The 47 Mile Race, 2011: Pioneers

During the early morning hours of August 27 1978 some wonderful and historic super 8 film footage was captured by Abakash.  The very first 47 mile race had begun in the pitch darkness starting at midnight hours earlier.  At that time 38 nervous young runners stood motionless at the starting line, having no real idea of what was before them or even certain whether or not they could complete the distance.  Yet much stronger than all our fears and doubts combined was our love and admiration for our spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy who had created this unique race, 47 miles long.  He had invited us all to run and as he now solemnly stood before us as we anxiously waited for him to personally start the race at 12am.

This all happened more than 30 years ago.  Time has removed the sharpness and clarity of many moments of my life but the start of the first 47 I am certain is etched so deeply into my heart and life, its sweet memory has yet to fade or dim.  I can still clearly remember as Sri Chinmoy stood in powerful silent meditation in the darkness.   An almost indefinable outline, illuminated barely by far off streetlights, and a couple of dim flashlights.  Yet where our eyesight’s failed, another part within us was acutely aware of his presence and his gratitude that we should participate in this great new undertaking.  On this night and at the moment as the clock ticked past 12 it became his 47th birthday and the race began.

What we did not know then was that this race was his gift to us and to future generations of runners.  An unprecedented 47 mile long spiritual journey whose goal was infinitely longer than 40 laps of Jamaica High School.  Yet for each and all who participated it would also be in turn a powerful opportunity to bring to the fore some small measure of our own self offering.  The very act of running a perfect gift to him who inspired us in the first place.  It was and remains to be both an unprecedented sporting event and a unique spiritual exercise, that many continue to take advantage of, and seems destined to remain as a timeless tradition.

In the weeks leading up to that midnight start he had made clear that the 47 mile race was going to be  something new and challenging like nothing before.  We simply had but to let go of our doubts and fears and surrender fully to the experience.  A short while later he coined a unique expression that clearly and beautifully defined what this sport of running could offer both outwardly and inwardly, “Run and Become, Become and Run.”   Spiritual progress and athletics and fitness can and must go together.

I have watched Abakash’s  47 mile footage many times.  The faces of all those who ran that first race are deeply familiar to me, as we shared the dusty track and windy Queens streets all together for many hours. For a brief and glorious moment, time is graciously and delicately wound backwards.  When the person, who bears a great deal of resemblance with one who once used to look back at me from my own mirror, crosses paths with Abakash’s  camera, I have doubts that I was ever really quite that young.  For all the limitations of shooting film at 24 frames per second  it still nonetheless can transport all of us who were there that night back to the very beginning of a brand new exciting chapter in our lives and in the life of the Sri Chinmoy center.  Hopefully it also can demonstrate for future generations just how much absolute oneness Sri Chinmoy had with all those who were pioneering his new creation.

When you see him attentively standing on the sidelines you cannot help but notice in his gaze, that he is all affection and concern for those running around the course.  With each runner and in fact with all who contributed in any way, he shared a deep and personal inner identification with.  We were all part and parcel of his very own spiritual family. By the time dawn cast its warm brightness to the day and the camera could begin to roll, all the doubts of any of us might have held were long discarded,  replaced instead  by certainty and celebration.

What time would soon reveal was that 47 mile race was opening a brand new door to Sri Chinmoy’s manifestation.  That from the first step we 38 took on what appeared to be an impossibly long journey was just the beginning of something infinitely longer and even more transformative.   Sports and fitness were to become central and integral aspects of our spiritual life.  The 47 mile race simply and eloquently demonstrated this philosophy.  Looking back it is hard not to realize how  revolutionary it actually was. It was only in June that Sri Chinmoy had first announced his personal commitment to distance running.  During that first 47 mile race he would run 23 miles himself and come back the following 2 years and run the entire distance.   Some years later, because of injury his own distance running would not continue.   His love and commitment to distance running though would remain a part of his life until his passing in 2007.

For this years race, which would have been Sri Chinmoy’s 80th birthday all who had ever run the event in past years were invited to run or walk a ceremonial first lap. Shortly after he has returned from his lap I chat with Sundar, who was one of the pioneers of the event.  The air is alive with energy and excitement.  122 runners have entered and from time to time clusters of runners spill onto the track and come up in enthusiastic waves in front of the attentive counters.

We are standing in the light of the counting hut.   “I remember when Guru inaugurated the race over on the other side of that wall.  One morning, I remember Guru used to play tennis over there.”  He points across the track, over towards Jamaica High school.  “Guru announced that we were now going to have a new event.  It was a 47 mile race, and I thought, oooooo.  He was calling for volunteers, and I thought, if he asks me, I will agree to do it.  So he asked me, and I agreed to do it.”

When asked if he was scared, without hesitation he replies, “yeah.”

On this night he says that by walking around the course that it helped him remember all the other times he had run the race.

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“It was very thrilling very exciting. It was a lot harder than I thought.”  (Laughter)  Vidura is hard pressed to talk about his experiences that first night because he is so busy trying to keep track of his runners.  He ran the first race and in his own way kept very involved with the 47 helping in different ways the help it all happen.  It needs runners but also needs many hands behind the scenes as well.

As he looks back on that first race you can see him reliving it once again.   He had run a marathon so had some idea of how hard it would be but of course it was all that and more.  “I trained, but not like I should have trained.”

“It was very fulfilling to do it.  To do 47.”  For him as well, he always considered himself a sprinter.  “I never did long distance.  I don’t like to do long distance, but Guru inspired us so much.  It was very thrilling to do it.  It was very very exciting.”  He can’t remember exactly how many times he did the race but knows, “it was a lot.”

Asked what was the best part of doing the 47, he says, “basically it is the only time you are alone.  You can do whatever you want.  You can meditate, you can sing.  Nobody really bothers you.  It is like you are in your own space.  It is meditative, you feel the pain of the body, but you still just keep rolling and moving.   It is quite inspiring.”

Then Vidura announces something remarkable.  He tells me that next year he will be 65 and he plans on not only running the marathon but also the 47.  “It will be very interesting to see.”

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“The beginning is always a little chaotic.”  This years 47 has literally just begun, and like Vidura, Devaki is one of the main helpers.  She is in fact in charge of the girl counters.  When asked if she remembers the first race she answers with a strong yes.  “I do, because I ran it.  I was a lot younger and I was in shape. (Laughter) I remember it was hard, but Guru ran and it was very inspiring, because Guru was running at the same time.”

She recalls, “I was not a long distance runner.  I was a sprinter.”  Yet she felt such powerful motivation to do it she could not resist and at the same time how inspiration was able to move her forward.  “I could feel Guru, somehow.”

She then fills me in on all the little jobs she and a large team led by Pratyaya have working on now for days.  “It has been our project ever since the beginning, a Canadian project.  We feel that it is our privilege to do it.  It is like an honor.  To honor Guru on his birthday.  We were always so thrilled when Guru would even just walk around the track.  So we still feel it.  He’s here.”

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For Saral tonight’s ceremonial lap reminds him not just of the first 47 but also how he once ran his very best race here on his teacher’s birthday.  “25 years ago today I was very fortunate to come in 2nd place.  One of the best races of my life.  It was an amazing race for me.  I passed the marathon in 3:23.  Just like floating.”

“It just shows you how much work it takes and how much grace.  I am just lucky to be out here and remember it.  The feelings are there even if the fitness is not quite there.  The feeling of the soul is still there.”

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Surashri marvels at just how long his lap has taken.  “It was pretty bad, but I was remembering that first one.”  The course is exactly the same and with the little candles burning to mark some of the turns and a waft of sweet incense it reminds him of that first night.  “Just the feeling of specialness.”

“I didn’t know I was doing the first one until a few days before.  Inadvertently I had trained for it to some extent.”  Shortly before the race he read some advice that greatly helped him.  “Have a program right from the beginning of walking and running.  Don’t wait until you are really exhausted.  So I walked the track part and ran the outside part.  Right from the very first lap.”

“I don’t think there was a lot of pain.  It was probably difficult as it always is with long runs.  (laughter)  I am only speculating because I can’t remember exactly.  There is a feeling of elation too,  because you know you are doing something very special.”  Coming back for his lap tonight he says, “was such a nice opportunity to reconnect with it.  Because I hadn’t in so many years.

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“For almost 20 years every new years I have made the resolution to run 2 marathons in the year and I broke it.”  Kusumita is a very visible figure in the first 47 mile film.  As a chance would have it she comes into view on several occasions.  Not content to slip into retirement she has taken her vow of running very seriously and did in fact run all of this year’s marathon in 6:47.  It was also a big thrill to come back, along with many other veterans and do a lap of the 47 as well.

“But after Guru left his physical body, it seemed to me that there comes a time to keep our resolutions.”  Remarkably it was in 2008 that she came back and ran the August marathon then after not having run one in 19 years.   She recalls having once heard Sri Chinmoy say, that if one has taken a vow one should try and fulfill this pledge, no matter how much time has elapsed.

 

 

She says that describing running the marathon is very hard to do to people who have never done it.  “There is a huge difference between doing something and actually thinking about it.  Doing something changes a person.  Whatever the action is.”  She says there is a real transforming power to action itself.  She says for this years race she trained for it and most certainly experienced a real sense of satisfaction.  “By doing something I resolved to do.”  She says that running the one in 2008 was even more fulfilling as it had been such a long period since she had run one.  “It was like getting it back.  That was a very valuable experience.”

When she ran the very first 47 she says that she had never even run a marathon.  As for her thoughts at that moment on the starting line, “I think I wasn’t really thinking.  Which is by far the best.”  She says that like a number of other runner she was given some advice by the great ultra runner Ted Corbitt.  He said, “if you are fit for a marathon, you are fit for this.  The rest is mental.  It was the best thing he could possibly have said.  You shouldn’t be afraid of what you are going to do.  I think the runners of the 3100 say the same thing.  Just do it.”

She says that doing the first lap of the 47 this year was very beautiful.  “Everyone was in a wonderful mood of celebration, and at the same time a bit quiet.  A sense of sacredness at the beginning of what would have been Sri Chinmoy’s 80th birthday.  I thought that was a wonderful way to honor him on his  birthday.” She says that before the first race, Sri Chinmoy gave her permission in private to run the race.  “I have never had a reputation for being an athlete in my whole life.   When I ran the 47, people were really really surprised.  I enjoyed that.”

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Sanjaya, at age 40 ran the second 47 in 1979.  When asked if he was a little frightened of undertaking such an event, he admits, “I was.” His strategy to overcome everything was, “I found the best way was to turn off.”  He says that he would have like to have done more training for the race.  His longest training run prior to the race was to the seaside town of Felixstow, which is 11 miles from his home, and then run back again.  “I remember calling in at an Indian take away at 1 o’clock in the morning, asking them for water.”  When delicately suggesting that seemed very late, he adds, “that is the only time you can do it brother.”

Describing his first 47, he says, “it was a challenge, and actually it was a lot better than I thought.  You were on your own for a lot of it and you could really go in on yourself, quite a bit, and that was quite fun.  I think that by turning off it was easiest to deal with it.” He ultimately did the race 3 times but believes his best was 8:35.  He also suggests that being prepared and fit makes the experience that much better.  “It means you are running much of the time.”

“Here we have some excellent lads.”  Now of course he has been part of the crew for many years.  His role includes delivering sandwiches, back rubs, and the occasional checking of figures.  It is not an easy job but part of the joy of being here is that he it is just one member a large team with everyone contributing,  in their own way to the celebration of Sri Chinmoy’s birthday.

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Animesh was one of a considerable number of runners who for that first 47 mile race who had never even run a marathon.  “It was great, because, I think we all felt that first year, that if Guru had asked us to run the 47 then we had the capacity to do it.  There was no doubt.  The marathon distance, which I had never passed before, felt like a breeze.  It was nothing almost.  Then of course it gets a little harder as you go on. (laughter) It was quite a special time.”

“The physical suffers, there is no doubt about it.  You get out there around the 30 mile mark, which is a totally unknown.  In the weeks prior to it there was a lot of information going in.  (advice from ultra-marathoners like Ted Corbitt)  But then we had to turn it into something practical.  Like actually finishing the race.  Regardless of what the body was going through there was a joy pervading everyone.  Just the fact that we out there doing it for Guru’s birthday.”

I mention that throughout Abakash’s footage of the race he is seen running side by side with Kishore.  “That year was fantastic, because Kishore and I ran together the whole way.  Certainly we had quite a few people putting pressure on us near the end.  I think we came 4th.  Then of course next year (laughter), I never saw Kishore again.

He describes how that for him running the race was all about having faith in his spiritual teacher.  “Of course you realize that it is the making of you, these types of events.  To be able to go out there, and do something you have never done before.  Really transcend your physical and mental limits.  That’s something that really can’t be taken away.  It is something that you have achieved and it is something that is deep within you, always.”

He has just walked the first lap of the 47.  Due to some physical ailments he confesses that his feet aren’t up to much more than that.  “It was great.  Standing at the starting line, I am feeling Guru’s presence.  Knowing it is his birthday.  I was just pulled along.  It was really quite a special feeling.  It is great that it is continuing and it will.  There is no doubt.  This has become an institution.  This race will go on.”

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Guru running 47, 1979, Photo by Bhashwar

Run and become. We run, we become. We run in the outer world, we become in the inner world. We run to succeed, we become to proceed.

Inspiration helps us run, far, farther, farthest. It helps us run the length and breadth of the world. Aspiration helps us become fast, faster, fastest the chosen instrument of our Beloved Supreme.

Inspiration tells us to look around and thus feel and see boundless light, energy and power. Aspiration tells us to dive deep within and enjoy boundless delight, inner nectar and bliss.

Inspiration tells us to claim and proclaim our own divinity, which is our birthright. Aspiration tells us to feel and realise once and for all that we are exact prototypes of our Beloved Supreme. We can be as great, as good, as divine and as perfect as He is. Inspiration tells us to become our true selves. Aspiration tells us to become God Himself.

Inspiration tells us to feel what we soulfully have: God’s Love, God’s Compassion, God’s Beauty and God’s Peace in infinite measure. Aspiration tells us to feel at every moment that we are of the Source and for the Source. We are of our Beloved Supreme the One, and we are for our Beloved Supreme the many. Him to fulfil, Him to manifest, Him to satisfy unconditionally in His own way is of paramount importance.

We run. We become. At every moment we are running to become something great, sublime, divine and supreme. At the same time, while we are becoming, we feel that we are in the process of reaching our ultimate Goal. But today’s goal is only the starting point for tomorrow’s new dawn. At every moment we are transcending our achievements; we are transcending what we have and what we are. By virtue of our self-giving we are becoming the Beauty, the Light and the Delight of our Beloved Supreme.

8pm, October 5th, 1978 Stanford University.

Sri Chinmoy, The Vision-Sky Of California, Agni Press, 1980.

 

 

 

One Comments to “The 47 Mile Race, 2011: Pioneers”

  1. Devaki says:

    Thanks for the inspiring stories and memories of the early days of the 47- Mile Race. It was great reading and relating our stories and a testament to our Guru’s Sri Chinmoy’s enduring inspiration! The fact that so many of us ‘old- timers’ are still keeping this precious tradition alive by not only organizing but also running it, shows how the spiritual message of self -transcendence is alive and well and continuously flowing through us.
    I wasn’t aware of the original footage of the first race, so it was fun seeing the pictures of the younger versions( I think one was a young Vidura) of our spiritual family!
    Now that I know Vidura promised to run the 47 next year when he’s 65, I’ll make sure he trains this time! 🙂
    Thanks Utpal- great job!

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