you thought you were dead meat is one of the great joys of ultra running.

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