Self Transcendence Marathon - Rockland State Park, 25 August 2005

Self Transcendence 47 Mile Race - Jamaica Track, 27th August 2005

Sri Chinmoy inaugurated "The 47" as we now know it on the morning of his 47th birthday, and ran in the race himself. Since then, the race has been held almost every year, starting at midnight on the night of the 26th/27th August. On Sri Chinmoy's 50th birthday the race was 50 miles long and was held at Rockland State Park, but since then it has reverted to the 47 mile night-race format, falling at the height of the August Celebrations held by the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Jamaica, New York, each year. A few years ago the Self Transcendence Marathon came into being; this race has usually been held just a few days before the 47 miler, giving members of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon team an interesting choice for their main summer race.

After having a great experience in the marathon last year I resolved to take the step up to ultradistance running, in the shape of the Barry 40 and the Brecon Beacons Traverse. After the latter, I realised I had the capacity to attempt a 24 hour race - an ambition I had held for many years. With that eventual goal in mind, I thought that rather than choose between the Marathon and The 47, I could double up and do them both. This despite the fact that only 37 hours would elapse between the finish of the marathon and the start of the ultra - new territory for me in terms of recovery and endurance. Well, isn't "new territory" what it's all about?

I was staying with a bunch of friends in Queens, New York, and the morning of the marathon saw 3 of the 5 room-mates preparing for the marathon while a fourth was one of the lead cyclists. We rose at around 3.45 and meditated together before scrambling to get ready for the 4.30 departure of the buses to the start (conveniently departing from just outside our house - pretty handy). The multi-lap format of this marathon gives you the chance to create your own "aid station", mising drinks just how you want them and leaving them, together with spare kit and whatever other emergency contingencies you can dream up, at a convenient trackside location. I stashed my drinks, gels etc. in a plastic tub adorned with a Welsh flag just by the main adi station and finish line where I could easily spot it. With the 47 to contend with, I resolved to hold back a bit in the marathon so as not to finish myself off completely - the target was to run a steady 8 minute pace to finish in 3.30 - I also hoped to get even splits instead of the usual fast first half followed by a slow death :)

The start was awesome as usual - Sri Chinmoy came to the podium and led the pre-race meditation then offered a prayer for the runners. He also implored all the runners - especially the members of his own team (about 650 of the 700 or so present) not to take any risks, and to pull out if they had to rather than endanger their health. New York State in August can be very hot, and with so many runners from overseas many would not be used to the conditions, so this was of course a timely piece of advice.

The course of the Self Transcendence Marathon 8 laps of a beautiful lake - most of it shaded by trees but with some sun-baked sections too. The scenery is inspiring, the singers, poetry-readers and musicians (mostly drummers this year) who line the track keep your spirits up, and with so many runners of all abilities on the loop you are never short of company. The first half of the race passed easily enough - steady 8 minute pace or just under for the most part, coming through half way in 1.43 a little ahead of schedule. It went on like this until 20 miles - I had thought that perhaps the last six miles would be equally easy because of my slower than usual start, but for some reason they seemed almost as tough as ever. With just a mile to go I had to step on it and find a surge from somewhere to dip under 3.30 - I managed it by 10 seconds, coming in just behind Ambarish from Dublin and ahead of Amalendu from Canberra - both good runners and good friends of mine too.

The finish has a real festival atmosphere, but I headed straight for the recovery drinks in my bag and the massage tent (free massage for all finishers - superb). There were some good results for my fellow Run and Become workers Tarit (3rd vet 50+) and his daughter Dhavala (first lady again - this time in a PB of 3.05). Fran had a great run too - 5.33 was a superb result after so little training - knee problems had only just cleared up in time for the race, and had prevented her doing more than a handful of one hour runs as preparation. She was cheerful all the way round and still running rather than walking when I saw her on my way back round the course to the rather bracing cold showers.

I worked hard on the recovery - gallons of sports drinks, some stretching & a superb massage from Uddipan the next morning - he gave me a clean bill of health after loosening up some of my problem muscles with a combination of strong hands and sharp elbows. As the day wore on I was thinking only of the 47 - I slept through the afternoon for 3-4 hours then went to Aspiration Ground for Sri Chinmoy's musical performance - I took a comfy seat at the back rather than one with a good view where my legs might be a bit cramped, but although I couldn't see Sri Chinmoy I could hear the music clearly. Sri Chinmoy's concerts are basically meditation sessions with music, and are not to be missed. It gave me a chance to clear the mind for a while and just be.

As the evening wore on people started to leave quietly to prepare for the race at midnight. Most of the entrants had, like me, completed the marathon the previous day. The night was mild and muggy. I walked to Jamaica Track with Tarit, grabbing a hot tea from a deli on the way. When we got to the race there was just time to fill all my drinks bottles, lay out the food (bars and gels) and swill down some tea before the start. This race is not open like the marathon - it is only run by members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre, and is a very meditative event. We sang The Invocation and shared a moment of silence before the start, then fifty or so runners shuffled off into the warm night on a 1.17 mile road-and-track loop.

Once again there were singers, musicians and numerous well-wishers. I even had a "handler" in the shape of Ed who was doing drinks for myself and Tarit. He would hand me a bottle as I entered the 400m track and pick it up from me just as I left the track and headed back to the road loop. I had been aiming at 500ml per hour (long chain carbs + electrolytes, mixed at half strength) but Tarit has suggested more in the muggy conditions so I tried to consume as much as possible. Predictably this meant loads of loo stops early on and a sloshy stomach so I reverted to plan A and soon settled down - well hydrated and not as stiff as I'd expected but definitely slow after the marathon - even in the early laps I was taking 12 minutes for the loop which equates to around 10 minute miles.

I didn't speak to anyone most of the time, except Ed and later Karteek who took over for second shift as our handler. Sri Chinmoy had recently spoken about the need for intense concentration in races longer than the marathon, so I tried to stay in a meditative consciousness, repeating mantras and songs to myself in silence as I ran - or shuffled - through the darkness. The night was a like a warm cloak of silence, broken here and there by a flute player or singer, a clapping well-wisher or a passing car. The street lights cast bright, towering reflections across the face of Goose Pond. I looked up into the trees on the parkside section, enjoying the calm and silence. I took gels every few laps, and half an energy bar every two hours, which was hard to chew down but worth it. I broke the race down mentally into four sections of 10 laps each - I called them the easy 10, the preparation 10, the tough 10 and the last 10. The tough 10 I then broke down into two 5-lap sections. The easy 10 speaks for itself - the preparation 10 was the time to concentrate on food and drink, keeping energy levels up for the next section. The "tough 10" was going to be the biggest challenge - starting at 23.5 miles and with a long way still to go, so at the half way mark I walked 400m and put on my MP3 player - a treat I had saved for myself for the second half of the race. I found this mental "game" with the different sections really helped - it was a kind of orientation, mapping out time and distance in a way that stopped the distance becoming scary. The only part that was mentally tough ws the dawn - beautiful as it was, I had grown accustomed to the security of night seemingly wrapped around me and the day seemed suddenly stark and exposed - one's mental state is finely balanced in these conditions and if something affects your mood, it can really affect your race. Strangely the daybreak came as a surprise - as if I had forgotten day existed, lost as I was in that long, long night.

Having music in my ears from the MP3 made the tough 10 much easier - so much so that when I took a carbo gel with a little caffeine at lap 30 I was able to use the little "kick" of energy as a springboard to accelarate for the whole of the final 10. I stepped up to just below 10 minute pace and the miles began to fall behind me with greater ease than I expected. Perhaps I had also loosened up from the marathon stiffness.

Apart from general slowness, my core energy felt OK and there was little in the way of physical trouble. On the steep "hill" (in fact a minor gradient of only 20 m. or so leading down to a sharp corner) I felt my dodgy left ITB getting sore, so I turned my foot outwards, letting it roll (pronate) more than usual - the pain receded. That aside no injuries reared their heads to spoil my fun.

The end of the 47 is glorious - as you enter the track for your final 400m you are handed a flag to carry to denote that you are a finisher. The flag has a magic power that sends you speedily round the loop no matter how tired you are. The counters, who have been there for many hours, cheer and clap as if their nation had won the world cup. Then, it is over. You feel very, very grateful.

I finished in 8:13 - 13 minutes faster than my only other attempt at this race in 2000 (which had been run without the aid of a warm-up marathon).

It was then that something very nice happened. First, Sri Chinmoy came past in a car, circling the course meditating on the runners. Then, Hiyamallar offered me a lift home. I had my bike there (to avoid having to walk the mile or so back to my room) and was going to decline, but another friend offered to ride the bike back for me. Suddenly I was surrounded by mates who were doing everything for me - packing my bag, gathering my things together, helping me to the car. After the solitude of the race this kindness couldn't have been more welcome. Next, just before I got in the car, Fran appeared to see how I was - she caught me in that mixture of exaustion and elation that follows a long night of running. She knows the feeling well, having taken part in the 47 a few years ago.

Back home I laid in my bed for an hour after a warm shower, but couldn't sleep. I headed back to Aspiration Ground for Sri Chinmoy's birthday function - meditation and music being the main activities on what for us is the most spiritually significant day of the year. All day I had waves of tiredness and often found myself drifting in and out of consciousness. Amazingly, I was able to walk fairly comfortably.

It had been quite a day - well, two days actually if you count back to the marathon. Two days that will live long in my memory. It's great to be a runner. It's even better to be a seeker. But it's best of all to be a seeker-runner.