| Outside magazine, October 1996|
The path to enlightenment and lasting world peace is an arduous journey. But for the long-shuffling disciples of Sri Chinmoy, spiritual visionary and proponent of ultra-endurance athletics, their 2,700-mile, 5,000-lap pilgrimage unfolds outside Thomas A. Edison Vocational Technical High School in Queens, New York. "Run and become," Sri preaches, "become and run." So it is spoken, so it is done.
The Supreme doesn't want you to be satisfied with 50 meters. He wants you to run 51 meters, 52 meters, 54 meters.... Otherwise, if you always aim at the same goal, it becomes monotonous.
For no particular reason I just kept on goin'. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured since I'd gone this far, might as well turn around and keep on goin'. When I got to another ocean, I figured since I'd gone this far, I might as well just turn back around, and keep right on goin'.
To the untrained eye, day 20 of the World's Longest Footrace is indistinguishable from any of the previous days, though today may be hotter and muggier. The six competitors, three men and three women, walk-jog along a sidewalk that has crumbled and heaved in spots, the same rectangular course they have followed since starting on June 13, nearly three weeks ago. This same concrete route will be their proving ground and home for nearly a month more after today. Each lap covers precisely 0.548 miles, encircling the Thomas A. Edison Vocational Technical High School in Queens, New York. It runs from tree-shaded 84th Avenue to the open skies of 167th Place to a narrow, unshaded three-block stretch abutting the combined din and fumes of the Grand Central Parkway and Van Wyck Expressway to the playground shouts and screams of 164th Place, then back around to the starting line, set against a high chain-link fence that divides 84th Avenue from the school's baseball field and track. Overhead, 747s roar by on their way to and from JFK. Down the block, a disheveled man sits on a bench, gesturing and muttering to himself. The racers dodge and weave around in-line skaters, construction workers, sullen skateboarders, and dog walkers, none of whom seems to know or care that history is jogging by.
Were this a 10k, this course would seem only cruelly monotonous, but these racers are nursing much loftier aspirations. Each aims to run 2,700 miles by the end of the 47th consecutive day of the race, loping through a Mengelean daily regimen that begins at four in the morning and continues until 11 at night. Each has a goal of at least 57 miles per day, interrupted only by stops for bowls of pasta or grain or spiceless brown stew ladled out by volunteers, occasional pauses at the Portosan, and a few hours of shut-eye. If all goes as planned, each runner will notch a total of 4,927 laps by July 29, a mere four weeks away. The magnitude of the undertaking is undeniably impressive. The thousands of miles exact an immense physical toll: Weight shears off, feet blister and bleed, muscles, if not sufficiently nourished, begin consuming themselves. But the racers here appear robust--even, in some cases, chubby. None staggers. All trickle by with steady, unbroken strides.
On the other hand, watching their strained smiles as they circle the course yet again, it's hard not to think of the joke about the guy who habitually hits himself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops.
Five of the six runners are staunch adherents of the philosophy of Sri Chinmoy, the visionary behind this event, a 65-year-old Queens-based guru once described by the Wall Street Journal as "the stunt man of the spiritual world." One of his acolytes is the current front-runner, a knock-kneed, unemployed Latvian schoolteacher named Georgs Jermolajevs, who has already pounded out 1,312 miles, each at about a 13-minute pace. "It's so inspiring just to be out here," Jermolajevs says in halting English as he rounds 84th Avenue for roughly the 2,394th time. The only runner who is not a disciple of Chinmoy, Jesse Dale Riley of Key West, Florida, is also the only one who lags below the minimum daily quota, totaling only 1,034 miles. The weenie.
Although it would take no great leap of imagination to come up with a grander 2,700-mile route--Chicago to Albuquerque and back, say, or several dozen laps around the island of St. Barts--organizers chose this garbage-strewn arena for simplicity's sake. No nightmare logistics here, no headaches, little or no travel expenses. Besides, in this endeavor--or any of the countless other Chinmoy-inspired slog-a-thons that came before and will follow--scenery is hardly the point.
"Life is a big ultramarathon," Chinmoy student Pradhan Balter says, in a typical burst of Chinmoy aphorism. Balter, a Chicago chiropractor, oversees the Chinmoy races' medical unit. "We wake up every day and, for most of us, we run the same course. We go to work, see the same people, take the same subway--we go in a big loop hundreds of times."
Which is to say, the point being made by the Chinmoy-sponsored 2,700-miler is the same as the point of the annual Chinmoy-sponsored Ultimate Ultra, a package of 700-, 1,000-, and 1,300-mile runs held simultaneously each September on a similarly gritty course at Ward's Island Park in Queens; and the same as the point made by the annual Sri Chinmoy Ten-Day Race, which wrapped up at Ward's Island in May, just weeks before the 2,700-miler kicked off; and the same as the point made by the biennial Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Runs, four-month-long, 12-disciple, Peace Torch-carrying relays through the Lower 48; and the same as the point made by dozens of Chinmoy-sponsored 5k's, 10k's, half-marathons, midnight-to-dawn jogs, monthly Rainbow Marathons, and weekly two-mile fun runs. Not to mention Chinmoy's own weight-lifting stunts, in which he's nudged tremendous loads overhead with one arm and calf-raised a platform holding two elephants and (on separate occasions) a Ford pickup and a schoolhouse. Or the 9,000-mile, 50-state sashay run by the former director of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team in 1982 to commemorate the guru's 50th birthday.
And that point is...?
Well, "self-transcendence," in a nutshell, together with the chance to please Chinmoy, their spiritual scoutmaster, and to demonstrate--and publicize, publicize, publicize--what his brand of meditation can accomplish. "There are no limits to our capacity because we have the Infinite Divine within us," the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team Web site quotes the Master as saying.
Exceeding one's corporeal limitations is not always a church picnic, of course, and even Chinmoyites can hit the wall. At last year's Seven-Day Race, one entrant dropped out with a mere 48 hours to go, evidently feeling his per-day distance wasn't up to snuff. "He wasn't running at the level he'd set for himself," said a race volunteer, a 19-year-old health-food clerk who identified herself only as Chataki, the Sanskrit name Chinmoy had bestowed upon her. "So, like, if you're not going to transcend," she added, "what's the point?"
Sri Chinmoy did not invent the notion of sport as a metaphor for life. What amateur athlete hasn't used his exercise endeavors as motivation for life's larger pursuits? (If I can just make it past the corner without walking this time, who's to say I can't beat out Wiggins for that assistant manager slot?) And his stunts give a nod and a wink in the direction of Jack LaLanne. But few, if any, have made a career out of upping the ante with such grandiose and bizarre stunts while convincing so many others to drop everything and do the same.
Sri Chinmoy Kumar Ghose entered the world on August 27, 1931, in a Hindu village in what is now Bangladesh, the youngest of seven children. At 12 he entered an ashram and as a teenager won its decathlon twice. A practitioner of bhakti yoga, which espouses trancelike meditation to approach oneness with God, he spent 20 years there, attaining both the level of Nirvikalpa Samadhi--called "the highest mystical state compatible with functioning in the physical world"--and a startling resemblance to Yul Brynner in The King and I.
Catching an early wave of guru immigration, Chinmoy in 1964 moved to New York, where he clerked at the Indian consulate. Three years later he founded the Aum Centre, which became the Sri Chinmoy Centre, in Jamaica, Queens. (Dozens of cities worldwide now have Chinmoy Centres, including Seattle, Sydney, and Paris.) The next year he made the rounds of the Ivy League for his first major lecture tour, advocating constant meditation and intense physical activity. In 1970 he published three books (among them Meditations: Food for the Soul and My Ivy League Leaves) and began leading regular meditation sessions at the United Nations chapel, which he continues to this day.
From the 1970s on, his spiritual and extracurricular endeavors shifted into overdrive: In 1974 he wrote 360 poems in 24 hours, then the next year batted out 843 verses in a single day. In 100 days from November 1974 to February 1975 he completed 10,000 "works of art"--pen-and-inks, abstract acrylics, watercolors. Last year, by his count, his lifetime output of drawings of birds surpassed four million. To date he claims to have created more than 150,000 paintings, 1,000 books, 17,000 poems, and 13,000 songs. At one especially exhausting concert, he played 70 different instruments. "Some better, some worse," a fan noted.
Along the way, Chinmoy accumulated followers--said to number about 2,000 worldwide, some 300 of whom live near the Master in Queens--and an ever-swelling list of odd athletic achievements for himself and his fold. In 1978 the Centre hosted its first ultramarathon, a 47-miler to celebrate Chinmoy's 47th birthday. Chinmoyites also have swum the English Channel, staged all-day bike races, and completed dozens of hundred-mile-plus footraces (though no Chinmoy disciple holds any national or world records in those events). In December 1986, Chinmoy's in-house army of publicists reported that the guru had lifted 2,000 pounds overhead with one arm; a month later came the assertion that he had more than tripled that, pressing 7,063 pounds. "With God's grace," he said, "anything's possible."
A dollop of exaggeration doesn't hurt, either. "The Chinmoy people were misinformed about what the word press means," says Terry Todd, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas. "In a pure one-handed military press, the most anyone has done has been around 200 pounds."
One of Chinmoy's favorite stunts, which he characteristically estimates he has performed nearly 2,000 times in at least 17 countries, involves standing beneath or beside a jury-rigged platform upon which a celebrity perches and then lifting his cargo a few inches while flashbulbs pop and spectators coo. Honorary hoistees have included Carl Lewis ("It was exhilarating!" the Olympian gushed), Eddie Murphy, former 49er linebacker Keena Turner, and the prime minister of Iceland. "I lifted them," Chinmoy said, "to show my deepest appreciation for their achievements."
Such photo opportunities are a Chinmoy specialty. His glossy publicity brochures feature shots of the guru hovering, Zelig-like, alongside some of the century's most notable figures: Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, several UN secretaries-general, the Gorbachevs. In 1984, Chinmoy and a choir of disciples took a junket to Washington, D.C., for their inaugural Peace Meditation at Congress, concluding an audience with several congressmen and ambassadors by showing 15 minutes of slides: Chinmoy with Leonard Bernstein, Muhammad Ali, Ed Koch, Coretta Scott King. A few years ago, when Chinmoy met briefly with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the encounter began with a chant by 20 disciples who had tagged along: "Yehudi Menuhin, Yehudi Menuhin, Menuhin! / O soul-smile rare and heart-cry genuine. / You are heaven and earth's fountain-delight. / And music world's summit-aspiration height."
"Naturally," Menuhin remarked afterward, "there were cameras."
At the world's longest footrace, Georgs Jermolajevs is keeping his mind a total blank. "I like the public meditation," he says as day 20 reaches its midpoint. "It gives me a chance for expression. It helps my running." Despite his having cut the toe box out of his running shoes, Jermolajevs's long feet are pocked with blisters, and the back of his neck has turned to cordovan. But his grin persists unwilted. ("In 1993 he ran 1,075 miles of the 1,300-mile race," one Chinmoy brochure says of Jermolajevs, "finishing with severe problems with his legs but smiling all the way.") On this lap, he passes Antana Locs, one of the three women racers. A 37-year-old secretary from Queens, she keeps her eyes hooded behind wraparound sunglasses. The two don't speak. "Do not encourage any thought whatsoever," the Master has written. "Then I can fill you with peace, light, and bliss."
In the nearby Queens neighborhood that has become a de facto Chinmoyville, disciples share several two-story houses, each painted Sri's favorite sky-blue. Men live with men, women live with women--or "girls," as Chinmoyites consistently refer to them. Along one stretch of Parsons Boulevard, followers have established several businesses whose names are of a theme: Guru Stationery, the Smile of the Beyond diner, the Garland of Divinity's Love florist, Perfection in the Head World barber shop. (The store owners point out that Chinmoy does not have a financial interest in their businesses, and the Chinmoy Centre itself is nonprofit, although voluntary "love offerings" to the guru are accepted.) Chinmoy's followers are vegetarians. They shun alcohol, tobacco, movies, newspapers, and doctors. They live simply, rarely buying much aside from food, sports equipment, or Chinmoy books and concert tapes. They are expected to pray and head to the Centre for twice-daily meditation sessions and "selfless service" (vacuuming, licking envelopes). Men are clean-shaven with short hair and loose-fitting white or pastel clothing; "girls" favor saris and ponytails. Those of opposite gender tend to avoid direct eye contact and try not to hug or touch each other. All are urged to be celibate.
The strict lifestyle does not mean a Chinmoy disciple's life is entirely free of levity, though, and the best evidence of this is Ashrita Furman. Ashrita, whose parents named him Keith, is the 41-year-old manager of Guru Health Foods, and his athletic excesses have earned him a secure niche as the clown prince of Chinmoy's odd kingdom. Showing up repeatedly in the Guinness Book of Records, Furman has carried a milk bottle on his head for 70 miles, pogo-sticked up Mount Fuji, pogo-sticked underwater to cross the Amazon in three hours and 40 minutes, somersaulted 12 miles along the route of Paul Revere's ride, run a 3:22 marathon while juggling, and yodeled for 27 hours straight. At one point, he held the Guinness record for holding the most Guinness records. To increase his tolerance for discomfort, he has had people bite him while he meditates.
These exploits (and the frequent media coverage of them) have ensured Ashrita a place in Chinmoy's inner circle, along with a dozen or so male bodyguards and the women who cook for the guru and reportedly massage his feet while he watches TV. "You either work to get something published about [Chinmoy] or become a good runner," says a former student who moved away several years ago and harbors bitter memories. "That's where self-esteem comes from in that group." By and large, most of the less-privileged disciples see the Master in person only rarely, such as at the annual "sports day" in Queens or at special "seeker sessions" for new recruits.
At a typical seeker session in July 1995, the Master turned out to fete Russian cosmonaut Gennady Strekalov, who had smuggled a replica of Chinmoy's Peace Torch aboard the Mir space station. Chinmoy arrived at the event, held at a Queens tennis court, in a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car. Dressed in a gauzy, sky-blue dhoti and spotless white clogs, he glided over to a plush armchair, slowly settled his 5-foot-8 frame into it, tilted his head heavenward, and--flanked by two white-clad bodyguards with their arms crossed like Mr. Clean--began to hum. The crowd, 200 or so, clasped hands and joined in. After four hours of meditation, songs, a slide show, picture-taking of Chinmoy and Strekalov, speeches, prayers, and more picture-taking, the session wound to a close, with Chinmoy handing out oranges to the faithful. All seemed to agree with the sentiments of Tarak Kauff, the 50-state, 9,000-mile runner who once remarked that Chinmoy "can charm the skin off an apple."
It's just such fawning and unquestioning submissiveness that rankles critics of Chinmoy's teachings. "The guy hasn't had a job in years," says the former follower (who requested anonymity), "and he's controlling people so overtly."
Just how far some will go to please the guru became apparent several years ago, the lapsed Chinmoyite adds, when the Sri, having decided that some of his girls were getting too big for their saris, instituted a weight-loss program for them. Once a week the women had to weigh in, and any who exceeded her Chinmoy-set target weight was publicly shamed. "Sri would say mean things about them in front of everybody," another former Chinmoyite recalls. (Publicists for Chinmoy have refused to comment.) Other disciples wouldn't talk to them in the group home. Mortified, some of the girls took to running for miles on the nights before weigh-ins or sitting for hours in a car with the heater turned to high. "Really," says the former acolyte, "it was sad."
"We are made to move. We have to move," Arpan (nee Steve) DeAngelo says as he spoons a large helping of lentils at the Smile of the Beyond luncheonette. He is attempting to explain the allure of Chinmoy and of a life so enrapturing that for 25 years he has done little but run--with sporadic bouts of employment as a carpenter. "I don't have too many ambitions financially or socially," he admits as the pile of brown food before him diminishes. Momentarily he looks downcast. Then he brightens. "Running is part of my spiritual discipline," he says, gesturing toward his heart with his spoon. Lentils drip onto the floor. "It's a metaphor for the divine."
DeAngelo, 44, may be the best possible representation of all that oneness with the Sri provides--and demands. For more than half of his life he's followed Chinmoy, leaving his family, leaving graduate study in mathematical engineering, leaving behind doubt.
Thanks to the teachings of Sri, he quit smoking, discovered his inner athleticism, and has now run in more than 100 marathons (with a PR of 2:43). Last year, he spent four months on the road as part of the Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run team, jogging 10,000 miles through 45 states to spread the wisdom of the Master into such places as Des Moines and Tulsa.
Now, briefly, he's resting, reloading himself physically and psychically for whatever task the Sri will next set before him and the others. "We're not just physical bodies trying to reach our capacity, then die," he says as he prepares to order several desserts. He looks across the table earnestly. "We're here on a very long-distance journey."
Earlier, at DeAngelo's tiny, cluttered room in one of the Chinmoyites' blue dorms (located midway up the block on Normal Street), he'd shoveled through the piles of Chinmoy-race ribbons and the framed Chinmoy photographs and the small, plastic Chinmoy figurines and shrines, and finally, triumphantly, pulled aloft his own Chinmoyesque manifesto. For months, he said, he'd been working on a guidebook to help acquaint benighted, non-Chinmoy runners with the real, practical training tips offered in the wisdom of the Sri (sample chapter heading: "Learn How to Yearn"). This was his new life's work, he explained, the way he aimed for both the greater glorification of his guru and for his own personal self-transcendence. "It's a way to make myself strive toward peace," he said.
Suddenly his arms swept wide to encompass the room's narrow dimensions and the stark-white walls hung with dozens of banners and posters of Chinmoy. "Why rationalize all this running in circles?" he asked, a question he has perhaps posed to himself before. "You're not getting anywhere. You're not making money. You're hurting your legs." He stopped. "But it's an inner thing. It makes your existence deeper than just the regular physical, mental, logical experience of life."
He paused again. The Sri beamed at him from every corner of his room. Soon he would take off on that day's spiritual 20-miler. "The thing is," he concluded, "it takes a lot of work."
The work, in fact, is endless. In the Chinmoyites' quest for spiritual perfection--and guru promotion--the stakes continue to grow. The runs become longer; the stunts become odder. Already, with the World's Longest Footrace still uncompleted, the people around Chinmoy are heavily promoting this month's annual super-ultramarathon trifecta: the 700-, 1,000-, and 1,300-mile long hauls. Georgs Jermolajevs will be there, as will DeAngelo.
And yet not even that is enough. Back at the restaurant, DeAngelo, his lunch finished, leans over to confide that after finishing this year's Boston Marathon, he received a phone call from Ashrita Furman. The king of Guinness had another great notion: He and Arpan should team to set a new world record in three-legged marathoning.
"It would get a lot of publicity for the guru," DeAngelo says with a happy, ingenuous grin. "So I told him I probably would." He leans in closer, his voice dropping. "But I told Ashrita he'd have to get into real marathon shape." He rolls his eyes.
Day 47. The official final day of the World's Longest Footrace. A few picnic tables butt up against the chain-link fence at the start/finish line, pots of stew congealing on top of them. Paper plates and crumpled cups litter the ground. Few volunteers linger. Not even the official Sri Chinmoy shrine remains. A polished aluminum tool shed with a statue of a lion outside and the guru's Queens street address, 4353, mounted in blue tiles on the front, it's been moved to Ward's Island Park, the site of the next ultramarathon.
But two runners still circle the course. Georgs Jermolajevs is not one of them. He smoked the rest of the field, completing his 2,700th mile three days ago. Then he wolfed down a final helping of free stew, shook hands with the volunteers, and quietly walked home. No medals. No money. But a "great inner experience," in the words of DeAngelo. Only Jesse Dale Riley, the lone nonfollower of Chinmoy, dropped out of the race, retiring cheerfully on day 27.
Rounding the corner to begin mile 2,544, Trishul Cherns, from South Ozone Park, New York, slows from his usual shuffle to answer the question that preoccupies all spectators at this event: What does one think about through 2,700 miles? Cherns, who's wearing a Walkman, pulls off his headphones. "I don't know what others do," he says. "But what I do..." He glances around at the traffic, the garbage, the haze and says, "You don't need the beauty of nature. It's focus, concentration, and getting the joy and satisfaction of making progress." Sticking the earpieces back in, he heads off down the concrete. One hundred and fifty-seven miles to go.
His only fellow remaining runner, Antana Locs, now crosses the chalk line to start her own newest lap at an agonizingly slow shuffle. A volunteer jots another hash mark on a small clipboard--mile 2,643. Locs's eyes are glued to the ground. Her gait grows even more glacial. But the volunteer cheers her progress--"Nice work, Antana"--and for a moment her grim face softens into a grin, before she puts her head back down and sets her shoulders toward the long route before her. A breeze ruffles her baggy T-shirt, on which are written in large black letters the words of Sri Chinmoy: "There is only one perfect road," it says, "and that road is ahead of you. Always."
Devon Jackson is a freelance writer in New York. He is currently at work on a book about the sovereign-citizen movement.
Photographs by Greg Betz