That’s Not Why We Came Out Here

“It’s not easy to break a world record.”  Once long ago Sri Chinmoy told this to Dipali Cunningham as she set one of her many world bests.  It is also not easy to run 446 miles over 6 days as she did here in Flushing Meadow today.  Doing it as well, by pushing relentlessly through the worst running conditions she has ever encountered in the 19 years she has been competing in multi day events.  And if all this were not enough to establish her performance here as remarkable, this 51 year old runner beat all the male runners as well. It must be duly noted as well that two top men were also seasoned 3100 mile runners who were more than a decade younger than her.

Her victory she will never ever claim as her own.  There is no obvious outer reason why this slender middle aged woman has been so good at this sport for such a long time.  Her inner strength becomes apparent as you try and keep up beside her.  It doesn’t take much to see that her success has little to do with muscles and mind as it has to do with inner strength.

It is a qualities that we all have, and which is never defeated by age, by weather, and adversity if we just allow it to come to the fore.  It is also not about winning but about surrendering.  Not about conquest but of offering up.  You can see it in her foot steps, all lightness and yet determined. You can feel it in her voice as she encourages and inspires others knowing full well that the success of everyone else she can easily identify with as well.

It is a deep inner force, which pulls and pushes her out into the wind and across the mud the puddles and out into the cold, that causes so many others to wrap up and hide in a sleeping bag until the nightmare is over.  It is a force which contributed to the laurel wreath that now rests upon her head.   This inner force she will tell you is not for her alone but is available to everyone else as well.

She says today as she rounds a corner and heads into one of her final few laps, “All of us are exhausted from the elements that we have encountered here.”  We talk about her theme of humility which she expressed a few days earlier.  “I think it is going to be one of the lowest mileages that I have ever done.”  The weather of course was the adversary for all who ran here this year.  A precious few found a golden spark amidst the dark damp clouds but most found the trio of obstacles, wind, rain, and cold a team that was just too tough to conquer entirely.

For her it brought out the necessity, “to be determined, and being happy, and being cheerful, and being surrendered.”  The conditions inevitably either made you hide or as she says, “you had to go deep within to your source.”  She says that for the runners everything was telling them to stop.  Yet inwardly most understood, that stopping was not an option.  “That is not why we came out here.”

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You Learn A Lot About Yourself

There are O so many precious moments in the 6 and 10 day race.  Some glorious and record breaking, and at other times, the little special personal ones.   The moments that do not attract much notice from others, and yet may in the end mean much more to you.

Things that take place while you are out on the course all alone in the middle of the night.  Or maybe just being with someone else and feeling a camaraderie that has built slowly over the past few days or even decades.

The counters manage to keep track of what on paper are special measured moments.  Crossing milestones and journeying further into the uncharted realms of new mileage or just the regular signposts that come up grudgingly every 100 miles. You can hear it again and again though that the end of the race is not always the best time.  It is an end of sorts, to see the completion of 6 or 10 days but the journey within never does  sit comfortably on markers or timetables, or even the expectations that flitter and fly before our eyes.

In this picture Nataliya Hluschuk has just completed 500 miles.  With just 18 hours more to go it is unlikely that she has even a remote chance of bettering her previous best of 600 miles in the 10 day race.  Yet it is easy to see that this young 34 year old woman from Vinnitsa is loved and cared about by many here at the race.

Yesterday I learned that it is because of her that 4 other runners from her city have been coming here and competing for the past few years.  It was because of her love of this race and the experiences she had here that encouraged this ever growing contingent of Ukrainian and Russian runners to come and discover the magic that is here.

Some may never find it for lots of reasons.  They will start off believing in a journey that only exists in their minds.  One that can be measured against a catalog of success but one that only offers a dew drop of joy.  When you allow yourself to accept the race on its own terms, it is possible to receive an ocean instead.

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Something Changes In Me

To me it is an inexplicable mystery that the first 3 men in the 10 day race are not only from the same country, Ukraine, but also that they come from the same small city, Vinnitsa.  If that were not enough to make you scratch your head in amazement, there are also 2 other citizens of Vinnitsa in the race.

The hairs breadth distance  between Yuri Trosenyuk and Igor Mudryk is literally heart stopping.  On a warm and at last gratefully dry Tuesday afternoon Igor, who won the race last year, is just 18 miles behind Yuriy going into their 9th day.   I had made a wild prediction a week ago that Igor would amaze us all again.  He got sick however on just his second day but has rebounded with amazing strength.

It is Yuri Trostenyuk however that interests me today.  Last year he completed the race with a personal best of 629 miles and took 4th place.  If he somehow is able to find another gear and push himself to a whole new level he will not only set another record, he could very well win the race.  When I arrive today he is running with 3100 mile runner Stutisheel Lebedyev, also from the Ukraine but unfortunately from Kiev and not Vinnitsa. He gladly accepts the role of translator for us.

He tells me that this is the 3rd time he has done the 10 day race.  He and his fellow Ukrainians come further to be here than practically everyone other than the New Zealanders.  When asked why come so far to be here he says, “No other race can give you the same experience as this one.  To be in such a race means to me to be closer to my true self.  In ordinary life we don’t hear our inner voice.  In such a race as this it comes forward. “

He tells me, “every time after the race something changes in me.”

It is a powerful transformative experience no doubt to be pushing yourself constantly for 10 days.  The end results, show up for most runners, not in the trophies and certificates that they each receive, but in the transformation that takes place within.   Yuri says that his friends notice when he returns that he has really changed in significant and positive ways.

“This extreme physical load that we undergo requires us to search for answers deep within.  I become more sincere, more receptive, and more one with the whole of humanity.”

He has improved his mileage every year and I wonder if this is significant to him in any way.  “Actually it does not have so much importance, but to me the distance I cover corresponds with a new closeness to my inner self.”

He has several runners very close behind him and I wonder if this has any particular significance to him. “For me personally I don’t care.  I don’t even look at the board.   For me it is an inner race.”  He describes several of the meditative techniques he practices while running, including doing japa. “For me it is first and foremost a spiritual exercise and not a physical competition.”

A few days ago a fellow runner described Yuri to me as one who was hard on the outside and soft within.  I ask him if there is any truth to this and he laughs with glee.  “I almost agree.  Sometimes the outer hardness is necessary to achieve inner softness.”

My last question is the obvious one.  With so many runners all here from Vinnitsa Ukraine is there something in the water there that we ‘all’ should drink.  This brings a laugh and he suggests that it is not the water that inspires him but instead fellow runner Nataliya Hiushchuk (from Vinnitsa) who has been coming here every year since 2005.  She came back from that race with such glowing reports about her experiences here that they were all deeply inspired to come as well.

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A Grace Race

She is not just the leading woman in the 6 day race, Dipali Cunningham 51 from Melbourne Australia is the leader overall.  In so many ways it is this race that is the focus for her of an entire years worth of training.  Unlike many of the other  top runners, who test themselves at many different events during the year, this is it for her.  There may be a marathon here and there but in no way does any other event take center stage in her life quite like the Self Transcendence 6 day race.

One might think that this could cause undue pressure and tension in an elite athlete such as herself.  Just one single big race is a remarkably slender window of opportunity to perform at your peak in comparison to the great possibilities  of other competitions over an entire year.  Regardless, when ever she takes center stage in Flushing Meadow park she seems to always find just the right ingredients. Both inwardly and outwardly she somehow manages to offer up a memorable performance.  Her preparations seem perfect.

“Last year I had a grace race,” she says.  For those who were able to be here and watch the event unfold it was an extraordinary performance by Dipali, who set a world record, and by Pam Reed who set an America one.  The two women were intertwined for 6 long days in a epic battle in which there were no losers.  Instead each saw only admiration and appreciation of the other and with this inspiration it drew them both to new performance heights.  “I think between us both, as women, we pulled ourselves to the highest level of running,”she says.

She knows that Pam had come to Flushing Meadow in order to break her world record.  Regardless Pam was able to see first hand the stuff that Dipali was made of.  “She saw in me that even at 50, there is something in me that still wanted to transcend.”  This determination and strength she feels all comes from the influence and inspiration of her late spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy.

In the women’s competition this year she is alone.  I am curious how it is possible to come back here with the same enthusiasm as last year.  She says, “I came out here again with the same feeling of self transcendence.”  She is honest in that she would love to better her performance from last year.  She also is very aware that the numbers on the board adamantly refuse to bend. They are intractable and will only shift with each hard fought mile.   On her first day she reached 101 and knew she needed 105 or better to break the record.

This is her 31’st multi day race.  For her every race has had its own unique surprises and blessings.  “This race I feel like I am learning a lot more about humility.”  She is adamant in describing her achievements as not being due to her own efforts.  The credit she believes perhaps coming from something inner working through her.

At the end of our conversation she seems quite pleased that perhaps the boys in the race may be getting a little more inspiration from herself and Kaneenika (who is also leading the 10 day) than they expected.  “We will see what happens.”

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Courage to Answer

When the sky is bright and the air is fresh and warm it easy to see how and perhaps why 68 runners would choose to be part of this amazing world of self-transcendence running.  I am at the race now though in the dwindling seconds of a Saturday night, which in moments, will stride into the even inkier dark wet blackness of a dismal Sunday.  There is a constant drizzle sweeping down across the course, which is making threats that it wants to escalate into something a whole lot more cantankerous.

The great percentage of the runners have slipped away.  They have been pulled away by schedules and fatigue and perhaps for some, just to escape so briefly the relentless torment of rain that pitter pats upon your head and discovers mischievous ways to seep beneath your most protective gear.

The malicious pleasure of moisture is that if it hasn’t got you on the way down, than it will seep up into your shoes and socks from dark puddles that pretend to be shallow but when you splash down upon them they belie their true damp soaking power.

Yet in the heart of the great night, as I look out across the fields, there are still runners making their way here and there around the loop.  They continue to persevere because it is in this effort they are finding a joy that is only to be found by a chosen few.  This experience is just for they alone, who felt the call from within, and had the courage to answer.


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Experiences You Can’t Get Anywhere Else

He is the new kid on the 6 day block, but you would never know it.  He is moving easily here around the course on this gorgeous Saturday afternoon without any signs of wear and tear.  It is really hard to believe, as he runs so effortlessly now, that he has been at this for more than 24 hours.  As a new guy it would be easy to dismiss his speed during this still early times as reckless, but 45 year old Alex Swenson from Vashon Washington has tremendous experience in distance running and seems to have trained and planned to perfection for this race.

He has come a long way from the west coast to be here but Alex says, “there aren’t many 6 day races. That’s why I came.” He has done around a dozen 24 hour races and was eager to take on a new challenge.  As we pass the board he is currently in the lead with 124 miles.  He tells me that with a few laps more he will be entering into new territory in the mileage world.  His personal best over 24 hours is 146 miles.

He says that he has not done anything in particular to train for this race but admits, “I have always trained pretty hard. I can’t see training any harder.”  His belief is that the 6 day race will not be so much a challenge physically but rather one that mentally he will find new terrain to conquer.

“I think the most important thing I did on the advice of others is have a concrete plan how to go about running, as to, running until you feel tired.  I have been running 5 hour blocks with a specific running and walking strategy.  It’s been going really great.”

He has spent the last 5-6 years focusing on 24 hour races and he feels now that to make the move to 6 day running is a natural progression.  His feeling was that it was important to make the big jump to 6 days rather than try 2 or 3 days.  He says, “if it was rough I was afraid I might not have the guts to go up.”

As for his experience here so far he says, “the race is supremely well organized.  It has this great feeling of support, and I am terribly impressed.  And I think as I start to feel worse I am going be even more impressed by that support that is being offered in so many ways.”

His strategy at this point.  “Sticking to my plan.  The plan that I have in place and just having the courage to stick to it and ignore what other people are doing.”

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Now is the Time to Love Yourself

photo by Alakanand

At noon time today, the second great wave of runners stepped off from the starting line in Flushing Meadow.  There were 40 in total and under bright sunny skies they set off on a journey that will not be completed until 144 hours have passed.  One might say that running for 6 days has to be one the most challenging running events in the world, with just 2 significant exceptions.

There is the obvious matter of course of the 29 runners who have already been here for the past 4 days, and each of whom has run nearly 200 miles or even much more. For them this influx of fresh legs is like an infusion of new energy and inspiration.  They are each moving now to a unique flow and rhythm that emanates from within.  They may have schedules and time tables but when you have been on your feet for such a long long time and have come so far you are not bound by so many of our seemingly important day to day concerns.

There is no boss to please, no assignment to be handed in, in fact there is no useful functional purpose to be here at all other than to please yourself.  To take pride in an achievement that few can even comprehend.

The 6 day race is long and hard.  It has been around in some shape or form since the middle of the 1800’s.  But yes there are harder things out there besides those beside you who have been here already for four days and will not reach the half way point of their paths for another 24 hours.  For a truly incomprehensible race one need only turn to the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile race that is held nearby every June.

If you want to learn more about it you would only have to ask one of the 4 guys who have already run it many times before and are using the 6 day race to train.  You can recognize them because they are running as if there is no tomorrow.

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Just Keep Moving

The very need to run is a primal aspect of our beings.  It hearkens back to a long ago ancient time when the ability to run was an integral part of our makeups.  Indeed necessary for our very survival.  It is buried, in plain view, within our genetic blueprint. We are built to run.

Perhaps not as swiftly as nearly all of nature’s other animal creations but nonetheless in the very design of of our beings it is embedded there.  Long long ago we needed to be able to run, both because of fear and because of hunger.  It is a foundation of our beings that has not disappeared or failed,  just because of the modern presence of fast cars and fast food.

Smarana Punigam 38 from Graz Austria showed up today and will start the 6 day race tomorrow.  He carries about himself a calm and gentle presence.  He has just brought his suitcase, and while there for a few hours, greets many of the friends he has met over the years.  What isn’t so easy to discern about him, and which is unique about Smarana, is that he has run more competitive miles here than anyone else.  He has completed the 3100 mile race 7 times along with a host of other multi day events and ultra races.

In the summer of 2008 he completed his 7th 3100 mile race and had not run another multi day, until that which he will start tomorrow.  He says, “I have been running since 1994 nearly every year a multi day race.  Last year I did not do any and I found that I was missing it.  So I am really happy to be here.  I really feel excited and I can’t wait to start tomorrow.”

He tells me that before coming he at first had a number of goals he wished to accomplish.  But now that he has arrived, and the atmosphere of the race and presence of all the 10 day runners envelops him you can see everything change.   “I just want to enjoy it and do my best.  I like to have intensity but still I want to enjoy it.  This is my real goal this time.”

When I suggest that for a man with all his running experience that the 6 day race could literally be a walk in the park he tells me that even a 100 meter race can be tough.  “You can never know what the outcome will be.” He describes for me an inner goal that he is striving for.  He wants to be able to apply all the intensity of his determination into the race, while at the same time fully enjoying the presence of his friends.  To accomplish, what is perhaps the most significant purpose of todays runner, to awaken and listen to the deepest inner part of our beings and express it joyously and purposefully in and through our running.

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You Must Do Your Work Here

The race is heading into its 3rd day now and the sun bright weather of the past 2 days took a decidedly damp turn this afternoon.  It is not unexpected of course at this time of year.  The race always has a constant solution for not only the cold and damp but as well perhaps for a host of other ailments in a runner’s long long journey here.  The simple answer is often a warm and satisfying visit to the food tent, in which these 5 ladies work tirelessly from  the pre dawn darkness to well past the sleepy time of the sun.

Every volunteer here at the race has a crucial role to play, but without the tireless dedication of the cooks the fuel that fires the great running engine of the race would sputter out within a few hours.  The runners of course have their own particular stash of treats and concoctions on their tables but inevitably they will come in through the door of the food tent many times each day.  They may snatch a cookie or forage up a steaming plate, a cold drink or a hot brew, but there is more than calories to be found within its always open door.

There is a banquet of love and caring heaped here as well as food.  You can feel it energize you even as you walk by on the road outside whether or not you feel tempted to swerve off from the course and enter inside.  For many years Sushovita, holding Roxy, was the Queen of this realm throughout the great spectrum of the day.  Now she holds court just for breakfast and has handed over the rest of the day to Nandana and her crew.

Tomorrow a long hard job will become even more challenging.  The 6 day race starts at noon and this means there will be more than 40 more hungry bodies to feed and keep fueled.  Nandana and her helpers have performed so far to delicious fulfilling perfection.  They have demonstrated magnificently that their job isn’t about rolling out an endless assembly line of staggering calorie totals.  Rather they have made their food tasty and beautiful and the runner’s reviews are not just in their smiles as they leave, but also in the number of their miles on the board, climbing ever higher as they run by.

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I am all Happiness

I don’t know what you did last night but I have a good idea what 29 ten day runners in Flushing meadow did.  As the warm bright afternoon of their first day settled away and was replaced by a still cool night, the true enormity of their task truly opened up in front of them.

It is in the heart of the night, with its quiet black solitude, that the imposing challenge of how far they have to really journey becomes clear.  It is in the night with its solemn stillness that the reality of the great gulf of time  looming in front of them is revealed.

Sleep calls out enticingly.  Fatigue or the false specter of tiredness dances in front of you and it is so easy to slip away unnoticed in the dark and find your bed and surrender to dreams.

But that did not happen last night to 29 runners in Flushing Meadow.  Some or all of this enchantment called out and enveloped you and I but not them.  They ran on and on practically throughout  the entire dark night and the numbers beside their names today showed what great things happened to them while you and I dreamed our dreams.

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