Somehow it was slipping away from me. Like it always does, the 47 mile inspires and touches my heart like no other running event. This year the night of the race was perfect. The evening air was cool and light as the midnight start approached. An impressive group had turned out to participate in a run that has now taken place on every August 27th for the past 31 years.
I had taken hundreds of pictures in and around the track lit bright by candles and dangling light bulbs. Out on the still twisting streets I flashed even more shots of the smiling faces of the intrepid runners who ran with light and determined steps, at least during the early laps.
Throughout the long night more and more precious moments from the race where being captured by my camera and my microphone. Those fragments of joy, of determination and of selfless service had inexorably gathered into a mountain of data stuffed onto digital memory cards. After the race I faced the daunting task of unraveling a story that now seemed much more difficult than tying on shoes and running the 47 miles itself. A persistent case of nagging procrastination dogged my heels for weeks. I felt myself almost uncontrollably sliding towards a precipice where the story was heading towards some digital oblivion.
Then on a recent bright Sunday, which seemed to be gilded more by the soothing promise of Spring than the gray dullness of late Autumn, I found myself out running on the 47 mile loop. On an afternoon flooded with light and warmth I felt myself caught up in fervent tide of sweet memory. From whence it came I do not know but soon my dawdling middle aged footsteps were feeling the selfsame effortless lightness and unbridled hope of all those many times I had run the 47 as a much younger man. It was though my own countless cherished memories of running the race were reaching out to me from my own not too distant past. But it was not just my own memories that were calling out to me it was as well as though the inspired experiences of those who had just run weeks earlier were calling out to me to bring that magical night back into focus. To find a voice for a magical event in which impossibility itself becomes banished in the boundless enthusiasm of those who take part in this most sacred of Sri Chinmoy Marathon team running events.
As I rounded the corner near goose pond and made the sweeping right hand turn, across from Jamaica High school and looked ahead, I had a profound moment. It was a vivid experience in which I felt as though I could clearly see Sri Chinmoy running on the road ahead of me. He had run the full race himself on 2 occasions and had run on the course during the race at least one more time. I remember clearly, during one race, coming round this same corner only to be shocked to see the familiar form of my Spiritual teacher bobbing along under the dim street lights in front of me.
At the time he would have been either 48 or 49 years of age. I was in my running prime and gradually I was overtaking him. As I came up behind him, each step I took I felt myself repeating his name in silence to myself.
This was after all his birthday and it was in honor of him that I ran. It could not escape me what a beautiful experience it was to thus find him there on the course as well. I can remember my slow and inevitable approach from behind him and then my sweeping pass on his right side. I can remember saying something as simple as, “Way to go Guru, way to go.” I am not aware of any comment or remark that he may have made in return. Nor do I remember any other time that I passed him again, though most certainly through the night I must have passed by him a few more times. What I do recall however is how so much I wished to carry him with me throughout the night and lighten the burden of his steps. Yet inevitably in time I would understand, that all along that it was he who was actually carrying me.
Before the start of the race it is so easy to forget the lateness of the hour. Instead of thinking of sleep you are surrounded by those who are preparing to do nothing else but run for the entire night.
Or as in the case of many others to simply volunteer for long hours.
There is such enthusiasm and energy swirling around the course it is almost impossible to think of sleep. The runners all come with such eagerness and the helpers only want the runners to do well and enjoy a night like no other.
For Ananda-Lahari running the distance will not be that challenging. He has run the marathon just 2 days ago and let us not forget the 3100 miles he ran just weeks earlier over the entire summer.
Ujjwala has had experience at multi day running herself.
The running of the race of course is not just one long celebration. Most have registered days earlier and the logistics have been carefully put in place so that all will be counted and helped correctly. Tarit is one of dozens who have spent long hours making sure everything is organized and ready for the 100 plus field of runners.
For some of the runners like Uddipan there are just a few minutes of relaxation before a long night of running.
Every runner starts the 47 with a similar deep inner resolve to have some kind of heartfelt if not soulful experience while running the race. Outwardly everyone wants to finish and no doubt some have set their sights on times which will represent self transcendence over past achievements. Adelino has a goal tonight much different than everyone else.
On his 42nd birthday in October of 2008 he set out to run 42 marathons in dedication to his teacher Sri Chinmoy. Earlier tonight, a few hours before everyone else he ran 5 miles around the course so that when he completes the 47 he will have completed both his 41st and 42nd marathon. He says of the experience, “it was good, but hard sometimes. Especially 2 marathons when I was about to give up.” He faced many obstacles which not only included fatigue but also bad weather. His smile is bright but his voice captures hints of how tough his might challenge was. He also ran the marathon 2 days earlier. “I just kept going,” he says and there is a light laugh behind the words.
Remarkably his times for the distance all ranged between 4:30 and 3:40. He hasn’t yet made any new goals for the year ahead. When I ask what he has learned from running so many marathons he says, “I think one of the main things is to acquire patience and determination to go on. Whatever happens, if you are not in a good mood, you just go on.”
Soon enough the runners are called to the start. The night becomes suddenly still and a profound sense of peace pervades the darkness. All joking and laughter disappears. There is just the sound of runners moving steadily forward towards a faint line on the track. Their running shoes making a light scuffing sound on the smooth plastic surface.
Pratyaya has been the director of the race since its beginning. There is a moment of silence before the runners disperse on their night long journey. The ‘Invocation’ is sung and than she simply says, “Go.”
Virendra charges fast from the starting line. He also ran those first races and set the course record which still stands since 1980. This is the second year he once again is attempting to catch and then break a very elusive goal.
Karteek is one of the counters tonight and he himself set off on a monumental undertaking in the wee hours of the morning just a few weeks earlier. For the 10th time he swam the English Channel. He jokes that the number 10 is not a very good number, “maybe I should have stayed with 9.”
He also adds that with each of his attempts the swim does not get easier but instead he says, “it gets harder every time. Presumably if it got easier there wouldn’t be much fun in doing it.” There is an interesting contrasting blends of experiences he says. From experience he knows it will be tough but also experience has shown him that it is also doable. “There is no backing out.” His time this year was just under 17 hours.
Talking about the 47 he recalls how on his first trip to New York and helping with the race and immediately thinking, “I want to do that.” Ultimately he ran the race several times and describes it as, “it is amazing when you finish. It is a special day.”
Chitrini and Toshala have sat side by side as counters of the race for a few years. Chitrini on this night is counting for 2 girls, Fredrika and Lydia. She enjoys the excitement and joy as she watches the runners trying to transcend themselves.
Toshala used to run the race herself back in the 90’s but over the past 7 years has had the job of counting laps for Dipali. When asked to describe Dipali’s performance she responds with an emphatic, “9 minute laps. Precisely exactly every lap.” What impresses her more about Dipali though is the inner commitment she brings to the race. She calls it, “solid spirituality and devotion.” She feels that despite the day being her birthday she does not run for herself but instead offers the race wholeheartedly to her late Spiritual teacher.
For herself she describes her experience at running the race as, “absolutely beautiful to run. You can feel that there is an absolute bubble of protection, security and joy around the track.” She also is not hesitant to recommend that all runners should train before entering the 47 mile race. Now that she is a counter she describes her job here tonight is more than counting laps. “I have to say that cheer leading is possibly one of my all time favorite things. I get lots of joy encouraging the runners.”
Vajin had never run the race before yet he has run superbly all night. Granantan has been an ideal helper for him from the first mile till his last. He is an experienced athlete and ran the race himself for the first time last year. The two together are an ideal team. I have arrived just after Vajin’s tremendous first place win in a time of 5 hours 27 minutes. He says when asked, “I am not sure myself what happened.”
He now has the second fastest timing ever for the 47. Remarkably it comes on the 20th anniversary of when Hutashan set the previous mark. Hutashan was present and Vajin tells me, “he was overjoyed.”
He tells me it was an interesting race. The longest race he had run prior to the 47 was the marathon. He tells me how inspired he was watching the 47 last year. “I got a lot of inspiration from seeing the race, and just watching everyone run. I really got a feeling that it would be nice to try myself this year. It has got quite a different feeling to any other race that I have done. It is a very soulful race. It is like its own world the 47 mile race.”
Not surprisingly for someone who has only raced a marathon he found that the race got harder as the miles piled up. He recognizes as well that with the presence of Virendra who still has the course record and others who have run from the beginning that the 47 is unique. He says, “it is a lovely thing. It feels like you are slipping into history. It is not just a one off event. So many people have come and strived and aspired in for so many years. It has got a real consciousness and life of its own. It is nice to come along and play your role in the continuing saga. ”
Hutashan had the unique privilege of seeing his 20 year old second fastest time of 5:32 be eclipsed. He remembers his race in 1989 very well because he was hoping himself to beat the previous best time of 5:33 which had previously been set by a friend of his. He says for him it was the only time in his many years of running the race that he concentrated on the record. In every other race he would simply focus inwardly and hope to offer his best.
His first race was in 1983 and in that year he won over Arpan in the tightest finish ever of the race. He can remember little more of his finish other than collapsing and Arpan than falling on top of him. He describes that as a Swiss man living in the Alps it has always given him an advantage in the race. Altogether he won the race 8 times which is itself a record that is yet to be close to be challenged by anyone else.
Of Vajin he says that he obviously prepared himself both inwardly and outwardly for the 47 this year. Of his winning time, “he deserves and obviously Sri Chinmoy would be very happy with him.”
To give some idea of how spectacularly Vajin ran this night it will be nearly an hour before the next runner completes the race.
Nibir describes being conscripted to his current job 31 years ago as a data retrieval expert. It is a glamorous description for gathering all names and making sure they are timed correctly. He says that the final part of the job is producing result sheets which he calls, “pretty straight forward. It has gotten so easy the last few years because we have done it so many times.”
He notes that technology has changed since his first race but his job has remained basically the same. He also notes that the improvements in the track surface have helped the race but most importantly he says that everyone knows that Sri Chinmoy himself has run this race on this course.
“Being a helper here and even being on the side cheering people are putting aside their own self and their own problems and come out here and give encouragement to other people who are doing a ridiculous thing……running 47 miles overnight.” With this he laughs. “To me it is an amazing indication of what can happen when you forget about yourself, and let a little compassion come to the fore and be there for somebody else. It makes me feel good afterwords.”
Sumandala is a counter who started on the second shift. He has been perhaps one of the most vocal of enthusiasts in the late stages of the race and his chants have not only encouraged the runners he has managed to conscript the other counters on either side of him to join in his cheer leading. When asked what is his secret he describes the benefits of both green and black tea. He despite that despite the boisterousness of his group they are also working hard at also counting the laps of their runners correctly. He says, “they are very pleased when we keep track of them.”
She will be the first girl to cross the finish line by more than an hour. There is something heartfelt and unique to see Kishore there supporting his little sister and to pass her the flag which she carries for the final lap of the track.
Her time is not a record but she admits to have not felt well during the race. She was even sick to her stomach a couple of times. Stefan who won the race last year has been forced to admit he was beaten by a girl this year. He is the 3rd male finisher and 4th overall. He arrived at the race late and gently suggests that if he had not come 20 minutes late there would have been a different outcome.
Stefan’s time is 7:10
There than becomes a steady stream of finishers.
“I just love this race.” Jayasalini has run magnificently. Her time of 7:56 has placed her just behind Arpan and 12th overall. She is however the second girl to finish. “This race is very special for me, it is one of my favorite races.” She describes being able to participate as a special gift to her late spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy for his birthday. Just two days ago she also ran the marathon and feels that being able to also be part of this race as “amazing.”
Each finisher of the race has had a unique experience. They will longer remember being here even if they come back and do it again and again.
The story of Adelino and his run here is one that may not be repeated any time soon. Each step forward for him was self-transcendence on his way to completing a remarkable 42 marathons in one year.
His French friends celebrate his achievement. They know all too well what a long difficult struggle it has been for Adelino. There is one perhaps who knows better than anyone else how challenging a thing it is that he has accomplished. Unnatishil attempted the same feat just a few years earlier and could not complete it due to his health. Yet today his heart full of pride and oneness for his friend. He rejoices at this achievement as do we all. As do we celebrate all who help, and run, and find some small way to participate and celebrate a unique event, the 47 mile race.
In 1980 Sri Chinmoy ran the 47 mile race for the second and last time. He bettered his time from a year earlier by more than an hour and 12 seconds. His time was 11:27:23