The Sri Chinmoy Ultra Trio, September 18 - October 6, 1989: A day by day account from Ultraruning magazine of how the runners braved Hurricane Hugo with its cold wind and freezing rain, and how three runners finally completed the grueling 1,300 mile race. And, finally, a new women’s world record for 1,000 miles!
‘I’ve got 520 miles now,’ said Essie Garrett as she squinted sadly at the clearing sky. ‘By tomorrow noon I’ll have 560, then 600, then...’ Her voice trailed off. ‘I’ll miss this race. There’s a certain magnificence about the course.’
The one-mile loop trod by innumerable driven, inspired, and weary footfalls – starting under the day-glo banner, you dash past the temporary village for medical people, food, the counters, and the runners; up the incline toward the Cape of Good Hope, target point of the 700,000 pound steel Unisphere which towers gleaming over the park; past the arching fountains; glide downhill past flowerbeds; straight towards the cast-iron Zeus, a neo-realist figure hurtling a bolt of lightning among the stars; a gentle left turn down a tree-lined corridor; a smooth right onto the two-lane straightaway, nodding to the oncoming runners; curve slightly right past the bona fide restrooms (if you prefer), and down the far loop where children and dogs gambol on the Swedish playground; looping back past the civilized restrooms and up the two-lane straightaway to the patiently waiting banner, which you may greet 700 times, or 1,000 times or 1,300 times, as destiny dictates. Add to this infinite shades of green in the trees above and on the lawns spreading around you. This was the home turf of the 28 runners who embarked upon the Sri Chinmoy Ultra Trio.
Essie regarded the rippling muscles of the flame-throwing Zeus: ‘He’s reaching for the highest.’
Al Howie stood among those reaching for the highest. The taut Scotsman, who three years ago refused death in the form of a brain tumor, intended to do what had been considered impossible by many – complete the 1,300 mile race in the allotted 18 days. His competitors: Stefan Schlett, professional adventurer whose live-volcano climbing and bicycle trips across the Sahara had left him hungry for more. Australian Ian Javes of the impenetrable will, Trishul Cherns, and other near-conquerors of the distance in the past. On equal footing was the poignant figure of Christel Vollmerhausen, a 55 year old West German who had also fought cancer, and whose celebration of life in the form of running included ceaseless prayer (rosary). So potent were her prayers and yogic breathing that rarely would she be seen in heavier attire than a cotton singlet, in the nippy, rainy span of a New York fall, even while sleeping under a thin blanket beneath the stars.
Ten of them stood under the banner on September 18 to commence the 1,300 mile division. Sri Chinmoy shook hands with each. They were off! Al Howie took the immediate lead (never to give it up) at just over a 7 minute pace. Moving into third place was Christel, pouring it on like a steam engine with her audible exhalations. Marty Sprengelmeyer’s gentle lope, Tom ‘Keep Smiling’ Grace’s cheerful jog, Stefan Schlett’s grin of bravado, Emil Laharraque’s rocklike silence; all were anticipating the eternity of 18 days, each of which would require 3 marathons to keep afloat.
New York weather opened up with the onslaught of 15 hours of rain on Day 2. Al aced his first day with 113 miles, Ian Javes of Australia with 102 miles and Marty at 100 miles. Schlett, who had completed the double Ironman triathlon two weeks before, settled for 88 miles, just two miles behind Christel, who had never done more than 48 hours before.
Trishul Cherns also did 90 miles, following his extremely precise plans for the race which were soon to be blown sky-high by the companionship of Dharma the Dog. Dharma, who shortly became the most televised runner in the race, was an elegant mutt who stayed around the race before attaching himself to Trishul. By Day 3 Dharma had loyally run 111 miles at Trishul’s side, but the dog was starting to moan a little. Trishul tried to explain that everyone’s feet were hurting. After two more days (61 and 41 more miles), Dharma the Dog would lift his sore paw and whimper to Trishul, ‘Carry on.’
Al was sailing on top of the field, his wiry frame in constant motion, blond lion’s mane never drooping. In an age of high-tech gear and psychological studies of visualization techniques, Al was in the process of raising the banner for just plain running. No plans, no schedules. Al ran as he felt and rested as he felt. ‘No p’int in savin’ y’rself,’ he explained in his thick Scottish brogue. ‘Y’r goin t’ get tired anyhow.’ A 2:26 marathoner who has won most of the ultras he has ever entered, he had no special secret except his ability to run, and run, and run. ‘I’ve learned to be a survivor. I guess that’s what most of us are. That’s really what it’s all about.’ He would rarely visit the medical tent. His legs weren’t sore and he had no complaints, no handler, and no doubts about this race. Slightly down the field was Christel. The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team has hosted many a unique character, but never such a one as Christel. She had heard of this race a few months ago. ‘Do you realize what you will have to cover each day?’ asked an incredulous friend, Wolfgang, whom she would eventually talk into joining her. ‘I’m not going to think about that,’ was her reply. She could be heard now, as she clung to the front pack, whistling with each exhalation, a shock of hair bent over her prayers in a gentle tilt. She would not sleep at all for the first six days and nights, and her prayers would be answered as she ran ceaselessly, achieving a German record for six days and the fourth fastest woman’s world mark for 1,000 miles.
In the staggered start pattern which would allow for simultaneous finishes for all three distances, the 1,000 mile women began on September 20. A field of two, Suprabha Schechter and Antana Locs, trotted off from the start that noon, blithely waving to the applause. Their cheerfulness was sheer bravado, in the face of the discipline which would be required. Antana, holder of several Canadian records, stuck to an hour-by-hour schedule of great severity, while Suprabha, holder of world records, stuck mainly to the track. Within hours the downpour would begin once again, in honour of the predicted hurricane Hugo, while Suprabha would turn in 99 miles and Antana 88 miles for the first day.
The 1,000 mile men began the next day. The field of five, which would be whittled down to one by the end, featured the intrepid Scottish Reverend Laurie Dexter, Tsuruo Kobayashi from Japan, the inimitable Bob Wise of Georgia, Jean-Claude Czaja of France, and the former school principle of Ludington, Michigan, the relentless John Wallis.
The weather was abating, although news reports said the hurricane was imminent. Australian Ian Javes, a phantom whose face rarely emerged from his expedition hat, was slowing dangerously with blisters, injuries, and hurricane phobia, and would return to the drawing board after a six day split of 426 miles. Wolfgang Ettwig had dropped out of the race only to become a permanent fixture; as the German handler he would surpass the runners in frazzled distraction.
On September 23 the 700 mile women and walker started; September 24 marked the last start, the 700 mile men, accompanied by brilliant blue skies as Hugo had slipped by to the west. Al already had 495 for six days, 33 miles over Stefan. This lead would continue as a link between them, pushing from behind and pulling from ahead, helping both to hold their pace. Jesse Dale Riley, the abundantly cheerful walker who was now running, just made the six day cutoff with 350 miles.
Monday’s weather held and Al finished off 7 days with 573 as compared with 511 in this spring’s 7 day race. Winds began to build and during the night the rain began again. 1,000 miler John Wallis, veteran of many a rainy event, stuck to the track with his measured regularity. Tuesday dawned in the downpour, while the 1,000 mile women recorded splits for six days of 429 miles (Suprabha) and 400 miles (Antana, for a Canadian record). In the 700 mile division Nirjhari DeLong, a veteran of this course, was moving up on Essie Garret, while Noviedya Brower, in the men’s division, spent a few sleepless nights building up the mileage that would keep him in the race.
Among the 1,300 milers, Trishul was beginning to drop off pace and the Dog was claiming most of his handler’s time. Christel was sticking to the road with no other thoughts. Someone forgot to wake her and she slept for 5 hours. She declared furiously in German ‘I did not come here to sleep for 5 hours, I came to run!’ Much of her remaining sleep would be during her foot-soaks, 10 minutes at a time.
Tuesday cleared with a constant wind to remind us of how cold the nights can be. Laurie Dexter, who came to this race to see what physical limits really are, will be disappointed in his quest, because the blisters on his feet will not let him go on much longer. He is unable to walk to the medical tent and Jesse Dale Riley, having completed close to 500 miles, announces ‘No problem,’ and picks him up in his arms and carries him. Tuesday evening marks my penultimate bout with a health problem which will not let me run anymore. The night grows cold as Al hits the 700 mile mark, at 8 ½ days. Ian is on a schedule of 80 miles a day with no leeway, but picking up hope. John Wallis, ubiquitous like a small human running machine, is about to hit a 6 day split of 410 miles.
September 27 – like the 27th of every month, the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team was holding a marathon, on the same course as the Ultra Trio. On a brilliantly cold day which evolved out of a bitterly cold night, some 60 marathoners took off.
Japanese TV arrived in the afternoon, and the 1,000 miler, Tsuro Kobayashi, who had dropped considerably off pace, became inspired. Day and night he began to whirl around the course, the small Samurai, at 11-13 minute per mile, with no breaks. He did not stop to change from his t-shirt and black pants, and no one could persuade him to relent. He had entered the race because of the notice in Ultrarunning, but could not read English, except for the numbers. A spirited marathoner, his previous longest distance was the Western States course which took him 33 hours.
Laurie Dexter, finally sidelined at 400 miles, realized that of all the exploits he has attempted, it was the first time he had failed to meet his objective. And he didn’t mind – ‘Every step was a new personal best.’
Al Howie was very near 1,000 miles. He was tempted to push for under 13 days, but his survival instinct prevailed. Despite his wild druid-like demeanor and high output, he was perhaps the most relaxed of all the runners; he reasoned that the whole trick was not to think of splits at all, but to realize one has to cover 1,300 miles. But ‘It’ll be a lot easier t’ gut it out on a decent amount of sleep. I’ll definitely g’t at least 4 hours fr’ m now on. I can’t understand why nobody else has thought o’ that,’ he said in his lilting brogue. ‘That’s why everyone seems to end up losin’ it.’
October 1 – Howie finished 1,000 miles in just over 13 days – the fourth fastest time ever. He phoned his wife and assured her that he’s eating properly (‘Just a few chocolates. Little bebby ones’), and that he would sleep five hours a night from then on. ‘What I want to do is g’t it done Thursday night, then I could help out Stefan,’ he explained. ‘The sad thing is, somethin’s wrong with his feet. His commitment and his strength and courage are at least equal to mine. It’s a shame that somethin’ with y’r feet would let you down.’
Al Howie is a very competitive runner, and yet he would say at the end of the race, ‘Stefan and Ian will be my friends forever.’
He betrayed little strain, as he frequently sat for a few moments between laps on a folding chair by the counters, then got up, without ado, to go again. His weight loss was dramatic, thought he ate steadily and was on a daily diet of cheesecake, and his sharp eyes quivered a little under the blond tangle of hair and beard and eyebrows.
October 3 – Antana’s 32nd birthday and she’d done 827 miles in 13 days, behind Suprabha’s 871 miles. A strong, fast runner who never dropped her form, her feet were killing her with every step. In three days she would reach 1,000 miles in the third fastest time for women.
John Wallis, the solo male survivor in the 1,000 (since the valiant Kobayashi was now on crutches with a stress fracture) was approaching his goal, thanks to his technique of perpetual motion. He was also getting foot problems so serious that his future was in the balance.
Stefan was under great strain. Every pebble was killing him. And he was also at his limit – the mileage he finished with last year. When asked how he felt, he replied, ‘Do you know what a .38 pistol is?’
Ian has set his mind like a vice and maintained the highest daily average of any runner in the last part of the race. His injuries, which include severe sciatica, were only slightly abated, and yet he was about to pass Stefan with 24 hours to go. (Ian’s 1,000 mile split, measured from the beginning, ends up 12 hours slower than his 1,000 mile split measured from the end, and his second half was about 100 miles faster than his first).
October 4 – Christel, whose strength transcends all logic, achieved her 1,000 miles at 11 p.m. and for a few hours would hold the second fastest women’s 1,000 mile time in the world.
During the morning it was realized that Suprabha had a shot at the world record. The weary wish of a tired but relentless runner, who had stuck to the track for 14 days, would have to pass the next 24 hours without any break. The very thought of it sent her to the medical tent – ‘Just a short break,’ she sighed. Through the beautiful night she ran in her conservative, unbroken gait. She reached 1,000 miles at 8:40 the next morning, a blond-haired wraith focusing upon a far-off world. She has the world record, beating Sandy Barwick’s mark of 14 days plus 20:45:16 by just 27 minutes. ’I want say one thing,’ she breathes. ‘This has been a joint effort by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team.’
Just moments before Ian and Stefan had been on the same lap, at 1,205 miles. Al had 1,250 miles, Marty Springlemeyer’s record for the race. He was ‘livin’ lots of hell, and then I’ll be in heaven.’ Nirjhari and Essie, who had been napping near each other, and could hardly get up without knowing the other would also, were within 3 miles of each other, with 641 miles and 644 miles. And Noivedya and Michael, in the men’s 700, have been sharing the lead the whole race. There were only 27 hours to go.
The evening of October 5 Al reached 1,300 miles, holding aloft the Rampant Lion, one of Scotland’s more esoteric flags. Pretty rampant, and definitely a lion, Al did not pause before doing an additional lap to reverse around the course, phoning his wife, and finally collapsing on his folding chair amidst the applause. His adrenalin was still pumping, and he later called it the most exciting moment of his life. Ian, whose back was in a perfect sideways curve by this time, stopped to congratulate him. ‘Time to clean up now! quipped the high school teacher. ‘Looked at you grubby face for 18 days now!’
John Wallis, with 40 miles to go, had been advised by the medical crew that his foot was so bad that if he took another break he might not get back out again. He ran his last 10 hours without a break, using the side of his hurt foot as a get leg and basically running on the other. His back started to go. On his last lap he paused for his characteristic walk around the curve, and took the American flag. Wallis finished 1,000 miles in 14 days, 9 hours – 12th fastest time for men, with the vet’s world record. He turned down the invitation to do a victory lap, and collapsed on Al Howie’s lap while congratulating him.
Antana reached 1,000 miles during the night. New York skies smiled gently on October 6, fleeced with snow-white clouds, innocent of their cruel tricks of the past weeks. The entire field of 700 milers finished in the morning, and would eventually thank the close competition for getting them through. Ian Javes; quiet but tremendously courageous performance made him the second man to reach 1,300 miles in a certified race, less than an hour before the cutoff. Stefan became the third and youngest. Veteran of many a life and death exploit, Stefan declared without hesitation: ‘This was the toughest race of my life!’
This has been the first year that everyone who has survived the cutoffs reached their goal. It has been a tremendous effort, with results beyond expectation. In the words of John Wallis: ‘It’s like, the more that make it, the prouder we’ll be.’
Sri Chinmoy handed out the awards, and national anthems were sung for each of the winners. After many rounds of applause the runners were invited to speak. Everyone agreed that the mutual support, not only from the crews but among the runners, had been phenomenal. John Wallis: ‘An incredible experience for me, and I am shaken by it.’ Ian Javes: ‘Without all of you I couldn’t have done it.’ The tough Stefan Schlett: ‘I am very inspired. I speak for all the runners. I say thank you very much and I love you all together.’ Yes, the impossible had been achieved. And everyone who was part of the 1989 Ultra Trio could take the credit.
“Sri Chinmoy Ultra Trio – A Triumph of the Survivors.” Ultrarunning. December 1989. Reprinted with permission.