There are a lot of really tough endurance races out there, but perhaps none are harder—both mentally and physically—than the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race in Queens, New York. The whole thing takes place on a single city block, and in order to finish before the cutoff, runners have to run the equivalent of about two marathons a day for 52 days in a row. In the race’s 22-year history, only 43 people have finished. Last summer, producer Stephanie Joyce headed to Queens to talk with the competitors, including Israeli ultrarunner Kobi Oren, who was determined to win the race on his first attempt.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is Sweat Science, stories of human endurance.
(audio from Self-transcendence 3,100 Mile Race): Here, you are never alone. You are totally alone, but you are never alone because this is a very solitary experience. This is really solitary. It's true that sometimes you talk to other runners, but that's minutes and whether you go to sleep, or go to my room, I don't talk to anyone. I exchange talking with my wife and family, but mostly solitude, solitude with a lot of people around.
Peter Frick-Wright (host): This is the Outside Podcast. I'm Peter Frick, right, and today we have another episode of Sweat Science, looking at the limits of the human body. Now over the course of reporting this series on endurance, we've come across some pretty epic stuff. 10,000 pull-ups in 24 hours, holding your breath until you pass out, spending an hour at the excruciating burning edge of your lactate threshold. And those are just the events we've done stories about. When you start looking into crazy endurance events, there's pretty much no end to what people are doing. There's an event in Utah where people hike up the mountains and ride down the gondola until they've ascended the same vertical as climbing Mount Everest. There's the Barkley marathons, which if you haven't heard of it, I've got a documentary to recommend. It's a quirky little, a hundred mile race in Tennessee inspired by a failed jailbreak 42 years ago and takes place on a course so tough, sometimes people don't even finish the first two miles. Or there are the triathlons, where I always thought ironmans were the gold standard of endurance. But it turns out there are people doing double, triple ironmans where racers do three ironmans in a row. There's also the quintuple ironman, an ironman every day for five days, or the deca-ironman, which is 10 ironmans. I mean can you even imagine?
And yet there's one race in Queens, New York that for my money is harder than all of those events. It's designed to test not just the physical endurance of the runners, but their mental fortitude as well. It's called the Self-transcendence 3,100 Mile Race, and it's the longest certified foot race in the world. And possibly the toughest endurance event ever conceived. This was the race’s 22nd year. And in that time, only 43 people have ever finished. So we asked reporter Stephanie Joyce to go check it out.
Stephanie Joyce: I'm walking down 168th street. It's a hot summer afternoon. It's probably in the low eighties and sticky. There's no one out on the streets right now. This is just kind of like a nice middle class neighborhood in Queens. I don't see any runners, although presumably this is the block that they run around.
Frick-Wright: The entire race, all 3,100 miles of it, takes place on this single city block. Runners have to do a minimum of 60 miles a day, a little less than two marathons, in order to finish the race within the 52 day window.
Joyce: That means circling the block at least 109 times every 24 hours. But the fastest runners do even more laps. Kobi Oren was on number 111 one evening when I caught up with him. He slowed down to a speed walk while we talked.
Kobi Oren: You know the irony here, that you run all day, you go home, you go to sleep, but when you rest, what are you dreaming of?
Joyce: Running (laughs)
Oren: So I run all day and then I go to sleep.
Joyce: And you dream of running. That's funny.
Oren: No, that's tragic.
Frick-Wright: The race started as a way of paying tribute to the meditation guru, Sri Chinmoy, whose philosophy of self-actualization revolved around pushing the perceived limits of human capacity. He died in 2007 but his followers have continued staging this invite only race every year.
Joyce: This was Kobi's first year running the race. He's Israeli and, at 46, he was one of the younger competitors. In his day job, he works as a clinical psychologist in Haifa. He's maybe 5’9” bald and favors brightly colored running clothes. He gives off the vibe of a rubber band stretched tight.
(to Oren)How many laps are you trained to do today?
Oren: I'm supposed to do 118, but I never can do exactly what I'm supposed, so I will do 119..
Frick-Wright: Kobi has been running ultras for 10 years. His first was a 50 miler in 2008; then he ran a 100 miler; and then 200, and then 300, until eventually he worked his way up to running a race that was however far you could run in 10 days, those put on by Sri Chimnoy’s followers, in 2016.
Joyce: Kobi won that race by running 755 miles, and after that, Sri Chinmoy’s disciples extended an invitation for the 3,100 mile race. But initially Kobi said no. His youngest son was only four years old, too little for him to leave for two months. He said he would come when his son was six.
Oren: So they gave me a rain check. They told me, okay, come in 2018, we have a space for you, but it's important that you will do a big race on cements.
Joyce: Most of Kobi's previous races had been on trails and they wanted to make sure that his body was really ready for the punishing impact of running thousands of miles on a Queen’s city sidewalk. So in the summer of 2017 Kobi ran a thousand mile race in South Africa on a paved golf course. He told me that an attacking peacock was the most interesting thing that happened to him the whole time. When his body recovered from that race, he began training for the self-transcendence race. That meant spending months doing as much as five hours of training a day, but it didn't actually involve much long distance running. He was more interested in training his mind to suffer.
Oren: And it took me to understand that the longer, the mileage, the more I enjoy the run. When I train myself, I do the opposite. My training is not long runs, because I know that they suffer and it's more difficult for me to run shorter distances, all of my training sessions are short. I take the most difficult scenes and I do it. I could have gone for a run of 14 hours. I know that after a few hours I wouldn't suffer. I will enjoy it. So what would I learn from that run? So when I trained very hard, I do four or five sessions of 20 a day, but there will be one hour of walking, one hour of weightlifting, one hour of hill climbing, one hour -- there won't be anything that is very long.
Joyce: The other thing Kobi did to prepare was to bulk up knowing that his body would start to consume itself for fuel over the course of the race.
Oren: I talk to the people who have done this race in the past. They told me that you lose a lot of body mass and to gain weight, and I knew myself mentally and physically and I knew that if I come with 8 - 10 pounds overweight or fat, it will depress me. So I decided to come with 10-15 pounds more of muscles.
Joyce: So when Kobi towed the starting line in Queens, he was physically primed, but emotionally he was less certain. The furthest he'd ever run was that thousand mile race in South Africa. This race would be three times as long.
Oren: When we met all the runners, I saw that a lot of the runners seemed from the outside more secure, and I looked at myself and people reacted that I looked concerned and I was concerned. Everybody looked so happy and relaxed. I was concerned. I talked to myself to be confident, it seems not logical to me.
Joyce: That uncertainty is a familiar feeling. If you've ever towed the line in a long race. Even ifif you know you've done the training and your body is ready, mentally you can't help but wonder if you have what it takes. Of the 10 runners in this year's race, seven were disciples of Sri Chinmoy, and almost all of them had completed the race at least once before.
Oren: I ran the first loop with people who have run this loop, say 30,000 times before what I run one time, and this is their 30,000th.
Joyce: The loop is 0.5488 miles from 168h street runners turn West onto the six lane Grand Central Parkway for two tenths of a mile, then veer back into the neighborhood on a treeline street, past handball courts and a playground to close the loop. They run down 84th Avenue along the edge of a baseball diamond.
Oren: I love the playground. I felt that seeing the people enjoying themselves there, something that gave me a lot of strength.
Joyce: The aid station and the makeshift headquarters for the race are some folding tables set up on the sidewalk on 84th Avenue, across from a line of parked camper vans. Volunteer race counters keep track of each runner from the time the course opens at 6:00 AM to when it closes at midnight, logging their laps every few minutes. Every day, racers changed the direction of the loop so as not to overuse the muscles on one side of the body while rounding the corners.
Oren: A lot of people ask me about a circuit running if it's boring. You run the same lap, oh, it's so boring. I've seen that, if you run and you are bored, the course is not the problem. If you are with yourself and you are bored, you are the problem.
Joyce: The race course seems purposely designed to inflict maximum suffering. Between the exhaust, concrete, and a largely static scenery, it's hard to think of a more miserable place to run 3,100 miles. But the course was actually chosen for a practical reason. Sri Chinmoy, the guru, used to live in this neighborhood, and many of his acolytes still do. Because of that, it's easy for them to corral volunteers and arrange housing for the participants.
Even though he was among the least experienced competitors, in the beginning of the race, Kobi had his sights set on winning. In order to do that, he would need to beat out the race favorite, a 52 year old Russian named Vasu Duzhiy, who won for the second time in 2017. The race started on June 17th at 6:00 AM, in the middle of a minor heat wave. By mid afternoon, the temperature was in the high eighties and the humidity was suffocating, but that didn't slow Kobi down or his competition. By midnight, Kobi had run 83 miles over 152 laps, so had Vasu; they were just seconds apart for the next few days. Vasu and Kobi traded leads of just a few laps with each of them averaging at least 70 miles a day. They ran through thunderstorms and windstorms and the beating heat of the New York city summer.
Unlike a marathon, the 3,100 mile race doesn't tend to attract a crowd. There are usually few bystanders and people who live in the neighborhood seem to almost entirely ignore the middle aged men and women doing infinite laps of the block and watch runners break their stride on more than one occasion to avoid a pedestrian ambling obliviously on their cell phone or pushing a stroller straight down the middle of the sidewalk. There was a time in the U S when multi-day foot races attracted a lot of attention. In the late 1800s, the sport of pedestrianism drew sold out crowds in the tens of thousands to arenas like Madison Square Garden. Racers competed on indoor tracks and 6 and 10 day contests for purses as big as a million dollars in today's money. They were celebrities, their faces splashed across the front pages of newspapers. But the pedestrianism craze was short lived. It turned out watching people propel themselves in circles for days on end wasn't actually that entertaining.
So if Kobi won, there would be no prize money and there wouldn't be tens of thousands of fans clamoring for his photograph. In fact, like most runners in the race, he'd gone into debt just to be there and would leave with the same plastic statue and bouquet of flowers, whether he won or finished last.
Oren: When people heard about this place, they told me it's crazy. I don't think that crazy is the right term. It's unbelievable. It's unhuman, eh? Everyone participate in this race is not human.
Joyce: As Kobi ran, he was mostly on his own. Because he hadn't raised enough money in advance of the race, he could only afford to hire a support crew for four hours a day. The rest of the time he was in charge of managing all of his own food and hydration.
Oren: The organizers talk to me a lot of times, be happy, smile, be content. Don't be worried, but if I'm not worried, I will arrive at my station and I won't have nothing to eat and I won't have the salts that I need and I won't have the things that I need to be sent for my country because I don't have them. Nobody will send them because you didn't tell that, so not being worried, I couldn't relinquish that.
Joyce:A small army of disciples cook vegetarian meals for the racers three times a day. When the neighborhood ice cream truck rolls around, a volunteer usually races over to buy half a dozen soft serves or box of ice cream sandwiches. Racers often eat their meals on the go out of paper cups as they continue circling the block at a half trot. They need to consume upwards of 10,000 calories a day in order to replace the energy they expend. But that's difficult for a body always in motion. A runner from Scotland was almost sidelined in the first few days of the race by stomach problems.
Frick-Wright: Which brings us to the actual challenge of ultra endurance races, because when you're talking about running 100 miles or 200 or 3000, going fast usually just means not stopping, and getting through the next mile isn't really about having the strongest or fastest muscles or the highest VO2 max.
Alex Hutchinson: One of the interesting things that happens when you’re going for a long time is that the challenges you face start to sound a lot more like life rather than some sort of this very specific sporting challenge.
Frick-Wright: This is Alex Hutchinson, author of the book Endure, who we've been talking to throughout this whole series. And what Alex is saying is that in short races, it's all about perfect form and squeezing every ounce of power out of your muscles, but keep increasing the distance of the race and it becomes less about the muscles and more about your mental state.
Hutchinson: And so the point here is that as you get to these really long races, it's no longer about what your muscles are capable of, it's what your brain is willing to ask your muscles to do. You're no longer talking about some sort of singular absolute limit of endurance. You're talking about how well the body, and of course the mind, can hold together under like 50 different stresses of trying to like, are you able to get nutrition in? Are you able to find things that you can handle eating in that quantity while you're exercising? Can you keep it down? Are you digesting it? Is your stomach working? Are your legs? Are you getting blisters? Are you getting chafing or are you getting sunstroke? Are you getting frostbite? So in practice, those are the sorts of things that often tend to bite people in these long races rather than like their VO2 max or anything like that.
Frick-Wright: So managing the needs of your body becomes the central focus for the endurance runner. And for Kobi, that was one way in which he was at a disadvantage.
Joyce: Between running 18 hours a day and also managing his own food and hydration, it was a difficult start to the race for Kobi, especially since when his skeleton crew of helpers did show up, they weren't always helpful.
Oren: I talked with my crew and I told them things and they nodded with their heads as if they understood and they didn't understand. So my crew would go home, I would tell them, please prepare for me, drinks and eat and foods, and they would nod yes, and after three laps I go, I see that he's gone and I have nothing. And there were a lot of times that I felt as if some outer force was testing me and I reacted very badly. A lot of times I shouted at them, I was ill-tempered. The name of the person that helps you is called the handler, he’s supposed to support you. And I felt a lot of the times that my crew, I don't know what the other words that is the opposite of supporting, but they were like failing me.
Joyce: But Kobi didn't let that slow him down. A week into the race when temperatures finally started to cool off, he opened up a six mile lead over Vasu. That same day a rabbi from a local Jewish organization stopped by to see Kobi and drop off a care package of kosher food.
Oren: It's something that made a good feeling, that my religion, that they want to help me. I didn't know what to ask and he didn't know what to bring. And he brought wine and I told my crew, there was a Brazilian girl, I told her, you can take the wine as a gift. In this kind of race, you drink beer, not beer with alcohol, beer without alcohol because it's salty. So you gain salt and it makes you thirsty so you will drink more. So I told her, take the wine for yourself for salt because I can't drink wine. And she told me yes and I go for some laps and then she brings me two drinks and I drink one of them. I thought it was beer. I drink one of them and I tell myself why this be? I don't understand the taste of the beer. I drink one glass and then the second glass I smelled it better and I tell myself it smells like wine. And I tell her, did you give me wiene? She tell me yes, I wanted to surprise you. I threw the glass, I finished the loop and then I threw the bottle to the trash because I understood that that I will get alcohol, which is you can't run with alcohol. It will kill you, not kill you kill you, but kill your race.
Joyce: It doesn't take much to kill a race. A few days of missed mileage can put a runner so far behind that they have no hope of finishing the 3,100 miles, let alone winning. The only American in the race this year was forced to drop out early because the blisters on her feet wouldn't heal, making every step excruciating. On day 14, Kobi passed the thousand mile Mark beating his previous time by more than a day, even as temperatures climbed into the high nineties. He was still in the lead, but Bosu was right behind him and Kobi was struggling.
Oren: The way you cope with pain in this race is crucial because you will have pain. There is no going around it. You need to know that you can live with pain. If you think that you will be pain-free here, you're not going to last the second week.
Joyce: For Kobi, two weeks in, the most painful part of the day came at the end after he finished running. The race organizers had put him up in a nearby house with roommates.
Oren: I can only make the person who is listening to imagine what it's like to arrive at 12 o'clock at your apartment. You want to take a shower, put ice on your joints, arrange everything for tomorrow, and then you close the lights. It's 1240 and somebody is snoring and you can't go to sleep.
Joyce: Simply put, it was torture, physically, but also mentally. The day after Kobi passed the thousand mile mark, a heat wave brought temperatures in the triple digits. On every lap, Kobi had to pass the playground on the corner where neighborhood kids splashed around and sprinklers. It took everything he had not to stop and join in the fun. But Kobi was determined to win and Vasu was gaining on him, quickly. So instead of stopping, he just kept running, around and around the block. But as he ran, he found himself wondering why was he running? Was it to win? What did winning even mean?
Oren: And I started to say to myself. Is to run 3,100 miles, just like running 1000 miles, but three times? And that's it? That is self-transcendence? If I go 100%, I’m risking the race so maybe I win, but there's a chance that I won't finish. Okay.
Joyce: Was the chance to win worth the risk of maybe not finishing? Deep down Kobi wanted to win, but he needed to finish.
Oren: And I thought to myself, what was your first objective? Your first objective was to come here as a representative of your country and to finish the race, not to win the race, finish. So maybe you should change your attitudes. Maybe that is to transcend.
Joyce: That evening as he circled the block for the 2000th time, he noticed little flashes of light in the grass.
Oren: and then I saw that this is fireflies. In my country, there aren't any fireflies, but all of them were raised from the ground and it seems like there's a blanket of lights over the grass and I run and there was a runner near me and I told him, look at that. It's amazing, what a sight. And he told me, but why are you surprised, we're seeing the site from the start of the race? I haven't seen that. This was my first time.
Joyce: By the end of the day, Kobi had run 64 miles, but Vasu ran further, passing Kobi and finishing the day two laps ahead. Even though there was just a mile of distance between them to Kobi, in that moment, it seemed like Vasu had an insurmountable lead and he had to make a decision. Would he keep pushing as hard as possible to try and catch up but maybe not finish? Or could he live with not winning? Maybe, he thought, when you're running the most difficult race in the world against the two time defending champion, winning was simply getting to the end of the race. Maybe that was what they meant by self-transcendence.
Oren: I decided not to push 100% but to reserve energy to 70%, that the main perspective is to try to finish the race, and that was a thought, that if you want to achieve, you need to relinquish the competitive sides of yourself.
Joyce: Once Kobi decided to slow down, it was like a huge weight had been lifted. Suddenly he had more time to rest, more time to prepare his food and drink and more time to recruit extra help, but slowing down and shifting away from the tunnel vision of winning also gave him time to think about what he had sacrificed to do the race. He had missed his youngest son's kindergarten graduation and his oldest son's 17th birthday. The fact that he would never be able to relive those moments have been eating away at him from the beginning of the race and it just got worse. Suddenly Kobi was in a race against himself.
Oren: I'm talking with them, but when I talk to them, I miss them more, it doesn't relax me. The first thoughts that I have at the morning are of my family and I'm going to see them two months from now, I'll see the family, and that's relaxing, so it's thinking of the family. And talking to them, They didn't help me. When you go for such a race, you think about what your body will go through. You can't imagine what will happen to you emotionally. And I felt from each day that passed, I felt a bigger hole, a longing game for my family. And it's something that tears me apart.
Frick-Wright: And here's where it becomes clear, whether by design or convenience, just how mentally challenging this race course really is. Because if you want to run 3000 miles, you should really run from California to Maine. It's easier mentally, not only will the scenery be incredible, but giving up is inconvenient. You're in the middle of something that you haven't finished yet. You need to get to the other side of the country, so it's a reason to keep going. But when you're running around the same city block over and over, giving up is easy. You pass the aid station a hundred times a day, all you have to do is stop. In a race like this, your mind is the only thing moving you forward.
Hutchinson: I think fundamentally what's going to limit you is your desire to keep going. The mental aspect of willingness to keep suffering is eventually gonna, if not stop you, then at least slow you down.
Frick-Wright: We've talked about it in previous episodes, but regardless of how much pain you're actually in or how fatigued you actually are, it's the perception of your experience that's at the heart of your ability to endure.
Hutchinson: And so your brain is integrating all these signals of from how you know your leg muscles are feeling and how fast your heart is beating and how hard you're breathing and all these things. But it's also integrating this sort of general sensation of how you feel and, and, and what your beliefs are about how things are going. And so if you believe that you're on the road to success and confident and capable of completing the task you set out for yourself, you're more likely to sort of feel your effort as manageable and to decide that you can keep going then if you are thinking to yourself, this is terrible, I can't believe how hard this is, why did I ever sign up for this?
Frick-Wright: So your beliefs about your performance change your performance, which if you pay any attention to professional sports helps explain why so many top athletes are incredibly superstitious.
Hutchinson: Yeah, the placebo effect has been a dirty word for a long time and for good reasons. I mean for scientists it ruins their experiments and, and, it sort of is synonymous with lying to people, but it's actually very, very useful. The reason it's such a problem in experiments is that the placebo effect works. And so if you get away from the sort of vision of placebos and sugar pills and things like that, and think more generally about belief, then you get some hints that this is actually a very powerful thing and not something that you necessarily want to get rid of, that in fact, if you're a coach rather than a scientist or an athlete, you want to be harnessing these sorts of belief effects.
Frick-Wright: So if you believe like most of the runners in this race that you're on a quest of spiritual enlightenment put forth by your holy guru, you'll keep putting one foot in front of the other. But if you're just a guy from Israel, who's given up on the idea that he can win and you miss your family so much that it hurts. What keeps you going? Why are you running?
Joyce: The middle of a race is not when you want to be asking yourself those questions, and Kobi knew it. He's a psychologist by training and he could see his mental health deteriorating, but he didn't know what to do about it.
Oren: My work is not in real time. Let's say it's like in a war. A psychologist that work with people who've been hurt mentally at war doesn't do that when the enemy is firing at him.
Joyce: But slowly as he continued running lap after lap, the root of Kobi's mental anguish started to become clear to him and realized he didn't have it in him to finish the race without his family. He was either going to have to drop out or bring his family to the race. He and his wife talked about it and they decided they would petition the U.S.consulate for an emergency visa for his oldest son, Eli, to come crew for him.
Oren: So he arrived and unplanned. His presence was -- I'm not talking about his helping, I'm not going to say bad things about his helping, but that was not the main point. The main point was the symbol. I had my family with me.
Joyce: For Eli, it was not how he imagined his first visit to the U.S. sitting on a street corner in Queens handing off sugary drinks to his dad every five to 10 minutes. Unlike Kobi, Eli is not a runner and the whole thing didn't make much sense to him, even once he saw it in person. But for Kobi, his son's presence was exactly what he needed. Suddenly he had something to think about other than running.
Oren: When I see him, I'm concerned if he's sitting in the sun, if he eats, if he drinks. So you are not only concerned about yourself, it's something that can be heard, like you have more obligations, but as a father it's put me in another position. I'm not just a runner, I'm a father. I need to know did you sleep? Did you eat? Have you put on sunscreen? So it gives me a space of comfort to be in another position.
Hutchinson: When you're dealing with a task that is fundamentally about overcoming mental barriers, then who's to say what will help and what won't because that's fundamentally a psychological question. If it's about what will make you feel better, then the answer isn't cut and dried. And it may be that someone who's in tune with their own intuitions will be able to figure out what it is they need to do.
Frick-Wright: Because of the way our brains protect us from our actual physical limits, endurance almost always comes down to a choice, either keep going or stop and there are lots of factors, but the people who can continually choose to keep going or the folks who have some deeper motivation than being first or setting a record. There's something else to prove.
Oren: I wanted to see if I can manage to finish this race. I knew that only 22 years and only 40 people have finished that race and I have known that most of who finished race are disciples. I know that there are different techniques to coping with stress and with pain and I think that was my goal, to see that I can cope with that. That's what I got out of it. Understanding that I can cope not with flying colors, but I can cope with everything. It will be difficult. I will suffer a lot, but I can cope with everything.
Joyce: On Thursday, August 2nd day, 46 of the 3,100 mile race Kobi completed his 5649th lap crossing the finish line to cheers and bell ringing from a few dozen bystanders. He didn't win. Vasu finished a full day before him, but Kobi did finish becoming the first Israeli in the history of the race to do so. He sat cross-legged on the ground, tears welling up in his eyes as a group of disciples sang to him, celebrating the end of the race. But then after the crowd dispersed, Kobi turned his attention to the sprinklers and the playground that he had passed so many thousands of times. He wanted to take a chair and a beer over there and just sit in the water. But he also knew that 3,100 miles is just seven miles shy of 5,000 kilometers. And Kobi had decided as he ran that he wasn't just going to finish 3,100 miles. He was going to make it to 5,000 kilometers,
Oren: Which is thirteen more laps. And I thought to myself, are you going to go now to the sprinklers or finish the job? And then I told myself, you need to-- you’ve done only 3,100 miles. You haven't finished the job. The job is 5,000
Joyce: So having run two marathons every day for a month and a half, Kobi ran 13 more laps, seven miles. At any point, he could have stopped, sat down in the water and someone would have brought him a chair and a beer and called him a success, but on every lap, instead of stopping, he decided to keep going.
Frick-Wright: That's Stephanie Joyce. She reported and produced the story. It was edited by me, Peter Frick-Wright,with music by Robbie Carver.
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The Outside Podcast is a production of PRX and Outside Magazine. We'll be back in two weeks with an interview with David Goggins, a former Navy seal who now competes in ultra endurance races. He has a new book out, and it's the kind of read that would be completely over the top if it weren't all true. That's in two weeks.
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