"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy 7 Hour Walk - Goose Pond Park, Jamaica, Queens - April 2023

I'm not sure I can really express how much this race meant to me - it was the culmination of 30 years of watching, serving and occasionally participating in the Sri Chinmoy 12-Hour or 7-Hour Walk. The race that Sri Chinmoy established to celebrate the anniversary of his arrival in the West (in other words the beginning of his spiritual mission) has always been 12 hours until the post-pandemic era made holding a race of that length, with early setup and late takedown and 2 shifts of counters, impractical. In 2022 and 2023 it was held at the reduced duration and for all I know it may never be a 7 hour walk again - who knows?

Having done OK in the 2022 event (placing 4th) I had done some preparation for April 2023 - about half a dozen sessions where instead of going out for my usual run, I instead went for a fast walk at 12 to 13 minute pace, to get my upper body used to the walking motion and my quads and anterior-tib muscles used to the different stresses and strains compared to running. Apart from that I was just doing around 20 miles a week of running and the occasional bike ride and pool swim. Plus, of course, the road races and fell races mentioned elsewhere on this site, which definitely toughened me up.

For days before the race I'd had a voice inside me telling me I'd win the Walk - but I mostly told it to shut up, seeing as that kind of pride usually comes before a fall - expectation leads to frustration - etc etc etc. That idea was still playing around inside me at the start though, where after some meticulous foot-prep with vaseline and 2 pairs of socks I lined up feeling more than ready to give it my best shot. We began by singing The Invocation, then after a brief silence, 90 eager walkers strode out on to the paths of Goose Pond Park.

The course was the same as in 2022 - a figure of 8 with a large and mostly flat loop around Goose Pond, then a second loop on the slopes of the north end of the park, featuring a significant climb and descent. 

From the off I was determined to give myself the chance to get a good result - so that meant going off with the faster walkers and seeing if I could hang in there. To begin with it was Tejal, Rade, Todorka, the irrepressible Nirbhasha and myself making up a lead pack of sorts, with the pace around the level I had trained at but rapidly increasing to 11 minute or even 10:30 miles. Those numbers should have scared me but I decided just to go with it and see if race day grace would get me through. Soon Pramodan, who I had seen out racewalking in the preceding days, came steaming through and the pack shrunk in size as we followed him at a challenging pace.

Rade had been up ahead, but now I had lost sight of him, so it was just me and Pramodan ahead of me making up a sort of chasing pack. At the 1 hour mark I started feeding - solid food in the shape of a kind of 50p polish millionaire shortbread bar that I'd been using as a snack on long bike rides. Eating on the walk is a lot easier than eating while running, but still a challenge. I knew I had to get those calories inside me though, so I forced myself to munch my way through the bar. Pramodan was homing in on a tall figure up ahead which I assumed was Rade, the early leader, although he wasn' in the hooded jacked he had been in earlier. I kept chasing, determined not to let the leaders disappear out of sight this early in the race.

When we finally caught the tall figure it was Peteris from Latvia rather than Rade from Macedonia, who must have stepped off the course for a kit change or some foot maintenance. Pramodan steamed past and I followed, then I realised that Pramodan was pushing himself very hard and probably couldn't keep up the fast pace we'd all started at. When the chance came to ease past him I had to take it, otherwise I would have had to slow down and risk seeing other stronger walkers catch us up and then stream past. So there I was, with a couple of hours gone, leading the walk. That was not how I had planned it - I felt in unfamiliar territory and pretty exposed. As I passed the scoreboard I saw that I had a lap advantage on most of the others but Peteris was the main challenger. Over the next hour or so we both pushed hard, with the gap of a lap and a half gradually diminishing with each completion of the circuit. He had started slower than me, but Peteris  looked stronger than I felt and I had the feeling that if he came past me and got on the same lap, I would not be able to stay with him and he'd be chasing me down over the next hour or two.

At this point Kokila reappeared after I'd seen her at the start - she gave me lots of encouragement and a bit of help getting my gels and magnesium supplements - the latter all-important as the temperature began to rise into the high twenties and my hands swelled up from a combination of the heat and the unfamiliar arm-swing of speed walking. Those middle hours of the race were hard - I knew I could endure but at the same time I didn't want to get attached to winning something only to see the expectation-balloon get burst. Those middle hours were also an intense spiritual experience - an inner dialogue between me and the Source of my inspiration, a face to face meeting with my self-doubts. All this of course is not merely mental or emotional, it takes physical form as pain, fatigue, nausea, stiffness. I'm in awe of those ultra-distance heroes who routinely push themselves into this inner battle zone, which for me is a rare experience.

I was seeing Peteris at a different point on the lakeside each time I came into the home straight that leads down to the scoreboard and feed station. For around an hour, the gap was shrinking and he was further away from the medical tent, further ahead on the course, each time I came through a lap, but then I summoned up some determination to increase my pace just marginally and things began to move the other way. Each time I came through the water station (with the ever-vocal Sisir and the ever helpful Brian always ready with a drink) Peteris was less far down the lake and that told me I was gaining ground and stretching out my slender lead.

As the hours passed, the feeding remained challenging, with my body at an effort level where even taking on gels was tricky. Each mile brought more stiffness and tiredness, while the increasing heat began to sap my energy as well. I stuck to my plan with gels and bars, forced myself to take them even when I felt queasy and doused myself with water on every lap to cool myself in the blazing sunshine. I began to love the shady parts of the course and grit my teeth to endure the open sections where the full heat of the sun hit the walkers. I drank and drank and drank, sometimes water, sometimes coke, sometimes Tailwind, sometimes maple and salt mix. A couple of times when my stomach felt like it was shutting down I took ginger ale from the feed station. At one point that was the only drink I could get down me, and when I clearly looked heartbroken that the ginger ale had run out, a girl at the aid station made a sweet ginger tea for me and handed it to me on the next lap. Sri Chinmoy races are like that.

The scoreboard told me a story each time I passed and the story was that my one-lap cushion was holding strong. I rarely saw Jwalanta and Pataka, so I knew they weren't taking laps off me and Peteris was walking at pretty much my pace and no faster. I just had to hold that position until the last hour and then I would feel confident of winning. The last hour came, the race situation was still the same and then I began to believe I was going to place first. The leading girls Gesiane and Susan were walking faster than me now, with Susan passing me at an impressive pace in the closing minutes. The last hour was a very long hour under the unrelenting sun, but finally I was crossing the line for the final time, 82 laps on the board (that's 34.3 miles) and my first ever victory in a Sri Chinmoy Race in New York. I was first among the boys and also - by a small margin - ahead of the winning girl.

OK so that's the race story out of the way, but I want to write a little about my impressions of the event. From the cheerful but calm excitement before the start (no thumping music here as you'd get at a mainstream city marathon) to the soulful singing of our Invocation, to the amazing support throughout - the atmosphere of the race was just unbeatable. There were so many smiles and words of encouragement from the onlookers, aid station helpers and the other walkers too. Everyone wanted everyone there to win their own personal race. The other walkers weren't my rivals as such - they just created the situation, the challenge, to which I had to respond. My race was against myself, with the part of me that wanted to fulfil my potential and come first battling against the force that wanted me to slow down to ease the difficulties that were building up in both body and mind.

Sri Chinmoy once said "When I walk, I walk prayerfully" and despite the racing/competing aspect of the 7 Hour Walk, that felt true for all of us - I was silently, inwardly, chanting and singing to myself as I always do in races. There were times when my inner experience of the race was to the fore and the outer reality seemed to fade a little, other times when the physical aspect took over and I had to conciously remind myself to offer gratitude and surrender the result. At one point I remember saying to myself that I was determined to give as much as I could in the race and then really accept whatever result may come, with no sense of disappointment or regret. Of course I don't know how I would have felt if I had lost first place in the very last few minutes, but I suspect I would still have finished with a smile. That  moment of surrendering the result seemed to lighten my mood and free up my body to walk faster.

At the finish as you can see I was wasted but elated. Kokila said I had not looked particularly happy  during the walk, and to be fair I do think I have quite a serious race face - but I really was very happy to be out there and grateful to be part of such an incredible race. The overall feeling that pervaded everything was of a Oneness Family - that familiar phrase that Sri Chinmoy used to describe how we should see our world and our human society. Oneness was the feeling that remains with me now that the race is a few days ago, and I have moved on to setting myself some new targets. I'll never forget this race though. Coming first in anything is a unique experience and I feel it was given to me as a gift, something I was destined to experience (maybe just the once, who knows!).


Sacred Steps Home