Whiting, Nathan. "From the Big Apple: The Ultimate Challenge. Ulrarunning. September 1991.
The marathon has been called ‘the ultimate challenge.’ Most of us laugh at a Saturday workout distance being so honored. If pressed, we might each name our own ultimate goal or achievement: a Rocky Mountain trail race, six days on a track, the local romp through the swamp and over he ridge, or perhaps across the United States. A few of us may have even tougher ideas hidden back in our minds, which have yet to be tried. While there are many hard goals, I would like to suggest a different idea of ‘the ultimate challenge.’
Perhaps you have heard of the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei in Japan. John Stevens has written a book by that title, published by Shambhala Press in Boston. They began with a ninth-century monk named Soo who had a vision to visit all 300 shrines on Mt. Hiei every day. To do this he had to run the 25- mile course. In the 1380s a practice of 1,000 days over seven years was established. The hardest 100-day session was to run the route twice each night over mountain trails, praying at each shrine, after which the monks would perform their daily duties. In 1583 the first monk completed this regimen. It is easier now. About 50 monks have finished in the last 150 years.
What interests me is that it was 200 years before there was a finisher. This challenge seems a little more ultimate, a goal we can’t reach or our children or their children…yet someday in another age it will be done. No T-shirt for 200 years, no trophy. A great thing about ultrarunning is the patience. We resist the American tendency for quick and obvious gratification. We look for the task somewhere close to the limits of our endurance. ‘What can be done?’ We combine the conservative idea of sticking to our goals. With a radical, almost rebellious urge to do the unthinkable, to defy the rules, at a time most Americans are splitting these ideas apart.
‘Set reasonable goals which are still challenging,’ we were told in high school. Maybe it’s time t question this cliché. Let the ultimate challenge be unreasonable, some frustrating task that takes over our imaginations, yet we can’t do it. It lures us on. It has meaning. It’s hovering near the impossible gives it meaning. To work it out, it will have to be passed to other generations.
Can any of us give seven years? We aren’t monks. We aren’t pros. The religious dedication to visit many shrines, to separate ourselves and explore our internal possibilities to such a degree is not in our culture. The Judeo-Christian tradition requires no such sacrifice. We don’t have the Asian concept of reincarnation, of our soul needing all the experience it can get to escape the cycle of rebirth. Why would we want to take our sport beyond weekend races or a summer-long journey run?
The point is we do do more. Some of us have run every day for years. Some of us train more than 25 miles a day and pause at our favorite views. Some of us spend entire weekends on mountain trails we may or may not have seen before. Then we work our jobs and share the love of our families. Whatever urge drives us, whether it comes from this culture or not, is very powerful and we take it seriously.
If there is one point I have tried to make in these articles it is: we are up to something important. As a group we have made amazing discoveries. What we have not done well is record our discoveries, what we know, what we don’t know, what we feel, what we still want to feel. One reason is we’re too busy running. Another reason is we believe no one cares. Another reason is we run with people who have a pretty good idea already. The most important reason is it’s simply too hard to express it all, to hard to organize feelings, times, distances, and reasons into words. Ultrarunning have been popular before only to die out, be forgotten, to be started again from ignorance by a new generation. I don’t believe this is a good way to keep our knowledge alive, visible, present.
When one looks at places where ultrarunning has lived for long periods around the world – the running Indian villages of Mexico, the marathon messengers of East Africa, the monks of Mt. Hiei – it is a tradition, an institution. By institution I don’t mean a race organization or some American Assn. for Ultrarunners. These are flimsy things. Boston, our oldest marathon is threatened by money and competition. Our oldest, the JFK is losing runners and support. Our popular trail races depend on handful of people, as does this magazine. Even the Olympics are threatened by politics. The legend of Mt. Hiei began with one runner. He set an example. For 400 years people remembered the meaning he left. Then a discipline was created and 200 years later someone completed it. The legend has lived and been useful for over 1,000 years.
It only took three of four years for the first runner to complete the Sri Chinmoy 1,300-mile race. Will anyone remember who is was 20 years from now? We need to create the kinds of legends people can follow and expand upon. If we have run in a place for ten years, at times logging high mileage, let it be seen. If we have love for places on our courses, reasons for our disciplines, let them be known. To me this is he ultimate challenge for each of us: to pass on the beauty and difficulty of what we do, to keep our accomplishments alive, if not by words then by our deeds, and to let the ever expanding possibilities of what we might wish to try to remain open to future generations.