World’s Longest Footrace Covers 3,100 Miles One Step at a Time

July 31, 2018

The world’s longest certified road race is less about finish lines, hardly about fanfare, has little to do with competition, and very likely will take more than a month to finish without taking participants more than a mile from where they started.

The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team every year hosts the epic endurance Self-Transcendence event, which challenges participants on a 3,100-mile run/walk (depending on each participant’s vibe) over a one-mile urban loop. It’s currently the longest certified footrace in the world; one in which participants have to contend with hot New York summers, a hard concrete course, and the many physical and mental challenges of competing alone in a seemingly endless loop of running that stretches for weeks.

Participants in the race run thousands of laps, each less than a mile, over the course of 52 days.

For perspective, Russia’s Vasu Duzhiy, at 52, won the 2017 event in New York City in a “time” of 46 days, 17 hours, to record his second victory in the series, which has been at 3,100 miles since 1997. He ran a personal best time of 44 days and change in 2015 and has six finishes to his credit.

Not that runners are necessarily “competing” in the traditional sense.

The teachings of event founder, spiritual teacher and ultra-runner Sri Chinmoy celebrate mental endurance as much as physical. Chinmoy, who died in 2007, taught meditation when he wasn’t pursuing writing, art, and music. At the time of his death, USA Today said the “Charismatic guru” met with world leaders like Pope Paul VI and Nelson Mandela, once hoisted 7,000 pounds with one arm, wrote more than 20,000 songs, sketched more than 1 million “peace birds,” and claimed meditation students in 60 countries.

A statue of spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy stands in Prague, Czech Republic.

The 3,100-miler, though, is the granddaddy of his pursuits.

In 1996, Chinmoy initiated a 2,700-mile race, in which five out of six starters finished. The next year, he upped the distance to 3,100. Ten intrepid runners took to the start line in 2018, the 22nd edition.

The course record is 40 days, 9 hours, 6 minutes and 21 seconds set by Ashprihanal Aalto of Finland in 2015. Suprabha Beckjord was for many years the race’s only female competitor and has completed the race 13 times.

“In the 3,100-mile race, my goal every year is to transcend,” Beckjord said, in an interview on the race event’s official website. “It’s not the kind of race in which runners go fast and constantly look behind them to see who’s catching up. We definitely make up a team and there is a lot of love and support among the runners. The runners who have done the race before are looking out for the new ones, and we are all an extended family — the runners, the supporters and the Marathon Team. There is such an intensity to these races, and at the same time, there is so much peace. That creates a bond.”

The race inspires a sense of community, rather than competition, among participants.

Sure there are logistical realities in an endurance race on this level. After all, consider that “Runner’s World” magazine typically encourages diehards to retire their running shoes every 300-500 miles.

That could come in five days at this event’s pace.

Ultra-marathoner Yolanda Holder pushes herself to average 60 miles per day over 52 consecutive days when she competes in Sri Chinmoy. Known as “The Walking Diva,” Holder has run and medaled in more than 600 races.

“Anything is possible if you never give up,” she said in an interview with Jared Cameron, the night before she became, at 59, the oldest woman ever to compete in Sri Chinmoy in 2017. “Try it.”

The Sri Chinmoy challenges its competitors with outer distance and inner disciplines all at once, combining breathing techniques with meditation and a hypnotic focus that runners/walkers usually don’t get to achieve when the race (eventually) ends. Chinmoy saw distance running “as a vehicle to enable runners to bring to the fore their physical, mental and spiritual capacities.” (“Run and become. Become and run,” he philosophized. “Run to succeed in the outer world. Become to proceed in the inner world.”)

“Life is hard for everybody,” one runner reflected on Day 52 of the 2015 event on the race’s website that year. “Everybody is running their own version of the 3,100-mile race. … Never give up. Just push your way through the tunnel.”