Whatever you happen to be doing at the moment, in your unenlightened little existence, the odds are that fourteen fit transcendentalists (and extreme joggers) are limping around an oddly shaped city block in Jamaica, Queens. They are participating in the Self-Transcendence 3,100-Mile Race — the longest certified footrace in the world — which began June 15 and has participants running every day from 6 a.m. to about midnight for nearly two months. (The official end is August 5.) The course may seem unspectacular — even unpleasant in spots, being run on a hard cement sidewalk, alongside the Grand Central Parkway service road, and around the vocational high school with its occasionally rude teenagers — but for some it is hallowed ground. Sri Chinmoy, the spiritual leader, athlete, prolific artist and “1997 Hindu of the Year,” created the event for participants to transcend the limitations of their lives — physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. This is the twelfth summer of the event — the first since the October passing of the guru. In the past, runners could expect the celebrity transcendentalist (who hung out with Sting, Gorbachev, Mandela, the Clintons, and Olympians, including Sudhatoa Carl Lewis — and who lifted Susan Sarandon and Muhammed Ali in the air to promote peace) to show up in the flesh. What do participants expect this year? Pain, boredom, and blisters, no doubt. But if they're lucky, maybe a little transcendence, too. We asked five of them for their (elevated, tired) thoughts.
[Further details on the race: there are two support vans and an RV for rest and medical attention. Food, including green energy drinks and vegetarian snacks, is provided. And lap counters tally each runner's distance on a board. Running is allowed from 6 a.m. to midnight.]
Diganta Pobitzer: 28, from Innsbruck, Austria.
Why do you participate in this race? I did it twice and I want to do it again. After the first time, I thought, that was it; it was a once in a lifetime experience, I don’t need to do it again. But after the last time, I knew I’d do it again. It’s such a special thing.
How do you train? I train on the weekends — between 50 and 70 miles on a Sunday. You’re kind of breaking your own limits. One time I had problems in the beginning of the race — but in the last one or two weeks I was increasing my miles. On the last full day I did 70 miles. It was the most beautiful day of the race.
Do you have any goals? I’m going to learn Italian.
Suprabha Beckjord: 52, from Washington, DC.
Why do you participate in the race? I get a lot of inspiration from doing the ultra-distances. This is the twelfth 3,100-Mile Race and my own twelfth also. I did the 2,700-Mile Race thirteen years ago, and when we were finished, Sri Chinmoy called us over and said next year it would be a 3,100-mile race – he added 400 miles. I guess he thought we could do it.
What’s your best time? 49 days, fourteen hours, 30 minutes, and 54 seconds.
What are your strategies to combat pain? When something starts to hurt, I don’t focus on it. It becomes clear after some time if it really needs medical attention — otherwise things come and go.
How many sneakers do you go through? Between thirteen to sixteen pairs, but there’s always ways to get discount sneakers; mail order companies offer specials — buy five you get one free. I have eight pairs, so I’ll probably have to get more.
Grahak Cunningham: 31, from Perth, Australia.
Why do you participate in the race? To inspire other people to attempt things they didn’t think were possible.
What’s the most challenging part of it? Transcending the pain and exhaustion.
What’s the best part? Going home each night. And making progress.
What's your typical day? Start at 6, run 'til 1:30, have a fifteen-minute break; run to 7:30, and have a ten-minute break. Then run until 10:30.
What does your family think? My mom worries — like most parents. She didn’t want me to do it. I hadn’t told her yet. I sent my mom an email saying "I’m running the 3,100 again." She was nice. She said "Well, I won’t tell Dad just yet."
Asprihanal Aalto: 37, from Helsinki, Finland (last year's winner).
Why do you participate in this race? I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Then I ran some races; I realized I could do it.
How do you get past the pain and boredom? With my MP3 player, talking with friends, going to the heart, and quieting the mind. Or …. I like to listen to music. It’s good to have books or music for the mind. My MP3 player broke down three weeks ago — I’d like to listen to books, like the Da Vinci Code, or the Harry Potter books. You can read the Harry Potter books three times.
When does it get hard? When the mind-problems come.
Does it get easy again? When you get happy.
Stutisheel Lebedyev: 38, from Kiev, Ukraine.
Why do you participate in this race?
For me, it’s the real life. Usually in our everyday life there’s so many artificial things: insincerity, jealousy, competition. When you’re running, all this slowly falls down and you’re slowly touching the real you.
What do you like about it?
All the runners are one family.
Do you have a strategy? Slow and steady completes the race.
Had any interesting encounters? I have several friends I’ve made. Especially the dogs. I love dogs. The last four years I’ve been watching them and seeing how they’re growing.