First published in The Record on Aug. 2, 2019
At 3,100 miles, it’s the world’s longest footrace
Two minutes before sunrise, the greatest long distance runner in the history of the world arrived. He wobbled on his feet, unsteady. His hands fell against a lamp post, which he used for balance, leaning in to stretch his calves. His eyes were hollow. He looked nearly dead. Then he limped to the start line, where he pressed his palms together in prayer.
A timekeeper signaled for the race to start. It was 6 a.m. Ashprihanal Aalto, the great runner, hobbled away.
He ran in 87-degree heat. He ran through a lightning storm. He ran in the summer smog of Jamaica, Queens, on a busy sidewalk beside a busy highway in the nation’s busiest city. He ran 68 miles, enough to complete two marathons and half of a third. He ran and ran and ran.
At midnight, he stopped. He went home, slept four hours, then returned to do it all again.
“I’m learning to not even look at the miles. If you’re counting every mile, it can seem impossible,” said Aalto, 48, who works as a mail carrier near his home in Finland when he’s not competing. “There is the outer race, and there is the inner race. You have to fight your complaining mind.”
The official name of this event is the Twenty-Third Annual Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race.
A name like that leaves us lots to unpack.
First there’s Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual leader who preached the value of grueling athletic quests as the path to meditation, enlightenment and world peace. Chinmoy founded the race after immigrating in 1964 from India to Jamaica, Queens, which remains the heart of his worldwide spiritual community following his death in 2007.
And then there’s the distance: 3,100 miles. Let’s pause here a moment to consider that.
Three thousand, one hundred.
That’s like running 118 marathons back to back. Imagine running from New York City to Los Angeles, hanging a right, then running north up California to the suburbs of San Francisco.
It’s the longest running race in the world.
“It defies everything you learn in medical school about what the human body can do,” said Garima Hoffman, a retired physician who volunteered this year to monitor runners’ health during the 52-day race. “Medically, this is uncharted territory. There’s no book for how to run this kind of distance.”
“Whoo! It gives me the shivers,” said Joel Pasternack, a longtime marathoner who has coached generations of runners at high schools across North Jersey. “These guys are averaging 420 miles a week. I can’t imagine that. It’s unbelievable.”
And that leaves us with the trickiest part of this event’s name, self-transcendence. Among elite athletes, perhaps a thousand human beings on the planet possess the cardiovascular strength required to run 60 miles a day for 52 days, the average speed required to complete the race in time.
Yet this year, the race attracted only eight competitors. The secret is mental toughness. By the second day of such a race, every step hurts. Feet take such a pounding that blisters grow beneath blisters. To maintain strength, runners must eat a little food every lap, even when it feels as if they might regurgitate. Runners feeling the excruciating pain of shinsplints face a choice: stop or keep running. Most keep running.
There is no escape. If a runner tries to escape — by hitching her thoughts to her next snack, say, or to the day’s end — she is doomed. The next day will come. The miles ahead will sprawl out like a desert, like a long slow death. With that view in mind, any reasonable person would quit.
The answer is to be unreasonable. Shut down the mind. Shut off thoughts of past and future. There is only right now, and right now is pain, and pain is your friend, because right now is the only time we humans ever get.
“Many people are qualified to run this physically. But can they handle it mentally? Can they stay focused?” said Rupantar LaRusso, the race director. “When they don’t stay focused, we can see it. They might trip. If you fall and really injure yourself, that could be it. You’re out. You have to concentrate for 52 days.”
Most long-distance events happen in pretty places. There’s the Grand to Grand Ultra, a 170-mile slog from the Grand Canyon through the beautiful badlands of Utah to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Other big races take runners through the Peruvian rainforest, the Sahara Desert or the razor-backed mountains of Wales.
The longest race in the world is exceptionally boring. Some might call the course ugly. All 6,200 laps occur on a single half-mile ribbon of sidewalk. It loops around a vocational high school, and a playground of jungle gyms and concrete basketball courts where the hoops have no nets. Its northern boundary follows the Grand Central Parkway, an eight-lane highway of honking horns and noxious fumes. From there runners turn right onto 168th Street, where city workers spent the summer grinding the roadway down to its gravel foundation and repaving it with hot asphalt, all that heat and dust just a few feet from the runners’ path.
“These sidewalks aren’t just terrible,” LaRusso said. “They’re the worst!”
Lloyd Jackson likes to sit on a bench in the playground and watch the runners go. This week, Jackson said, he became so inspired by the runners’ exertions that he walked eight miles home from work, forgoing his normal commute by bus.
“I’m amazed by these people,” said Jackson, 44, on break from his job with the cleaning crew at nearby Queens Hospital Center. “The weather doesn’t bother them at all. Last week it was 100 degrees, and they were still out here running at high noon.”
The runners take obstacles lightly. On Wednesday, hundreds of summer school students poured from the building onto the sidewalk. Nirbhasa Magee, who was running in second place — a full day behind the leader — weighs 141 pounds. Impact with any of the towering teenagers leaving the school might break several of his bones. To avoid injury, he tucked behind a tree. When the crowd passed and the sidewalk cleared, Magee giggled. Then he ran off.
“The mind starts adjusting,” said Magee, 40, a former physicist who lives in Iceland. “You don’t even try to meditate. It’s just like spontaneously you’re in a state where everything is calm and quiet and you’re able to take the whole world in.”
Harita Davies, a New Zealander and the only woman in this year’s field, slows her stride to rub her hand against a soft green bush growing through the schoolyard fence. As a prayer, Aalto likes to slap the trunk of a tree on 84th Avenue. On Grand Central Parkway there’s a fire hydrant with a loose metal cap. Every lap, Aalto slows down, places his palm against the cap, and gives it a gentle spin.
Aalto does this because it pleases him. He did it even on his final lap, on Friday, approaching the finish line to win the race. It was his 15th time running the race, and his ninth win, including the time in 2015 when he finished in under 41 days. He averaged nearly 77 miles every day, a world record.
“It’s not easy,” Aalto said after he won, his eyes bright and smiling. “If you want to keep coming back here, you have to have something to motivate you. And if the numbers don’t motivate you, then you have to find something within.”