Whenever someone talks about ultramarathons, I have visions of people running up mountains, through woods, jumping over rocks and tree roots, and crossing streams. There are famous races like the Hardrock 100, a 100.5 mile race in southern Colorado’s San Juan Range that runners must complete in 48 hours. The average elevation for the Hardrock 100 is over 11,000 feet and altitude sickness is a real risk for the participants. The Western States 100 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California is another well known ultra. Runners have 30 hours to complete the course which can have both snow packed terrain and hot temperatures. Surprising to me, these races and others like them are very popular. So popular that entrants usually have to qualify and enter a lottery to secure a spot. But the most astounding ultramarathon is not one that runs over mountains. It is a race in New York City called the Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race.
I learned about the race from a documentary titled “3100: Run and Become.” The race was created by Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), a marathoner and ultramarathoner, who felt one could achieve peace through meditation, music, poetry, art, and sports. Chinmoy wanted to give runners an opportunity to discover the limits of their abilities and try to transcend them, to reach new levels of personal achievement. The first race, held in 1985 in Flushing Meadows, was only 1000 miles. In 1996 Chinmoy increased the distance to 2700 miles. Enough people finished the race that Chinmoy decided to up the distance to 3100 miles in 1997. The race is the longest certified footrace in the world.
The Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race is held from mid-June until early August. Participants have 52 days to complete 3100 miles by running 0.5488 miles around an extended city block in Queens (164th Place to Abigail Adams (84th) Avenue to 168th Street to Grand Central Parkway). In order to finish within the time limit, a runner has to average at least 59.62 miles per day. The men’s record is 40 days 9 hours 6 minutes and 21 seconds, held by Ashprihanal Aalto from Finland who has finished the race 14 times. The women’s record is 49 days 7 hours 52 minutes 1 second, set by Surasa Mairer from Austria.
Participants can only run between 6 AM and Midnight and are allowed to take breaks as needed. Each day the direction they run is reversed – clockwise one day, counterclockwise the next. The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team organizes the race and provides support to the runners, including riding alongside them on a bike at night for safety. The runners’ health is closely monitored. If the team feels a runner is physically at risk, they are removed from the race. No arguments allowed.
The documentary, which focused on the 2016 race, also followed runners in other cultures who run not to win but for higher purposes. These included Shaun Martin, a Navaho Indian; Gaolo of the San Bushmen of the Kalahari who runs while hunting wild animals to feed his family; and Gyoman-san, a marathon monk on Mt. Hiei, Japan who ran as part of a process to achieve enlightenment. I was particularly interested in the segments on the marathon monk. I had witnessed this very same monk during one of his marathon “runs” when I visited Kyoto in 2017.
Although I have thought about exploring ultramarathons, I have no interest in the 3100 Mile Race. It would be extremely hot to run in an urban environment like New York City in the summer. Plus there would be exhaust fumes spewing from passing city traffic diminishing the air quality. In the film I could tell the runners ran on the sidewalk, most of which appeared to be concrete. Running on concrete for 18 hours a day would be very painful. Finally it would be monotonous. After 5,649 laps you would know every crack in the sidewalk along the course. I ran a race with a similar format – the Arena Attack Half in Hartford, Connecticut. I ran 65 laps around the concourse of Hartford’s XL Center. The scenery was incredibly boring but on the positive side I was never far from a bathroom or a water fountain. It was an unusual experience but not one I would want to repeat.
The 3100 Mile Race is currently underway. This year’s race entry includes seven men and one woman. And yes, Ashprihanal Aalto is running again. You can access the race website to read daily race reports and watch race webcams.
Here is the trailer for the documentary “3100: Run and Become.”
Roberta Flack, who coincidentally meditated and ran with Sri Chinmoy, performed the song “Running” on the film’s soundtrack. The song marked her return to music following her 2016 stroke.