This is the strange talc of how an Eastern mystic saved a Western sport from oblivion. The unlikely mix of characters includes Sri Chinmoy, a 58-year-old Indian spiritual master who has built a small sports empire in America; his 1,100 persistently faithful disciples; a select group of the world's greatest long-distance runners; and the top organizers on the New York racing scene. But the star of the story is ultrarunning, a catchall term for footraces longer than a marathon. (The races cover either a certain distance, 100 miles, for example, or a length of time: the six-day race.)
Sri Chinmoy and his students around the world put on most of the major ultras contested on roads today. In fact, the elite runners believe their sport might not exist if it weren't for the guru. "Without Sri Chinmoy, we would have few races and little future," says Yiannis Kouros of Greece, the world's top ultrarunner. "He has been the sport's lifeline."
A hundred years ago, ultras were major affairs. A six-day race sold out annually at Madison Square Garden in New York City, with spectators paying hefty fees day and night for three-or four-hour admissions. Prize money of up to $25,000 went to the top finishers, making it one of the richest sports events. But the ultramarathon faded as more dramatic spectator sports, such as horse racing and baseball, gained popularity. Madison Square Garden held its last six-day race in 1896.
As late as 1972, even the marathon seemed somewhat bizarre for some Americans. But Frank Shorter's gold medal at the Munich Olympics helped make the race "respectable" in the U.S. When more than 14,000 competitors entered the New York City Marathon in 1982, Fred Lebow, president of the New York Road Runners Club (NYRRC), felt it was time to stage a longer event. The next year, at Randalls Island, he revived the six-day race with huge success. "We marketed the race with pizzazz, and there was worldwide network television coverage," Lebow recalls. The best American runner, Stu Mittleman, was trussed up with 25 pounds of broadcasting equipment for five straight nights so Nightline host Ted Koppel could carry on conversations with him as he ran. After staying back in the pack for days, Mittleman rewarded Nightline with a stirring second-place finish.
A star was born, and a sport reborn. The television exposure helped Mittleman parlay ultrarunning into a living. "I had Nike and Gatorade endorsement contracts," he says, "and I lectured everywhere to drum up interest." New ultra-marathon race sites began to spring up around the country.
The next year, the Road Runners' six-day race attracted more media attention when Kouros ran 635 miles and 1,023 yards, shattering the 96-year-old world mark. Lebow vowed to hold the race annually. Instead, he had to cancel it in 1985 to repair the track on Randalls Island—the only site that could be found locally for an event at which competitors eat and sleep alongside the course. When the NYRRC seemed to be abandoning the sport, sponsors elsewhere bailed out of races as well. "They decided ultrarunning was too outlandish for the public," says Mittleman, who lost his endorsement contracts. "They couldn't handle all these weirdos running 10-12 hours a day."
Enter Sri Chinmoy. The balding, soft-spoken meditation teacher, who keeps his eyes half-closed as if he is constantly communing with the spirit world, hardly seems the type to be obsessed with athletics. But during his youth, he was sprinting and decathlon champion of the religious retreat (ashram) in Bangladesh where he was raised. He was convinced that sports were one path to peace and godliness. When he arrived in the U.S. in 1964 a "fully realized holy man" (to quote his devotees), he was intent on spreading his blend of spirituality and athleticism.
By the mid-1970s, an enclave of 200 or so followers had formed around his home in Jamaica, Queens. (Most were Americans, but many dressed in Indian style and adopted Indian names.) He churned out a prodigious amount of devotional songs, poems, and paintings, as well as a few hundred books of essays and meditation lessons. He established 80 Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centers worldwide and led twice-weekly "peace meditations" for United Nations personnel.
In 1976, he made his first splash as a running-event promoter. His disciples put together the mammoth Liberty Torch Relay, a nonstop, 8,800-mile relay through all 50 states to celebrate the Bicentennial. When the spectacle generated coast-to-coast goodwill as well as favorable press, the guru and his disciples founded the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team (SCMT) to organize events on a regular basis.
Thus began Sri Chinmoy's enchantment with endurance running. "Although I'd been a sprinter, I saw that long-distance running was better for most people," he says. "Few of my disciples were blessed with speed. But they could easily develop stamina by practicing a few months."
At first, he asked his students to run a mere two miles a day for fitness. But when he started distance running himself "to inspire them" (he eventually ran 22 marathons and seven ultras), he decided that longer runs offered greater spiritual fodder. "Ultradistance runners have to spend hours training every day," he explains. "As a result, they receive many good things from Above: patience, inner tranquillity, consecration and a self-disciplined and dedicated life." Moreover, ultrarunning seemed a perfect metaphor for his philosophy of self-transcendence—the idea that through "deep inner and outer striving," one could go beyond "the restrictions imposed by the mind" and discover unlimited potential.
The theory was soon put to the test. On Sri Chinmoy's 47th birthday in 1978, a group of his students decided to run a 47-mile race in celebration. "Ultras were still completely obscure then, and none of us had run one," recalls Tarak Kauff, director of the SCMT. "Only a few had even run a marathon. We started at midnight—the course was lit by candles—and the race went on for six or seven hours," he continues. By reasonable estimates, all the runners eventually should have collapsed or broken into pieces. Instead, out of 50 who began the run, 49 finished.
Two years later the SCMT hastily threw together its first public ultramarathon, a 24-hour race in Greenwich, Conn. Only five people entered, and 10 minutes before the start, Kauff learned he needed one more runner to make things official. He collared a disciple who was on hand, 19-year-old Kirit Makita from Japan, who had never run more than 11 miles. Kauff hoped he would last a few hours for the sake of appearances. Makita covered 111¾ miles and won, setting a Japanese national record. With such irrefutable evidence of "God's grace," Sri Chinmoy decided to hold the race annually.
His marathon team, however, had a lot to learn about putting on ultras. They helped out at countless local events, methodically winning the hearts, minds and advice of running's top organizers, such as Lebow and former Olympian Ted Corbitt. Each year hundreds of disciples came from around the world for the New York Marathon. Those who didn't run packed goody bags for the thousands of competitors, or assisted in the massive cleanup.
When the NYRRC started seriously promoting the 100-mile and six-day races, it relied on Sri Chinmoy's disciples to count laps and keep time. "They were willing to be out there around the clock doing whatever it took, and we depended on them more and more," says NYRRC treasurer Peter Roth. "Eventually, they didn't need us."
When the NYRRC cancelled its six-day race in 1985 for good, Sri Chinmoy decided to sponsor an event that stretched the imagination even further—a 1,000-mile road race. The event, which is now held yearly, established the SCMT's style: part circus sideshow, part peace demonstration, but mostly one of unflagging personal attention. Before the first race, in 1985 in Flushing Meadow, Queens, competitors were introduced and often paraded around the course on colorful floats decorated by the disciples. A band and a choir performed a few Sri Chinmoy songs, and the guru led a brief silent meditation.
The Marathon Team made sure the runners could concentrate on running. As the race progressed, disciples working eight-to-12-hour shifts counted laps and manned the clock. Others worked in the nearby miniature Olympic Village they themselves had built. Mostly at their own expense (defrayed partly by $200 entrance fees), they had installed a telephone system, hot and cold showers, a clothes dryer, sleeping facilities, a kitchen cooking individualized vegetarian meals round-the-clock, and a medical tent staffed with masseurs, exercise physiologists and chiropractors.
In the next couple of years, Sri Chinmoy brought this same organizational panache to a growing list of events: a 70-mile race, a 100-mile race, a five-day race, a seven-day race, a 700-mile race and finally, a 1,300-mile race—said to be the longest running event ever held. Today, the SCMT sponsors about a dozen ultramarathons around the globe. Many of the world and national records for men and women have been set in these events, and Ultrarunning magazine, the sport's bible, says that they are consistently the best-handled anywhere. Apparently confirming the SCMT's reputation, the International Association of Ultrarunners approved the 1988 Sri Chinmoy 1,000-mile run as a world championship, and The Athletics Congress (the U.S. governing body of road racing) sanctioned the 1989 24-hour and 100-mile races as U.S. championships.
Perhaps surprisingly, no one seems happier about all this than Lebow. "Sri Chinmoy preempted us, but I'm not complaining," he says. "Otherwise, we couldn't have built up events like the New York Marathon the way we have. They took an unremunerative burden off our hands. Even if we could afford to step in, there would be no reason: Sri Chinmoy is doing a very good job."
Not everyone, however, views the SCMT so positively. As Mittleman points out, many folks dislike having such a conspicuously different group dominate the sport. "I'm grateful as hell for what Sri Chinmoy's group has done since the big sponsors dropped out," he says. "They're warm, selfless people. But when Americans see American women in Indian robes following a guru, they mistakenly think the races are a vehicle for a proselytizing cult." The result, says Mittleman, is that the commercial sponsors stay away, and no prize or endorsement money comes into the sport.
Even Lebow worries that Sri Chinmoy may be "overexposing" ultramarathons. "The six-day run had a history; people could identify with it," he says. "But the 1,000-mile run went beyond comprehension for most. And then he did the 1,300-mile run. The race lasted almost three weeks and generated no attention. He's in danger of taking something that was unique and charismatic and making it commonplace."
Stan Wagon, editor of Ultrarunning, agrees. "I hate it when he changes the six-day race to a five-day race, or invents a 1,300-mile race so he can hold the longest race ever run," he says. "The events have attracted surprisingly good runners because they're so well handled, but they still boil down to whims of the boss."
The thing is that the guru believes in nothing so fervently as his "whims." "I am at God's behest," he says. "I listen to the dictates of my inner being, and whatever He asks, I try to do with devoted oneness. This is why I do ultradistance." It's also why he doesn't care if sponsors stay away; their financial concerns might only interfere with the intimate atmosphere and precision of his races. And as for making ultras commonplace, that's precisely his point—to show that the common man can regularly accomplish the impossible.
As long as runners want to run, says Sri Chinmoy, he expects to keep putting on ultras. "God does not like anything good to disappear from creation," he says. "So He will not let ultradistance running disappear. If He sees that I am not doing well, He can choose another instrument to carry out His will."
Mark Teich is a free-lance writer who lives and runs in New York City.