‘It is part of my spiritual life’: the people who take running to the extreme – The Guardian

You might think that running around the same New York city block for 52 days straight would be an exercise in futility. Not to mention stupefyingly boring.

Runners who signed up for the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race would go around and around 164th street in Jamaica, Queens, 5,649 times, roughly 96km each day until they had run 4,898km in the worlds longest certified footrace.

The race and extreme running itself is the subject of Sanjay Rawals new film, 3100 Run and Become, which is now available to stream.

Watching it now as the worlds major cities including New York are in shutdown feels jarring, a reminder of the freedoms we have lost: to be outside in bustling streets, where people move with purpose; to run and to breathe without fear. In the film, street life in Queens surrounds the runners as they circle the same block, past the Thomas Edison high school and Joseph Austin playground, again and again.

They struggle with the stifling summer heat bouncing off the pavement, the humidity, the blisters, the chafing, the carb loading, the exhaustion. The race was founded in 1996 by the late Indian guru Sri Chinmoy as a way for people to discover and surpass their own limits. The goal is to transcend earthly annoyances and find some kind of enlightenment.

But for the most part in this film, those taking part look more as though they are descending into a particularly unpleasant version of hell, as their muscles break down. Ashprihanal Aalto, 45, tells his mentor that after winning in 2015 he doesnt want to run the race again because he doesnt want to suffer like that any more. But he does run it, as he has 15 times now, winning more than half of them. I wouldnt do it 15 years if there wasnt something more than just a race, he tells the Guardian. For me it is part of my spiritual life You try to quiet the mind.

He was training for this years race when it was cancelled because of the coronavirus. Now hes self-isolating instead: a situation hes better trained for than most. Aalto speaks to me from Helsinki, Finland, where he is a postal worker, living an austere existence alone in a cabin.

These types of races are not for an incredibly social person says the director, Rawal. I would say his life of utter solicitude definitely gives him an edge over people. [Aalto] lives like a teenager, he has got boxes of chocolate under his bed. He drinks soda all the time, eats pizza. The one thing he works on his mental attitude, just to keeping his mind fluid, loose and free.

The most interesting thing about those who run this race, Rawal says, is that they are the most ordinary people.

One of them, Yuri [Trostenyuk, who won in 2016], is a plumber in the Ukraine. None of them are sponsored. It shows that if you have the right attitude you can accomplish what most people think is impossible.

Aalto found spirituality after his mother died. Craving time and space to reflect, he went into the forest on his own for three months, walking the 4,500km Pacific Crest Trail and then the 3,500km Appalachian Trail in the US. After many months of hiking you become one with the forest and more sensitive, your hearing and smell becomes better, he says. When he heard about multi-day races, something clicked: I thought it sounded nice to be able to run all day and night.

In his film, Rawal explores the spirituality of running as its experienced around the world; that ability to tap into something more powerful than simply the pounding of feet. It was this idea that running could be a prayer, he says. He ventures from the New York race to visit Shaun Martin, a Navajo canyon runner in Chinle, Arizona, who is continuing a tradition of moving on foot that has existed for hundreds of years. He visits bushmen of Botswana, who are trying to hold on to a now-illegal tradition of hunting by running after their prey.

He also talks to a Buddhist monk in Mount Hiei, Japan, who undertakes an ascetic 1,000-day challenge in rugged terrain wearing unsuitable bamboo shoes and who is obliged to kill himself if he doesnt complete it. Says Rawal of the monk: It was this idea that movement and running could be used to totally transcend our ego and put us into the highest realms of spiritual consciousness. That there comes a point that the bliss totally negates any pain or discomfort. If it wasnt for the bliss all he would think about was, What if I dont finish?, and fear would envelope him.

Aalto says: For some people it is spiritual music or great singers that gives their joy, their inspiration, for some people art. For me running long distances is my way of making progress, that is what keeps me motivated. As the years go by the more it is an inner thing. It is still a race but there is a kind of joy in it.

3100: Run and Become is streaming on iTunes, Amazon, Amazon Prime and Google Play


'It is part of my spiritual life': the people who take running to the extreme - The Guardian

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