"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.