I quickly started to search for another race and found the Self-transcendence 24 hour ultra marathon in Ottawa for the following weekend. The only issue I had was that rather than running around a picturesque 1 mile gravel trail with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the race route was around a 400 meter indoor race track. Ouch. Unfortunately, Helen had other commitments, so I would be on my own. I felt ready to go for 100 miles again, and didn’t want to waste all the training, so I thought I would suck it up, and make an attempt to transcend myself.
The start horn blasted off at 8:00 am sharp on Saturday morning in Ottawa’s Louis Riel dome. 29 runners registered for the 24 hour race started to slowly jog around the 400 meter rubber floored oval. Most runners had set up camps in the inner area complete with tents, comfy lawn chairs, inflatable beds, and tables fully stocked with various nutritional goodies and favorite electrolyte drinks. My ‘camp’ consisted of a small duffel bag with a towel and a bag of cookies from Helen. And one mouse which got into the bag of cookies.
Before the start, we were instructed to visit the officials table and meet our lap counter. Each runner is assigned one of about a dozen volunteers who’s job it is to count your laps. My counter’s name was Assa Ashaminga (I’m guessing at the second part of her name because I couldn’t even pronounce it). Each runners race number is printed on a brightly colored background that corresponds to your lap counter. The lap counters sat behind a long table at the side of the track, and as I started to make my laps, I noticed that all the other lap counters had strange names as well. The names on the name tags were like: Ashtanga, or Notogo, or Boijayanti
And the other volunteers who were working in the kitchen cooking our vegetarian snacks, and those manning the aid station table also had Sanskrit sounding names. And although they all looked like pretty typical Canadians from Ottawa, the girls wore long skirts and pony tails, no makeup, and the jobs were clearly split between the men and the women.
The organizers set up a small musical group consisting of 3 girls playing a harp, bongo drums, and a flute. It was really nice – very new agey and peaceful.
Lining the inside of the track, every 30 feet or so were inspiring motivational quotes by some dude called “Sri Chinmoy”. I had seen pictures of this bald guru looking guy on the web site and I figured that maybe he was some famous Olympic runner or something. “If we believe In our own Self-transcendence-task Then there can be No unreachable goal.”
Finally, at around 2 hours, I asked one of the runners who had done this race last year what was up with the volunteers – “What’s with the long skirts, funny names and the harps and flutes?. Are they a local Bhudist group or something?” She looked at me and laughed, then said “NO… Don’t you know? It’s the Sri cult!”
The Sri cult? “Yes, it’s a cult based out of new York. They run all these ultra marathons around the world from the Self-transcendence 24 hour races to a 6 day ultra marathon around a city block in Queens. They believe that one of the paths to self-transcendence and enlightenment is through ultra running. The guy Sri Chnmoy was their guru.”
“Really? You must be kidding me.” I said. She told me that 3 of the runners were actually members of the cult who had traveled from New York to run their first ultras.
Cult status not withstanding, I was VERY impressed with the volunteers and organizers. They really seemed to CARE so much about the job they were doing. Very peaceful, gracious, happy people – always smiling and eager to help. And they seemed to care very deeply for the runners – which is kind of a nice feeling. I thanked my counter after the race was over and he told me that it was an ultramarathon for them as well. They feel that there is a partnership between the runner and his/her counter. Both cross the finish line and both achieve that success.
There was a large leader board which the volunteers kept updated track side across from the counter tables. The board displayed the names and distances in kilometers for the top 10 runners for men and women. After the first couple of hours, I noted that my name wasn’t even on the list, so I thought that maybe I should pick up my pace a bit.
So I started to run what I would classify as my normal training speed which is maybe 10 km/hr – pretty fast for a 24 hour race. I was feeling very good and I know from experience that during an ultra, when you feel good, you have to take advantage of it and “make hay while the sun shines”. I knew that I would be feeling like crap soon enough, and would be walking as a result. I wanted to take advantage of the good times, and post some miles up on that board.
After the first marathon, I was on the board, covering about 40 km in around 4 to 4.5 hours. I was still feeling great, so kept the pace going. I was passing a lot of runners and moving up the board fast. By 8.5 hours in, I had covered the distance of 2 marathons and I was trading 3rd and 4th place with a runner from Quebec named Guy. Jeff, who was in first place, was miles and miles ahead of everyone. The second place guy was my camping neighbor Patrick who had just finished a 100 mile ultramarathon 2 weeks ago. He was fast, but I noticed that he was starting to walk a bit. I asked him what was up and he told me that he was starting to have stomach issues.
I kept powering on and by the time I had logged 100 km, I was in second place – passing both Guy and Patrick. Later I saw Guy reclining in his lawn chair drinking a beer, so I correctly guessed that he quit. Patrick tried to sleep off his GI problems.
I slowed down a bit for the next 20 km, and then the wheels fell off. Patrick came back on the scene and resumed his blazing pace, and knocked me out of 2nd place. I started to feel sick, and my quads were cramping, so I walked for a while. The other runners started to come alive, as I started to wither, and for the next 10 hours, I watched my name slowly drop down on the leader board.
To help pass the time, and to learn more about this strange religion, I tracked down one of the Sri Chinmoy runners from New York and had a little chat. She was young – I thought late 20’s, and she was running her first ultra. She was in way over her head, but she did end up completing 94 km. She walked between episodes of sitting in a chair being attended to and massaged by her Sri sisters. I asked her if her church makes them run and she said no, but it is highly encouraged. She told me her goal one day was to run the 6 day ultra. She didn’t train for this event. She starts each morning with 30 minutes of meditation while focusing on a photo of her guru Sri Chinmoy. They don’t drink alcohol or caffeine, don’t dance, don’t watch tv or read newspapers, and avoid social contact with members of the opposite sex. Sexual relations are forbidden, even for married couples. This is according to the book Cartwheels in a Sari written by a Jayanti Tamm who defected from the cult and published a book which I am reading now.
I was feeling so crappy I wanted to pack up and head back to the hotel. But… I made a deal with myself. That deal was that I would NOT quit. No matter what. I would run if I could, walk if running wasn’t possible, sit if walking wasn’t possible, or curl up in a corner and sleep if sitting wasn’t possible. And I did them all. I have vivid memories of lying on an old crash pad in the corner of the dome shivering. When moving in the dome, you get warm and perspire, but when you stop and your body is so depleted, it doesn’t have the energy to keep your body heat up so you freeze. I am lying on the dusty floor with my eyes closed, fading in and out of a half-sleep, shivering because I didn’t have a sleeping bag or blanket. All because it is the least horrible thing that I could be doing. Running was making me cramp, walking making me sick, I didn’t have enough energy to sit in a chair, and I was not allowed to go back to the hotel – as per my self-imposed rule.
The self transcendence motivational signs must have gotten to me. I was bound and determined to transcend this! I didn’t quit and ended up rotating between a slow walk resembling a drunken stupor and crawling into some corner. But, self-transcending am I. 8:00 am finally arrived with cheers and clapping from the Sri volunteers as we all crossed the finish line.
In the end, I am very happy that I endured this race. I felt like a king for the first 12 hours, and even though I crashed hard for the second half, I am proud of myself for sticking it through and not giving up. The juxtaposition between the privileged life I live and the primitive crudeness of running an event like this, helps keep me real and grounded. I think everyone should do something really difficult – something that really causes you to stretch and grow and find what you are made of – at least once a year. It will put your wonderful life into proper perspective. And maybe, if you are lucky, you will transcend yourself.