Running an 'ultra' or multi-day race is like traveling to another dimension, with its own sense of time and space — a world buffeted by intense and volatile emotional weather — where most of the running is done inside.
For 38-year-old Abichal, who completed the Sri Chinmoy 700-miler for the first time this year, an 'ultra' is like a retreat into a monastery.
"It's a gradual descent into yourself. You slowly sink into a peaceful energy field where normal mental activity is shut down, everything is focused and life is very simple.
"At the same time, things below the surface come up that you're normally able to ignore. Since you're not distracted by everyday life, you have to deal with them, and it's a chance for real inner progress. But it gets pretty intense, especially when you're going through so much physical pain."
Namitabha, 35, who completed the Sri Chinmoy 3,100-miler this past summer, explained that the mind is one of the biggest problems in these races. "The mind says, 'I've been running for five hours and now I need a break,' or 'It's too hot, so I better rest.' And the thought of running for 50 days straight is enough to drive the mind crazy.
"But if I keep on going, after a while the mind just surrenders to the experience, the body adapts and everything becomes like a river. Then I feel I can run forever."
Dipali, 41, who has run about a dozen 'ultras' over the past nine years and holds the women's six-day world record, agrees. "But I've learned how to shut up the mind, to go beyond the exhaustion, beyond the blisters and stomach problems," she said. "I've learned to run from my heart."
The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team sponsors six and 10-day races each spring...a simultaneous 700-mile, 1,000-mile and 1,300-mile race every fall...and a 3,100-mile race over the summer.
"There's a big difference between running a 1,300-mile race and running the 3,100-miler," explained Suprabha, 43, who is the only woman to have done both.
"In the 1,300-mile event, you get just a couple of hours' rest a night and can fall asleep while running. Many times I'd wake up on the course and find my feet parked on the turn-around cone, and a couple of times I almost ran into the river.
"The 3,100-mile race is structured so you get at least six hours' rest nightly, since the body couldn't keep running that far without it. Since I'm not struggling so much with exhaustion, I can remain more peaceful and meditative.
"In an 'ultra' there's a feeling of timelessness — like entering some kind of infinity. You try to stay in the heart and also stay in motion — so the quietness you feel inside and the forward movement of the race somehow come together. It's like being inside a stillness that's always moving forward. It gives you a sense of what the soul must feel as it journeys through eternal time."
How does a long-distance runner keep going? "By going deep inside!" Suprabha declared. "Sometimes novice runners think they can barrel through an 'ultra' on sheer physical strength. But they either burn out or learn to draw on their inner qualities."
Sasha Djordjevic (Angicar), 28, explained it in terms of "going to the edge -which means not sleeping the extra couple of hours that your body is crying for, not spending two hours in medical although your legs are killing you. Most of all, you've got to have faith in yourself and God."
He recalled an experience he had during a 700-mile race "when I was extremely weak mentally and physically and feeling completely alone. I was in so much pain that all I wanted to do was quit; but quit¬ting wasn't an option for me. I knew I couldn't finish the race on my own, but help from God seemed millions of miles away. At one point I just said, 'God, if You really love me, why are You making me suffer so much?'
"Then, amazingly, I actually got an answer. It was a kind of a thought in my head that told me, 'How can I, who love you so much, make you suffer?' Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I felt an overwhelming sense of God's Love. It was like not being on earth. For the next couple of miles I was just crying the whole way.
"Another time, on the next to last day of the 1,000-miler, my handlers forgot to wake me up and I lost three hours, equivalent to about 12 miles of running. I was already pushing my limit, and the idea of making up that kind of mileage so late in the game was inconceivable. So I was just sitting there depressed and hopeless, thinking I had let my Guru down and was a total loser.
"Then I remembered the story from the Ramayana when Lord Rama asked Hanuman to bring him a special medicinal herb to save his dying brother. Since the plant grew hundreds of miles away, Hanuman knew it would be impossible to bring the medicine in time — no matter how fast he ran. But he had such love and devotion for Rama that he suddenly found himself flying, and he actually did bring the medicine in time.
"I said to myself, 'If Hanuman had enough devotion to fly, the least I can do is run. So the last 36 hours of the race I ran like any¬thing, not sleeping at all, and on the last day of the race I covered an incredible 86 miles — almost 20 miles more than I had done on the first day. I finished the race with 53 minutes to spare!
"I always have this image of myself as Arjuna and my spiritual Master as Krishna. So during the race I asked a friend to bring me a victory conch that I could blow at the end. I kept the conch in my tent, and when I was feeling weak and depressed, I sat in the tent and blew it a little bit. But after completing the 1,000 miles, I really blew it.
"Somebody who has an experience like this can never forget it. You go through hell and, with your Master's help, finally reach the goal. The feeling of joy is unimaginable!
"Running a 1,000-mile race is like condensing your entire spiritual life into a single 15-day period. You're just not the same person afterwards. Life's daily challenges seem minuscule compared to what you've already been through.
"Ultra-running is not about being a runner, but about being a spiritual seeker — about being brave, about getting closer to your Master, about making progress. There's nothing like it in the world."
reprinted from Anahata Nada, newsletter of the Sri Chinmoy Centre (August-November 1999)