Reminisces from Sahishnu...
The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team had been fortunate to help the New York Road Runners Club stage the greatest six day running event ever held in the 20th century during the summer of 1984. We were tasked to do all of the manual scoring, which we had done in that same race in 1983-non-stop for the full 144 hours of running on the famous 400 meter rubber track on Randalls Island, in famed Downing Stadium. The site had hosted Olympic Trials track and field contests for decades, as well as providing a venue for the birth of soccer football for the fledging NY Cosmos before they outgrew the small stadium size. During the historic 6-Day event from July 2-8 of 1984, Yiannis Kouros from Tripoli Greece ran a stunning 635 miles 1023 yards to break the 96-year old record held by professional runner George Littlewood for six days in 1888 (623 miles, 1320 yards).
We befriended Yiannis both during and after the six-day race. It seems that he was interested in the 24-hour record, which was held by Bernard Gaudin of France at 170 miles 1231 yard. He had met Sri Chinmoy during the six-day event. Yiannis stopped for a short period on Day 4 to rest and treat his blisters, which were causing him problems. Sri Chinmoy told him that he would win the race and break the record. He did not forget that encounter.
We contacted his manager Dennis Skaliotis in New Bedford, Massachusetts in August after hearing that Yiannis wanted to try to break the record, and arranged for Mr. Kouros to run the race with at least two handlers, supplied by us. Our newly secured course near the tennis center at Flushing Meadows Park was suddenly unavailable due to construction, so a new one-mile course was quickly found near the Hall of Science and the Queens Zoo in the Park setting. The course was certified by TAC USA and some of the best 24-hour specialists were invited to run the event. All the splits for the great distances to be covered were carefully measured and marked. It was not quite as interesting as the earlier choice of venue, but it was acceptable.
The race, unfortunately, had to be contested on a weekday due to schedule conflicts, making it more difficult to put on. There was much discussion about changing it to later in the month, but the venue was not available then as well. Somehow, with most details attended to, the sixth adventure for the Sri Chinmoy 24-Hour Race started right at 8:00am on November 7-8, 1984.
The morning was cool and clear, with a slight breeze. The field was big, with 55 runners from 13 states and three countries- 48 men and 7 women. We were filled with anticipation as the horn sounded to start the race. Don Jewell, 45, from Islip, NY had finished first in the 70-Mile race a year ago, and was in great form. Luis Rios was back to defend his title; adventurer Frenchman Emile LaHarraque and Irishman Tom McGrath were present and in good form. George Gardiner, who had set an American record in the aforementioned six-day in New York (3rd place-554+miles), was there. Cahit Yeter arrived ready to run fast, his sixth attempt at 24 hours. He had also logged 468 miles in the July 6-day.
First off the line was Yiannis Kouros, the heavy favorite. Running close to six-minute pace for the first few miles, he went past ten miles in 63:12, reached the marathon split in 2:48:06, and continued on to a fast 50-mile split of 5:27:45. The pack behind Yiannis was Luis Rios, George Gardiner, Tom McGrath, Don Jewell and Simon LaPorte from Montreal, and they all saw the dominance of Mr Kouros as he regularly passed them on the 1-mile loop. Yiannis went past the 100 km mark in 6:54:43, a near elite time for the distance when so many had not even touched 50 miles. As he set his sights on 100 miles, Yiannis never walked, only stopped for brief bathroom breaks, and barked instructions to his handlers, who were provided in shifts to help him by the SCMT.
Yiannis passed the 100-mile mark in 11:46:37, a world road best, trailing only Don Ritchie’s track mark of 11:31. But this split was easy for him. By 200km he reached a world best absolute time of 15:11:48, with nearly nine hours left to run (former record-Bernard Gaudin, France- 16:40:13). A chill was now in the air with cool temperatures, sometimes dipping to 48º(10ºC) with the slight wind chill. I remember Yiannis passing three of us who were stopping watches and recording his 200 km split at the exact point. His energy was infectious, and at his next pass we shouted his time result for 200 km. His face formed a small smile but his focus was forward, straight ahead and feeling the energy within himself.
Finally, concentrating on form for seven more hours, and imagining Greek champions and warriors of the hoary past, Yiannis went pass 171 miles, breaking the record with 1 hour and 48 minutes still left in the race. With applause from counters, helpers, fellow competitors, Yiannis stopped and began giving Greek pastries to all assembled, even his competitors. He was so gracious to everyone, and changed clothes and got a little warmer before jogging six more miles to reach 177 miles total for his finish.
The rest of the field hung on well. Don Jewell reached 145 miles 1115 yards, a new US 45-49 record, and best US total for the year. Michael Fedak and Luis Rios came in with same distance of 135 miles 718 yards. Michael had a new personal best. Kay Moore, 42, from Denver, CO was first female with a national and world record age group 40-44w of 122 miles 1320 yards, and seventh overall in such a big field.
The following was a conversation transcribed right after Yiannis crested the previous record, when the runner offered Sri Chinmoy Greek sweets as a small gesture of thanks for organizing the race. Sri Chinmoy had been sitting in a car composing a song for Yiannis, to be sung by his students at the impending awards ceremony.
(Sri Chinmoy got out of the car and bowed to the athlete and accepted the sweets.)
Sri Chinmoy: You have made our track, our race, historical and immortal. For that I am extremely proud of you. You are not only a Greek, you have become a universal figure. Previously people thought the four-minute mile was impossible. Then they saw that it was quite possible. Now you have proved that long distance running is also something that a human being can easily do. There are many who will follow you, but you have become the forerunner, the harbinger of a new world. You have brought here on earth a new world, and now many runners will follow you. I am extremely, extremely proud of you.
Yiannis Kouros: I have many things to say to you, but I can’t.
Sri Chinmoy: We are having a heart to heart talk; we are speaking with our hearts. I have the most sincere admiration for you. This is just the beginning. You will do on earth many miracles—miracle after miracle. Now people are not admiring ultra-marathons. They care only for short distance – a mile or even up to a marathon. But now, because of the glory you have brought into the world for ultra-marathons, you will see that the whole world will appreciate and admire ultra-marathons the way they appreciate marathons. They will think of ultra-marathoning and long distance running and your name together. Whenever they say ‘ultra-marathon’, they will say Yiannis’ at the same time. You are the supreme hero of ultra-marathoning.
Historians of human achievement and behavior will look at Yiannis Kouros in awe and almost disbelief. The year of performances that he displayed in 1984 were far beyond anyone had ever seen in any era of any civilization. His 12 months of activity included: breaking the 6-Day record that had lasted 96 years in July, winning the famous Spartathlon race from Athens to Sparta in Greece (over 154 miles with undulating hills and mountains) in mid-October, coming back to break the 24-Hour at our race, less than a month later, and still, three weeks later going to Colac, Australia and breaking the six-day record again- by 362 yards! Sri Chinmoy’s words resonated with us when we heard him speak to Yiannis as a harbinger of a new world of ultra-running. He certainly inspired runners all over the world to test their limits and discover their potential.
I was struck by the words of an American runner and national official who had watched Yiannis at our race.
Dan Brannen: (In assessing Yiannis year of competitions and results) “Surely the reason for his success lies beyond just training and nutrition, not any one following the sport is likely to find out. Like the Trinity, pi, and pyramid power, he is a classic mystery. And the best approach to take with a mystery is to stop trying to solve it and just believe.”
“Always have faith in yourself and you will do better.” - Yiannis Kouros
“There are no limits to our capacity because we have the Infinite Divine within us” - Sri Chinmoy