The Runner

The Runner


Phillip McCollum

A man is a god in ruins.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

They call this the land of the rising sun, but as I soaked in the rays of a full moon, I thought it was beautiful enough to have equal claim.

Leaning against an uncomfortable boulder, I rubbed the sleepiness from my eyes and looked east over shimmering Lake Biwa. It loomed large, even when seen from nine hundred meters above sea level. In the humid summers, it’s one of the few sources of relief to those living below. But here, atop Mount Hiei, the air was crisp.

Behind me, down the mountain, sat Kyoto. After nearly seven years, I had almost forgotten the misery of day-to-day living on its sweltering blacktop streets and cramped office spaces.

Since then, I’ve been running.

The kaihōgyō is a mission of selfless devotion in search of enlightenment, practiced by the Tendai monks for a millennium. This mountain has felt my trampling feet for nine hundred and ninety-nine of the required thousand days.

Thirty kilometers a day, one hundred days each year, for the first three years. Then it’s two hundred days for years four and five.

Those first few years were difficult in many ways. My feet had been abused and molded into something resembling hard oak and whatever exposed skin, into the toughest leather. But that fifth year seemed to be a turning point. For seven-and-a-half days I went without food, water, or rest, forced to sit in a temple and chant. My fellow monks ensured I did not fall asleep and there were many times I felt that I was no longer in my body. I saw things I never wished to see again and I was happy to be running the trails once more.

The distance doubled in year six, though back to one hundred days. And now, in year seven, eighty-four kilometers for one hundred days, returning to thirty for the final hundred.

Each of the billions of steps I’ve taken up to this point have had the same result: one more step.

It would all end, soon.

The next several thousand will be more significant than any other. My fellow monks are waiting for me at Enryaku-ji.

Number forty-seven! they’ll cheer as I climb the carved steps to the central temple.

No one can remember number forty-six, but his name is recorded in a book somewhere deep inside the monastery.

I stood up, adjusted my oblong wooden hat, and stretched my legs before descending down the back of the mountain.

If you’d like to finish reading this story, along with many others, I’d be ecstatic if you’d consider purchasing one of my books.

9 thoughts on “The Runner

  1. […] The Runner is story number six in the #52ShortStories challenge. […]

  2. Woo hoo, Phillip! This one is a real gem. I love the way the puzzling scenario becomes clearer and clearer, and then the realization at the end is completely stunning — and perfect.

    Nice job. And you should definitely find a place to submit this to. Sooner than later.


    1. 😀 High praise coming from you Kevin, so thank you for taking the time to read and comment! As much as I would love to submit some of these, I’ve got a notion to compile them at the end of my 52-week journey and self-publish them in one form or another.

  3. Wow, Phillip!!! This is great! Are you going to send this somewhere?

    1. So glad you liked it, Linda! No plans to send these out any time soon, but we’ll see where things end up at the end of my 52-week experiment.

  4. I’m a sucker for mysticism mixed up with the real world, and this one layered it all well – of all your stories so far this one nailed the pacing: at no point was my mind left to wander or question what I was reading; I was inside the story all the way.

    Also, have to call out the opening line. Cracking mate, absolutely cracking.

    1. Many thanks for the feedback and kind words, Col! Yeah, I can’t seem to write a “normal” story without some sort of supernatural element. Though the next one in the pipe is a bit of a departure as you’ll see. I’m loving how much these weekly short stories allow me to experiment and get outside of my comfort zone.

      How’s the writing going with you?

      1. Hit a bit of a frustrating lull on my own WIP. Day job has had me (WARNING! EXCUSES INCOMING!) travelling across Europe with some pretty intense work over last couple of weeks. I got my outline finished before I left, but the plan to write on various planes, trains and hotel rooms disintegrated into what became a blur of work, travel, very little sleep and self-pity (I hate being away from my family). Since getting back, I’ve been catching up by writing some absolute drivel, but managed to whack out 500 reasonable words yesterday. Hopefully getting into some routine will help.

        1. Hey, you’re talking to an esteemed member of the Royal Society of Excuse Makers, so no need to feel any shame there. I’ve been on that work/travel road many times and it really puts the routine to the test. Glad you’re back at it though. In my view, so long as you keep coming back to it, you’re halfway there.

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