If your idea of pure joy is a trail race involving a lot of mud, rain, stream wadings, steep and seemingly endless hills, inching through a pitch black 300 metre long limestone cave, and navigating 22 or 35 kms (depending on your degree of insanity) of slippery farm tracks, you’d have loved our recent April 28th adventure competing in the Waitomo Caves Trail Run in New Zealand’s North Island.
Five runners from the Auckland Sri Chinmoy Centre recently competed in this great event and enjoyed themselves immensely, traversing the amazing limestone studded hills with their outcrops of wind sculpted stone.
The spirit and power of place was overwhelming and humbling – the landscape seemed like an ancient battlefield, filled with giants and Titans and strange Beings turned to stone. Across the green landscapes and ridgelines the fists of rock reared up into the sky, resembling fleeing invaders lurching back to the sea after some mythological battle, now frozen mute and turned to stone by some fatal curse. Were they stranded there at daybreak, a raiding party from some barbaric underworld undone by the sudden dawn, or defectors from the faraway mountain fortresses seeking refuge in the dark forests? It was Lord of the Rings stuff! But the mute limestone features would not soften or speak as we passed.
Mother Nature threw everything at our brave few – rain, wind, cold – but our runners relished the challenges and placed well in the event. Movement and meditation belong together. We were exulting in the freedom of wellbeing, the beauty of landscaps, the wonderful camaraderie of the running fraternity, the silence of the hills, the dance of this wonderful life.
Fitness has been a theme in the Sri Chinmoy Centre over the past month or two, with a number of us having a shot at some great trail runs – the Tarawera trail race near Rotorua with distances up to 50km, the recent Riverhead Rampage multi-distance run out in Woodhill forest near Kumeu in Auckland, and then again last weekend’s Motutapu/Rangitoto island event. This last one had us in the half marathon option, a fairly tough course that included the highest climbs over the trig points on both islands, long hills, rocky lava fields along Rangitoto’s foreshore and some great fast downhill stretches through the narrow forest tracks.
It’s great to have challenges, and I remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s comment that to live fully, every day we should attempt something that scares us. So I’m looking ahead next to April’s Waitomo ultras down in the Waikato, the longer distances being 22km and 35 km. If that sounds easy, take a look at the topography and the elevation profiles for this event – the hills are endless!! Eleanor would be proud of me.
Some of our keen trail runners are having a bash at Mt Ruapehu’s Ring of Fire threesome relay earlier in April,2018, three person teams covering some 22km each around the mountain’s flanks, and one or two doing the whole distance solo. Our youngest runner likes the other quotation about challenges: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for”.
So we’re all heading out into the uncharted open seas and exploring what we’re capable of.
Running offers these insights along with many other benefits conferred. And as a meditator, I always notice the relationship between fitness and training and the flow-on effects into my spiritual life, the greater ease of cultivating a still mind, still body, slow breath.
Not to mention how the disciplines of training and eating really well take us up to a level of wellbeing that’s really amazing – energy, self-belief, inspiration to take on other kinds of challenges and to live life as fully as we can.
Reprinted with the kind permission of IndiaNZ Outlook newspaper
Three champions: Harita Davies, Alison Roe, Abhejali Bernardova
The national Sri Chinmoy Centre hosted a rare sports presentation last month that brought together two remarkable women athletes to venues in Auckland and Wellington in what proved to be inspirational occasions for the audiences. The two evenings were part of a “Meetings with Remarkable People” national series of free talks, in which outstanding men and women share their experiences and encourage others to tackle their own life’s dreams and challenges. February’s recent talks were titled ‘Challenging Impossibility’ and featured two extraordinary achievers : Czech ‘Oceans-7’ ultra-distance swimmer Abhejali Bernardova, and Kiwi runner Harita Davies, the only NZ woman to ever compete in and complete the world’s longest certified running race, the gruelling, New York based 3,100 mile ultra.
Guest speaker and Czech swimmer Abhejali Bernardova outlined the rare feat of attempting the seven great ocean challenges. She had completed the previous six most challenging crossings over the past ten years, including the North Channel (Ireland to Scotland), the Molokai Channel (Hawaii), the English Channel, the Catalina Channel (USA), the Tsugaru Strait (Japan) and the Strait of Gibraltar (Spain). Among numerous other remarkable swims Abhejali had completed was the Robben Island to Capetown crossing in South Africa, a stretch of water known for its dangerous sharks. The rules of the Open Water Swimming society require that the Ocean-7 crossings must be swum without the aid of a wetsuit, and the attempts accompanied by an official witness.
Despite rough seas and strong currents making any chance of a crossing very difficult, Abhejali Bernadova last month succeeded in swimming the Cook Strait and became the 10th person in the world to complete the seven oceans challenge. She completed the swim in 13 hours and 9 minutes, arriving at the tip of the South Island around 9.20pm. For several hours during the swim, and only six miles from the South Island, Abhejali was fighting merely to hold her position and not be pulled back towards Wellington. Finally, around 6pm when the currents settled she was able to continue making headway.
The window of opportunity is always a small one in attempting the Cook Strait crossing, as swimmers can only make their attempt during either the full moon or on the half moon. At these times the currents and tides are at their calmest. With cyclone Gita hitting New Zealand three days earlier, Abhejali had to cancel an earlier attempt due to rough seas – as it was, Abhejali battled high swells, seasickness and painful stings from jellyfish encountered in the water.
Abhejali’s most arduous swim was the Molokai Channel off Hawaii, a 22 hour epic in strong currents and with seasickness preventing her from being able to eat or drink and regain energy. Remarkably, she completed each of these seven great swims on her first attempt. While 348 have completed the seven summits challenge – the scaling of the world’s seven highest mountains – so far only nine swimmers have completed the ‘Oceans-7’ challenge. Also a Czech 24 hour, 100km and 6 day race running champion, Abhejali is now the 10th person, 4th woman and first from a landlocked country to do so. The first woman to complete the challenge was Swedish Anna Carin Nordin.
Abhejali was crewed on her swim by several friends and also Harita Davies, who in 2017 became New Zealand’s first woman to compete in and complete the world’s longest race – the Self Transcendence 3,100 mile race inspired by spiritual master Sri Chinmoy. Both women share a practice of meditation learnt from Sri Chinmoy, who inspired many people to believe in their unlimited potential and reach unprecedented goals. Harita also spoke at the ‘Challenging Impossibility’ evening and talked about her recent 3,100 mile epic. She jogged and ran over 96 km every day for 54 consecutive days in an ultra event described by the New York Times as “The Mount Everest of Ultramarathons.” The 3100 ultra has runners circling around a half-mile city block in suburban Queens during the heat of the summer, and only six women have ever completed the 3100 mile distance in the previous twenty events. Only one other New Zealander has ever attempted the challenging epic journey.
The two speakers showed footage of their respective achievements and shared inspirational stories, nutrition and training tips, and insights into our limitless potential when mind/body/spirit can work together. Harita comments: “Many of us go through life wondering about what we might have done if we had dared to attempt something daunting and difficult. 3100 miles really frightened me, but I decided to venture into that frightening place and challenge myself and see what I could learn. It’s one of the best and happiest and most amazing experiences I have ever had. For a spiritual Master like Sri Chinmoy to give such importance to physical endeavors signifies a new direction in spirituality. It acknowledges the great contribution that the body is capable of making to the ultimate perfection of our human life.”
Sri Chinmoy writes: “At every moment we have the golden opportunity to go high, higher, highest on the strength of our inner mounting cry. Each time our aspiration, our mounting cry, touches the highest pinnacle, it is fired again. The goal that it touches need not and cannot be the ultimate Goal, for today’s goal is tomorrow’s starting point. Again, tomorrow’s goal will be the starting point for the day after tomorrow. There is no end to our realisation. There is no end to our self-transcendence…. In order to transcend, two things are of paramount importance: our personal effort and God’s Grace. By personal effort alone, we cannot transcend ourselves. Again, God’s Grace will not do anything unless and until we are receptive. If we can receive God’s Grace and properly use it, then only can we reach the Highest. A sincere seeker is transcending his previous reality at every moment. Like a potter who accepts clay and moulds it into something beautiful, a spiritual seeker accepts the life of ignorance and tries to transform it with his inner wisdom-light.”
From the strict spiritual point of view nothing is ultimate. Everything is transcending. We call something ultimate according to the realisation of our goal. But tomorrow we can climb up and stand on top of the reality which we yesterday considered as the ultimate and perfect it. Today’s ultimate consciousness has to be transcended by tomorrow’s more intense aspiration.”
Sri Chinmoy founded the Marathon Team in 1977, both to encourage his students to increase their physical fitness as an aid to their meditation practice, and to offer sports events and a new kind of service to the running community.
He had been a champion athlete during his youth in his native India, excelling in sprinting, decathlon, soccer and volleyball in the spiritual community where he lived. This interest Sri Chinmoy brought to America in 1964, and like their teacher, his followers too became inspired by the many benefits conferred by running, and also by his personal example and his constant encouragement. A foundational belief at the heart of Sri Chinmoy’s sports philosophy is the ideal of “self-transcendence” — a belief in our almost limitless potential, the aspiration to bravely explore this through effort and undertakings, and an understanding of the power we can access when mind/body/spirit can together and be utilised in attempting great challenges.
The sprinkling of running races on the SCMT calendar would eventually become a flood, as new events of varying distances emerged. Sri Chinmoy himself ventured into long-distance running in 1978, completing his first marathon on March 3, 1979 in 4:31:34 and, just 22 days later, his fastest, in 3:55:07. Twenty more marathons and two 47-mile ultras followed. He was vividly demonstrating both his own pursuit of physical excellence and the power of his energizing message, even as he reached the age of 47 years and beyond.
By 1980, the Marathon Team was sponsoring marathons, 13-mile races, many road races and even a 24-hour event. Triathlons joined the schedule, as well as 70-mile races and weekly two-milers. Then, in 1985, distances attempted took a quantum leap and the era of multi-day races began in earnest.
“Our primary aim should not be to surpass others but constantly to surpass ourselves. In the outer life, when we run with our friends, we are seeing who is actually the best. And we cannot properly evaluate our own capacity unless we have some standard of comparison. But we compete not for the sake of defeating others, but in order to bring forward our own capacity. Our best capacity comes forward only when there are other people around us. They inspire us to bring forward our utmost capacity, and we inspire them to bring forward their utmost capacity. This is why we have competitive sports.”
Our trail running ultra-distance athlete Cheryll, a member of the Auckland Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, just competed last weekend, Feb. 11th, in the 2018 Tarawera Ultramarathon, New Zealand’s most prestigious trail run. Part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, runners can tackle the 102, 87km or 62km distances or attempt the inaugural 100 Mile Endurance Run. The event is based in Rotorua, with great scenery including seven lakes, native forests, waterfalls and some of the most stunning
landscapes in the world.
The spectacular course runs through places of cultural significance to local Maori people, and around 1400 participants with more than 700 international athletes competed this year, including some of the world’s best elite ultra runners. Cheryll was out there in the 62 km event, an 11 hour run that saw non-stop rain, around 2,000 metres of climbing and lots of muddy trails.
” It was really tough, and I had to keep pushing myself to keep going and not allow the body and mind to get overwhelmed by distance and discomfort. But when you get to the finish line you just get this great joy and satisfaction. Running reminds me so much of life itself, it’s a kind of microcosm of daily living, everything that limits you packed in to a day of challenges. You learn a whole lot about yourself, and that you’re really unlimited if you dare to say ‘yes’, just keep going, bring forward all your resolve and strength. Then you know you have this inside you, that you can do anything.”
Ultra-marathoner Harita Davies, a member of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, made history today by becoming the first ever Kiwi woman to attempt and finish the longest certified footrace in history, the gruelling multi-day 3,100 mile Sri Chinmoy Ultra Race, described by the New York Times as “The Mount Everest of Ultramarathons.”
Harita ran over two marathons every day for 52 days straight, circling around a half-mile city block in a New York suburb during the heat, humidity and occasional thunderstorms of this New York summer. She finished on Wednesday, August 9th after starting her epic journey back in early June. Only one other New Zealander has ever attempted this feat.
This year ten intrepid runners and one race walker began this epic journey, an ultra which only a few actually finish. To cover the distance of 3100 miles (4988.9km), the runners need to average 95.9km per day – that’s more than two marathons a day for 52 days straight, running between 6am and midnight.
42 year old Harita Davies is the first New Zealand women to ever attempt such a distance, finishing in 4th place overall and becoming a New Zealand record holder.
She came to running through Sri Chinmoy, her Indian spiritual teacher who brought his particular form of spirituality from India to America in 1964. Sri Chinmoy’s principles of meditation and self-transcendence are practiced by his 7000 plus students around the world, with running being a unique part of their spiritual training. Sri Chinmoy saw physical fitness, particularly running, to be a perfect way to go beyond the mind’s limitations, to challenge ‘impossibility’, and to develop the necessary qualities of discipline, determination, will-power and perseverance which are essential for the spiritual journey towards happiness. She comments:
“ Just to keep going is an incredible lesson for the rest of life, and not being deterred by obstacles. They make you stronger and really help you develop faith, confidence, patience, and perseverance, qualities that are so essential in our living.
“During the race I was much more aware of my inner reality than I am in my regular life, and of the importance of my state of consciousness. The race was a tremendous opportunity to pray or to meditate and to be closer to my heart, to feelings of gratitude and happiness – everything else just fell away and my running became centre stage in my life, teaching me something fundamental about life itself. The outer running and the inner running towards simplicity and happiness are inseparable.”
Welcome to the 21st Annual Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race and one of the most remarkable races in history! Called ‘The Mount Everest of Ultramarathons’ by The New York Times, this is the longest certified footrace in the world and the 2017 event has just kicked off in New York with the first ever woman Kiwi contender.
Athletes are able to test themselves in a format unlike any other ultra-marathon event. They must average 59.6 miles per day, for 52 straight days, in order to reach 3100 miles. They must run these miles between 6am and midnight each day. The surface is concrete sidewalks around a playground, ball fields, and the confines of a vocational high school, and all in a city neighborhood setting. The physical and psychological demands are prodigious, if not overwhelming. Thus, participation is limited to invited athletes who have a history of multi-day running experience and elite endurance abilities.
Day 1: New Faces, New Beginnings
Ten runners started the 21st running of the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race this morning at precisely 6:00 am. The concrete sidewalk course has been used the previous 20 years as a test of extreme endurance, stamina, and running ability beyond any normal realm. Founded by spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, the .5488 of a mile course (883.2079 meters) has been the playground for ultra elites who have tested themselves by trying to run nearly 60 miles every day for 52 days. Five time finisher and 2013 winner Vasu Duzhiy from Russia led the way through the early going, but carefully avoided the heat of a sunny Father’s Day until sundown. At the end of the 18-hour day, Mr Duzhiy totalled 75.18 miles(120.99 km) to lead veteran Austrian Smarana Puntigam by five laps. Nirbhasa Magee of Ireland ran strongly in the evening to reach 71.34 miles. Kaneenika Janakova, the Slovakian champion led the ladies with 69.7 miles, just two ticks ahead of Austrian Nidhruvi Zimmermann. Surprise first-timer women Harita Davies ( New Zealand) and Yolanda Holder also did well with 68.05 and 60.36 miles, respectively.
One of the really wonderful features of our spiritual path is the focus on physical wellbeing, especially running. I’m truly grateful that here in Auckland we have so many wild and remote places – rough and edgy mountains, indigenous forests, lovely stretches of coastline – that offer peace and solace and a refuge to the spirit. Cradled in this spirit of place, these landscapes and seas and skies, how can we not feel gratitude on some morning run when we venture down a wilderness of beach that stretches out to a far horizon.
This week has been ‘aspiration week’ in our centre in Auckland, an invitation to each of our members to set and reach new goals, enjoy open nights and new activities and generally rekindle our aspiration. This morning two of us met up at 5:15 am and drove through a wet and rainy pre-dawn gloom to a large area of forest on our west coast – a tract of pines and native forest inhabited by deer, the odd wild boar and lots of small wild life. We ran along the blackness of roads, the sound of the sea in our ears and light rain on our faces, then as darkness receded ventured into the forest, on to the narrow game trails that wind for miles through these hills. We felt like indigenous man, exulting in an almost primeval sense of well-being, all the artifice of civilization gone, jubilant in the simplicity of life itself and the joy of being.
I like these hours wandering in a garden of ridges and valleys and effortless beauty, hearing the water in the streambed below and the language of the forest all around. In the early light the air is filled with teeming embryonic life, millions of tiny spores drizzling from the green fronds of the mamaku and the waist high thickets of ferns – I breathe them in joyfully.
We need whatever it is these sanctuaries provide. Untamed nature can be a harsh learning place but also a great schoolroom of self-knowledge – and here where the wilderness of nature and the wild places of the mind intersect, we are often undone. Life and death experiences, moments of fear, a day or two lost and alone and far from help – such things that our modern world so carefully shields us from are treasures that never leave our memory, moulding us without gentleness or pity. Our ‘self’ is pared away and we are opened up to the capriciousness of life and death, only a moment of chance apart, and to the primal fears and trapdoors that open in the wild places of our minds. Nature is a repository of many potential experiences that ground us and make us better, more complete – and here, as in meditation, all our sensibilities converge toward new insight and discernment. Cut off from all this, we become less human, less civilized.
This ‘aspiration week’ Guru’s writings have provided a wealth of illumining insights into the benefits of running. One recurring theme is the principal of holistics – the inter-relationship between mind, body, spirit. The runner can enhance his or her physical achievements by tapping into an inner power source, while the meditator can achieve a greater proficiency and stillness by first establishing a foundation of well-being, and of clarity in the mind, which running confers. In “Endless Energy”, a compilation of his remarks about sport, Guru comments:
“When it is a matter of running, all the members of the family – the body, vital, mind and heart – have to work together. It is like a family party. The head of the family has invited all of the family members to come and eat. Through running, the soul wants to offer a feast to all its children. What running is doing is keeping the body, vital, mind and heart fit so that the soul can get complete happiness. The soul is happy when it sees that all it’s children have come to enjoy the feast…….”
“The body’s capacity and the soul’s capacity, the body’s speed and the soul’s speed go together. The outer running reminds us of something higher and deeper – the soul – which is running along Eternity’s Road. Running and physical fitness help us both in our inner life of aspiration and in our outer life of activity.”
Here is another unusual insight: “Running has its own inner value. While you run, each breath that you take is connected with a higher reality. While you are jogging, if you are in a good consciousness your breath is being blessed by a higher inner breath… each breath will connect you with a higher, deeper inner reality.” (ibid)
Guru encourages his students to run every day, in so doing maintaining the body-temple as a perfect vehicle for the inner journey. Running cultivates aspiration, dynamism, physical excellence, clarity of mind, happiness, will power and determination – exactly the qualities needed for the inner running toward the goal of God realization. In one charming analogy he comments:
“Unless you touch something everyday it does not shine. Often I have told people to touch the furniture in their homes everyday. As soon as you touch something it gets new life… If you have good health, if you touch your health everyday it gets new life. By giving attention to something you give new life to it.”
And finally: “How I wish all human beings would run faster than the fastest, with unimaginable speed towards Eternity’s ever-transcending Goal. Once we reach the highest transcendental Height with our fastest speed and consciously begin serving our Supreme Pilot at every moment, at that time we can and we shall create an absolutely new creation. At that time there will be only one reality, one song: the song of self-transcendence.” (ibid)
It’s 2am and I’m in an all-hours gym, hurtling through some hi-intensity workout sessions on rowing machines, leg curls, a squeaky cross trainer. No one else here, everyone’s abed. The gym manager’s favorite music is on a repeat loop in the background and I’m hearing “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” for the tenth time, a James Taylor recording awash with memories.
Why does physical exertion always make us feel so good? On the TV screen a rerun of the recent marvelous attempt to run under the 2 hour marathon mark — Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese are trying to become the first human beings to do the seemingly impossible. The attempt, known as Breaking2, has drawn plenty of attention since Nike announced it back in December, and since then we’ve heard all about the course (a Formula One track in Monza, Italy), the shoes (custom-made Nike specials) and the strategy on how the attempt should play out. Six lead runners and pace makers are in a V-formation in front of the hopefuls and charging away into a 4:35 first mile that I could never have kept up with, never ever. It’s beautiful to watch, the thrill of their grace and speed and power, the fastest humans on the planet, their energy flooding my body with inspiration. I’m flying on the treadmill, a 4:35 mile in my parallel universe..
Years ago, sports lover and spiritual master Sri Chinmoy said the 2 hour barrier would be broken, and not too far in the future. Of the four qualities he said were needed, only one relied upon physical training. The others were about the mind and spiritual heart, receptivity to grace, gratitude, access to the power of the inner life which can flood the body with power – realities often spoken of by lead marathon contender Kipchoge. Carl Lewis, nine times an Olympic gold medallist, is there on the screen, talking us through some of his insights. He’s excited – he knows that this is hugely significant, history’s in the making, the marathon is all about humanity transcending itself. He talks about the marathon as metaphor, it’s relevance to every human being: we all have our barriers and limitations, but if we dare to try they can tumble, everything is possible, we are all extraordinary!
Sri Chinmoy agrees. In a conversation with marathoner Gary Fanelli he comments: ‘Try to feel that through your success in running, humanity is taking one step forward in its march towards its ever-transcending goal. When you increase your capacities, automatically you establish a glowing hope and a soaring promise for your fellow runners all over the world.’
‘Capacity is of paramount importance. But along with capacity, if one can invoke a higher consciousness, then one is likely to do very well. Again, we have to know that an increase in capacity comes quite often not only from regular training but also from the descent of Grace, which is part and parcel of a higher consciousness’.
‘To me, the body is the temple, and inside the temple is the shrine. If there is no temple, then there can be no shrine. The shrine is our soul, our inner life, our inner hunger for truth, for delight, for beauty, for perfection. The body and the soul must go together, like the inner life and the outer life which must go together. 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.’
‘In sports we need energy, strength and dynamism. When we meditate, we make our mind calm and quiet. If inside us there is peace, then we will derive tremendous strength from our inner life. That is to say, if I have a peaceful moment, even for one second, that peace will come to me as solid strength in my sports, whether I am running or jumping or throwing. That strength is almost indomitable strength, whereas if we are restless, we do not have strength like that.’
Man has always been a runner, a biped-miracle capable of running hundreds of kilometers in a single day and seemingly inexhaustible and limitless in potential. The Greek legend Yiannis Kouros ran 303 kilometers in 24 hours and 473 kms in 48 hours and was capable of running 200 kms daily for 10 straight days. Auckland’s own Sandra Barwick still holds multi-day records – including running 883.6 km on a track in six days; 1000 km on the road in seven days, and 1000 miles in twelve and a half days. Less known as a running nation, India last year attempted to change the perception about running in that country by organizing the ‘Great India Run’, the first multi-city ultra marathon, with 12 elite marathoners traversing through six states and covering a distance of 1480 kms from Delhi to Mumbai in 18 days.
For thousands of years, cultures all over the world have used running as part of their cultural and spiritual expression. A new documentary by the Indian director Sanjay Rawal is set to explore these themes, with its film crew spending time with the Navajo Nation in Arizona, the famed running monks of Japan and the Kalahari bushmen in Botswana, as well as spending many days filming at last year’s 3100 Mile Race in New York city. Editing of the film has already started and in the last month, a Kickstarter project has already raised over $50,000 of its $75,000 goal, to enable the film makers to complete the film by August.
Documentary director Rawal comments: “We wanted to learn about the deepest spiritual traditions of exceptional indigenous runners from around the world. We wondered if we could, first of all, find runners that actually embodied the ancient esoteric approach to running and then earn their trust. And so we hunted on the run with the bushmen of Botswana and filmed their ancestral way of hunting. We ran with champion Navajo runners versed by their elders in the spiritual traditions of running. And we embedded with the Japanese Marathon Monks to document their epic 1,000 day running journey where at one time the stakes were literally life or death. Once a generation they pick an athlete to run for 1000 days over 7 years, in 100 day chunks – up to 56 miles per day over mountain trails!
“Then we came across the most elusive, elite multi-day race in the world, the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, which takes place in Queens, New York City each summer and demands at least 59 miles a day for 52 straight days. While the participants of that race are for the most part Western, the event was founded by the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.
In a sense, the race requires runners to tap into an ancient energy found in the most remote cultures of the world. We build the arc of the entire film around this race and bounce between remote, expedition-worthy locations to draw parallels between the approaches to running. We’re eagerly looking forward to this new documentary – ‘3100: Run and Become’ – which promises to be the definitive exploration of why ultra-runners do what they do”.
Among other extraordinary running adventures: The Big Five marathon, Limpopo province, South Africa. Seemingly a traditional overland marathon – if not for the regular, freely roaming presence of the “big five” of African game: elephants, rhinos, leopards, buffalo and lions! The Man versus Horse marathon in Wales, inspired by a claim that runners could keep pace with horses. Horses proved the victors in every race until 2004, when a man named Huw Lobb won and took home a purse of £25,000, which had grown unclaimed every year since the race’s inception.
Then there is the ‘Man carrying Wife’ 250 meter dash, originating in Finland and featuring three separate obstacles, one of which involves wading through a water course at least a meter deep with your spouse over your shoulders. The prize for winning? – the woman’s weight in beer! In the world championships, she sits on one end of a seesaw until the amount of beer evens it out.
And on Saturday, May 7 in 2017, Nike sponsored an attempt by three elite marathoners – nurtured over a year of planning – to break the seemingly unassailable two-hour barrier for the marathon.
Durba Lee, Kin Allan, Susan Marshall, Hridayinee Williams, Harita Davies
Kim Allan and Susan Marshall
This month, Kiwis Susan Marshall (408 miles) and Kim Allan (364 miles) came first and second in another challenging race, the just concluded Sri Chinmoy-inspired six day race in New York, a one mile loop around a flat, scenic trail in a pleasant park setting. Local Auckland runner 59 year old Durba Lee also competed, defying the usual constraints of age to cover over 243 miles. These races by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team feature an international field of runners who come to test their endurance, skill with pacing, and ability to recover from the stress of constantly moving. The competitors run with minimal sleep, all the while trying to accumulate as many miles as possible.
But why this love of distance, pain and great effort? For many, running is part of a spiritual quest, a journey of self-discovery. Russian athlete Jayasalini, the first female Russian finisher of the world’s longest race, the Sri Chinmoy 3100 Mile Race, comments: “This race is all about how things that seem impossible actually can be very possible…for me the answer is to have that deep inner connection with my soul, with my inner being, at every moment of my life, as strong as I had during the race. There, the conditions are so extreme, that every moment is a sincere prayer, every moment is a sincere cry, and every moment I felt my soul expressing itself in and through me. Now I feel the real objective, the real goal for me is to to be able to feel this during every moment of my whole life.”
Watch Jayasalini interesting online interview:
Sri Chinmoy, the late spiritual master, athlete and founder of the international Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, encouraged fitness and sport as a wonderful lifestyle positive in an increasingly sedentary world, a path to self knowledge, a helpful spiritual discipline and a window into our limitless potential. He writes: “When you come to a particular standard, you have to say, ‘Is there anything more I can do?’. Then do it. The determination in your heroic effort will permeate your mind and heart even after your success or failure is long forgotten.”
Further inspiration: www.srichinmoyraces.org
As a 14-year-old boy competing in the 800m event at national secondary schools level, and despite being one of the fastest boys there, Vajin missed out on a spot in the final by 0.02 of a second through a tactical misjudgement and becoming boxed in on the final lap. Subsequently – a decision he made as a performance-based athlete (as most are) – he gave up running. Today he is one of the most celebrated ultramarathon runners in New Zealand who is also recognised on the international circuit. So… how and why did that happen?
On Thursday 12th January 2017, Vajin Armstrong spoke about his meteoric running career at the Auckland Sri Chinmoy Centre, and the people who were lucky enough to attend this landmark talk came away with more than just an inspiration for running – he gave, more specifically, an inspiration for life.
Meeting Vajin was a surprise as a lot of really good athletes I have met have been hyped up and buzzing with a surplus of energy – this guy was calm, happy and focused, with a sort of inner intensity in the air around him. Make no mistake, he is definitely highly motivated, but in a deceptively unassuming sort of way. This became more and more apparent as he spoke and shared some of his inner experiences, which gave rise to the subsequent choices he made about his life.
In his late teens – about 4 years after giving up running forever – Vajin was walking in a beautiful park in Christchurch very early one morning and had a life-changing spiritual experience that was such a powerful revelation that it formed the basis of his spiritual aspiration. As a result of this, he became a seeker and not long afterwards joined the Sri Chinmoy Centre, from which he was inspired to take up running again as part of his spiritual life. And he found he was really good at it.
At this time he also took up a plant-based diet, so as to facilitate his meditation practice, which helped to hone his spiritual focus, which he used in his running. As he manouevred his way through training programmes and races, he found that he enjoyed running more and more, given that Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy is one of self-transcendence: rather than trying to beat the world, his goal now was to compete against himself. He said that when the going got tough there were a couple of things he did at those gruelling times: (1) he used his meditation to focus on the ‘now’ – after all, he only had the present to work with, so he allowed thoughts of what happened yesterday/what was going to happen tomorrow, etc, to drop away so he was just focusing on what he was doing now ; and (2) he told himself, ‘You have chosen to be here and do this so are therefore presumably enjoying it’ and he would do what he called ‘change up his consciousness’ (like, telling his mind that this was fun, breathe out all pain, etc) and in this way he found enjoyment in what he was doing.
With his new-found focus he enjoyed running so much that he found that his old distance of 800m was over too soon, and he started finding joy in longer distances. Soon the 10km, half-marathon, marathon distances fell away and he began running longer distances. There is a 47mile race in New York that Sri Chinmoy founded, and he entered it one day, and enjoyed it so much that there was no looking back! Longer races were quite often off-road, so he took up trail running and found he loved running along tracks in the bush where he felt at one with nature. It was about this time that he entered the Kepler Challenge for the first time. This is a mountainous 60km track that usually takes 3 or 4 days to tramp. In the race he was cruising along having a good time (his goal was to become familiar with the track for future challenges) and just happened to pass everyone – he was in the lead with about 5km to go, and then went for it and won! Interestingly, he said that that was the hardest part – previously he had just been enjoying the run but when he passed the leader (which he hadn’t expected) he found himself worrying about where the people behind him were, etc, and his mind noticed the pain, the distance and all of the minutiae that saps your energy during a run. So he had to forcibly bring his meditation practice to the fore, not worry about anything, and just run.
That was just the beginning. His use of meditation to facilitate his running developed further during the Big River 50 mile race in the USA when he found himself in the lead, and to distract his mind from painful minutiae again, he decided to focus on a spiritual quality instead, and starting chanting ‘gratitude’. He flew through the rest of the race and was the first non-American ever to win that race. Since then he says there are three main qualities he focuses on:
Vajin and good friend Granatan at the Lotus Heart Restaurant
Gratitude – there are many things to be grateful for: that you can run; not being injured (the times you are injured make you grateful for the times you are not!); grateful for all of the support he receives; and just grateful to be alive. (He said he was also grateful that he gets to eat at the exclusive vegetarian restaurant, The Lotus-Heart in Christchurch, every day!)
Love – this is very empowering. At a gruelling time, if you tell yourself that you love what you are doing rather than focusing on how much you are hurting at the time, you get much stronger and it gives more power to your performance.
Acceptance – this is from Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy: ‘Our philosophy is the acceptance of life for the transformation of life…’ Vajin says that the acceptance of yourself and your life, and what is happening in your life, in a nutshell, and is very liberating. It is also saying that whatever happens, happens, and whatever that is is fine because there is a higher reason for everything.
He went further to explain that running is not a selfish thing that you are doing for yourself – it is an experience to be shared and in that way is expanded. If you share your experience of training and racing with all of your dear ones, you expand the experience for them as well as yourself. For instance, the international meditation community of Sri Chinmoy Centres around the world is very much a global family of seekers – and the Swiss Centre members all got behind Vajin when he ran the Swiss Alpine Marathon in 2016 (78km of trail running in the Swiss Alps) – and were ecstatic when he won it!
What struck me as being remarkable is that Vajin is not merely doing meditation as something to calm down and provide ‘warm fuzzies’ – to him it is an active, dynamic and practical tool that is an integral part of his lifestyle, happiness, and truly part of who he is. And the way he has utilised and revealed the results of his own meditation and understandings in his life and sport has definitely been effective!
His talk was breathtaking and I felt honoured to be there to witness it. To quote the woman who was sitting behind me (who – by her physique – was definitely a keen runner), and who breathed after Vajin’s closing words: “That was awesome.”
Indian sports date back to the Vedic era. Horse riding, wrestling, swordsmanship, archery and physical excellence were an integral part of the kshatriya caste’s training. Skill in weaponry was one of the 13 branches of learning which every educated kshatriya male was expected to study, and the warriors with prowess often had special privileges as well – in one of these, the kshatriya was allowed to carry off a woman for his bride, and the other consisted of a competition for a bride in which the chief event was an archery contest. Arjuna and Rama are depicted in the Mahabharata and Ramayana as having won their consorts in such tournaments.
Interestingly, the Sri Aurobindo ashram near Pondicherry in south India famously promoted sports and physical excellence as an essential part of spiritual discipline, and yoga, track and field, soccer and other sports were part of the daily activities of the ashramites and their path of integral yoga. Sri Chinmoy, one of its most prominent members, took this culture of sports and meditation, physical wellbeing and spiritual discipline to the West in 1964 and eventually founded a worldwide organisation that would organise over 800 races every year, revive ultra distance events, and found the longest footrace in history, the now annual 3,100 mile ultra marathon! Aucklander Dharbasana Lynn is the only New Zealander to ever compete in and finish this most gruelling of races, finishing in 2010 in 51 days.
Sri Chinmoy was an avid sportsman from his youth and throughout his life. In the spiritual community where he grew up, he excelled in soccer and volleyball, and was the top-ranked sprinter. During his late teens he was also a decathlon champion.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he was an active long-distance runner, completing many marathons, ultra-marathons and shorter races. For many years he played tennis almost every day, and frequently competed in track-and-field events in Masters Games, including the World Masters Games in Puerto Rico in 1983, and the World Veterans Games in Miyazaki, Japan in 1993. He took up weight-lifting in the mid-1980s and over the years set several records in the calf-raise and one-arm lift.
Sri Chinmoy believed that a balanced lifestyle fosters harmony and inner peace. His integral approach to life encouraged physical fitness and sports as a vehicle for personal transformation.
“There are countless people on earth who do not believe in the inner strength or inner life. They feel that the outer life is everything. I do not agree with them,” he says. “There is an inner life; there is spirit, and my ability to lift heavy weights proves that it can work in matter as well. I am doing these lifts with the physical body, but the power is coming from an inner source, from my prayer and meditation.”
Inspired by his example, several of his students have attempted to stretch their own personal limits – setting new world records in various fields, running multi-day races, swimming the English channel and climbing some of the world’s highest mountains. Sri Chinmoy met, encouraged and honored many sporting legends, including the great Jesse Owens who in the summer Olympics in 1936 in Berlin won international fame with four gold medals in the 100 and 200 metres, the long jump and 4×100 metre relay. The most successful athlete at the games, Owens was credited with single-handedly crushing Hitler’s belief in Aryan supremacy.
Sri Chinmoy was also an avid tennis player himself and played with Leander Paes and another Indian champion Ramesh Krishnan in New York city. Sri Chinmoy, who passed away in 2007, would have been saddened by the recent passing of another sporting great, the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali whom he met on several occasions and shared a long friendship with. A photo of the two men together was placed on the front page of TheNew York Times the morning after Ali’s passing.
Sri Chinmoy, who led the twice-weekly peace meditation at the United Nations for 37 years, told the world’s beloved athlete Ali, “You are changing the face and fate of mankind. Your very name encourages and inspires. As soon as people hear ‘Muhammad Ali,’ they are inspired. They get tremendous joy. They get such dynamism to be brave and face ignorance…Your heart of oneness with all humanity makes you the greatest.”
From memory it was the famous Czech runner Emil Zátopek – best known for winning three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics – who memorably said: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra.”
Among all the sports there are – and I’ve certainly tried so many – I have come to believe that running is the very best in numerous ways, at least the most beneficial in life training, the one that confers the maximum results in self-discovery, the one that most stretches our capacities then opens a doorway to a further beyond. It is a kind of metaphor for life itself, the outer running and the challenges from mind and body a proving ground for the development of a resolute spirit, for self-belief and determination, for courage in tackling great challenges. Running confronts us with our limitations, then teaches us how to transcend them and to explore and grow beyond.
There is a deep spiritual aspect to running as well, one often referred to by the great Indian meditation master Sri Chinmoy. Unique among spiritual teachers in his focus on physical perfection, he saw all of life as a quest for happiness, leaving behind suffering, limitations, and ignorance in a striving towards self-discovery, the blossoming of our many undiscovered capacities, the great enlightenment as to our true nature. He saw running as akin to a family picnic where body, mind, heart and soul – the members of our ‘family’ – all get joy from running.
And it’s so true! Out on my Sunday long run in the Waitakere Ranges, or up at 6,000 feet on the Kepler in Fiordland, there is this wonderful exultation at the gift of life, gratitude for the panoramic beauty of the earth and the joy of well-being, the body and mind’s pleasure in adventure and freedom, the unburdening physical remoteness from the usual things of life.
For many runners their sport prepares them well for life, illumining them about their strengths and frailties and teaching them how to dare, to find courage and self-belief. The great ultra runner Scott Jurek comments: “I run because overcoming the difficulties of an ultramarathon reminds me that I can overcome the difficulties of life, that overcoming difficulties was life”.
And runner Patrick Overton adds: “When you come to the edge of all the light you know, and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing one of two things will happen: there will be something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”
Sri Chinmoy astonished the world with his contribution to running, especially in reviving ultra distance races and pioneering the unimaginable with his now annual 3100 mile race, longest certified race ever. Why promote so long and arduous a race? To show the world the unlimitedness of the body and the mind when harnessed to the power of the spirit, the power of imagination, courage, daring and self-belief. “There are no limits to our capacity if we only dare to try and have faith” he writes. Commenting further he adds:
“Life and sports cannot be separated :they are one. As a matter of fact, life itself is a game. This game can be played extremely well, provided the player develops consciously or unconsciously the capacity to invoke the transcendental energy which is always manifested in action.
“The body’s capacity and the soul’s capacity, the body’s speed and the soul’s speed, go together. The outer running reminds us of something higher and deeper – the soul – which is running along Eternity’s road. Running and physical fitness help us both in our inner life of aspiration and in our outer life of activity.”
( from ‘Endless Energy: Writings on running by Sri Chinmoy’. Available only through www.meditationauckland.co.nz See the contact/inquiry form)