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The Self-Transcendence Ultra Classic….Ottawa 35 Years On

There is not very much about the very first Self-Transcendence 24 hour race held in Ottawa that anyone now associated with organizing the race can still remember.  The kind of exact records and details associated with nearly every current day race have somehow slipped away. It was after all 35 years ago.  A time when hard drives were what you did when you got in your car and went from Halifax to Vancouver.

No one today even knows which track it was held on, or the exact date in May when a brave band of runners appeared on starting line of a 400 meter track to do something that the world had rarely seen before. The little that we do know however is still pretty impressive.  Starting in May of 1981 the Ottawa race has an unbroken streak, except for one year, that now stretches back 35 years. It just may be the longest continually held 24 hour race in the world.

For the past few years the race, which now also accommodates a 6 and 12 hour event, has been held in the Louis Riel dome.  49 participants came to take part this year on September 26.  The winner of the race will be the Canadian 24 hour champion.

One thing that makes the research a little easier on the history of this race is that the indisputable fact that the great Canadian/Scottish Al Howie was one of the runners that first year.  He not only won but he also set Canadian and North American records at the same time. His distance for the 2nd race in 1982 was even greater.  He ran an astonishing 150 miles and 233 yards (241.726 KM) which pushed the record out even further.  He was so intent on improving himself when he came again, that in the 3rd race in 1983, he ran all the way from Winnipeg to Ottawa as part of his training.

Al Howie, an icon of endurance events would run a lot of miles and engrave some serious running history at the event for its first 5 years, and for a lot of other years afterwards in ultra races all around the world.

What becomes clear when you attempt to gaze backwards across the many years, is that something so unique and challenging 35 years ago is now dwarfed in comparison to some of the huge distance races that are being held elsewhere. Multi day running, though still not commonplace, is no longer shocking when brought up around most runners today.

Picture taken In New York

Picture of Sri Chinmoy and Al Howie taken after a race in New York

Sri Chinmoy, the founder of the marathon team saw early on that distance running would become much more common all around the world.  That people would use the challenge of long races to test a runners capacity in every way.  He first asked the members of the group in Ottawa to put on their first 24 hour race in May of 1981.

Long-distance running gives us a real feeling of accomplishment. We can run 100 metres forty times during the year and not feel the same sense of accomplishment as when we run one marathon. But speed and endurance are both important, especially in the spiritual life. If one has only speed, then one cannot ultimately succeed; we need endurance because the goal is quite far. Again, if one has only stamina and no speed, then it will take forever to reach the goal. Only if someone has both qualities will he be able to make very good progress in his spiritual life and achieve something really great in life.

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April 24… What You Do Here

He has held the lead for 5 days and shows no sign of easing his pace in the still long journey that lies ahead.  He is after all only half way to his goal.  There are still 5 more days to go.  In some ways a 10 day race would look easy compared with what he has already accomplished in a race he ran each year consecutively for 7 straight years, just a few miles away.

Atmavir Spacil completed the Self-Transcendence 3100 mile race in the allotted time each year that he competed.  But last summer 2014, was a year off for him.  But now as you watch him gracefully running the loop here in Flushing Meadow, it would appear that there is a lot more competitive running left ahead for this 36 old runner.

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I mention Gerogs Jermolajevs who is twice his age and at the half way point of the race is just 48 miles behind.  “We like each other.”

“Sri Chinmoy had great respect for him.”  (He won the 2700 mile race in 1997)…..”He is like a legend.  Because of his age he is really inspiring younger people, and he is also pushing the age limit.”

I ask Atmavir if he could see himself doing this same competitive running when he is 72.  “Actually this thought came to my mind.”  He admits that as he pondered this, and admits that at first he was a little scared, but then realized…..”come what may.  Why not.  I love multi day races.”

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Atmavir, originally from the Czech Republic is now currently living in Ottawa.  He says that one of the reasons he decided to run the 10 day race even though in about a month he will be taking part in the 3100 was because so many of his friends had decided to take part.  “There is such a family here.   There is such a spirit of oneness.”

He also describes how fleeting a moment victory really is, even for professional athletes.  “What counts is what you did here.”

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June 17: Eternity’s Race

If you could somehow acquire or shop for all the essential human elements you needed to run a race like this, most of us would probably create long lengthy well thought out lists .  Abundant strength, endurance, and energy would probably be at the very top of most people’s page.  I know those are things I would like to have with me in my tank for those long 52 days on the road. On the surface there are some things that are just plainly obvious.

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It doesn’t take running very many miles for each one who participates here to suddenly encounter the shocking realization that they simply do not have enough of what they thought they had accumulated enough of in training.  Or more enigmatically, they conclude that they could use a whole lot more things that were not even included in their original planning and preparation.

When your energy seems to have evaporated  away like the last wisps of steam pouring out the spout of a hot dry kettle.  Or you simply begin to feel the inevitable first annoying growls and bites of pain and fatigue. What also becomes more clear as well  is just how important are the subtle parts of us are.  The unquantifiable aspects of who we are and how much we need them when things get really tough.  The ones that are hard to measure but crucial when it appears to be just so incredibly difficult, if not impossible to keep moving forward.

The powerful, yet subtle essential aspects of ourselves, like a positive attitude and enthusiasm.  Just how do you continue to motivate yourself through all the difficulties and disappointments that will surely come up during the race.

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Snehashila has come by this morning just as she has done most days of the race over the past 17 years.  In the early days she would make it part of her daily running schedule.  Now her pace has slowed to a pace, that could be more politely described as that of a brisk walk.  She is one of those rare individuals who took up the sport of distance running late in life.

Sometime around age 50 she started to run marathons, which now she can’t recall just how many.   Despite all kinds of reasons not to, she continues to happily keep exercising every day, even now as she is closing in on the 90th lap of her own life.  If you want to look towards someone whose enthusiasm and love of life and even transcendence has never faded or dimmed it is Snehashila.

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“I can’t stay away.  These people are like divinities brought down on earth for these few weeks.  Each time I come I get stronger and stronger.  I can’t tell you the name for it, but I can tell you that it makes me very very happy.”

“You know no matter how I feel.  No matter what my feeling is there is such a pull to come here every day.  I am so grateful that I am able to keep moving.”

Photo by Maral

Photo by Maral

These long distance races remind me of our Eternity’s race.

Along Eternity’s Shore we are running, running, running.

We are running and running with our birthless and deathless hopes.

We are running and running with the ever-transcending Beyond.

Sri Chinmoy, The inner meaning of sport, Agni Press, 2007

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6 & 10 Day Race… Day 5

At noon time, on this cool blustery day in Flushing Meadow the runners of the 6 day race, joined those already on the course for the Self Transcendence 10 day race.  Sifting through the bios it should be noted that the 80 runners out here, even for the geographically challenged, represent more than 20 countries.

No matter who you are at some point your language skills will definitely be tested.  Yet if there one thing here that is also unequivocally accepted is that there is only one universal language of any true importance.  It is how each runner communicates with their feet.  Just how far you go is all that anyone really cares about here.  That you attempt to give your very best everyone understands.  It is so achingly simply to recognize and yet so incredibly difficult to achieve.

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We all are capable of flashes of perfection.  Those precious moments when the connection between what we are capable of and what we actually accomplish are in perfect sync.

But for the past 4 days runners have attempted to eek out every available step and mile within their capacity.  Push themselves in ways that they have most definitely prepared the best they could for,  but often there is a shocking disconnect between the practice world and reality.  That only in competition do you become aware of the wide chasm that separates them both.

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If there is a consolation in this experience is that for many here the mileage and the outer performance are secondary to a more subtle goal.  One not measured or calibrated to any universal standards of perfection.

It is simply one’s own personal self transcendence.  A journey that stretches out in front of us all.  A race that we started long ago and one who’s finish line never ceases to call out to us all, and asks us always to go beyond the place that holds us now.

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47 Mile Race 1980: It Is An Offering

Sri Chinmoy: My longest distance was 47 miles. I did it twice. Now I no longer do it, but every year about three hundred disciples of mine from all over the world come here on my birthday and run 47 miles. Being the spiritual father of the family, it gives me tremendous joy when I see my spiritual children run 47 miles. The number 47 is very important to me because in 1947 India got its independence. With this run we are celebrating our inner freedom.

Sri Chinmoy heads out of the gate of the Jamaica High School track and then takes a sharp right turn that leads up a short hill.  It is just past midnight and on this hilly hard course, that meanders around the school.   He will make this same turn and run this same hill and all the rest of the the whole long course 40 more times before his journey will be complete.  When this photograph was taken It was just moments after the 47 mile race had begun.  This will be the 2nd time he has run the race and on this occasion he is trying to beat the time he ran in the race the previous year (12:41:48).  The year is 1980 and Sri Chinmoy, a  a few minutes earlier, had just turned 49 years of age.

The young men and women who now run beside and about him will also run on this same course with him throughout the long warm August night. Each one finding their own tempo and pace and each trying to give of themselves in every possible way, outer as well as inner, to the challenge of running this very unique 47 mile race.

The race is now just in its 3rd year but already has become a most important event both to Sri Chinmoy and to his disciples.  Each time starting at midnight on August 27th.  For some they are running it for the first time and for others it is a race they have tried to run every year, each time trying to improve upon their previous times.

No matter how you look at it, 47 miles is a long way to run. But there is something more important about this race that did not exist in any other running event throughout the rest of the year.

For each step taken here on the gritty cinder track and on and on over the winding asphalt road,was not just taking us to a hard fought finish line but also to some new found place within ourselves.

It was for something higher that we all reached for.  A yearning goal  that continues to beckon and inspire a new generation of runners now several decades later.   It is a destination that originates not in the mind but within the very depths of our own hearts.  An inner call that asks for all those who participate to extend themselves as much as they possibly can physically and to also, over the many hours and miles on the road, try as well to explore the unlimited dimensions of our inner world as well.

And then there is something more important still that made us run.   For all Sri Chinmoy ‘s students it was a chance for us to offer something deep and personal from within ourselves to our beloved Spiritual teacher.  Offer some small part of us to he who also ran beside us.   For no matter how difficult it was for us to reach the finish line he too was also out there with us, throughout the night and well into burning brightness of the morning.

Yet even as he ran on and on throughout the night we also felt that it was he who was running in and through us.  And further more it was he who was also leading us much further still, and continues to do so, on an endless journey that leads well beyond the distant shores of our own lifetimes.

I am not in this photograph but I too was there that night and also on many other warm August nights and on many other years, running this same course. There are some who might still recognize the faces of those who ran here that night, but if they do not, they cannot help but see the strength and power of a youthful fit Sri Chinmoy.  Witness just how much he loved the sport of running, and also how much he loved to inspire and be inspired by his students.

For myself and all the others  who pushed on through the depths of a long dark night there was no race or athletic event that meant more to us than running the 47 mile race.  From its very first year and for all the years that followed it felt like a way to offer gratitude and thanks to our Spiritual teacher.  That he himself was running the race himself was a priceless experience for us all.  One that demonstrated in a powerful clear manner, that in every way possible he would inspire, guide, and nurture, all those who followed his path.

Again, we have to know that there is a great difference between competition and progress. When we want to compete with others, sometimes we adopt foul means—by hook or by crook we try to win. Then we bring to the fore our feelings of rivalry and almost animal propensities, animal qualities. We are only thinking of how we can defeat others, how we can lord it over others.

But when we are competing with ourselves, we know that we have to purify our inner existence in order to improve. So here is the difference. When it is a matter of self-transcendence, we have to depend on our inner purity, inner love, vastness and oneness with the rest of the world. We try to develop universal goodwill, whereas, while competing with others, we may not have those feelings. At that time, we may see others as rivals, we are on the border of enmity with them.

It can be as if we are fighting with enemies when we are competing. But when we are trying to transcend ourselves, we cannot fight with ourselves. If we can go ten steps ahead today, tomorrow we will try to cover twenty steps, and the day after thirty steps.

Sri Chinmoy, Run And Smile, Smile And Run, Agni Press, 2000.

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Songs of the Soul: Canadian Tour 2015

Interviewer: What part does music play in the spiritual life of an individual?

Sri Chinmoy: The role of music in the spiritual life is extremely important and significant. God is the Supreme Musician, and His entire creation is His divine Music. At every moment we can be his conscious instruments. And spiritual music itself is an instrument to show us our universal Reality.

Interview: Then you agree with the traditional idea of man being a hollow bamboo flute that God plays?

Sri Chinmoy: Yes, that is what we are all striving for- to be the instruments of the Supreme.

Sri Chinmoy, What I need from God, Agni Press, 1982

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I am sitting with Projjwal on a wide green sofa in a little room tucked away backstage of the DB Clarke theatre in downtown Montreal. He is the producer of an extraordinary musical tour. Just outside the crew for Songs of the Soul are busy readying for the nights concert. Even though this is but the first of 4 concerts, in 4 different cities, everything seems to be progressing incredibly well.

Each crew member, as well as each musician, has been working and performing in concerts, just like this one for several years.   Most of the sound equipment travels with the tour. Tonight the stage has all the necessary lights, good news for Harkara the lighting specialist.   There is the usual systematic clatter and banging sounds that goes with setting up for a well-organized concert. Everyone seems relaxed and happy, including Projjwal.

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I ask Projjwal what exactly is ‘Songs of the Soul’?

“It is a concert series that has traveled the world for the last 7 years.” In fact this year there have already been 19 concerts in 8 other countries. Though not present for all those concerts he has been the overall producer of the project since its inception.

With the passing of Sri Chinmoy, his spiritual teacher in 2007, there was an enormous void that immediately opened up within his life. It was an emptiness that of course all of Sri Chinmoy’s students and friends universally experienced. An incalculably great loss, that seemed in the beginning, one that would be impossible to fill.

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For how do you replace someone who was truly irreplaceable? Sri Chinmoy, who was active and prolific in so many areas was perhaps best known and well respected for his Peace concerts. A series of musical performances that he had singularly performed and done for many years all around the world. Projjwal says that for him, “it was always the biggest thing that Guru did.”

“So the idea came up that we could follow up on Guru’s concerts. So we started with the idea that we would have disciples perform and play Guru’s music. In that way we could present Guru’s consciousness, Guru’s love, his writings, his Jharna Kala art in a very professional setting.”

When asked where the name ‘Songs of the Soul’ originated he points clearly to Homagni, who is also a regular member of the tour. “He is the first to have the idea, for the celebrations in New York in 2008. It was a very appropriate name.”

Projjwal’s tells me that his history of first producing a concert dates back to a a much earlier conversation he had at an airport in China in 2005. Sri Chinmoy asked him to organize a large concert tour for him in Germany. One in which the goal was to have at least 30,000 people attend.  Projjwal tells me that concert ended up with even more than that number.

“He put a lot of faith in me and a lot of confidence in me. “ Out of this experience he says he developed the qualities he needed to be able to continue on as he has done now for the past 7 years organizing and producing the tour.

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Projjwal says the inspiration to get involved did not come immediately. He says that it was only after seeing the first New York Songs of the Soul concert in April of 2008 that he realized it could also be done as well in Europe.

When he presented the idea at a joy day there, he says, “people totally embraced it. Immediately I had 3 or 4 music groups who said I definitely want to do it.”

In the fall of 2008 the Songs of the Soul concert tour began in Europe with 8 concerts in 8 days. Without having any real experience producing concerts he got a tremendous help from Ketan, who had much more production experience. “He taught me, what you can do on a stage.”

Now he says, “we have a format that works quite well. You learn by doing. In the beginning there were disastrous things happening.” (None of which were mentioned) Projjwal says that the most important aspect of what the concerts are striving to achieve, “is to present Guru. To present his music and to attempt as best they can offer up his consciousness.   That is the most important thing to me.”

“When people go home after 2 hours they feel they have had an experience with Guru. That is my goal.” Projjwal says that generally most people who come to the concerts have no real idea what to expect. Afterwards he says, that through their reactions and their generous comments it is clear to him that the concerts are succeeding.

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He feels that for those who come they are taken on a spiritual journey. “Constantly things are happening. I always feel that Guru is very present.” It is an experience that occurs he feels, not just with the audience but also as well with all those who take part in any capacity with making the free tour happen.

There is no magical formula of how the cities are picked or the countries chosen. The tour now in Canada was a logical selection Projjwal says as it is so close to New York and the gathering of disciples that took place a few days earlier there for October 11th. Which is the anniversary of Sri Chinmoy’s passing.  As a rule he says, “I am never imposing or trying to talk people into it. It has to be embraced by the organizer.”

Overall there is no far-reaching goal for the number of concerts and the number of countries. “It is a beautiful thing we do.” It seems to all come about due to grace he feels. “It just goes along the path.”

Projjwal at the end of our talk describes a feeling that all of those who take part in the tour feel, and want to express. “I am still trying to serve Guru, and really follow what he would like to see us do on stage. That is what I am sincerely and humbly trying to do.”

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Songs of the Soul Link:

http://www.songsofthesoul.com/en/songs-soul

*(With the Winnipeg Concert there is now an official total of 149 concerts in 36 countries. The total audience has been84,900.  Projjwal was involved with 121)*

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July 1: When You Are Inside Your Strength Is Infinite

“I feel it.”

Like everybody who is running the 3100 mile race Yuri is not immune from all the noise and confusion that is now continuing to spill across their sacred path. Yet he is finding something positive is coming out of all the discord.

“It concentrates you to be inside.  You take all your strength and direct it inward.”  Pointing at a big machine moving past us, “this technology in the outer world is ready to crush you.  But when you are inside nothing threatens you.  The technology that is here blocks your strength.  It is very hard to run.  But when you are inside your strength is infinite.”

“This technology is a very good teacher.  It teaches you very quickly.”

I then ask if this is the case than he must be receiving a very good lesson.

“It forces me to be exactly where I have to be.  It doesn’t allow me to get relaxed.  It doesn’t allow my mind to be floating around in the clouds.  It means I am doing the true inner work within, and that is the way it has to be.”

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At his home in Vinnitsa Ukraine he says it is very hard there right now. “That which is happening in my country is also happening inside my heart.  When I am there it is very painful.”  There are so many problems that they all cannot be solved quickly or easily.  “They are being resolved but not so fast. I am one with my country and with my people.” Yuri says he prays that the complicated situation there can be healed peacefully.

“But with my prayer, I always end it with, Let they will be done.”

I mention to Yuri that he is known on the block as the smiling runner.  Each year he seems to get more joy and more experience.  I wonder what he does with these new gifts.

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“No, it is not like that.  This happiness and joy is going through me.  The more of it that I give than the more I get in return. That is how it turns out to be.”

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June 22: My Soul Running

“I am having a good time this year, but I still remember the 10 day race.”

Atmavir has had a long and remarkable history running the 3100 mile race.  Starting in 2007 he ran 7 straight years.  His best performance was in 2009 when he ran 45 days and 3 hours.  Last year he decided to take a break.  In order to prepare for this year’s race, he ran the 10 day race in the Spring.

He had a good performance but in the later part of the race he got sick.  A real wake up call to the whimsical reality of what can happen to expectations and performances in multi day running.  “Everything changes,” he says. “You need to change your approach.”  He knows that one moment you can be doing well and then have a sharp reality check delivered by surprise.

“I don’t have real ambitions this year.  Maybe that is why I am doing so well.  I am personally surprised by myself.” As of the start of day 8 he is in 2nd place with 597 miles.  He ran 70 miles yesterday. “I was really happy about yesterday.  It was extremely difficult weather for me.”

Over the years heat and humidity have been his staunchest foes.

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When asked about how it felt to miss participating last year.  “It was kind of sad for me, I was crying when the race started.  I was really missing the race.”  Atmavir has been staying in Ottawa and came at least 4 times last summer to visit the race.  “But I think it was very healthy for me to take a break.  I think somehow it helped me a lot, in many ways.”

This year he says, “since day 2 I feel as though I have been running through my soul.  I don’t feel my body most of the time.  It is a really beautiful experience.  I don’t feel as though I am putting in too much effort.”

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Atmavir also feels as though the extensive scaffolding has been helpful by shading much of the course.

“I feel as though most of the time I am observing.  I also like running alone, it is precious time. Time is passing so fast.  Already it is one week gone.  I can not believe.  It is amazing.”

I ask him if he seems to be getting stronger each day.  He says he feels that each day he is going more deeply within himself.  “We are getting more strength from within.”  In the beginning he believes the first few days are more mental.  For him though, “From day 2 I felt as though my soul was running.”

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Dr.Kumar’s advice to him was, “let your body run and you meditate.  I am just happy to be here.  For me it is the greatest opportunity to make spiritual progress.  I have experienced it many times.”

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June 20: Go Inside Our Hearts

“I feel very good and I am very happy.”

Yuri is running the 3100 mile race for the 3rd time.  He also has a world class smile.  One, that when it spreads across his face can make even a cloudy day seem brighter.  He has a lot to be happy with right now.  He ran 69 miles yesterday and has a 6 day  total of 431 miles.

Like all those running here for the past 6 days his face has not always worn a bright warm smile or his steps always been light upon the road.  It is the hardest possible thing to run 3100 miles.  But Yuri’s smile, one that just might be the brightest on the block is certainly a big part of his many strengths.  One, that may not guarantee a faster time than last year, when he took second place, but most certainly it will help him through the dark hard patches that inevitably lie in the path of each and every runner here.

After running his first race 2013 he wrote a book about his experiences.  He says that he is considering writing another.  Yuri says, “I believe that running helps us go inside our hearts. This book is about how to be happy.  How we can return to our source.”

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He then tells me about an experience he had with one of the other runners.  “I had an experience with Pranjal.  Once when I was feeling very bad I was running behind him and I could feel that he was helping me.  This tell us about the inner connection between the runners.  How they can help each other even though they say nothing.”

“I have an outer goal of transcending last year’s result.  But I have an inner goal and that is to dive deeper into my heart and to get happiness.”

The distance from his home in Vinnitsa Ukraine to New York is 7,470 Kilometers (4,641 Miles).  Yuri has run 431 miles in 6 days.

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July 26: Every Day

I know that what is happening here is inspiring many people around the world.  Besides those living in the neighborhood there are a few lucky ones who are within commuting range of Queens and can make their regular treks out to the race throughout the long hot summer.  These fortunate ones live in the far off reaches of Connecticut or New Jersey and on the distant edges of Long Island. But many many more live just too far off to ever come and experience it in person.

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The only way then to connect to the immensity of the race is to somehow weave together all the little fragments of information, bits of data, and frozen images into something that becomes real.  Not just an abstract meaningless event taking place in NY, not just an incoherent whisper in your imagination, but something fruitful and meaningful  and very real instead inside your heart.

Of course it is easier to understand it all if you come and experience it for yourself.  But for most people it is simply not possible.  What happens instead for many is that somehow an inner connection is made with the race’s most powerful and sacred message of self transcendence.  It is an act that does not require a plane ride, a car full of gas, or a good pair of running shoes. It requires only an open mind and a receptive heart, and that most incomprehensible and yet necessary thing, a yearning for perfection.  Once you have those things than the rest will all take care of itself.

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Every day the race receives mail from its friends and admirers.  Sahishnu treks out to the race every morning and every evening with many letters from those who want to encourage a friend of theirs who is running.  Occasionally as well they also want to share in some way how they too have made some some deep inner connection with the race. Tell how it has inspired them as well.

Sahishnu showed me a letter from Victor in Tokyo, which is just about as far away from here as it is possible to be.  Yet Victor is a runner who is trying to become a better runner.  He wanted to let the runners here know that at the end of June he actually ran up Mount Fuji.  It was an act, which was for him and the thousands who have done so, usually at a slower pace, a pilgrimage.  One that has been continuously going on now for over a 1,000 years.

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He says, “The 31000 Mile Race is also clearly much more than just a very, very long race.  The sacredness and spirituality of what you are all doing was an inspiration while I was running up Mt Fuji, it’s an inspiration during my normal every day runs, and it’s a real inspiration, not just in running but in every day life, too.”

“So I offer my gratitude to you for the inspiration your effort gives us, and everyone from Tokyo wishes you the best.”

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My Lord,
You want me to run every day.
Do You ever run?
“My child,
I run not only every day,
But also at every moment.
Do you know why?
I run constantly
From one end of My Creation
To the other end.
If I do not run ceaselessly,
My Creation will become inactive,
Inert and uselessly idle.
At every moment I run
To awaken and energise
My entire Creation.”

Sri Chinmoy, My Race-Prayers, Agni Press, 2006

Photo by Bhashwar 1980

Photo by Bhashwar 1980

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