"Sri Chinmoy Ultimate Ultra, September 15 - October 4, 1993. Wards Island Park, New York City." Brochure. September 1993.
A History of the Race.
The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team is proud to offer the longest certified footrace in the world: the 1,300-Mile Ultimate Ultra. This race begins a three week-long adventure that includes the Ultra Trio, races covering 1,300, 1,000 and 700 miles; plus a 24-hour race and a marathon. The Ultra Trio ranks as one of the most difficult physical endeavors that any athlete can undertake. The runners live in tents or dormitories near the running course, take their meals trackside, and try to cover as many miles as possible each day. They each have their own game plans going into this race, but with the enormous distances being covered, nature can easily humble anyone. The runners must blend patience wit the determination to run every day, trying to finish each day without injury and with enough inner reserves left for the next day’s run.
This race is, literally, the ultimate ultra in a roster of several dozen ultra races mounted internationally by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. The Team’s first ultra was a 24-hour event held in Connecticut in 1980, at which three world records were set.
The Team’s interest in multiday races grew out of Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy of self-transcendence – going beyond one’s perceived abilities to attain or experience new levels of capacity. It was Sri Chinmoy’s inspiration to offer races for the public that would also encourage the athlete to bring out the best in himself…
Szczesiul, Sahishnu. “The Ultimate Ultra: Rain and Pain Fall Mainly on the Brain.” Ultrarunning. December 1993.
The seventh annual Sri Chinmoy Ultimate Ultra began September 15 at Wards Island Park in New York City, the site of our more recent multi-day gatherings, as 33 runners from 14 countries came to do battle with the scenic course. This year’s edition was scaled back to the original trio race format (700, 1,000 and 1,300 miles) when the 2,700-mile race was postponed due to financial problems. Although hopeful participants in the proposed 2,700 were dismayed, many chose the 1,300-miler as their own annual trek up the self-transcendence mountain. The Ultra is actually three separate distances with staggered starts that are days apart. The one-mile loop on Wards Island has proved to be our best course for multi-days since we stared holding them in 1985.
Scotsman Al Howie, record holder for 1,300-miles and trans-Canada crossing hero, was focused on trimming his own best times for 6 days, and 1,000 and 1,300 miles. Peter Hodson, the British road warrior and Trans-Am finisher, returned to dazzle observers with unintelligible wit and sarcastic humor. Hungarian Istvan Sipos, intensely trained and in terrific shape, came a month early to get ready for 18 days of racing. And Georgs Yermolaev, the Latvian record holder for 1,000 miles, smiled for joy as his first race in America began. He tried to get to this race four years ago but was denied visas at the last possible moment. The women’s race had American Suprabha Beckjord, record holder for 1,000 and 1,300 miles; Antana Locs, the only Canadian ever to complete 1,300 miles in a certified race; and Barbara McLeod, the Canadian pioneer who blazed the trail for women in Canadian ultrarunning in the 1980s.
The ladies race started first, 92-degree heat and high humidity, a typical day this past summer in New York. The six brave women would have to average over 68 miles a day for 19 days in order to reach the magic 1,300. There is no margin for error in a race of this length. They must stay on the road for 20 or more hours a day to be able to get the mileage needed. Tarangini Westreicher of Switzerland pushed herself to 109 miles the first day, with Beckjord checking in with 101. Locs remained back with 82 and proceeded with caution, her fitness uncertain. She had been ill for much of the year and struggled to finish th 100 Km World Challenge in Torhout, Belgium, in hot weather as the last Canadian finisher for the women’s team.
Twent-four hours later the four men started. Al Howie bolted out of the gates with a 6:31 first mile, with only the cheerful Yermolaev giving chase. The other two men were running more sensible 10- or 11-minute miles. Howie pushed himself to 116 miles the first day, a typical beginning for him. He had had a good late summer of training, and felt a 15-day, 1,300-miler was within reach. The only two-time finisher of the race, Howie usually makes good on his intentions. Georgs ran 101 the first day, with Hodson and Sipos running 81 and 78 miles respectively. The men would have to average over 72 miles a day for 18 days to complete the journey. Only four men had done it in seven years of racing.
During the late afternoon of this second day, the unwanted companion – rain – started to fall on the proceedings. Rain would arrive at some point during 13 of the 19 days of the Ultimate Ultra this year, making for soggy feet and damp spirits. Only the waterfowl (and perhaps the British) like wet weather in multi-days.
Forty-eight hours later the women’s 1,000 miler began. Mexican Ultra-athlete Silvia Andonie, who had done 450 miles for six days, was making her first attempt at 1,000 miles. She is the only woman who has ever completed the Deca-Triathlon (ten times the Ironman distances), and she was well trained. Two handlers and two reporters accompanied her from Monterrey, Mexico, as well as two physicians who came later in the race. Dipali Cunningham the Australian speedster, who has turned to the multi-days with some fine performances, had been pointing to this day for months. All her training of the past 15 years was geared to making 1,000 mile in 16 days. The women would have to average 62.5 miles a day to make it. Multi-day veteran Nirjhari DeLong had moved up to the longer race, but felt overwhelmed by the distance. She said: ‘I’m trying not to think of the distance or the mileage needed each day
I’m trying, rather, to feel the race as a new experience, or as a new journey. I know I’ll get tired, fee gad, fee good, and feel tired again. But just to be given the opportunity to do this thing is a real blessing for me.’
The rain cam down harder as the women pulled away from the line. By this time the women in the 1,300 had logged in over 240 miles in three days. Suprabha had assumed her normal position ahead of Westreicher, but the rock steady Locs had shown new0found strength as she took day-leader honors for the second ay in a row. In the men’s 1,300, Al Howie was at 198 after two days and in control, with peter Hodson only 12 back of Georgs. The strange part was that Istvan was at 156, after a second straight day of 78 miles, no more, no less. Is minimalist strategy was hiding his capacity, though. He looked fit, injury free, and in complete control.
A day later the men’s field of 1,000 milers started out. It was filled with great runners, and great runners-to-be. Marty Sprengelmeyer, America’s second-fastest 1,000-miler and only 1,300 men’s finisher, was back to do battle with Trishul Cherns, Canada’s prolific and talented record holder at all multi-day distances, and with Charlie Eidel, who completed the 1,000 in 1991 and was trying his luck again. The second wave included Nicola Sinisgalli, an Italian-born Argentinian runner who ran 700 miles last year; Andreas Kliene, a promising young German who also completed 700; and speed merchant Alexander Chulakov, who had never done a multi-day but was primed with a year of heavy training on the roads of Moldavia, formerly a soviet republic. Chulakov, known as Sasha, has 7:31 100-km speed and a go-for-broke attitude. The field of eight runners encountered rain later that evening as they settled into the race, but the rain couldn’t slow Sasha as he cranked out 110 miles the first day, to everyone’s amazement. Trishul gave chase with his relentless ‘no sleep’ style, but soon realized that he would not stay close unless something could slow Sasha down.
Six days had passed from the beginning of the event before the women’s 700 miler began, with overcast skies and the threat of more rain. By this time in the 1,300, Antana Locs had climbed back into contention with several more days of 70 miles each day, and Suprabha was maintaining her foot-soldier regimen that we have always admired, forgoing sleep for as long as possible and still remaining calm and focused. In the men’s 1,300, Al Howie had maintained a large lead but his style seemed less smooth than we had ever seen him run. Istvan had passed Peter after three days and pulled even with Georgs after four, but had only gained ten miles on Howie since Day 2. Istvan had trained 170 miles a week for four months, much of it at good pace, to get ready for this race, but was sticking to his game plan of 78 a day, steady and relaxed. He even waited at he starting line to see the three women off in the 700: wily veteran Ruth Greher, 51, from New York in her sixth multi-day; Monika Achenback-Konig, 28, from Vienna, Austria, in her first multi-day; and marathon Swimmer Praphulla Nocker, who was seeking to make the distance on her third attempt. Also joining the women was veteran walker Bob Wise, who started out in the 1,300 but decided to walk the 700 a week after he did 100 miles in heat and rain, which had forced him to stop.
A full week after the start of the 1,300-mile race, the men’s 700 miler began. A group of seven talented but nervous athletes toed the line. First to get away were three 100-km specialists from the Czech Republic: Zdenek Privratsky, Jiri Horejsi and Zdenek Adamec. They had heard of the race from Tomas Rusec, the great Czech runner who won the 700 in 1991 after blasting 130 miles the first day, crashing in the middle of the race and then regrouping to finish strongly. The three, although perhaps not as talented or as reckless as Rusec, still didn’t know what to expect from the anticipated 12 days on the road.
Just behind the Czechs ran Ron Gehl from Kitchener, Ontario. Ron is the kind of runner who throws caution to the wind. A mere three days before, Gehl ran 121 miles in the Ottawa Sri Chinmoy International 24 Hour, taking first position for the men after practically retiring in the middle of the night. By the time his first day had ended in the 700, Ron had ripped off 117 miles and didn’t seem bothered by his first multi-day. He had a 30-mile lead on his nearest competitor while the two slowest runners. Jeff Covell from England and Ervin Moses from Hungary, were almost 50 miles back. As a big freighter slipped past in the nearby narrows known as Hellgate, Jeff walked over to me and said in his midland English: ‘If it rains a lot, I might finish the race. If not, no one’ll finish.’
This strange prediction was not the only interesting development that day. Al Howie had pushed himself hard to get 500 miles for a fix-day split. What he had not planned for was an inflamed nerve to his left knee that kept him off the track for 12 hours on that fateful Day 8. It was the first time anyone had ever seen him injured in years of racing multi-days. Within a few more hours, he packed it in. Forced to hobble on crutches for a few days, Al showed his class and champion’s spirit by counting laps, changing the scoreboard, and generally being an asset to the race. I know he must have felt disappointed, but within hours Al was already talking about next year’s schedule and coming back in May to make a real assault on the seven-day record.
By the time Peter Hodson, who was still in great shape and in position to do really well, incorrectly felt his race was crumbling apart. He had had trouble days before trying to sleep, and this seemed to affect his mental well being Without a handler, he also felt outnumbered in the race. He was sharing a large tent with Al, and soon both runners and kicked up their hells on lawn chairs, a notice that they were out. Meanwhile, Istvan was still cranking 78s, and getting into position to make a try for Al’s record of 16 days, 19 hours. Georgs held on for dear life, as a blood disease arose that has sometimes affected him days after a long race was over. He had lesions and rashes on the skin of his legs. His strength was lower but he continued on, bandages and all, the only make competitor left in the 1,300 besides Istvan.
On the ninth day, Suprabha and Antana were virtually tied with 637 miles. Again the rains came in relentlessly and Marty was hit hard by the blues. After four and a half days of rain and fatigue, he hopped into his van for the long ride home to Iowa. Barbara McLeod had to retire because of endless back problems. When healthy she was running very well. I caught up to Trishul, who had reached 446 miles for six days a few hours earlier, to ask him a question. He told me he was packing it in after the la Rochelle Six Day at the end of October – no more multi-days for a while. Trishul has been the only man in the world doing multi-days for each of the last ten years. There must be a time when one has to fully recuperate from the long ones. He has done so much in the multi-day arena that it is time for a break.
Within three days, three of the best multi-day specialists in the world had left the race, and Trishul pulled out the next day as well. Indeed, the old guard of the multi-day races in New York was nearly gone but the remaining runners showed a renewed sense of purpose and a resolve that echoed; ‘Rain or not, we’re gonna finish this thing!’ In the men’s 1,000, Sasha reached 502 miles for six days, in his first multi-day. It was shortly after his six-day split that his shin became painfully swollen and he realized that to finish he would have to walk a lot. With Trishul and Marty gone, Nicola moved into second, but he appeared to be somewhat behind pace and not moving any faster as the days rolled on.
Dipali and Silvia were trading the lead in their race every day. Whenever one went to sleep, the other bolted ahead by 10 or 12 miles, only to switch positions again within another day. On their tenth day out, Silvia’s blisters became too deep and infected to allow her to continue the battle; her chances at finishing were slipping away with the droplets of rain. About this time in the men’s 700, Ron Gehl’s 50-mile lead had dwindled to seven, and his muscle soreness was forcing him to walk. Walking was something totally foreign to Ron so, faced with the possibility of having to do more of it, he canned it, too. Ervin Moses from Hungary, who was using sign language to get by, was making a run on the lead with Jeff Covell, the older veteran runner, close by as well.
On the 11th day Antana took the lead and still seemed strong in the 1,300. It was a year ago in the same race hat she came down with a high fever and crashed horribly after nearly two days of looking invincible. This year would be different. Although she was not in the best of shape earlier in the race, she had actually raced herself into shape day by day; she looked focused and in control. Suprabha, who was the only finisher in the 1,300 last year, again appeared capable of finishing, if she could just stay close to Antana. She eventually broke her own 1,000-mile American women’s record by almost six hours. On this day the fields in all three races were trimmed to a total of 16 runners from the original 33 starters. The poor Czech guys had bitten off more than they could chew and flew back home, happy and relieved that their experiment had ended. Method Istvanik, another pedestrian like Bob Wise, snuck into his mint condition 1973 Cadillac Eldorado and rove away.
One could sense that the runners remaining in the race had he ‘right stuff’ o continue on. Istvan passed 1,000 miles in 12 days +22:52:37, which placed him sixth all-time for that distance. He was definitely on a mission – on 10 of the last 13 days he had rolled 78s, and he was still showing strength and new capacity.The closer he got to Howie’s record, the faster he ran. He turned in 81 and 83 miles on the 15th and 16th days. Needing only 57 to finish, Istvan postponed his regular sleep break and bought it home in 16 days +17:36:14, taking almost two hours from Al Howie’s great record. Superlatives were in order, as well as an emotional celebration. Fittingly enough, Istvan was the first finisher of all the races.
A few hours later Monika rumbled home the winner of he women’s 700 miler in 11 days 20 hours, a great run for a rookie and a warm up for perhaps better things to come. Ruth Greher followed nine hours later, her painful journey ended, her body broken with fatigue but her resolve ever steadfast. There was only one day left now, with the rain nowhere in sight, the air too cold for mosquitoes, and time running out on our weary runners. Sasha Chulakov had overcome a terribly painful inflamed tendon on his shin to reach his impossible goal, winning the 1,000-mile. Jeff Covell, the cagey 50-year-old, made it to the line first in the 700 men’s race, still in awe of what he had done. Dipali finished first in the women’s 1,000-mile, and held her poise and playfulness throughout. Dipali used a strict diet and common sense to keep her stomach and body happy, but swears this race is long enough for her. Silvia had given it her best shot but 918 was all she could get out of her tired legs.
As Antana rounded the turn for home, there was a sense of disbelief in everyone present that she had made 1,300 for the second time, against all odds, in a race few thought she could finish. And as the exclamation point to the race, the amazing Nicola Sinisgalli ran a whopping 90 miles the last day to finish his 1,000 miles, with only 12 minutes to spare.
Beyond all the records and great times by the runners in this year’s race, there was the underlying feeling that they had accomplished something great both for themselves and for the sport. Let’s hope the proposed 2,700 miler can come off next year so that even more runners can roll back the barriers and prove to the world that, sure it’s a little crazy, but if we try and have a little faith in ourselves, we just might reach our goal.