Article — From the August 2007 issue

Run Like Fire Once More

Chasing perfection at the world’s longest footrace

The runners slog past a bivouac of plastic card tables and folding chairs, past electric-green Port-O Lets ripe with disinfectant, past indifferently groomed hedges and the redbrick facade of Thomas A. Edison Vocational and Technical High School. At the corner of 168th Street, they cut north to the Grand Central Parkway, the course rising gently as trucks and cars rocket by. The concrete apron is a blinding white line. They pass illegally parked cars, wipers festooned with tickets. Trash has blown into the grass of Joseph Austin park, named for Mario Cuomo’s childhood baseball coach. Here are silent handball and basketball courts, and a playground where sprinklers throw a flume across a midway empty of children. Alone or in twos or threes, the runners pass the hydrants and trash cans of 164th Place, moving southward to Abigail Adams Avenue and thence east a half-block under shade trees to the row of card tables, where women jot notes on clipboards, like a delegation of Green Party poll watchers. At a comfortable pace, you can walk the loop in about ten minutes. The course of the world’s longest footrace measures .5488 miles.

I first walked it myself on a balmy day last June, then found a seat at Base Camp among a half-dozen volunteers, bright-eyed European women and men with the lost-boy quality of scoutmasters. A giant digital clock was perched atop a pair of milk crates. Every few minutes one of the racers passed by, and we all applauded.

At 3:00 p.m., amid a crackling of police bullhorns, 2,000 mostly black and Hispanic teenagers emptied out of Edison High. They pumped their legs, lampooning the runners’ form, sometimes diverting the race into traffic. “The first couple years, the kids threw things at us,” a volunteer told me.

Such were the hazards last summer in Jamaica, Queens, at the tenth running of the Self-Transcendence 3,100. The fifteen participants—all but two of them disciples of the Bengali Guru Sri Chinmoy, who has resided in the neighborhood for forty years—hailed from ten countries on three continents. They ran in all weather, seven days a week, from 6:00 a.m. to midnight, or until their bodies compelled them to rest. If they logged fewer than fifty miles on a given day, they risked disqualification. By their own reckoning, the runners climbed eight meters per lap, mounting and descending a spectral Everest every week and a half. They toiled in this fashion for six to eight weeks, however long it took them to complete 5,649 circuits—3,100 miles—around a single city block.

[1] The fifty-year-old proprietor of the Washington, D.C., gift shop Transcendence-Perfection-Bliss of the Beyond, Beckjord is the only female competitor in the race’s history and the only ten-time participant, having returned to Jamaica every June since the inaugural running. She has logged enough miles around Edison High to circle the equator.

Before any concerns aesthetic or spiritual, the loop serves the practical function of enabling the Base Camp crew to attend to the physical requirements of runners traveling at all speeds. (By the sixth week of the race, nine hundred miles would separate course record holder Madhupran Wolfgang Schwerk, of Solingen, Germany, from Suprabha Beckjord, in last place.[1]) But in another, more ethereal sense, the Self-Transcendence Race could not exist on any other course. Here was a kind of living koan, a race of invisible miles across a phantom plain wider than the continental United States. For fifty days, breathing miasmal exhaust from the Grand Central Parkway, the runner traversed a wilderness of knapsack-toting teenagers, beat cops, and ladies piloting strollers. Temperatures spiked. Power grids crashed. Cars also crashed—into the chain-link fence around Joe Austin park or into other cars. There was occasional street crime. One summer a student was knifed in the head. The runner endured. He crossed the finish line changed. It was said to be the most difficult racecourse in the world. Point-to-point racing is gentler on the spirit, and concrete is ten times more punishing than asphalt. Such hurdles were more than necessary evils; they were central to the nature of the race. As one of the disciples told me, grinning and drawing air quotes with his fingers, “It’s ‘impossible.’ ”

I fell into step beside Abichal Watkins, a forty-five-year-old Welshman with a keen, appraising squint. After only five days, he looked like a man who had wandered out of the desert with a story to tell. “There are so few things for the mind to dwell on here,” Abichal said. “It loses its strength.” Relative to most of the racers, Abichal—born Kelvin and rechristened in 1999 by Sri Chinmoy—came to distance running late in life. That tale begins in the mid-1990s, when Chinmoy announced the completion of his millionth “Soul Bird” painting (artworks expressing the “heart’s oneness”), and his disciples resolved to match the feat by running, collectively, a million miles. Abichal pledged an even thousand. Within a year, Chinmoy had painted another million Soul Birds, and the running project was scuttled, but Abichal kept it up. In Wales he edits a magazine and a website devoted to multiday ultramarathons. He had finished the Self-Transcendence Race twice before; a third attempt failed when his visa expired 2,700 miles in.

We passed Edison High, progressing counterclockwise up 168th Street toward the Grand Central Parkway. (The runners switch direction every day, not for the sake of novelty but to ensure that the toll of rounding corners is borne equally by both legs.) Abichal does not consider himself an athlete. “The race is a metaphor for life.” He gestured, lassoing the whole of Jamaica around us. “People in the neighborhood, we’ll see them year after year. They stop by, say hi. They ask, ‘How do you do that?’” He laughed. This was the first interview I conducted while power-walking. It was awkward. My pen kept slipping in my hand.

Abichal wore an iPod clipped to his waist, jarring my notion of the Chinmoy disciples as latter-day ascetics. I wondered what he had been listening to. “‘Fix You,’” he said, “by Coldplay.” For more than a hundred miles, Abichal had been listening to the track on a continuous loop. (“Lights will guide you home,” the chorus intones, “and ignite your bones.”) He gazed philosophically at his iPod. “There’s something special about this song.”

As we neared 164th Place, a white town car pulled gently to the curb. With the speed and nonchalance of a dope dealer, a man in the passenger seat reached through the window and deposited something into Abichal’s hands. Sri Chinmoy. The sight of him tripped me up. Here was the Guru himself, gold-complected, resplendently bald. Dressed as if for a day at the public pool, in shorts and a cotton shirt, he did not look like a man who had inspired seven thousand followers in sixty countries to forswear alcohol, tobacco, meat, and sex. I wanted to stop, but the race paused for no man, not even an avatar of divine consciousness.

A few paces ahead, Abichal studied the objects he’d received: two strawberries, cupped in his palms like bulbous, red communion wafers. “I don’t know why he gave me two,” he said. He turned to me, suddenly serious. “I think one of them is for you.” Our fables, stretching back to the myth of Persephone and Genesis 3:6, teach circumspection in receiving gifts of fruit. Abichal nodded, and I ate the Guru’s strawberry. Within a few weeks, the runners would be hobbled by distance, gorging ice cream and butter to stem the loss of body weight. We passed the giant digital clock, and the women applauded.

Two thousand eight hundred and thirty miles to go.

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is a writer living in Brooklyn. This is his first article for Harper’s Magazine.

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October 2019