Believe, take a step and proceed: a 6-day race experience
In April 2022, Susan Marshall ran the Sri Chinmoy Self Transcendence 6 day race. At the end of the fifth day, she had sat in second place, 16 miles behind the lead runner. But, on the last day of racing, she managed to complete an astonishing 84 miles, to win the race with a total of 442 miles. This is Susan’s report of her experience.
The first time I did well in a multi-day race, I felt that it was a gift from God. My expectations of what I thought I might achieve were shattered, well beyond my training and experience. It came out of the blue and presented itself to me, something I had never wanted, asked for, or needed – a hand shunting me in this direction, an illumined marker on the picture of my being, a little x on the map of what might lead me towards peace and happiness. From here, I began to equate my success in running with my worthiness as a human being. If I was doing well it meant some higher force was supporting me, validating me. This wasn’t a terrible litmus test of life, after all, if you’re doing well in one area, it tends to flow into other areas as well, but assuming a perpetual correlation leads to expectation, and in my case, despair when my body bucked under pressure.
This year's race was a little different. The night before it began, I went to meditate at Aspiration-Ground, our meditation garden in New York where we used to meditate with Sri Chinmoy, and stood in front of the portrait of Sri Chinmoy that stands at the entrance. Normally meditation takes a concentrated effort from me, but occasionally I get a reminder that there is something beyond me, the thing I am trying to reach, that really powers my meditation. In that moment I felt God’s Immortal Peace. It was above all human deeds, all human acceptance of light. Whether or not the Earth was receptive to it was inconsequential. The mind that believes in crime and punishment, karma and retribution demand a slower process than that which came from this source. This mind looks for repentance before forgiveness, worthiness before favour, yet somehow hopes for a miracle. It longs for something that will grant it what it can’t reach, restore what it has lost and broken. The Grace simply was, and it was waiting there for anyone with the aspiration to reach out and touch it. And I felt that all of the runners at this race, who dared to come after the travel bans and social drought of 2021, however they ran, were a part of something divine, illumining, and special – a new hope.
For the first time, I wasn’t nervous before the race started. I had been all-consumingly occupied right up until three days before the race started, and as such the hopes, doubts and possibilities hadn’t gathered enough traction to sink their claws in. The race started and we simply went.
Day One is always fast. You can move at a good speed, the tendons aren't burning in the body's panic to clamp down and hold you from moving forward. So no matter how much it rained, it was nothing to whinge about. The one-mile loop with its dips and troughs formed at least three serious puddles, in this case, known as lakes. Most people went around the outside but I preferred to crash through. Once the major puddles had established themselves as permanent features, enough to be assigned names, someone would come and lay down planks. The runners would clatter over, one or two at a time, rebounding each other's body weight on the downward stride.
One of the mental brakes any runner puts on is fear of injury – running their body into strain in the first few days. The impending possibility of achilles trouble, the fear of the unknown, cautioned my approach, suggesting I dare not even knock at the gates lest they not open. A cautious approach is sometimes wise but for what I wanted, it was not enough. It was do or die. I knew troubles would come, but instead of staying on meerkat monitor – jumping at every sign of tension and predicting doom – I accepted troubles as part of my lot, and I let go of my resistance to them.
The first day I ran 100 miles. By noon, (start of day two) I had issues. Usually, I get two clear days before they rear their obstinate heads. Some of my aims for this race had been to a) assess the progress of my ongoing Achilles issues, b) if they cropped up to see if my body and brain would cope with them and c) translate this information into the feasibility of running a longer distance. My calf cramped up which was the reliable precursor of worse to come. However, my handler Bhauliya massaged this away and for the first time in forever, it didn't come back. This was progress. The whole achilles/peroneal was inflamed though and the whole ankle swelled by about 20 %. This was an ongoing battle of the race, which we managed with compression sleeves and marijuana cream I was given with strict instructions to apply topically only.
I decided I would learn to run with pain, and I did. While the burning in the achilles subsided quite a lot with the cream, the swelling never went away. But don’t worry, I had plenty of other problems. The pain in my feet was so bad that in my last couple of hours every night I would walk the course, biting my fist, and gripping my head in an imaginary tearing out my of hair. Only a few weeks after the race ended, when I was pondering how and why I came to have such terrible foot trouble, did I twig. My entire year of training for the race had been done predominantly on trails, and while this probably helped me in millions of other ways, didn’t prepare me for the cold hard impact of the pavement. Since that little epiphany, in my lead up to my next race, I’ve adopted a strict concrete diet, with the most minimalist of footwear, and the occasional barefoot foray.
I cautioned my approach - running and a lot of walking, particularly in the afternoons. Long miles, long days stretched into a mindset of drudgery and defeat. My race plan became an artificial imposition composed of caution, self doubt and past experience resulting in a boring and mentally executed experience. And as it turns out, it was not helping me. Walking is actually harder on the feet, it involves more contact with the ground. But these are all things you don’t know until you do. And this was actually one of my goals of the race – to unconditionally proceed, regardless of inspiration or condition.
A few years back, a problem was not something I could live with – it was something that consumed my attention. I wasted so much time – stopping after every lap, trying this, trying that. It was like waiting for perfectly clear weather to play a game of cricket. But at some point, while I fought with my insoles and sulked in the corner, I noticed other runners going round and round, not stopping, slowly but surely building up miles. The joy of their momentum entered into me, and I resolved to change my approach. So I had learned something, but I still needed to learn more. And while I was aiming for more time spent on the course, I work better when I take more breaks, run a little faster while I’m actually out there and recover better for the next leg.
I planned many escapes from the race. On the third morning (end of day two. By the way, this is actually a seven-day race, spanning six 24 periods. This had one of my supporters in Australia emailing me, endlessly confused, telling me the results were always delayed, reassuring me the race was nearly over when it wasn’t) I woke up with my tonsils inflamed. I whined to my helper, hoping to be presented to a doctor as soon as one was available, but the relentless Bhauliya chirpily administered me with Vitamin C and kicked me back round the track. On the sixth morning (day 5) I took a COVID test – the dry cough and goops of snot surely manifestations of serious illness but escape denied – the test was negative.
I had mental escapes in dreams of the end. I fantasised about being at the laundromat, washing off what I’d spilt on my red jacket that was now permanently stuck with me. I eyed the sleeves of my green jacket that were darkened with the sweat I’d wiped from my face and visualised attacking them with a brush. My running clothes were feeling like prison garb, civilian dress the finery of the free. Waking from one brief nap I became transfixed by my terrible toenails. Bhauliya summoned my attention back to the race, repeatedly insisting this was not the time. (Although we could have sent a photo to my mother, who loves to proclaim upon each sighting of my quite classic runners feet that they should both be amputated.)
The possibilities were dwindling. From a goal of 450 miles, I was facing a strategy that would get me to 400. And I was in second place, about which I was ambivalent. I’d basically accomplished my goal. I’d proved I could run 60+ miles a day without grumbling and moaning. I’d shown my mind I could have a physical problem and still do okay. But I was not overjoyed. The heart is never happy with anything less than full speed, and I was limiting myself.
At this point a friend of mine who has done much much better in these races than I have taken this moment to make me face what I was trying to hide from. She could see I could do better than I was, and encouraged me to aim much higher. She said I was running from the mind again, and if I opened my heart much more was possible. I’m very shy with pushing beyond. We tend to think that failure is worse than lack of success, but actually, failure and success are inconsequential compared to our effort, and what we achieve through just trying. I also knew it was going to be painful, I mulled on her recommendations for a lap, then next time I came round to Bhauliya said “We’re going for the top now.” Of course she was right in.
Finally, I was enjoying the race. The hours became less long because I needed and valued each one. Each mile was precious, each lap either a gain or loss of position. I was knocking upon the walls and barriers in my own mind and finding they were illusory. The joy in a multi-day race is that it does take you beyond your mind. It invites the unknown directly into every part of your being. Slowly but surely my mileage climbed and by the end of the night, I was in the first position.
If you’d ever like to see a live action zombie experience, do come along to the end of the six day race when year, especially when there’s been a good competition on between a couple of the runners. I had slept two hours and by the final hours was slightly broken on the course, moving on autopilot, running weird mathematics through my head calculating my pace and resulting mileage. I was walking, trying not to cry, and almost disbelieving I had done it.
At noon the race ended – I had reached 442 miles. While the other runners slapped each other on the back and participated in the camaraderie, I slunk into my tent. I was feeling sick, weird, and totally exhausted. They brought me lunch whereupon I demonstrated it is possible to eat salad lying down. (Why did they give me that?).
It took me more than a few days to recover and I was left with an unusual sense of how thin the line is between victory and defeat, often the result of a single decision. Although looking kindly at myself I see that a crossroads is only reached after many before it, and each decision we make is bolstered by the wisdom of all our good and bad experiences. The decision to finally step into the heart came when I saw that my mind had got me somewhere, but not where I wanted to be. My heart called me in and showed me what it could do for me.
We all believe in miracles. And what is a miracle but a power beyond our comprehension (working in our favour)? But through persistence, through determination, through gradual development of awareness, knowledge and capacity that comes from the heart’s aspiration to transform itself and all, we become that miracle. Conditions are never right. We are never perfect. But when we proceed, accepting the challenges not as obstacles, but as the explanation for why we are not where we want to be, and taking this opportunity to transform part of our world. Although our limitations are our present story, we take a walk, a run, or a leap of faith, because our inner eyes are seeing that we have more to give to this world around us. And through our efforts, these miracles become real. We carve them into the soil of time, we create tracks for others to follow.
Winning the race was not a miracle. A miracle is every runner there who believed they could do something unbelievable, and every person who knows that despite their conditions, despite themselves, despite the world around them, we will all soon be more if we believe, take a step and proceed.