Monday, June 30, 2008

I am Here

Suprabha has arrived at the 3100 mile race this morning, her 16th day on the course, with Antana. If she looks casual, that it is just like, another day at the office, it is. This is her 13th summer at this place, she describes as, "Sacred Ground." Prior to this year she has run nearly 37,000 miles round the concrete oval. This distance, if applied to the circumference of the earth means she could have circled the globe almost one and half times.
Two more runners will join the 1,000 mile club today. Pranjal's feet don't look great but he has run more than 60 miles every day since he started the race. Pranab, who had to leave the course on Saturday, and ran only 20 miles, because of it, came back yesterday and made up for lost time. He ran 69 miles on Sunday, 3 miles more than anybody else.

She is the most unlikely of Ultra distance champions. If you look at her, from the perspective of her running achievements, the scope and scale of her numbers, are so massive they are almost impossible to comprehend. Sahishnu, will print me out her statistics, later in the day, and they are astounding. If you see her now, sitting in this chair, calmly readying herself for the day ahead, she appears so quiet, and delicate, that it is difficult to believe, that she is the same person who has accomplished, what perhaps no other woman in the world has done, in this the toughest of all sports.

Nobody steps to the line before they absolutely have to.

I run with Suprabha for the first few miles of her day. I have done the same, with all the boys in the race, over the proceeding days. With them, you can sense, that in their physical makeup at least, there is the strength and stamina to do this, the most impossible feats of human endurance.

She is so small and slight, and runs with light delicate steps. Most, I am sure, who look at her from the service road for the first time, as they whizz by the course in their air conditioned cars, must think she could barely last the day out here in the heat and humidity. But while she astounds those on the sidelines she quietly and assuredly accepts what she has done, what she continues to do, at age 52.

She describes for me a typical morning, "one of the amazing things about this race is that you are totally exhausted when getting ready. Then the energy takes over. When you get here it becomes clear as the day unfolds." She also says, that the focus for her is never on her body or her thoughts for that matter, but rather, "the ideal is to get out of the mind and to get into the flow of the heart."

Asprihanal swoops by in his looping light strides and she looks on in amazement. She tells me how amazed she is by his and Grahak's steadiness. Later, when looking at her numbers for this race, I notice that her mileage, though smaller, is equally consistent.

She tells me, "I try to stay focused. I am committed to this race." And then she smiles and looks around her, at the sights she must have seen thousands and thousands of times and says,"This is Guru's world. When I am running here I feel part of Guru's world."

She tells me, that she believes, that in this race, Sri Chinmoy saw his philosophy in action. It is both incredibly simple and yet requires commitment and intensity. She says, "He loved it."

Last year, in February of 2007 she contemplated not entering the 3100 mile race. When Sri Chinmoy heard it, his response was direct and simple. "Do you have a soul?" This response eliminated any fragment of doubt in her mind. Her purpose, and her resolve to continue on, was forged by those words, solid and true.

Her early experience in sports consisted of a little high school soccer but not much else. When she got to college and started meditating for the first time her life quickly changed. Upon becoming a student of Sri Chinmoy she found herself slowly and steadily developing an interest in running. In April, of her first celebration, she entered a 4 mile competition and, "I wasn't sure I could do it." This was in 1979.

After this she entered a couple of marathons but felt she wasn't strong. She had an experience with Sri Chinmoy after running a 7 mile race during a Christmas trip that for the first time, she felt he was directly encouraging her to run. She says, he wrote her time for the race on a piece of paper, and then used the same paper to calculate her pace. She tells me, that really encouraged her. She still has the paper.

It wasn't until March of 1986 that she ran her first long race. A 200 mile race dedicated to Sri Chinmoy's lifting 200 pounds. It meant a special trip up from her home in Washington, she says, "It was a really incredible experience." Prior to that, the longest distance she had run was just 47 miles. Of it she says, "I did not have the capacity myself to do it." She describes how beautiful it was, for her to run into the night, that there was a flow to it all. On the first morning into the race Sri Chinmoy arrived to encourage all the runners. She remembers how he came wearing a heavy parka because of the cold, and he had a smile. A smile so sweet, radiant, and powerful, that said all and did all, at the same time.

She said the event, was far from easy. She had entered the world of ultra distance running for the first time. But she says she heard a statement that Sri Chinmoy made that changed everything for her. He said, "If you want to reach the goal, you have to transcend pain." She finished 2nd overall in 69 hours.

She also relates a year, some time ago when she was having difficulty running. She had already run the 3100 mile race but was not able to train in her usual fashion. It was just a month before the race and she felt as though she would not be able to do it. Sri Chinmoy sent her a message that set for her, a life long attitude to distance running. He said, "Good girl, you have done enough training. In your case it is all grace."

She acknowledges that she has a tremendous support group of friends, who help her at these races in many ways. It is this network that not only gets her here in the mornings and home at nights, but also makes sure, that she is cared for, like a dear and treasured sister. Of them she says, " I could not do it without my friends. They give me tremendous love and encouragement."

I have discussed with the other runners, from time to time, how they viewed the importance of this race on the world. How something, that happened on this half mile loop, could reach out to the world at large. She relates a story to me, about distance running legend Ted Corbitt. He continued competing up until he was over 80. In 2001 he ran the 6 day race and ran 240 miles and then came back the following year and ran 303. She says, he came out to visit the race the following year but had decided not to compete. Apparently he was having problems even walking when Sri Chinmoy asked him why he wasn't competing. He said to Ted, "This is not something you are doing for yourself. This is something you are doing for the world."

She says that for her there is no question for her about being here. She says, that this year for her, "Guru's grace was especially powerful." On her first day she was able to run more than 66 miles. "I had not run that many miles in years. It was a gift to show me it is still possible." It was though Sri Chinmoy was saying to her loud and clear, "I am here," she says.

Who she is, and what she does, is simply a matter of her life's devotion to her late spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy. He encouraged and inspired her to follow this path of long distance running. That, in so doing, she would not only transcend herself but also, in this most difficult of human endeavors, she would reveal and manifest the light of her soul's brilliance. Her legs and heart will never give up. She will run on until there is simply no more road left in front of her.

I have come back to the course after 12 hours. Two more runners have crossed over into the wonderful world of 4 digit totals and it looks as though Pranab will get there himself before the race shuts down for the night. He just might move up into 4th from 6th place before the day is done.

He is wearing a very bright pair of pants that Chayanika made for him the day before. Since discovering he is sensitive to sun block he is trying to keep covered up. The pants are very light, and Sahishnu is very encouraging about his recovery and how quickly he has rebounded.

There is a counter missing for this evening so he takes over the job himself. I ask him what he thinks, makes Suprabha such an exceptional multi day runner. He says, "Her name means light. When I see her I always see light and I always see her poise. She is extremely focussed. She is devoted to Guru and she did what he wanted her to do." He recites a lengthy list of her achievements and describes her consistency and how fearless she is.

She comes by before I leave. A counter tells her she has done 78 laps. A mere blink, in the long race, which is her life.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Day 15

Two weeks ago today, the 3100 mile race started here on this Queens New York sidewalk. If each of us looked back, at our own lives, over that same time, we would be hard pressed to account for all the things that we had done or achieved. The outer progress, of each of the 14 runners, is demonstrated by the plastic numbers Zeljko is placing on the score board, beside each of their names, on this bright Sunday morning. What they have accomplished within themselves, is not for our eyes to see, but only for their hearts alone to treasure.

Pranab, who was forced to leave the race yesterday morning, due to his skin condition, was able to come back only at 7pm last night. He went to one hospital, then a Doctor, and finally a second hospital to meet with someone who could identify and treat his condition. He tells me he was diagnosed with Contact Dermitosis. It is caused by a wrong interaction, between sunblock, and the sun's radiation. He says at the last hospital, North Shore they were very supportive, and treated him with steroids and steroid creams. They told him it was alright to continue to run.

What this few hour loss of time on the course means is that he has fallen from second place to 6th. His total mileage for the day was just over 20 miles, when normally he was able to run over 65. He does not feel sorry for himself, he has come this morning, ready to run. This is what running the 3100 is all about.

Today will be hot and humid once again.

Suprabha tells me that when she is at home before coming to the race she really feels her tiredness. But once she arrives, the world of possibility opens for her, and she can start the day.

Elmar, a music teacher from Innsbruck, is back to help out. He has been a fixture here for many years. When his school year is over he comes to New York.

Then, what can you say about Asprihanal. In an hour he will complete his first 1000 miles. The gap between him and the next runner will widen today to more than 100 miles. When you see him run, you see magic in his footsteps, as if he barley touches the same hard concrete that all the others have to pound.

There are lots of mundane practical things that have to take place here to make things run smoothly. Like count the laps. A counter has not shown up, so the job goes to the race director, who soon has to go and do something else. This means ever helpful Vajra, will sit in, until they arrive.

Rupantar gives instructions to a helper before heading off to pick up the first snack of the day, which should be done at 6:15.

Yesterday's prayer
My heart has only one task:
Love God,
Love God at every moment
Guru Sri Chinmoy

A house, near by the course, has been rented by the Sri Chinmoy marathon team, to help prepare food for the runners. Many trips are made each day back and forth.

Nirjharini has been volunteering to cook full time for 5 years now. She also has 3 helpers. I ask her about her cooking background and she admits that she has had no professional experience but that, "I always loved cooking. Guru rediscovered it in me."

The shifts start at the house at 5:30 and can continue till 8 or even 9:30 in the evening, depending on how much there is to do.

Husniye is the only one else with her this morning. The snack they have prepared, which is not breakfast is, muesli, warm bread, oatmeal, coffee, hot water, and yogurt.

A special cup is brought to the car just before Rupantar drives off.
Back at the race Vajra is recording Sopan's laps. Rupantar is reminding Ananda Lahari that he needs to speak to Eklanta about his shin splints and get treated. He is still bothered somewhat by them and is only running a little over 40 miles a day.

It is now late afternoon

Bipin is getting ready to leave but there is thunder in the air and it looks as though a heavy shower could come at any minute. He is getting phone calls, but wants to make sure all the tarps are in place before he goes.

Sundar will replace him as race director for the rest of the afternoon. A job he does most sundays.

Being the race director has many glamorous perks connected to it, like pouring cups of water and changing the trash bag. I ask Sundar if he ever thought about running long races. Like me, the longest distance he has ever run, is a 50 miler in 1981. He tells me with much satisfaction that once when Sri Chinmoy was leaving a function, he said of him, "Sundar will never have to run these races." Of this he is most grateful.

Sushovita has arrived and is wondering why her snack containers are not being used. She exudes both organization and compassion for the runners.

Nirjharini has just come the check on food and found out that the race is out of coffee. Abichal has just shaken the flask and found it empty. She is on the phone right away. Fresh coffee will arrive soon.

And while yesterday, he was being shuttled from Doctor to Doctor, and away from his beloved race for many hours, Pranab is back today and running strong. No bandages, no complaints, he gets down to what all 14 have to do, run.