Saturday, June 28, 2008

It Was the Best of Times, It was the........

This is Stutisheel's 14th morning at the race and he has just completed a remarkable stretch of 5 days, of running over 65 miles. On Wednesday, he ran more mileage that day, than anyone else. But on this beautiful Saturday morning, one of life's unforeseen challenges has been dealt to Pranab, the Slovak runner, who is in a tight battle for second place.

For several days now, the rash and swelling in his legs and arms has just spread and gotten worse. It is a dilemma, that confounds the medical expertise of the support team.

Race director Rupantar is discussing options with Pranab, but they all point to him retiring from the course and getting a clinical diagnosis. Pranab is pushing to stay in the race. Covered extensively in bandages, he ran 56 miles the previous day. The rash however has gotten worse.

Charles Dickens wrote, in his classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." The 3100 mile race is a place in which self-transcendence is not dealt out always, in convenient brightly wrapped packages all the time. It is an extremely difficult thing to do. What we see of the runner's struggles, is just a glimmer on the surface of their being. The great forces of transformation that ebb and push beneath, we are not a party to. It is between them and the great spirit that shapes and moves their lives, to a destination we cannot know. On the sidelines, we watchers of this experience, cannot help but be sympathetic as it inevitably unfolds in dark clouds of disappointment. We can offer prayers and say encouraging words, but the story of his battle will be writ, only by his will and by his wisdom.

Pavol, the strong and quiet, first time Slovak runner told me at the beginning of the race he was looking forward to hot days. He is getting them now.

Sutisheel, has perhaps, the best support crew of anyone at the race. His daughter, Alakanada, has been helping him since his second 3100 mile race in 2005. His wife Atandra joined in, the following year.

The gladiators preparing for divine battle with the road ahead.

It will be painfully hot and humid today. Thunder showers will arrive in great blustering torrents later in the afternoon. In other words, a typical day at the 3100 mile race.

Yesterday's prayer.

My Lord's Silence praise of my great achievements is most powerful
Guru Sri Chinmoy

I am running with Stutisheel and I mention to him that I cannot help but notice, that most mornings he is the first one to circle the block. Rarely a warm up walk, he just seems to always be moving quickly, right from the starting line. He says, "If I am able to run I cannot resist. It is my dream to run right from the starting line. I love speed in addition to endurance."

He has become a regular at this race since his first 3100 in 2004. Prior to that, he had progressed from running the marathon up to other multi day races. His best marathon time ironically, was his first. He ran a time of 2:46, but no matter how hard he tried he could not seem to improve. When he visited New York for August celebrations he would run the 47 mile race on Sri Chinmoy's birthday. In 2001 he came in third and was surprised that he felt nothing, even after doing well. A friend told him, he was experiencing post race bliss. At the time he felt like he never wanted to run long distances ever again. Yet when Sri Chinmoy arrived at the conclusion of the race he saw him pointing to the names of the top finishers on the board, and felt something deep within himself respond.

In 2002 he would come back and win the 47 mile race that year in a time of 6:18. The following summer he decided to concentrate on the August marathon instead of the 47. He really focussed on his training before the race. Despite all his efforts, his time was over 3 hours. He says, "I was severely disappointed. No joy, in a twinkling of an eye it is over." Now he describes the 26 mile marathon, as just too fast and too intense. He says, "it is too short to absorb the powerful and true inner experience of distance running."

By the spring of 2003 he heard that Sri Chinmoy was looking for more runners to enter the 3100 mile race. He was told, that Sri Chinmoy said that, "even more could run, even if they have only run a marathon." He applied right away for 2003 but was not accepted. When he arrived in New York for celebrations that year, Rupantar took him aside and told him, "don't worry you will run next year." He thought he was, just being encouraging. And to make it strange, he tells me, he forgot to apply for 2004, and yet he got a call in March of that year, saying he was accepted. He immediately said yes. He says at that moment, "an ancient dream in me was coming to the fore."

In 2004 it was financially impossible to bring his family. His training for the race was good. On both Saturday and Sunday he would go out running in the forest near his home in Kiev, for 5 and 6 hours at a stretch. When the race took place he describes it as, "the most shocking experience. I was under stress, not just the race, but also I could not sleep." He describes the the stress to such an extent that even in his dreams at night he was running and running. He managed to complete the race in 53 days and 7 hours. He says that for both his body and his mind the race was a shock. This continued for 2 weeks after he finished.

He says that for that first race, he really did not know how to be fully prepared. He had come with only 3 pairs of shoes, and certainly not enough running clothes. Of possible injuries, he says, "My knee was my friend during that first race. No shin splints. I knew little about the body." But when it comes to the race, "You need to work inwardly and outwardly."

We have been running for awhile with Pranab, whose legs are wrapped up in blue bandages. In what, one can only imagine as the best and inevitable outcome, he is asked to retire from the race, until his rash is treated properly. He tells us, that he begged Rupantar to continue.

He says from a practical point of view the race is, "the best school of time management. You could not find a better one." But he also looks upon the distance from an inner perspective. That there is a flow here, if one can tune in to it, they are inevitably carried to the finish line.

Of course, he has had many sweet and soulful experiences with his late teacher, Sri Chinmoy over his years on the course. He describes for me one year in which Sri Chinmoy was there for the finish of one of the runners, and was asking for volunteers to run the following year. He had heard this but had run by without saying anything. On the next lap he was asked directly by his Guru if he wanted to run the next year. He said, " I will run as long as you want me to run and as far as you want me to run." He felt as though he had been caught red handed with his doubt. He was pleased at being able to offer this positive response to his teacher, and of course returned. Of this experience he says, he learned that it was never wise to make a decision when in a bad consciousness.

On another occasion he was having real problems with the heat. It had been very hot for 3 days and he was unable to run at all. He was reduced to walking and doubting himself. What was also tugging at his mood, was the fact that others were still able to run and he could not. His doubt about his performance was so great, he felt he was displeasing his teacher with his weak effort. A short while later he received an aphorism that said, "Until you give up, move forward." It was the answer to his insecurity.

In 2005 his daughter came to help for the first time and the following year his wife came. He describes the tremendously important experiences they all received by being here together in this unique environment. There were of course some adjustments, but in the end it seems, that as a family they have become stronger and closer with each mile and year that goes by. He says of the race, "this is a unique place where divine qualities come to the fore." It is this sense of oneness that has clearly been part of his performance in 2007 where he was able to set a personal best of 50 days and 12 hours.

He says of this oneness, "It does not come all at one time." Over the years he notices that he will be half way through the race before the team is functioning smoothly. He says that at the race their relationship is much different than while living back home in Kiev. He smiles at me with a look of a typical husband and father, as if day to day life in the Ukraine is another distant world. One which is remote from all the divine potential and inner promise that is possible here on this improbable New York sidewalk.

I ask him if he notices any differences in his race experience this year now that Sri Chinmoy is no longer with us. He says, "If I close my eyes there is no difference. Inwardly he is here even more so." He describes the necessity of going beyond the mind and connecting with the unlimited power of the spirit. He describes that when you do this, it is only the beginning. We are all capable of much more. He says, "do not block your possibilities with your mind." For him this is the essence of self transcendence.

As for the 3100 mile race he says that he could not do it on his own. Certainly not with the power of his own thoughts or with whatever force he had of his own. With the difficulty of the task and the lack of sleep it would be impossible he says. For him, when he is into the flow of the race and open to Sri Chinmoy's grace and compassion which permeates the course he feels as close to perfection as any time in his life. He says that Sri Chinmoy loved the race. Being part of it allows him to touch our true nature and develop our true capacities.

Of his teacher, he says, "I do this race for you, not for me." As time goes on he feels this reality is becoming closer and closer to his heart. He says, "I can't imagine my life without the 3100."

After Stutisheel finished singing this song he came upon Parvati's Enthusiasm singers who were singing it at the same time he was

I have stopped running with Sutisheel I learn that Pranab has left the course, at least for now. A sad reality of the race is that because of this, his place on the board starts to fall lower and lower.

Stutisheel and I had run for more than an hour. Now I visit his race table where his daughter, Alakananda is readying some drinks for her Dad. She describes her first year here in 2005 as being an adventure. "I wasn't sure what it is like." Once she got into a routine she describes really enjoying it. "I was tired but happy." She also describes that each year offers better and better experiences. "The more you do it the better it gets. By the end of the race it is heaven."

She clearly is also very serious about being her Dad's helper. She says, "You have to feel what he wants, as if you were the runner yourself." On an inner level she describes the overall experience this way, "I have big oneness with my Dad. But it is not my achievement, it is not his achievement, it is Guru's achievement."

Her Mom, Atandra, is at a counting table nearby. She has been counting runners laps since 6 this morning. She has the same enthusiasm for the race, for the experience of being part of the self transcendence world of the 3100. "It is important for me to be here, because here there is inner work."

She also describes the sense of oneness, that has grown within her family while here. An experience, that also extends out to the community of runners and all who come out to help "Everybody was so kind."

It was at the course of the 3100 mile race that she saw Sri Chinmoy for the first time and then over the summers many many times after that. Of this she says, "it was an important thing. The first time I saw him it was unbelievable."

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