Scotland The Brave vs. Jamaica The Hot

(Photos to follow.) No, it’s not a World Cup playoff, but there’s still an international flavor to the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. Known as the longest certified footrace in the world, it pits stellar ultrarunners against daunting distance, as well as brutal heat and drenching downpours. It all takes place around a half-mile loop in Jamaica, Queens, but runners travel from as far away as Russia, Israel, Slovakia, and Scotland to compete.

The 2018 winner in the Men’s Division was Vasu Duzhiy of St. Petersburg, Russia, who finished Tuesday night, July 31st. He ran a distance of 3,100 miles in just under 45 days — not the first win for this solid competitor who’s nearly as consistent as Roger Federer.

The only American among this year’s starters was Yolanda Holder — a pedestrienne or race walker who was the surprise sensation of 2017’s race. With her unique style, she’s known as the Walking Diva; but this year, Ms. Holder had to retire after 1,200 miles due to foot problems.

In a field of many talented athletes, one standout is William Sichel, who hails from Sanday — a tiny island with a population of 550 located in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. The busy streets of Queens are a far cry from the quiet, pastoral setting of his home.

With Viking determination, Mr. Sichel is challenging not just heat and thunderstorms, but also the rigors of advancing age. 64 and a cancer survivor, Sichel’s the dark horse hero of 2018, unable to beat the frontrunners, but turning in an inspiring performance, and likely to set numerous records, including one for oldest competitor to run all 52 days.

In 2014, Mr. Sichel successfully completed the Sri Chinmoy 3100 in 50 1/2 days at age 60. This year, he’s been averaging 56.5 miles per day — less than the 59.6 needed to finish in the allotted time. He would need to up his average to 70 miles a day for the final 10 days of the race — an almost superhuman task, but not impossible for a competitor who’s shown superhuman toughness and come-from-behind prowess in the past. He ran 70.8 miles on Day 1, so no one counts him out!

Sometimes dubbed the “Scottish pocket rocket” and credited with “a mind of iron” (but a kindly disposition), Sichel is competing against 5 remaining runners who are members of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team — likened to the running monks of Japan for their combination of spiritual and athletic discipline.

The Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race was conceived by Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), a spiritual teacher who was active in many fields, including athletics. Since its inception over two decades ago, the race has attracted mostly students of Sri Chinmoy, but other exceptional athletes are invited annually. In addition to Sichel and Holder, this year’s invitees included Kobi Oren, the noted Israeli ultramarathoner who came to a searing second place finish on Thursday, August 2nd with a time of 46:03:24:48.

The competition is friendly, and runners are urged to view the race as a competition with themselves, to transcend their previous capacity and gain spiritual insights, drawing on untapped inner depths to achieve the seemingly impossible. Race co-director Sahishnu Szczesiul says of the 3100:

In multi-day races there are fluctuations in performance, feelings of highs and low, abject despair, and undiscovered elation. These races reflect the struggle to survive another day, to assess effort but not to associate with the pain and sweat, but rather, conserve the energy for the next group of laps, or hours, or even stretches of days. Take a power nap, or stretch the stiff legs, and try again.

Interviewed in 2015 by RunUltra.co.uk, William Sichel emphasized the mental discipline needed to run such a long race:

My body adapted very well and I started running further and further each day as the race progressed. But mentally I found it to be the most enormous struggle especially when things were going against me and it looked like I wouldn’t finish in time. To regain mental control I had to narrow my focus right down to just being aware of my breathing, only thinking of the next lap and never, ever thinking past the current day! Simple as that.

Perhaps this explains why ultramarathoners are more likely to be in their forties or fifties than their twenties. Physical strength is important, but is not the only factor. To run 3,100 miles requires special qualities of mind and heart which must be cultivated over decades.

One-pointed concentration on a goal is also the point of intersection between the athlete’s world and the spiritual world. The total commitment needed to run the equivalent of two marathons a day for 52 days seems to demand coping skills not acquired until middle age.

William Sichel has above average coping skills. In 1997, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Two months after surgery he was back in training, soon setting distance records for Great Britain and Scotland.

His second bid for the Sri Chinmoy 3100 was scheduled for 2017. But on June 12th, the day before he was due to leave for New York, his wife Elizabeth received news that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He withdrew from the race and cared for her until her death 24 days later. Now, in 2018 he’s back facing the ultimate running challenge.

Though Sichel’s temperament is cool, he runs best when the mercury stays below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The long, excruciating heat wave which ushered in July affected his time, and the volley of thunderstorms which closed out the month further dampened his performance. According to race updates, he has now completed 2,830 miles in 50 days, but can’t reach 3,100 miles by the deadline. Still, no bookmaker would give odds that Sichel will quit before Day 52. His many fans in Orkney (and throughout the running world) would be sorely disappointed!

If the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race is a hero’s journey, William Sichel is a torchbearer of the life-affirming aspect. He remains a hero whether or not he manages the full distance this second time around.

The race ends on the evening of August 7th.

More about William Sichel on Perfection Journey.

UPDATE 1: William Sichel continued to run, and by Day 52 achieved a total of 2,904 miles.

Sidebar: Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race – Women’s Division

Surasa Mairer of Austria and Kaneenika Janakova of Slovakia are duking it out for first and second place in the Women’s Division, with less than 25 miles separating them.

In 2015, Mairer broke the long-standing women’s record set by Suprabha Beckjord in 1998. Beckjord’s time back then was 49:14:30:54, but 18 years later Mairer topped it with a time of 49:07:52:24 (6 hours and 38 minutes faster).

Surasa Mairer crosses the finish line of the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, August 2015. Photo courtesy Perfection Journey http://perfectionjourney.org/2015/08/02/august-2-it-is-all-grace/

Mairer’s record was not nearly as long-lived as Beckjord’s. Two years later, Kaneenika Janakova raised the bar for women’s times by acing the Sri Chinmoy 3100 in 48:14:24:10. Now, in 2018 these two record-setters are competing for top spots. Indeed, after Yolanda Holder had to withdraw, they’re the sole remaining women. But due in part to adverse weather conditions, neither are challenging their personal bests. Both are expected to finish on Day 52.

Interviewed in 2017, Kaneenika Janakova echoed William Sichel’s view of the need for mental toughness:

It can be very challenging to control the mind and the thoughts during this race. What I do not want to think about is the distance and the number of days or weeks I have to spend on the course. If I do that it gets very hard because all my mind wants to do is to find the reasons why I should not be doing this race. In order to avoid this I have to trick my mind.

In Janakova’s case, she relies on meditation and going “inside the heart”:

As much as the physical preparation is important, for me it is equally important to devote time to practice meditation. Meditation helps me tremendously to calm and control my mind and also helps me to be more aware of my abilities and believe in my true potential coming from inside. Running and meditation complement each other in my life. I try to quiet the mind and go inside the heart. The heart doesn’t calculate or plan anything. It is just full of joy and eagerness.

What will the 2019 pilgrimage of 3,100 miles bring? Better weather, we hope, and another year of auspicious good fortune for those who dare to challenge impossibility.

UPDATE 2: Both Surasa Mairer and Kaneenika Janakova reached their goal of 3,100 miles on Day 52, at times running through heavy rain and thunderstorms. They were the only female finishers this year, placing 4th and 6th overall in a field of ten starters.

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Super Sarah Smashes Sri Chinmoy 3100

Another victory in women’s sports, and a record that few men could equal…

Dateline: August 6, 2014
Source/Author: Daniel Bleakman at Ultra168.com

Sarah Barnett, 37, from Adelaide has won the world’s longest certified race for the women in the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race sponsored by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team in New York. In the 18 year history of this race, which The New York Times called “The Mount Everest of Ultrarunning,” only two Australians have ever finished the race before and both were men. Sarah is the first Australian female to complete this epic race. Sarah went through 16 pairs of shoes during the race!!!

After 50 days and 3 hours Sarah crossed the finish line nearly 100kms ahead of the two other women (from Russia and Austria) in the race. In a field of the world’s greatest and most accomplished ultra runners on the planet, Sarah’s performance was the second best performance by a female in the 18 year history of the event. She averaged 99.460km per day – this is simply phenomenal.

The 3100 Mile Race is held on a 883 metre course around a school perimeter in Queens, New York. To finish within the 52 day cut off, each runner must run a minimum of 60 miles (96km) a day average, which is 5649 times around the course. They run from 6am to midnight every day.

Sarah finishing her 3,100 miles in just over 50 days. WOW.

Sarah finishing her 3,100 miles in just over 50 days. WOW.

Sarah is not one of those names in our ultra running circles that springs to mind immediately. She’s quiet, unassuming and goes about her business, yet I’d say she is one of Australia’s most accomplished female multi-day race runners, having won events in Morocco, New York, Sweden and Greece amongst many others. There’s always a point of debate as to where this kind of racing ranks on the scale of ultra running. Is say, a fast 100 miler with plenty of mountains such as Hardrock ‘tougher’ than running 100kms a day for 50 days?

The simple answer is that both disciplines have their place in our sport, and both should be respected for their diversity, which is what makes ultra running awesome in my book. On a personal level, this type of racing is not for me (yet!), but I have the most immense respect for those people who do this type of running. I believe the 3100 to be one of the toughest races on the planet, not just because of the physical undertaking, but the mental focus that’s required for 50 days. Completing this type of event is utterly life changing. You’re encapsulated in a bubble for 50 days, running around a block that becomes your sole focus for a month and a half. Some people may call it crazy, I call it immensely disciplined and astounding.

For Sarah, this is her second attempt at the race. Last year she entered and covered 2573 miles (4,116kms) within the 52 days. She has been extremely consistent throughout the race averaging 61.70 miles (nearly 99kms per day) and shown tremendous improvement from last year’s attempt.

Sarah comments: “I am so grateful everything has gone well for me in this year’s race. I can’t actually believe it. I have dreamed of finishing this race for so many years. It is the toughest, most challenging, relentless task I have ever tackled. Every day there are so many unimaginable challenges. All of us runners are in this together. There is such a special feeling at this race. There is no room for the ego, we are all here as a one family discovering such strength within ourselves.”

The first Aussie lady to finish what I think is one of the two toughest races in the world alongside Barkley

The first Aussie lady to finish what I think is one of the two toughest races in the world alongside Barkley

The late Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual teacher, who was an accomplished musician, artist and champion athlete himself, founded this race. Sri Chinmoy believed that within each human being there is unlimited potential and goodness. He is the inspiration behind many world-class running events hosted throughout the world by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team.

Sri Chinmoy sprinting

Sri Chinmoy sprinting

“We are all truly unlimited if only we dare to try and have faith,” said Sri Chinmoy.

Sarah went on to say, “We are all, each of us, capable of so much more, but we have to strive to reach our goals. That is what makes achieving them so glorious. I hope this achievement inspires others, in whatever it is they love to do, to keep striving and reaching for new goals.” Sarah said one of her favourite quotes by Race Founder, Sri Chinmoy, was present in her mind through much of the race:

“Always take one more step than you intended to. You can, without fail, do it! Lo, you have done it.”

— Sri Chinmoy

Race director, Rupuntar LaRusso from New York said that Sarah’s performance was truly remarkable. “She has been incredibly solid, smiley and displayed formidable determination. Australia can be extremely proud of her. This is another historic day for the 3100 Mile Race and for women in ultra running.”

The men’s winner, Sarvagata Ukrainskyi, from the Ukraine finished in 45 days.


Special thanks to Dan at Ultra168 for this story.

Update! Watch the video of Sarah’s finish & celebration:

After a leisurely run of 3100 miles, Sarah Barnett is serenaded and congratulated. She deserves it!