The longest foot race in the world is 3,100 miles, long enough to stretch from New York to Los Angeles. Those who run it choose a different route: they circle one city block in Queens -- for two months straight.
Runners cast shadows in the early morning as they run in this September 12, 2004 file photo. The longest foot race in the world is 3,100 miles, long enough to stretch from New York to Los Angeles.[Reuters]
The athletes lap their block more than 5,000 times. They wear out 12 pairs of shoes. They run more than two marathons daily. In the heat and rain of a New York summer, they stop for virtually nothing except to sleep between midnight and 6 a.m.
"I think this is what they're looking for: The feeling that you're living life for real," runner Pranab Vladovic said of himself and 13 other athletes now competing in the 10th annual Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race in Jamaica, Queens.
The 51-day event is sponsored by followers of meditation master Sri Chinmoy, who teaches his students to excel mentally and physically. Some swim the channel between England and France or climb a mountain. Those in the race run under the motto "Run and Become. Become and Run."
They eat on the run. They talk on the run. They use a port-a-potty. One athlete cruised into a podiatrist to have two infected, ingrown toenails removed and was back on the course in two hours. He still ran 60 miles that day.
The athletes brave blisters, bandaged toes, weight loss, limited sleep and a chiropractic nightmare while attempting to stay focused and positive for nearly two months. Theirs, they say, is a gift to humanity.
"Not everyone can climb Mount Everest, and not everyone can run this race," said race director Rupantar LaRusso. "But it's a challenge. It's inspiring and shows that there's no limit to what you can do."
All but one of this year's runners are foreigners who left their jobs as postal workers, gardeners and factory workers to run a half-mile circuit around Thomas Edison High School and an adjoining park.
In the process, two worlds interlace: a parade of mostly eastern Europeans laps through one of New York's most diverse neighborhoods, where Greeks, Jews, Koreans and Muslims live side by side. Most residents seem unaware of the athletes and their moments of victory, agony and inspiration.
"To each his own," resident Shawn Vernon said as the runners neared their 2,100th mile. Meanwhile, a young girl in her underwear balanced on the balcony railing of her apartment complex and two men rolled a piece of carpet across the street. None seemed to notice the athletes in their ear-flap hats and new shoes, still on the move more than one month into the race, which ends on August 2.
The runners seem more observant. They recognize the people catching rides to work every day at the same time from the same corner. They smile at the Bengali man who takes his son to the park most nights. And in running more than 100 laps a day, they come to know every slope and sidewalk crack in this otherwise unremarkable city block, chosen for its proximity to Chinmoy's home and headquarters.
The runners admire its daily sunrise, the 30-foot pine tree, the fireflies they chase at night. Traveling down one gentle straight was likened to "running on a country road," though it borders the Grand Central Expressway.
"Always in life, you can complain or you can focus on the joy," Slovakian runner Ananda Zuscin said. "This race is all about accepting that you're going to run all day and then forgetting about it."
So the runners move on. They arrive by 6:07 every morning to begin another 60-mile leg. They run, walk, and run-walk. They work their way through shoes, ripping out the toe boxes, sides and any other fabric that might rub against a foot swelling two sizes in this race of 10 million steps.
They know what to eat and when. They gobble down 6,000 calories daily from a vegetarian smorgasbord, much of it bathed in olive oil. Often, they carry aluminum plates and forks as they move. Their faces light up like children in the afternoon when ice creams are handed out.
"They're like little kids in a way," assistant race director Bipin Larkin said. "Their life is really simplified and to keep them moving happily along you have to keep giving them things."
Above all, they have to stay on the course.
"Every minute, every second counts out here. You have to keep moving," Suprabha Beckjord, 50, said, stressing that the competition was not other runners but the clock. The first place finisher wins only a T-shirt and a plastic trophy.
Beckjord is the only person to have completed the race every year and is still not tired after having run nearly 31,000 miles, more than the circumference of the earth.
"Something inside my soul just loves it," Beckjord, a U.S. resident, said. "It's like running on love."