Image credit: John Gillespie/Flickr
The world’s longest footrace is, of course, not the marathon. A measly 26.2 miles (42.2 km), the furthest distance in mainstream athletics is only a stepping stone for many to the “ultramarathon” race distances: 50 km, 50 miles (80 km), 100 km, 100 miles (160 km) and beyond. The most legendary of these ultramarathons include the 89 km Comrades marathon in South Africa, the 217 km scorching Badwater race through California’s Death Valley, and the six-day, 251 km Marathon des sables in the Sahara. But the world’s longest footrace is 3100 miles (4989 km) long and can take 52 days to complete. It does not stretch out over vast scenic or forbidding landscapes, but humbly circles the same New York City block, over and over and over on punishing concrete sidewalks. Its originator is not a deranged running junkie, but one of the 20th century’s prominent spiritual leaders: Sri Chinmoy.
Sri Chinmoy came to New York City from India in 1964, becoming one of the first teachers of meditation in the West. Unusually, however, for a spiritual teacher, he did not just organize meditation centres and charitable activities, but also a whole host of athletic pursuits for his devotees. He said, “The body is like a temple and the soul or inner reality is like the shrine inside the body-temple. If we do not keep the temple in good condition, then how can we take proper care of the shrine? We have to keep the body fit.”
At the same time, he became widely known as a weightlifter who set several world records. He accomplished this not through developing a hugely musclebound body, but through meditation. “On the strength of my prayer and meditation I try to enter into the material consciousness and become part and parcel of the weights that I lift. When I deal with matter, I try to become inseparably one with it. So when I lift up the weights, I feel that my life-breath has entered into the metal plates and that from the metal this life-breath has entered back into me.” The media awareness he generated through his exploits (lifting cars, groups of people and even an elephant) became a way for him to direct people’s attention to the profound potential available through meditation. He said, “When I am of service, even to an individual, if somebody can accept my inspiration, I feel extremely satisfied. If I can be of service to even one individual, I feel that it is a tremendous help in improving the standard of humanity.”
Great athletes such as Olympic gold medal sprinter Carl Lewis hailed Sri Chinmoy as an inspiration for their own journeys. Many athletic events now bear the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence name, from triathlons to cycling to distance swimming to marathons to 6- and 12- hour endurance runs, up to the aforementioned 3100-mile race. The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team comments, “The 3100 mile race […] is the ultimate field for self-transcendence – challenging and overcoming the entire world’s pre-conceived notions of possibility.”
Suprabha Beckjord completed the race 13 times from 1997 to 2009. She told Atlas Obscura that the key to succeeding at the distance was not will or grit or competitiveness. “Every once in a while over the years there would be a runner who would join the race, usually a man, who’d come in thinking ‘I’m going to run this race and I’m going to win,’” she said. “You’d see them on the course, and they’d round the corners looking behind them. But you can’t run for 60 days and look behind you all the time. It just doesn’t work. You need to go inside yourself.”
The 2017 edition of the 3100-Mile Self-Transcendence Run begins June 18 and continues until August 8. It is by invitation only, to people with a history of successful multi-day ultramarathon running. To complete it, runners must get through at least 59.6 miles every single day, between the hours of 6am and midnight. By comparison, the average recreational runner might complete a marathon (just over a third of the daily distance required in the Self-Transcendence Run) just twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, with a carefully planned taper leading up to the race and extensive time spent in recovery afterwards.
The difference between the recreational runner’s exhaustion at a marathon finish line, and the endurance of the 3100-mile runners, is the willingness to see the run as a primarily spiritual, rather than physical experience. The distance is not to be overcome with the individual will or ego, but is an opportunity to see what potential lies beyond these. Sri Chinmoy stated, “In order to make oneself happy, one has to go always beyond and beyond and beyond one’s capacities. So here, while running, each runner is getting a very special opportunity to go beyond his or her capacities. Self-transcendence is the only thing a human being needs in order to be truly happy. So these races help the runners tremendously, although outwardly they go through such hardship. Eventually, when the race is over, they feel they have accomplished something most significant.”
Pranada McBurnie is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects. In between times, she enjoys being active at the gym, on her bike, in the pool and on the running trail. She was competitive as a teenager in distance running, badminton and ringette. 20 years later she built her running back up from scratch and has finished races up to and including the marathon.