All photos by Prabhakar.
These races grew out of the original 1,000 mile race put on in 1985 by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. It is the nineteenth successive year for the 10 day event and the seventeenth for the 6 day. This year the field was its largest ever with a total of 80 runners from over 20 different countries.
The one mile loop is sandwiched between the lake and the freeway in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Each year an elaborate runners’ village is constructed which includes medical tents, dormitories, a full kitchen, marquees down each side of the loop with tables for each runner, toilets, showers, two sheds for the counters with computer back-up and an area for all the tents. Before the face all that is there is a fire hydrant for the water and this year I noticed that even this was about 200 metres away since the usual one used was broken! The scale of it all is a testament to the ingenuity and sheer physical capacity of the small group of dedicated volunteers who build this place and set up the course each year. Once the runners are installed then over a $1,000 is spent on food each day, over 25,000 cups of water are drunk and discarded by the runners alone and around twenty five people will be involved at any given time to make sure everything is ticking over, including counting every single lap for each runner with the split time for each lap and entering it all on a back-up system as well.
The idea to do the 6-day race seemed to come from somewhere else entirely but there was a tangible inner thrill that came with it and stayed there during all the training, the preparation beforehand and during the race itself. At moments out on the course part of me would almost step back and be amazed that I was actually out there and even running and doing reasonably well for a first attempt at a multi-day. Tears of joy would occasionally well up and ease all the cramps and aches and pains. The loop took on a life of its own and came to feel like an enormous conveyor belt that was eternally chugging along. Every now and again you would step off for a short rest or some adjustment but you wouldn’t want to spend too long away for fear of missing some of the action.
Anyway this is a short blow by blow account cobbled together from some notes I made at the end of each day followed by some questions and answers that made up part of an interview. To see pictures and interviews with all the runners visit perfection journey and for all the results of this and previous year’s races see the marathon team website.
12.00 Each runner is introduced over the microphone and lines up under the start banner. There’s a brief moment’s silence and then the starter’s orders are given. Suddenly it’s a reality and the 6-day race has started. Meanwhile the conveyor belt transporting the 10 day-race runners relentlessly continues and very soon the two races have merged into one. Adrian MacDermott from London appears and jogs a few laps with me. He seems happy for some company and proceeds to give me a detailed run down on every little bump, incline and bend on the course, advising me where to walk, where to resume running and which bits to avoid. Apart from the fairly obvious hill leaving the village area it hadn’t really occurred to me that there were any other hills but after running around a one mile loop for a few days you tend to see things differently (he was in the 10 day race so had started 4 days earlier).
Something else is also happening and I realise that it’s going to be important. On each part of the course I’m getting a strong idea for a visualisation that I can do there. So the downhill section just before the turnaround under the flyover, for example, is where you can imagine you are just 7 years old and sprinting down the hill without a care in the world. Next comes an avenue of trees that reminds me of the French countryside in the summer for some reason, so there I can imagine I’m out in the sunshine running through lavender fields with a French chateau in the distance. Next comes the short stretch beside the lake and I remember one of the exercises that Sri Chinmoy recommends, namely to imagine you are with an army of runners and as you run you breathe in their energy and exhale their tiredness. In this way you can partake in the cosmic energy without taking away their energy. There is also the feeling that this army that I am imagining is a Napoleonic army out in the snowy wastes, marching hundreds of miles under far worse conditions. There were quite a few other visualisations I did at various parts of the loop and they stayed with me for the whole race. I would very rarely miss doing them and in fact one time I remember feeling more tired at a certain point in the loop and realised I had forgotten to invoke the breath of those eternal runners.
Probably the overriding and most powerful feeling on this first day is of being inside a heavily protected circle. Around most of the outside of the loop there are orange bollards with little signs on them saying ‘road race’ and sometimes information on the race for visitors to the park to read. Where there are no bollards the outside of the course is still clearly marked by the kerb or large arrows stuck in the ground. One night when running around, obviously a bit tired, I remember wondering why the bollards had ‘road rage’ written on them!
One of the big battles during these kinds of events is wrestling with the myriad negative thoughts; of being incapable, too weak, wanting to give up and so on. This is where meditation is always so key as it helps one still the restless mind and enter into deeper parts of our being where we have greater energy. For me the start of these big journeys (and particularly with longer swims) is often accompanied by feelings of fear and isolation from all that I know and love, as if you are being sent off to battle to fight and the outcome is unsure. Often all energy is directed to dispelling these uncomfortable thoughts and it can quite a few hours before the fever lifts but with this race it’s as if everything important is here inside the boundaries of this course and it is inviolable. Nothing can break through the solid walls from the outside. Everyone and everything is contained in this space and all the meditation and fighting of battles has been done for me. All I need to focus on is running around the loop as best as I can and trying to be as happy as possible.
18.30 Reach the marathon and take first break. For my own peace of mind I wanted to get that under the belt. Visit medical tent for massage but busy so do two more laps.
19.00 Mario from Columbia gives me great massage to get some of the lactic acid out of the leg muscles. It’s always a bit painful but really helps you keep going. He works 12 hour shifts as an A&E nurse but comes down after work to help out for quite a few hours.
21.15 Back on the road again after food and short sleep. Feeling a bit drained and dizzy but the food and massage helped. Original goal for first day was 35 miles so happy to finish with 37. That means 2 miles have been taken off tomorrow’s goal. Race strategy was to count mileage in terms of real days as opposed to noon to noon (it’s not practical to start the races very early in the morning so the race day ends at noon and the next day starts then) as seemed easier to finish a long day and then get a night’s sleep before starting again. Also counting it noon to noon I thought I would finish one day and then have to start the next day immediately. So plan was to get good start on the first half day and then keep that in store to add to the total on the last half-day. Total goal for each day was 50 miles, or 300 miles in total. Subsequently all these things fell apart in keeping with the nature of the race! It’s probably quite a good sign when after a day or two all one’s cherished mental plans fall apart forcing you to surrender a bit more to something beyond the narrow mental constructs. It seems most people just count the miles from noon to noon or else don’t really focus on it too much.
01.30 Running is over and time to try and shower and get organised for some sleep. Moving about in the freezing cold and avoiding guy ropes of tents in the dark is not easy! In fact I trip over Nirbhasa’s and that starts the trend for most nights. The wind is wild and things are getting blown about all over the place but the tent seems to be in one piece.
Day total 37 miles (noon to midnight)
0300 I wake up and water seems to be getting in as there is a small puddle under the mattress. Some clothes are wet and the sheet is already a bit damp at the side. I wanted to be able to count on being able to keep warm and dry at least for an hour or two each night so this is very bad news. Somehow after mopping it up it seems to disappear and water never gets in again. Maybe it was just from all the damp clothes that I had brought in.
04.45 Not really knowing how much sleep I’ll need or what time I should start running I’m wide awake now and back on the course by 5.30am. There’s such a buzz of excitement that you don’t want to miss anything. If am tired I can always stop in an hour or two. It feels like a conveyor belt that is continually spinning around the loop. When you stop for a break you are just momentarily disengaging yourself from it but don’t want to stay off it too long. Then you just need to rejoin it and allow yourself to be swept along in its wake. Sometimes you feel as if it’s one huge dynamo with lots people going around it generating energy. The almost continual traffic down one side of the loop add to the dynamic American feeling and on most days there would be a continual flow of jumbo jets flying in low overhead before landing at La Guardia airport. For some reason this was never a distraction or a disturbance, rather part of the same energy.
When you first try and walk after a rest it seems almost impossible. I can hardly put one foot down after another and have no idea if will be able to continue now. This always disappears within about half a lap but each time it happens you think that you won’t be able to move ever again.
Realising now how each time you stop and start up again you need to add on a fair bit of time for getting reorganised. That might mean showering, shaving, getting new kit ready, dealing with blisters, taping hot spots on feet and maybe cutting out bits of your shoes.
Ushika comes up alongside and asks me how my first 24 hour race went! He has been running these races since the outset and every day would stop and offer me advice on all sorts of things I was going through.
12.00 The new day starts and I’ve clocked up 57 miles for the first split. That’s great and I’ve got 7 miles in the bank for keeping to my 50 miles a day. Lunch and I try and sleep in the tent but it’s too hot.
Noon Day 1 total 57 miles
14.30 Run until the same time as yesterday. This becomes my rhythm; about 5 to 6 hours running up until midday and then around 5 hours until dinner and medical at 7pm. Then I would do 3 to 5 hours to finish before going to the tent. Regarding sleep I’m trying to sleep for an hour during the lunch break and an hour on the evening break (though sometimes just went straight out again). At night the most I managed was about 4 hours one night and around 3 on the others. The final night was just 1 hour’s sleep (but that turned out just to be lying on the massage table with such sore feet all I could do was lie back and elevate them a bit). The third night was around two and a half hours sleep. You definitely recuperate much more quickly than normal.
19.15 Massage from Mario again.
20.15 Back out on the loop and realise that have got quite a long way to go to clock up the planned 30 miles. I had reckoned on doing 20 miles in the morning (approximately 5am or 6am until noon and then 30 miles between noon and approximately 11pm or 12am). Already after only a day this is proving harder than expected. It’s so easy in the planning stage – you’ve got a certain number of hours to do a certain number of miles and that leaves you plenty of time for rest and other activities! A lot of people see their best laid plans fall apart within a day!
I’m also feeling the dreaded shin splints knocking at the door. I imagine them to be knocking at the stone walls of the fortified loop and as uninvited visitors but I know how these kinds of things can still creep in the back door. Remembering the experience with them before, and how they are linked to unconscious doubt manifesting itself in the physical consciousness, I realise that I am already doubting that I can make 50 miles a day so resolve absolutely firmly not to stop until have clocked up 30 miles since noon (that’s on top of the 20 from the morning). This seems to work and I feel them diminishing. This seems to be an important turning point in the race and realise that will have to keep this intensity both to reach my goal and to keep the shin splints away. Blisters are now developing and the metatarsals getting more and more painful. I didn’t even really know what these were earlier in the day but Purna-Samarpan had already asked me how they were. Either he knew from experience or else could see from the way I was walking. This kind of support is always available in abundant measure either from the other runners or from the helpers. He suggested putting in some supports (which he had and offered to give me). Sometimes just knowing that it is a recognised problem with a name can help.
02.00 Finish the 50 miles (counted from morning to evening rather than since the noon start) and am very happy but worried that in order to get to the same total tomorrow I’ve only got about two hours sleep and then the whole process will start up again! I realise that will need a new mind plan for how to get through these numbers – blocks of 20 and 30 miles are just too big and immoveable. I’ll come up with a different way of chunking it up tomorrow. Having two ways to count (days and also noon to noon) is confusing and it’s hard by the second day to keep track of where you are but this is probably all good for confusing the mind so that it can’t latch on to something definite to complain or worry about.
Those metatarsals now worryingly sore but a man named Mark Dorian, who has run the race before and is very knowledgeable about this kind of thing, appears in the food tent at this late hour and offers to tape some pads to the insoles of my shoes. He also asks me my shoe size and says he’ll just go ahead and leave them on my table for me ready to pick up in the morning. At this stage I just want to get my head down as quickly as possible as am really tired. The next day the shoes are done and there is a new pair of shoes of the same design I am running in, they are a size bigger too which is what will be necessary since the feet swell by a few sizes. The arches seem tiny but I think they make a big psychological difference.
Day total 87 miles
06.00 Wake up. I note that regardless of how little sleep you may have had here you always feel refreshed quickly.
07.15 Back on the loop. Sunny and warm after bitter cold of the night before. Down to t-shirt for first time. Sometimes at night it has been two jackets and fleece. Events of yesterday seem like weeks ago and now confused by where am due to the days being counted in different ways (let alone what day of the week it might be!). The push to make sure had 50 under the belt yesterday has also left me feeling quite good mentally this morning. I try to drink a cup of water on every lap and also knocking back copious amounts of coconut water (2 litres a day – rather pricey but a great way to hydrate).
12.00 14 miles completed since start this morning and takes me to 101 miles so am still within my 50 mile a day target after 2 days so that is encouraging. Blisters painstakingly cared for by Gints in medical. They drain and then disinfect them with iodine or tea tree oil and then tape them up again with a leaf wrapped around. I never found out what the leaf was but it certainly seemed to help them heal faster.
Noon total 101 miles
14.15 Had wanted to get going earlier as started break at 12pm but body just not wanting to shift.
1900 Evening break. 13 more miles completed. Pushing things as much as I can and this is with almost 5 hours between breaks (with short stops to adjust shoes and so on). So now mileage is 114. Tiredness in legs building up and slowing things down. Really tired after massage and blister management. Applied coconut oil to feet and really soothed them. It comes as a hard white substance in a jar and is meant to be one of the best foods to consume but also good for putting on the skin.
21.15 When get to tent is already 8pm and I spend 10 mins eating my food. Sometimes you would be cold and hungry and it was bliss to wrap up in sleeping bag and duvet whilst eating. Was aiming to start again at 8.30pm which left only 20 minutes for some sleep and to get ready again! Wrapped up in my sleeping bag I feel as if am in heaven and cannot imagine needing to be anywhere else. There is a cold wind outside now and the rain is coming down. Every muscle is aching and starting out will be the usually 5 minutes of hobbling. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to move from this spot. This battle goes on for some time and probably means I don’t sleep at all. On about the fourth attempt I manage to drag myself out of the tent.
I try switching to double insoles by using my cushioned insole on top of the one that comes with the shoes and put them in the shoes Pushkar gave me which already have the fronts cut out. Now really feel like ultra runner who has been through the wars! Within a day or two, your expensive running shoes have small pieces cut out of them to help as the feet swell by anything up to two sizes. As the race progresses, more and more gets cut out until by the end they are hardly recognisable. I think the shoe manufacturers would be quite shocked.
But now it’s becoming a real struggle as in order to do 50 miles in the day will have to do 23 miles before sleep. That would mean not sleeping all night and then having to start the whole process over again at 5 or 6am!
02.15 Have managed 13 which takes day total up to 127 miles. (23 miles to do in the morning to keep 50 schedule and that includes using up the 7 miles in the bank after first day. That seems unlikely but will worry about it tomorrow. Or else for Day schedule it is 40 miles so far. Rain pouring down now so decide to stop and anyway it is late. Starting to realise just how hard this is!
Day total 127 miles.
06.35 Start. Always tough to get moving but once back out on the loop can try to wake up a bit and get organised.
12.00 Am at 142 miles total at lunch. Not too bad now on overall even if fell off a bit on the Day total last night. 8 miles off the 50 miles a day schedule but thinking can catch those up. Feet are burning agony and it feels like am walking on hot coals. Put them in ice bath and lie back at the same time in the sunshine. It’s bliss to rest looking up at the blue sky and seems to take down the swelling.
Noon total 142.
18.55 Another 12 miles to take to 154. Hot afternoon. Lots of people in the park and with the ice cream van and all the kids running about there is a real holiday atmosphere. Mind coming in and saying that I need 46 miles before 12pm tomorrow and that seems like a huge amount especially given the foot pain.
21.00 Back out on track and a lot of work to do. Thinking that will just go on until get there with minimal break. Work out a schedule (and now all based on 20 minute laps, which may not feel like much but is not bad going at this stage of the race. Even many of the good runners down to this or at least perhaps around 18mins per loop now).
I go at this pace for 3 hours and the counters give me my total as 162 but it should be 163 as have done exactly 3 hours which should equate to 9 miles. Convinced they must have missed a lap but we go through it and realise that the splits are outside 20 minutes each time by a minute or two which is adding up. This is frustrating as on top of the other difficulties now I’m not even quite making 3 miles an hour (this does get better in the last 2 days).
Devashishu at the counting tent says how cheerful I seem and wonders how it is possible. Curiously enough as I sit down at my table with one less lap than thought and with all my mental plans in shatters I feel remarkably uncheerful for the first time but Ushika is just coming in (one of my great mentors!) and I say that it is all bit difficult (great understatement!) but I suppose we have to stay happy to which he says ‘oh yes absolutely the most important thing’ with his deep chuckle and I feel ok again. The next few laps I feel tired but peaceful. When trying to feel gratitude for the miles on each lap I would try and feel it from the heart but this time there is the feeling of not wanting to wake up the peacefully sleeping child! An older part of the inner family has to take over.
Day total 165
24.00 Take break and decide to sleep for an hour.
02.00 It’s 2 hours before manage to get back out again. So hard as am tired and it’s so cold. Also starting up again as usual is so hard as all stiffened up and you can hardly walk. That’s on top of getting all your gear ready again and warm clothes on. At this stage t’is 2 jackets and fleece maybe with second fleece under that too initially. Hardly seems to be anybody out and am feeling drained of energy.
4.30 No real break planned but grab bowl of hot tomato and onion soup and bowl of mashed potato with some butter and take it to the medical tent as should be a bit warmer in there even if empty. Sometimes the food tastes like the most delicious meal you have ever had and is exactly what you feel like.
I find one of those heat pads from one of the massage tables and switch it on and sit on it. It feels so good to warm up and eat. Then decide to lie down for a few moments. So it is becoming a longer break but no desire to go back out and in fact manage to fall asleep for a bit (probably around 45 minutes but it is very good). Cold and tired and now feeling defeated as cannot make my 50 miles per day and don’t feel like doing another lap. It will be morning too soon and time to start running. There’s still a day and a half to go so maybe this is it, the reality of the endeavour has caught up with me and shown me I was far too weak for such an undertaking, making a mockery of all those joyful moments up until now. So realise that even with virtually no sleep and pressing on with feet on fire that the 50 miles a day thing now is really just a little out of reach for me but also that has been good goal as if had set at 40 miles a day, say, then would have been the same proportion off. This is all in the learning and experience. Need a bit more speed too and actually a bit more sleep rather than trying to hammer on through the night. Sometimes exhausted but the course is so beautiful and such an energy that you don’t want to waste a moment and want to get back out.
5.45 Force myself back out on to the course and it’s not too long until the bright sun is rising over the flyover at the turnaround – this transforms the dark night and brings new energy and warmth. The sky seems very blue and clear and very aware of how earth is going to rotate bringing sun out over the lake and then back down somewhere behind me in the west. The day is not really that long. After a tough night the energy returns and all is fine. As usual just as you can recover with only a few hours sleep, things change very quickly.
Noon total 186
14.15 200 miles is beckoning but still a push to get legs moving. Once you pass 100 miles it seems to take forever for the mileage to move up again. Get 4 miles under my belt and then have to find way to get through the next 10. Ok so it’s going to be 3 to get me to 93 and then another 2 to make 95, then will think of another 2 to get to 97 and then it’s only 3 to get to 200. Also the last lap will be easy as will be just cruising in for the 200 so hardly need to include that. Sometimes you have to go through elaborate chunking like this to break larger stretches into more manageable pieces.
19.40 200 is reached. Ok wanted to be there at noon but psychologically feel as if am just an afternoon out. Take a break
22.00 Goals revised realising that 300 really a bit out of reach at my stage but feeling as if am giving every ounce I can so not down about it. Next milestone will be 250. Starting to think what can do and how much can aim for. Thinking that 275 might be pushing it. 260 miles is 10 marathons but actually doesn’t sound like that much whilst 270 might be a good number. Anyway put in 7 miles to bring mileage up a bit. Important not to rest on laurels as once at the 100 or 200 mark it’s very hard to get it to shift – a whole 10 miles only makes it 110 and then another only 120. Day total 207
07.00 For first time really feeling like can move relatively pain free – funny how all the pains seem to go at the same time. If think of them as having different roots, like say a blister and a sore ankle and maybe a calf problem they would have come about at different times so you’d think they’d heal at different times. I make mental note to consider this in more depth after the race.
12.00 Have done 15 miles (stopped at 122 as was just after 12pm).
Noon total 221
14.15 Do another 13 miles over the course of the afternoon.
19.00 Evening break. Taiwanese physiotherapist does some work – mainly quite sore but helpful.
21.00 Ok make decision that should aim to finish with a marathon in the same way that started. That means 26 miles before noon tomorrow which is a challenge but also possible if keep going. Start going into chunking mode here and imagine what 26 is when divided into three bite size pieces. This may sound frivolous but I think it is important as it’s how we trick the mind into going along with our plans. 26 miles sounds like too much but if I divide it into three sets of 8 then it becomes manageable. The two miles left over can easily be done once you have 24 under your belt – it’s so much harder to run 2 miles now and then say to yourself you will start the 24. So for the first 8 miles I will divide them into a set of 3, followed by a set of 2 and then another set of 3. After doing a lap I realise that there are only 7 left so start to think it’s more of a set of 2 first, followed perhaps by another 2 and then a set of 3 to finish off. Somehow you keep doing laps and readjusting the sets until, before you know where you are, you have done it and are taking the break before starting the next set of 8 miles. The mind is quite easily fooled in this way. Earlier in the day I remember talking with Patanga about this aspect of the mind and how stupid in a way the mind can be. We concluded that it would be very easy to sell something of dubious quality to the mind. Of course this is one of the big experiences of the race – feeling what is coming from the mind and the heart, and of course the physical and getting a glimpse of how the soul might be inspring these other members of the unruly family to line up with it.
24.00 First set of 8 done and go to medical tent with sleeping bag. If go to my tent will be too hard to get going again and the temptation will be to sleep for longer. I don’t want to miss too much of the last day. I put my feet up a bit to try and drain a bit of the lactic but can’t sleep at all as my feet are just too sore. After an hour I decide it’s less painful just to be out on the track and I can start working on the next set of 8!
01.15 I keep going but it’s quite slow as so hard going through the night. Not many people out even though is the last night (everyone is tired I think). I keep pushing but it is a bit slow and stop off every now and again to sit in my chair with the sleeping bag wrapped around me. Planning on getting 8 done and then trying to get a bit of sleep but in the end just keep going. Always get burst of energy as sun comes up and the other runners come out. Not long to go now so no point in stopping. I finish off the marathon by just around 10.50am and plan to do two extra laps to bring total to 264 miles. I come through the last time and the clock says there are 17 minutes to go which isn’t really long enough for a lap in my present condition except that quite a few few people are saying ‘come on one more lap, you can easily do it’. So I throw off my jacket and find myself running around quite fast almost as if have not been running at all, let alone for 6 days. I easily manage to complete it and have about 8 minutes to spare. This time it really is the last lap!
A few questions and answers.
What inspired you to do it and what training did you do?
Doing a multi-day was certainly never something at the top of my list of priorities and I’d never really consciously considered doing it before. In fact last year’s race (2013) was the first time I’d ever even been down to the park in Flushing to see the start, let alone help out in any way. On a couple of occasions over the last year people had said that it would be a good race for me and I’d have some great experiences on the way. At the very beginning of January the question seemed to have been planted firmly in me: ‘why don’t you do the 6-day race?’. It was such a left-of-field and crazy idea that I thought I would just go with it. For years I had struggled with running and my longest runs or races over the previous 7 years or so had been the 2 mile races that we organise on the joy weekends and Christmas trips, which I’d complete in a very slow time gasping for air! Rather than painstakingly trying to build up to a 10k or half marathon, perhaps the best thing would be to set the bar very high and try and blow all the blockages out of the water completely. From swimming and particularly going in the sea throughout the winter I had a reasonable background of fitness so was not starting from scratch. Up until this point my longest ever race had been the annual 47 mile race in August.
If I can pinpoint the day I started training it was in Kusadasi on the Christmas trip after I had been out for what for me was a longer run (in reality just about an hour and a half with a lot of walking). I had been thinking of asking Salil about his experiences doing the 6-day in 2013 and then bumped into him on the waterfront on my way back. I asked him what he thought and his immediate reaction was that it was a great idea and I’d have a really good time. It’s curious how much inspiration one can get from that kind of short exchange. I was worried about the lack of running I had done over the last few years but he told me that most people end up walking by the second day and that if you feel tired you can just go away and lie down for a bit! I think he certainly made light of it as he did quite good mileage the previous year and it’s not until you try and do it yourself that you realise how much is involved to get that far. From that point on I tried to get out each morning and power walk for around 2 hours. Sometimes that would mean breaking into a bit of a run but running was still a problem for me. After about 2 days I pulled something in my calf trying to run too fast after a long spell walking. So I was injured on the second day of training and couldn’t even do the 1 mile race the next day! This became the pattern for a lot of the training, in other words it would all be going well and then something would stop me in my tracks forcing me to make some change. Looking back, some of these ‘injuries’ were key parts of the training and without them I would not have been able to do the race. For example, in March I picked up a virulent form of athlete’s foot that left me with a big dry cut across the ball of the foot. I could hardly walk at all on this for a while but it forced me to learn a lot about how was going to have to care for the feet during the race. I also crucially realised that you can keep running through most minor foot pains even if at the time it seems impossible even to put your foot down (this can happen during the race with blisters for example). You just have to make sure you are getting them all treated properly and not to be too frightened of them.
By the time we got to the next place on the trip I was able to do 2 hours each day along the boardwalk. This can be very inspiring as you feel that you have done 8 miles (it was 15 min pace) and can start planning to do longer distances. Also more and more you can try breaking into a run for longer periods up to about a quarter of a mile. After the trip I had some training work in Europe and a couple of times did longer sessions of 3 or 4 hours. Once back in the UK I built up to doing 13 miles and eventually to covering 50 miles over two days (with a night’s rest in between the two sessions). So I would cover a marathon, take a break, and then the next morning do 24 miles. The first time I did this I tried to run some of the marathon but ended up with quite bad knee pain. The next morning I thought I’d have to stop after just a few miles but in the end I did manage to push through it and the pain disappeared. Again a very useful training experience to have in the bank for when the race started. I managed to do 50 miles again over two days after only 2 days rest but this time got quite a sore quite sore shin splint in my right leg on the second day. I was keen to keep going through it to see if it would disappear but it didn’t shift.
The following weekend I did 10 miles without any pain but the next day it was bad and I only managed 14 miles (I had wanted to do 50 miles that day). This was when I realised there was a problem and I wondered if this might be the end. I soon discovered, however, that I could actually run on it and, although there was still a little pain there, it was not too bad. Each day the running got better and the pain got no worse. This is when it dawned on me that it was yet another ‘learning’ injury and was the only way that I could have been cajoled back into running. It was like a clear message saying ‘this is a running race’. It became clear that I could not start with the aim of walking the race but rather should aim to run as much as possible and only resort to walking when very tired or unable to run. This was a major turnaround in the training and would not have come about without the debilitating shin splint injury. It was also crucial in the race as if I hadn’t tried to run as much as possible I would just never have been able to make the mileage each day.
Eventually I was able to run a full marathon with just a few short spells of walking (not at breakneck speed certainly – around 5 hours – but very reassuring having been out of running for so long). The following day after the marathon I was able to do 24 miles on the cliff path with a lot of ascent and descent to bring the total up to 50 miles over 2 days. So now I had three 50 mile runs split over two days in the bank and I’d tentatively found a way around the shin splints. I decided not to do the 12 hour walk in April for fear that they would come back. That last 50 miler was the 1st of April and the plan was to ease back in the three weeks before the race started. In fact I got a bad cough just after that and couldn’t do anything, not even a mile, for the whole of celebrations. This seemed to be the last important learning experience. I’d normally never have any colds or flu like this during the celebrations but it forced me to focus more on preparing inwardly by meditating for longer in the early mornings and to remind me again of the importance of that calm inner strength that precedes all big outer endeavours.
Subsequently none of these things that had surfaced during the training came back during the race and I was completely injury free. I think most of what we learn during the training phase is mental in nature and the physical side is just a natural corollary or part that develops as part of the package.
Has it changed your attitude to the other runners?
There were quite a few people out there running who I recognised but did not really know. Perhaps they would be some of the slightly quieter individuals who are not normally at the forefront of things and yet there they were running around effortlessly and accumulating high mileage. Many of them I know are veterans of a lot of races and it is not uncommon to find that they have done over ten of these races previously. You realise how easy it is to underestimate people by judging them too much on the surface. I’ll definitely see them in a different light now.
Did you get advice from previous runners?
People who have run multi-days are very generous with the wisdom they have built up and will spend hours going through fine details with you. This proved invaluable as I really had little idea of what to expect . Angikar started me off with a list of all the supplements that I’d need along with suggestions about coconut oil and coconut water, having extra insoles and various green substances that I should add to drinks. Pushkar bequeathed a new pair of shoes to me which were the same make as mine but one size larger which you need as the feet swell up sometimes by a few sizes over the course of a race. These ones had the toe box and backs already cut out. Devabala, who I discovered had already done 10 multi-days, gave me a lot of good suggestions for how to deal with the mental side. Ashprihanal and Purna-Samarpan gave me great tips and both insisted that I should not wear cotton socks as by trapping the moisture they encourage blisters. I had just bought a whole set of cotton socks with me ready for the race!
During the race it was amazing how helpful everyone was. People would be only to happy to offer advice and above all reassurance that the things I was going through were absolutely normal. Ushika, who has been involved with multi-days since the first 1,000 and 700 mile races, would often stop as he went past me to check up on me. His gentle laugh always made me feel as if there was nothing to worry about and that it was all entirely normal. Once I told him about a painful blister that had developed but that I was trying to ignore. He told me that this was not a good idea and I should immediately get it treated otherwise it might get infected and cause all sorts of problems. Purna-Samarpan, as well as offering all sorts of other useful pieces of information, tried to show me the rudiments of chi running and walking but we realised that the race was not the best place to start learning. Patanga from Brazil would entertain me with tales from the Mahabarata and I remember the afternoon when he stopped to buy me an ice-cream from the van parked by the lake!
Probably between 6 and 8 litres of liquid and 5,000 calories or more of food. I had been avoiding sugar for a few months before the race and when down helping with counting at the start of the 10 day race saw all the desserts but thought that I would not be going near them. After a day or so out on the loop you really just feel like eating anything that is put out. Cheesecake with extra ‘heavy’ cream, chocolate mousse, pieces of celery stuffed with peanut butter, handfuls of crisps, along with the proper meals of course. I think nutrition probably becomes more important as you get more experienced but there is probably no harm in eating a little of everything as there are so many nutrients the body needs and each little vegetable and fruit has something unique in it. Apart from anything else you just need some food that will make you happy after all those long hours out on your feet! This is one time in life that you don’t gain weight! Nipura and her crew worked tirelessly to create three great meals a day plus a whole host of trays of interesting things that would be available day and night. They worked hard to make sure the various dishes were rich in protein, iron and other important minerals.
As for supplements I took calcium and magnesium tablets three times a day, loads of vitamin C, a multi-vitamin, omega-3 and homeopathic bio-plasma tissue salts. I’ve no idea if these were necessary or if they worked but they certainly didn’t seem to cause any harm. I drank around two litres of coconut water each day which I’m sure really helped. I tried to drink a cup of water every mile .
What is the course like?
At first glance the course does not really grab your attention but the more time you spend on it the more you grow to love it. Down one side of it there is a freeway with various flyovers and underpasses creating a whole medley of roads and a lot of loud traffic. The road is quite bumpy in places so as the trucks went by sometimes there would be a resounding thud of heavy metal landing on the concrete as tons of steel left the ground and thudded back down to earth again. Surprisingly this part of the course was not so much disturbing as revitalising. You’d feel the dynamism and energy of the traffic entering into you as you went down the straight. Even at night it never really quietened down much. The course is also underneath the flight path to La Guardia airport so on some days when the wind was in a certain direction you would have jets coming in to land overhead.
After about a third of a mile there is a turn around that takes you back into the centre of the park again. Here you are going down an avenue of old trees and the atmosphere changes completely. This is the most peaceful part of the course where you emerge onto a path along the side of the lake. Here you look through the bamboo and reeds to building on the other side that would be lit up at night. There was a surprising amount of wildlife around here, including voles, squirrels, colourful birds and ducks. After about 200 metres you get back almost to the start where the counters are and do a little shimmy up the Sri Chinmoy Street, around a little roundabout (with the heart-garden and hundreds of daffodils in the middle of it), and back down to the village area again with the long stretch of all the runners’ tables, the kitchen area and the helpers tent.
So the course has a certain beauty to it and of course you see more and more things each time you go around. There is the peace and tranquillity of the lake on one side with its cooler air and reflections and then the power and dynamism of the freeway with all its speed and traffic on the other. In fact there are almost an infinite number of little details to look at. On the last day I was surprised to see white doves nesting in the bridge next to the freeway.
Do you speak much to the other runners as they go by?
The leaders are generally very focussed on just running and hardly even have time to stop and make themselves drinks but will occasionally stop or slow down for a few moments to exchange a few words and see how you are finding it. With other runners you might occasionally do several laps together and have in-depth conversations either about the race or unrelated things. Sometimes you just need to be in your own space as when everything is hurting you need all your concentration just to put one foot in front of another. But there is a powerful sense of camaraderie and community. Everyone is fighting their own battle against tiredness and physical pains but it’s also a communal battle on a higher level. Sometimes you don’t want to talk as you feel you are in a special space and talking brings you back to a ‘you’ that you don’t’ like and it all seems more painful but I think it’s important now and then to talk to others even if you lose touch with some of your thoughts and visualisations. After all perhaps you are inspiring them in a way that you may need to be inspired at another point and you don’t really lose anything.
How far do people run?
Well the world records for 10 and 6 days are 964 and 639 miles respectively set by Yannis Kouros. The course records are 901 miles for the 10 day set by Rimas Jakelaitis in 2001 for the men and 724 miles set by Kaneenkika Janakova from Slovakia for the women in 2010. For the 6 day the records are 541 miles set by David Luljak in 1998 for the men and 513 miles in 2009 for the women by Dipali Cunningham.
This year the 10 day race winner was Ashprihanal Aalto with 833 miles and the female winner was Kaneenkia Janakova with 727 miles. For the 6 day it was Eoin Keith with 500 miles and Dipali Cunningham with 474 miles.
You can see the full results here.
Do people walk?
The top competitors run almost all of the time but will occasionally walk for short stretches of a few hundred metres or so perhaps to eat something or let the muscles relax a little. Some people end up walking a lot either due to injury problems or just sheer fatigue. Having said that sometimes walking is harder than running.
There is a grey area in between walking and running and a lot of people seem to develop quite an efficient ‘ultra-shuffle’. Often I would be doing something that I considered running only to find people passing me walking. Although it probably did not look like running there was a point where I would lean forwards a little more and I think have both feet off the ground for a split second which seemed to propel me forwards a little faster. It would be a little more comfortable than walking. Walking was a different movement and I could definitely feel the weight being further back each time I lifted my feet. As you can imagine you have a lot of time to consider these things out there!
I found myself watching quite carefully how other people were walking or running and I think I used to try and learn from them. After the first half day or so there was really no way I could continue with my normal running style (it is not that great but I tend to land on my forefoot first which you cannot do for much more than a marathon). Each time a pain developed it would force me to change my style a bit. Eventually I found that I was swinging the arms quite a bit and getting quite a good rotation of the hips and pelvis. Meanwhile the feet are either only just leaving the ground or actually shuffling along over it.
You would become aware of just how many hundreds of ways there are of moving the body forwards and how our ‘natural’ and perhaps rather clumsy style is often not that efficient and places great strain on certain muscles and joints.
Do people get injured?
Remarkably out of 80 starters only three people had to pull out. One of those was an Australian competitor who had only just completed another 6 day race the week before and was planning to run one in Hungary in a few weeks time! I think it is more a question of lots of aches and pains that one can work through. Sometimes the pain can be quite excruciating for a few laps – the balls of the feet, the metatarsals, arches and the pads of the toes would seem to be on fire. I remember once or twice being inspired to keep going round the loop but thinking I would rather crawl than use my worn out feet and legs. These pains usually lift and usually disappear completely after a while. I think it’s just part of our physical nature slowly being transformed.
The hardest part is when you start again after a break. Within 5 or 10 minutes of stopping everything starts to seize up. After an hour or two, when you try to walk again it is almost impossible to put one foot down after another. Each time this happens you think you will not be able to walk again for a while but it always passes after about half a lap.
Well I set a goal of doing 50 miles a day. In training I was used to doing a certain mileage and then getting a night’s sleep before starting again so it was hard for me to try to plan the day around the noon to noon day as opposed to a day going from morning to evening (since the race starts at noon the first day ends at noon on day 2). I planned to try and get 35 miles under my belt the first day (from 12pm to midnight) and then start counting each day from when I woke up. I thought I would easily be able to cover 20 miles before lunch (6 or 7 hours depending on what time you started) and then do an easy 30 miles between 2pm and midnight (10 hours). I managed that on the first day but then realised how much tougher it was than it seemed. Mainly it’s because it starts to take you longer than you think and also because you are getting steadily more and more tired as time goes on. The breaks also get longer due to the sheer amount of time it takes to sort out the blisters, get some massage on the legs and to move around the camp getting food, gear and all the other things you need. Also you feel very tired but it’s not always easy to sleep.
Regarding the goal it’s curious but there’s no way you can just go out and take it easy. I’ve found the same thing with the shorter races too. For example, you may go out and do the 2 mile race when you are not in great shape and decide to jog it, but you always get caught up in the energy of the race and try to do your absolute best. It’s also almost out of respect to the event itself that you want to give it your absolute best. The same thing happened in this race. Even when I realised that 50 miles a day was just out of my reach I wanted to keep going and give it my all.
Many people would be going past me with what seemed like effortless ease whilst sometimes I felt like I was just hobbling along. Sometimes they seem like demi-Gods as you can’t imagine how they have the will power to do it but they are probably going through a similar physical experience to you only they are able to propel themselves forward much more fluidly. On the last day I had this feeling – almost all the aches and pains disappeared and I could run and walk around at quite a good pace.
Looking at the pictures and videos of previous races I was always struck by just how happy people looked. There is a tangible feeling of joy and happiness that pervades the whole course, whether you are running or helping in it. It’s so strong that no matter how tired and exhausted you are, you feel like getting back out on the course. Curiously enough there was also the feeling that this might end soon, in a few days only, and you wanted to enjoy it whilst you could, again despite the sometimes intense physical difficulties you were facing. Over the course of the entire 10 days (6 days running and the others helping with counting) I don’t think I saw a single depressed person and yet here were people facing intense physical and mental challenges. Sri Chinmoy encouraged participants to try and feel as much gratitude as possible during the race and to surrender the aches and pains rather than holding on to them. I think they are things that we always have inside us but here you are given the opportunity to transform them.
It doesn’t matter how much physical and vital pain you go through, you feel tremendous joy because you are going beyond your normal capacities, either by being out here for the first time or else perhaps maintaining your enthusiasm or trying to better a past performance.
This is what Sri Chinmoy says in answer to a similar question.
What do your multi-day races contribute to the world?
‘Athletes derive tremendous benefit from these multi-day races. They go beyond their capacities. In order to be happy, we have to go always beyond and beyond and beyond our capacities. So here , while running, each runner is getting a very special opportunity to go beyond his or her capacities. Self transcendence is the only thing a human being needs in order to be truly happy. So these races help the runners tremendously, although outwardly they go through such hardship. Eventually, when the race is over, they feel they have accomplished something most significant.’
P43 The Inner Running and the Outer Running. Sri Chinmoy. Aum publications. 2008.
And here are some other quotes from the same book which I found to be very inspiring. The first one has always amazed me – that your focus and aspiration here can spontaneously affect someone somewhere else in the world.
‘While you are in a race, even if you are a poor runner, you are determined to do your best, so you collect some inner strength and determination. This determination immediately enters into the Universal Consciousness and , like wildfire, it spreads. Then, somebody running in Africa or Australia or in some other part of the world will all of a sudden feel a burst of energy, which is coming from you and nobody else.’ P5 of same book.
‘Running long distance is like being part of a family – thousands of people are going together . In long distance the runners are going slowly and steadily towards their goal and there is constant joy. (referring to the marathon as opposed to 100m sprint) p118 as above.
‘As long as you are in the mind, you will always have fatigue, tiredness, weariness and everything. But the moment you enter into the heart, there is no fatigue. What you will find is constant energy. If you are in the heart there is a constant supply of energy and sweetness…Early in the morning when you get up, if you have a sweet feeling inside you then everything is beautiful. But if inside you there is bitterness, then no matter what you see, you will not get any joy. Even if you look at a beautiful flower, there will be no joy. But inner sweetness sees the world as most beautiful.’ P102 of same book.
Do you sleep?
Most people sleep in a tent, but there are also some dormitories (marquees with wooden beds in them). Also a couple of people rented vans and parked in the lot just across from the start. The tent is great the first night but then it becomes quite an ordeal to get in and out of it and keep organised. I think the most I slept at night was between 3 and 4 hours and sometimes it was less. I tried to get an hour at lunchtime and an hour in the evening, though often this would not really be sleep but just lying down resting. The last night I only had one hour but I was wide awake the whole time as my feet were just too sore to allow me to rest! Some people take ibuprofen to help them get a little sleep but since I had not had any from the start I never bothered.
Often an hour or two’s sleep is enough to replenish the energy and you are keen to get back out on the track again. The conveyor belt never stops! It always takes much longer than planned, though, as you have to get all your gear organised and the temperatures might have plummeted by this stage if it is nighttime. You may also need to put new tape on your feet and deal with shoes and blisters and so on. This might eat in to each break by half an hour or so or more likely add on another hour. If you are slowing down a bit too on each lap and generally taking longer to get everything organised it can make it much harder than planned to keep to the original mileage goal.
No I think it’s much more subtle than that and in fact, although things might be quite intense and difficult, it may not be necessary to suffer pain at all. The goal of the race is to derive happiness and joy and if that means having to come to terms with some parts of our nature that are blocking this then so be it.
It’s about working out why we have certain pains and then allowing the body to get rid of them. Eventually you reach a stage where most of the pain has gone. It may come back a bit in a lighter form but it’s like a fever that is getting better and coming back less and less. Many people report this feeling of it all suddenly lifting. I think it’s a kind of purification process. A lot of the pain is an accumulation of our own negative thinking patterns that have built up in the body. The gratitude element I think is about feeling positive that we have the opportunity finally to let these things go and not hold onto them and cherish them, which we very often do even if it is on an unconscious level.
I was surprised that on a certain day more or less all the things that had been bothering me disappeared. These were things that had what I thought were different causes and so I would have expected them to go at different times. For example, an annoying blister would not seem to be related to an aching knee, a tight calf or a swollen achilles heel. It also didn’t seem to be a question of the body’s natural pain-killers covering them up as they just went and never really came back.
For that reason I’m not so keen on the military idea of ‘no pain, no gain’. That seems to be more about inviting the pain in and celebrating it when in fact we want, either not to allow it in at all if it is coming from wrong-thinking, or else just to observe it and let it be transformed without identifying with it too much.
I became very interested in this mental component of injuries in the months before the race. It is certainly very hard for us to accept that something is mental in origin, especially when consciously we really do not want to have that pain or block in our training that we are enjoying. Sri Chinmoy said that of all injuries shin splints is one that has a purely mental origin and is a physical manifestation of our own lack of faith and confidence in ourselves. When I first started to feel the shin splints about 6 weeks before the race it seemed like an entirely physical thing, but when I thought more it seemed likely there might well be some unconscious doubt about this upcoming race. I think that’s why when I was able to start running on it gave me the confidence to try and train through the slight ache. It was also interesting that during the race when I felt them starting I was able to stop them taking hold by being really determined for a few hours and doing a bit more than I had planned that evening.
The other interesting point is that, although these things may be mental in origin, since they manifest themselves in the physical arena, they still have a physical cause and cure to a certain extent. So shin splints are often caused by overstriding which overextends the muscle down the front of the tibia anterior and can be eased by taking smaller steps and trying to roll more on and off the heel.
In the last few weeks before the race sometimes I would walk along and get a sudden pain in my toe or somewhere else in my foot. If I were to identify with it then it might seem like something serious but I found if I just laughed at it as if it was an annoying little child throwing something at me then it would just disappear.
How does it compare to swimming the channel?
Lots of people asked me this and I found it hard to come up with an easy answer. There are a lot of similarities though. One thing I felt quite strongly, on the night that I realised I couldn’t achieve the goal that my mind and ego had set for me, was how eternal the race was. The outer idea of it ending after 6 or 10 days seemed just like an insignificant and material fact. It seemed that from the materialistic mind’s point of view you couldn’t really have a race that went on forever because the mind would not want to enter it and yet this race didn’t seem to have any kind of end to it. I think I got a glimpse of how it is an inner race that ends on the outer plane at a certain pre-arranged time but then dips down and continues on an inner plane. The channel has this feel to it too as no matter how much you plan and divide it up with your mind and try and tame it, it always gets you! This feeling usually comes about once every final attempt to try and control the outcome yourself has been eroded. In the race I realised that even if I continued through the night and made various changes, at that pace I wouldn’t be able to reach the goal I had personally set for myself. With the channel too there comes a point where you see the land and very conservatively try and work out how much longer it might take but after a while you see that this just won’t work and you have just to surrender to the limitlessness of it. This is very hard for the mind and body but probably takes you up a whole level and is the surrender that then makes it possible.
You see the land but no matter how long and hard you swim it just never gets any nearer and even hours later it is still not really yielding. Even once you are inside the bay at the end and can see the beach it is still as if the land will never appear. Once it does end you are really past caring as you’ve had so many of your outer expectations ripped away from you. Of course you feel a deeper and more lasting sense of achievement. From this point of view the channel is similar.
Otherwise, of course, in both you get the difficulties that come up that you know will disappear but they can be quite acute for a while. In the channel it might be sea sickness and in the race it might be blisters or muscle aches but you know that you have just to be patient and the feelings will go.
The main difference is of course the time factor. The channel is a bit like the race concentrated into the space of a day. Also when you start the channel it is more like a fight or wrestling a wild beast. You have to kill off the mental demons early on otherwise after a few hours you are exhausted and want to stop. With the race you have much more time in this respect. I felt it was more like moving large armies around strategically and having time to plan it all out as compared to a sudden ambush.
The last time I did the channel I remember towards the end dreaming of eating and not just a good meal but rather whole Indian palaces full of banquets of the most delicious food. It’s hard to eat much whilst swimming whereas on the race there is plenty available at the end of each lap!