Day 170

Transcending the self

June 17th, 2012



"Here was a kind of living koan, a race of invisible miles across a phantom plain wider than the continental United States."

The twelve gentlemen with their backs to us are this year's competitors in an annual footrace that takes place here in Jamaica Hills, Queens. The course is a loop that encircles this elongated block containing Thomas Edison High School and Joseph Austin Playground, and it measures just over half a mile, a modest distance that could be covered by a world-class runner in less than two minutes. These guys, however, will take much longer than that to reach the finish line.

They're going to start the race in just a moment, but it will be several weeks before one of them is declared the winner. A lap around the block may only amount to 0.55 miles, but each of these men will have to run 5,649 of those laps in order to complete the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, the longest footrace in the world. The runners are allowed 52 days to finish, meaning they must average about 60 miles (well over two marathons) per day — day after day after day — running from 6 AM to midnight through the brutal heat and humidity of a New York summer, while their feet take a relentless beating from the concrete sidewalk, a surface far harder and more punishing than asphalt.

Completing this race is a nearly unimaginable feat. If I didn't know the Self-Transcendence 3100 existed, I would never believe a human could accomplish such a thing. It is inconceivable to me that a person could be capable of such extraordinary physical, mental, and emotional endurance.

But that's kind of the point of the race: to overcome those self-imposed limits whose seemingly well-founded existence is, in reality, built on nothing more than our own fears and doubts.

In order to deal with the constant pain, crushing boredom, and total exhaustion of such an intense, repetitive activity, one must adopt a mental state that circumvents the conscious, analytical, naysaying mind, and in the process opens up previously unknown avenues of possibility and capability. As I understand it, this idea that strenuous physical activity can help reveal one's true potential is one of the tenets of the spiritual philosophy taught by the late guru Sri Chinmoy, who lived nearby and who founded this race in 1997, after organizing a similar 2700-mile run the year before. His disciples, many of whom reside in the neighborhood, have continued to hold the race each year since his passing in 2007.

It's hard to describe the 3100 without resorting to words like "unimaginable", "inconceivable", and "extraordinary", but the race itself is nothing if not humble, devoid of all the ego-driven posturing and showy grandstanding so prevalent in other elite sporting events. The starting line, for example, is that moss-filled sideway crack marked by the squat orange cone. When the master of ceremonies made his brief remarks before the race, he described it simply as "a test of endurance" and "a formidable task". Each runner's mileage is tallied by hand, with lap times scribbled down on clipboards by volunteers using stopwatches. The racecourse is a public sidewalk, shared with all the other members of the community going about their daily business. And the runners themselves are entirely unassuming, lending a quiet, steady grace to the block for the summer.

One of my favorite things about this race is that it eludes visual comprehension: its meaning and significance and almost miraculous nature are all hidden beneath the veneer of its inconspicuous physical appearance. It makes you realize how dependent we are on external cues to tell us that something is important. If an athletic event matters, it will take place inside a packed arena, and be on TV, and have corporate logos plastered all over it, right? We won't need to think about why it's significant, because all the signs of significance will be there in abundance. But if you happened to cross paths with these runners one day, all you would see is a handful of guys in t-shirts and athletic shorts out for a jog, and you would think nothing of it. The world's longest footrace is all but invisible to the uninformed passerby.

The following pictures will help reveal a little more about this beautiful event, and I plan to stop by several times over the course of the summer to see how things are progressing. But for an account of the race that is far more eloquent and poignant than what I am capable of producing, check out this incredible article (from which I pulled the quotation at the top of this post) by Sam Shaw.

Day 170

One lap down

June 17th, 2012



5,648 to go!

You may have noticed Arpan, near the rear of the pack, shooting video as he runs. I saw him pause on several occasions to record something he found interesting, perfectly exemplifying the unpretentious nature of this group. He's running the longest race in the world, and he's stopping to take video of four guys throwing a frisbee around on the soccer field!

Day 170

Keeping track

June 17th, 2012



Your webmaster and I, who have spent some time at the race in years past, were offered the opportunity to help tally laps today. We sat side by side at that folding table and took over clipboard duty for an hour or so.

Day 170

Refreshments

June 17th, 2012



It's a real challenge for the runners to take in, and keep down, enough fluids and calories to sustain them.

Day 170

Chants and scissors

June 17th, 2012



These women have come out to offer the runners support and inspiration by singing for them. It's not uncommon, especially on a weekend, to find musicians performing somewhere along the course.

It's also not uncommon to see runners, like Sarvagata here, who have cut out the toes of their shoes. This helps prevent blisters from forming, and it allows those poor feet to get some fresh air.

Day 170

A future politician

June 17th, 2012



She certainly invested in long-lasting stickers! Perhaps she's trying to maintain name recognition for her City Council run in 2017.

The block on which this photo and the next were taken, bordering the Self-Transcendence 3100 racecourse to the south, was itself the site of a race today: the annual Father's Day marathon held by — wouldn't you know it — the disciples of Sri Chinmoy!

Unlike its famous branded November counterpart, this New York City marathon is a rather modest affair. The runners show up, quietly lap the block until they hit 26.2 miles, and then head home. There's no self-congratulatory fist-pumping at the finish line; the closest thing I saw was one girl who, after completing her last lap, stopped to pick up a bunch of plastic cups that had been knocked over and scattered on the ground nearby.

Day 170

Another supporter

June 17th, 2012



Looping back around to the Self-Transcendence 3100, we find Vinaya out for a stroll with his dog, playing his harmonica for the runners.

Day 170

Kaboom!

June 17th, 2012



Returning to the racecourse once again, I came upon these women who had traveled here from Canada to perform for the runners. (Check out this clearer shot and better recording of them.) I was quite taken with them and their music, so ethereal and fragile that it seemed to be blowing in on the wind. Standing there listening to them, I was almost overtaken by the beauty of the whole scene, when, seemingly out of nowhere, Atmavir passed by bouncing his ball.* I thought my heart was going to explode!

* Atmavir is the runner in the yellow shirt who walks by with about 19 seconds remaining. He often bounces a handball on the sidewalk as he runs around the course! The particular bounce mentioned above occurs just after he passes out of frame, but you can catch a glimpse of the yellow ball in his left hand as he goes by.

Day 180

Checking in

June 27th, 2012



Here we are, back at the Self-Transcendence 3100. It's Day 11, and Grahak is now the front-runner, averaging over 70 miles per day! You can once again just make out the shape of a bouncy ball in Atmavir's right hand.

Day 206

Poem of the day

July 23rd, 2012



Here we are at the Self-Transcendence 3100 once again. Sri Chinmoy wrote a short poem (and composed a song) for each day of the race back in 2007, the last year he was alive to see it.

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while Ananda-Lahari knocks off another lap. Grahak has less than 500 miles to go! Only one runner, Sopan, has had to drop out so far, but he fought his way through injury to reach 1000 miles before calling it quits.

Day 206



Day 206

Birthday pizza party!

July 23rd, 2012



Arpan turned 60 today, and he was able to celebrate with a nice accomplishment: his 2000th mile!

By far the oldest competitor this year, he has struggled with injuries throughout the race, but has still managed to average almost 55 miles — more than two marathons — per day. It's an amazing pace for a 60-year-old (or any human), but it's also not quite fast enough for him to complete the race in the time allotted.

He and four other runners are now facing a tough new challenge: continuing to give their all while coming to grips with the ever more certain reality that they won't be able to reach 3100 miles. Of course, there's no prize for achieving that particular number. The reward of this race comes from pushing yourself harder than you thought you could, and surpassing what you thought you were capable of. Such an abstract goal is not magically realized once a certain distance is run, but it's still probably quite difficult to have to recalibrate expectations after so many exhausting, painful miles.

Day 206




Don't give him any crap for his choice of footwear; with his shin splints and achilles problems, they're the only shoes that feel comfortable to him right now.

Day 206

Happy birthday, Arpan!

July 23rd, 2012


Day 206

Ashrita drops by

July 23rd, 2012



The world's foremost record-setter is here for the birthday festivities. He's currently training to run the fastest mile while dribbling a basketball.

Day 206

Melodic inspiration

July 23rd, 2012



Kodanda and Antara-Prabhat perform for the runners.

Day 206

A rainy night at the race

July 23rd, 2012



That's Grahak completing another lap about 10 seconds in; there aren't many races in which the runners carry umbrellas!

Day 213

Inner peas

July 30th, 2012



The ultimate goal of the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race

Day 213

21 miles left!

July 30th, 2012



Grahak will be the first to cross the finish line in this year's race, as his former prime minister has duly noted. On the right is Grahak's brother Ian, who made a surprise appearance a few days ago.

Day 213

Keepin’ it clean

July 30th, 2012



Welcome to the luxurious bathroom facilities at the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. Inside these walls, some of the runners deploy generous amounts of corn starch to help ward off chafing (it absorbs moisture, reducing friction in areas where rubbing occurs). The application process can be pretty messy; to keep some semblance of tidiness, one of the four port-o-potties is a designated no-starch zone. (Another one is ladies-only; there are no women in the race this year, but there are plenty of female volunteers on site.)

Day 213

Perfection Journey

July 30th, 2012



Utpal (kneeling) has been out at the course every day, thoroughly documenting the race on his blog. He's produced an amazing photographic record of the event.

Atmavir, of course, has also been at the racecourse every day, keeping the ball bouncing as he draws ever closer to 3100 miles.

Day 213

The flag of Australia

July 30th, 2012



Hung in Grahak's honor

Day 213



Day 213

Grahak finishes!

July 30th, 2012



It's Day 44 of the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, and Grahak Cunningham has just become this year's first finisher, averaging more than 71 miles (well over two and a half marathons) per day — a feat I can't even begin to comprehend.

Day 213


Day 213



Day 213




As you can see, Grahak's been suffering from a pretty gnarly rash, among other health problems. After pushing himself relentlessly for a month and a half, he can finally let the healing process begin.

Day 213




Sarvagata won the race last year, and he's poised to finish second this time around. At his side is his lovely wife Sarvakamya.

Day 213




Kodanda (guitar) and Antara-Prabhat (vocals) are back at the racecourse, performing for the runners once again. Lyrics here.

Day 213

An appreciative audience

July 30th, 2012



Kodanda busts out a little medley off the top of his head for a couple of unexpected visitors.

You can see the full video here.

Day 213




After the excitement at the finish line had subsided and the spectators had returned to the goings-on of their daily lives, Grahak got up and started running again. He completed an extra 13 laps to reach the nice, even total of 5000 kilometers. (This is not uncommon for participants in this race; the international running community tends to measure things in metric units.)

Here you can see Sahishnu, with his two timepieces, watching vigilantly for the exact moment that Grahak crosses the final finish line — the same sidewalk crack that served as the starting line some 43 days ago.

What a contrast between the quiet dignity of this race and the hyped-up, corporate, manufactured NBC Olympic cheesefest being presided over by Bob Costas.

Day 218

The home stretch

August 4th, 2012



Pushkar approaches the finish line of the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race.

Day 218

Star shower

August 4th, 2012



Pushkar is the fourth runner to complete the race this year, and the crowd is no less enthusiastic than it was when Grahak first crossed the finish line five days ago.

Day 218

A righteous victory cake

August 4th, 2012


Day 218

Sri Chinmoy looks on

August 4th, 2012


Day 218

The thoughts of a runner

August 4th, 2012



This is how Arpan was freeing his mind from the rigors of the race today.

Day 218

A perilous perch

August 4th, 2012



Ashrita is training for a world's-tallest-pogo-stick record. He has to perform 30 consecutive bounces to qualify.

Day 218

Lunch on the go

August 4th, 2012



No time to sit around and eat!

Day 218

Returning to civilian life

August 4th, 2012



After 48 consecutive days of running — with every fiber of his being dedicated to this race — Pranjal reached 3100 miles yesterday. Today: photography!

Day 218

A bounty of basil

August 4th, 2012



As I passed by this woman's house, I asked her if that was Thai basil growing in her garden. She nodded yes, pantomimed an eating gesture, and pointed at me. I thought she just wanted me to taste it, so I picked off a leaf and popped it in my mouth. Apparently she meant for me to take more than that, though, because she came over to the garden and began pulling off stalk after stalk and shoving them into my hands; I already have a generous bundle here, and you can see she's still going back for more.

It was quite tasty, but I wasn't sure what to do with that much Thai basil. I ended up giving half of it to an Indian guy who called out to me as I walked past his house: "Hey, what's that in your hand?" I told him and offered him some; he smelled it and accepted nonchalantly, as if he regularly acquires surplus produce from strangers strolling by on the sidewalk.

I still had the other half in my hand when I got back to the racecourse at the end of the day, so I gave it to the chefs to use in the runners' meals. I like the idea of them being fed by the same neighborhood that consumes them.

Day 218




Atmavir finishes tomorrow!

Day 219

One and a half laps to go!

August 5th, 2012



This is the 5,648th time this fence has seen Atmavir pass by — bouncy ball in hand — since the race began back on Father's Day.

Day 219

Atmavir brings it on home

August 5th, 2012


Day 219




Photo courtesy of Utpal Marshall

Day 221

The final finisher

August 7th, 2012



It's Day 52, the last day of the Self-Transcendence 3100, and Vasu just knocked out his 3100th mile, making him the sixth and final runner to complete the race in its entirety this year. That's Pranjal enjoying a piece of cake on the seat to his left; the runners who've already finished still come out to the course to support the others.

Day 221

Last men standing

August 7th, 2012



Walking a lap and chanting together are Vasu (who's doing an additional 13 laps to reach 5000 kilometers) and the remaining five runners who won't quite reach 3100 miles this year.

Day 221

A mighty pine tree

August 7th, 2012



Arpan always looks forward to passing this part of the block, near its northeast corner. He calls it his forest.

Day 221

Portal of the day

August 7th, 2012



This is one of three support vehicles on the block — the runners' homes away from home. Actually, it probably makes more sense to consider the racecourse their home, making the places where they go to sleep for 4-5 hours each night their homes away from home.

However you prefer to phrase it, these vehicles are where the runners go during the day to take a break, lie down, and maybe nap for 30 minutes or so.

Day 221




Arpan snaps a photo of the gorgeous sky on his final trip around the block (they're not running until midnight tonight; the race will be over as soon as Vasu finishes 5000 kilometers).

Having spent 52 days in a row out here, running around and around and around, from 6 AM to midnight, Arpan told me he can barely even remember what life was like before the race started. He hasn't had to think about work (he's a carpenter); he hasn't even had to prepare a meal for himself in all that time. His one and only job was to keep going around the block. No matter the weather, and no matter the pain, he kept circling. That was his sole focus — his identity — for almost two months.

And this is his last lap.

Day 221

Victory!

August 7th, 2012



Arpan didn't quite make 3100 miles this year, but he still managed to finish with 2742 — more than two marathons per day — which broke the previous 60-and-over record of 2700 miles. That's Pushkar in the blue shirt, applauding his efforts.

Day 221

And so it ends

August 7th, 2012



Vasu completes his 5000th kilometer, and the final lap of the entire race.

(If you've looked closely, you may have noticed that the runners seem to be going different directions on different days. To even out the strain on their legs, they alternate between clockwise and counter-clockwise running each day; otherwise it would always be the same leg on the inside every time they turn a corner.)