This is the longest race in the world. Well, no surprises there, for runners run through 3,100 miles of land. The chances of completing it- slim.
Let’s just put it in perspective- you could be running all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast, and you would still need to do 11 more of those. The only consolation- the sights around the ‘track’ might keep your mind off what you are doing. Also, only runners with a solid history in track and field events are allowed, for their own safety, as they head out to complete this gargantuan task around New York’s 84th Avenue.
The itinerary is such- first, they head out towards the sidewalk on 84th, then a playground, and then the Grand Central Parkway, circling Thomas Edison High School, straight down to 168th and back on 84th. Doesn’t seem that long does it? Well, it does if you have to do it 5649 times.
The main question- why do it in the first place?
As the name suggests, this race is to exceed one’s own capabilities. Founded by Sri Chinmoy, a guru from India, runners go against everything they have ever stood for, or believed to be their limit. This race is primarily to reach a higher tuning with the spirit and breaking all barriers. And all the runners who have done it will tell you that at the end of it all, you feel like you have ticked all those boxes.
Before we delve deeper, here are the rules:
- Runners are given just 52 days to complete the distance in which they can run, walk or hobble, as they want, between 6 am and midnight.
- As the race gets closed for 6 hours, runners have that window in which they eat, wash, attend to their feet, and sleep. The longer time they take doing the former three, the lesser sleep they get.
- The amount of miles estimated to cover in one day is close to 60 miles. But a postman from Finland, Ashprinahal Alto did it in 40 days, nine hours and six minutes in 2015, breaking and setting a new record. He averaged 77 miles per day.
Although called the ‘Everest of ultra-running’, the chances of conquering Everest are way more than completing this race. For, since 1953, around 4000 people have travelled to the summit of Mt. Everest, but only 43 people have completed this race in 22 years.
Multiple (6 93) record holder Scottish ultra runner William Sichel considered this to be the most overwhelming moment of his life. He had completed this in 2014. While Yolanda Holder, the champion Marathon runner from America, walked the distance of the ‘Self- Transcendence’ in 2017. She recalls falling to the ground and crying after she completed it, despite never tearing up at any other ultramarathon.
We can understand.
The thrill lies in convulsing and converging your body through something that most people would never be able to even think about doing. Aalto, the champion at this race- having completed it 14 times, and won it 8 times, mentions that while completing a marathon is a good feeling, completing a 100 km is a better feeling, completing a 3100-mile race is the best feeling. For, you pull out all stops and run to your heart’s content. He would be participating in the 23rd edition.
Women’s record holder Kaneenika Janakova considers this to be the sacred ground. Her devotion is so profound that while being a Slovakian citizen, she changed her citizenship, moved to America, and started living near the course.
This is the effect this race has on people. She holds the record for completing it in 48 odd days in 2017, and she even came back for more fun in 2018. She is going to miss out this year, and she is already lamenting her decision.
Sahishnu Szczesiul, the associate race director, and a veteran of many such ultra marathons believes that part of the race is believing that what you are doing, would factor into who you are as a person. Coping with the race, and what comes with it, is what you need to realise. And if you have already thought that this is going to be torture…
You might as well go home.
Sahishnu recalls having the race at Jamaica Queens, at a time when it was the hubbub of drugs, crime and poverty. Suprabha Beckjord, an American remembers how no one would leave their cars on the street, for all that would remain of them in the morning would be pieces.
The ironic thing here is the New York weather, which is as dramatic and thrilling as an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Athletes need to not only contend the distance, but also the extremities of the weather, which can reach up to 38 C.
Also, there are no closed off roads. So as you are running, you also come across office goers and school children. How you traverse them, is something you have to learn.
Holder, someone who completed more than a 100 ultra marathons in a year has such painful blisters in her feet, that she had to visit a hospital in 2018. This goes to show that though serious injuries are relatively rare and somewhat unheard of, such injuries to the feet are extremely common, and can get dangerous.
Sichel himself always wore a size larger, due to his obsession to look after his feet, but the chafing, according to his own admission, can get brutal.
But the biggest challenge of them all? The fact that they have to run around the same plot of land for 5000 times. It is bound to get so monotonous, that impatience would set in, leading to mistakes.
And this is where the meditation would come in.
The founder of this entire shindig, Sri Chinmoy came to the USA in the 1960s, became a spiritual teacher, and finally a weightlifter. His immense physical strength was credited to his mediation skills, due to which he could lift cars and elephants and people- including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Every racer, be it Allto, or Beckjord, or Holder, has their own way of coming up with the monotony that sets in. Some set up small targets, instead of looking at the bigger picture, some chat with their families, some recite mantras, while some simply look around, as they walk.
Diet is something that needs to be maintained at all costs. For the number of calories that an athlete would lose in a day is enough to put them in a hospital. Precisely why the crew for the race have converted a double garage beside the course into a makeshift kitchen which serves eggs, bread, pancakes, or just vegetarian food.
Sichel really loves the ice cream, while Janakova laments that they have to constantly eat at every lap, even when they are not hungry. But those are juxtaposed with moments of intense hunger.
Although they have to continuously keep eating, eating 10000 calories a day for the uninitiated is really difficult. And most racers usually lose weight after they are done with it. And after eating, the bigger problem is sleep. The stipulated sleep time is 6 hours and that is not enough time for a good night’s sleep, especially when your body refuses to relax. Holder mentions how she had to finally put herself through a 15-minute power nap schedule, after which her body simply followed her commands.
For such a nuanced enterprise, the setting and the awards and the recognition are hardly enough. The headquarters is simply a collapsible table and a laptop. The award involves sleeping and taking naps in a caravan parked by the side of the road, a small crowd of volunteers cheering as you complete, a DVD, or a tiny trophy if the year has been particularly good.
Media broadcast is surprisingly rare, considering that this is the toughest race in existence, in terms of sheer endurance and strength. Although a documentary called 3100: Run and Become, would soon be launched in the United Kingdom.
But this lack of recognition doesn’t bother the racers. If you look at their age, and their experiences, you would know why. Most of them are in their mid-40s or 50s and have been participating in hundreds of marathons for years. They don’t need this sort of recognition, for something that they are willing to do, just for their own sake.
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The main purpose of this entire race is to defy who you are and build up the image of who you can be. It is not about huge sums of money or Wikipedia entries. It is simply about connecting the body and the mind, hardening one’s spirit, and never letting go.
Never giving up.
In fact, looking at the racers, one would be immensely surprised that such slender, slim and unassuming people could be so strong inside. For, that’s what this is all about. Inner strength, and the strength to believe that anything was possible if one pushed the boundaries of human limits.
All one had to do was believe anything was possible. Even if ‘anything’ was running around a block 5000 times.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr