Before he became known as one of Canada’s greatest master’s ultra runners, Michel Careau ‘got his feet’ literally wet in multiday racing at the inaugural 1985 Sri Chinmoy 5 Day Race. Cold, rainy weather did not put a damper on his enthusiasm or his insights.
“Many ultra runners have managed to cover 50 miles, a much smaller number have gone on to 100 miles or 24 hours, and very few have run multi day events. What’s it like to run an ultra day after day? Canadian Michel Careau shares his experiences from the Sri Chinmoy 5 Day held last December in Queens, N.Y.
Friday, November 29th
8:15 am. Fifteen people are at the starting line for this 120 hour race. It is raining. It has been raining and it will continue to rain: might as well accept the inevitable. Who knows – start with rain and finish with sunshine. At least one can always hope! A quality field of ultra runners is gathered together on this damp morning. They are names, faces, and voices that will soon become familiar: smiles for the family album. I do not know who to look at and smile at. A mitigated smile – worried maybe. The photographers complete their task. One hundred and twenty hours of running is no small task. My goal of 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles, is a big undertaking for a first attempt at a 5 day event. With umbrellas surrounding us and the counters under their shelter, Sri Chinmoy is on the track leading the way for us. A few moments of silence precedes the start of the race.
8:22 am. Ten, nine, ...two, one, GO! That’s it – no fireworks. A few scattered rounds of applause are lost in the sound of the falling rain. I am running along about 20 meters behind the leading pack of Sammukh, Kirit and Trishul. My first two miles are covered in 17:36. I accelerate to shake myself up and take the lead, which I hold until mile 8. ‘Michel, discipline yourself!’...’Sorry?...‘I said, discipline yourself. Slow down, slow down!’ I am listening to my inner voice, the exhortations of common sense. I must not let myself be carried away by my enthusiasm. There are still so many hours to go. Sammukh and Trishul pass me. I feel more comfortable behind these two kings of the road and I take the opportunity to recall the merits of these two great gentlemen…
His friend, Trishul Cherns, is just as impressive. He is a 28 year old from Hamilton, Ontario, now living in New York. He holds the Canadian record for six days at 530.7 miles, 11th in the world. He’s done 1,000 miles in 15 days 9:37:35, third best in the world. Yes, I better let those two run ahead if I don’t want to die prematurely.
Noon. A bit of cheese, soup, peanut butter. The wind has picked up and the rain has ceased. The temperature has gone down. I am feeling good. This is no time to start feeling bad with only five hours gone and 115 still to go! So in order to keep my mind busy, I start doing some slight mental calculations. I had envisioned covering 500 km – that is my goal. This is not the time to start modifying it. An average of 62 miles per day is perfectly reasonable. To eat, rest, and avoid injuries is very important. Once I reach my goal for the first day then I can call it a day.
In the afternoon I stop in my plywood shelter, where everything is cold. The gas heater has not arrived yet. My co-sharers, Joe and Kirit, are still on the one mile loop. While I change into dry clothing, I pause to introduce myself to my ‘roommates’ when they run by. They actually use the shelter as a drop-off and changing facility since they live in the area and are able to go home at night and rest. Joe Michaels, a charming man 44 years of age from Bayside, N.Y. is president of the Cardiac Runners Association. To be part of that special group one has to have had at least one severe heart attack or one or more bypass operations or suffer from high blood pressure. Joe has proved to the medical and athletic world that seven heart attacks and two double bypass operations do no automatically put an end to an active life. He has completed 14 marathons and 17 ultras, including 86 miles for 24 hour and 300.9 for a six day…
How good it feels to be back on the road with warm and dry clothes on! The rain has stopped. On the menu for tonight’s meal is soup, a staple food of Sri Chinmoy’s disciples, and Macaroni. Once I reach 63 miles I decide to stop and rest, although I still feel like running. One must conserve one’s resources. Sleep...but where? In my shelter? Forget it, it is too cold. I find myself a little niche in a room next to the medical room. I fall asleep on a camp bed beside another ultra runner at rest, Louise Henry, 34, from Jamaica, N.Y.
The rest is short-lived, for ten minutes later the chiropractor wakes me up to tell me that this area is for women runners and therefore I cannot sleep there. He suggests I go to the medical room. But places in the medical room were very few. The lights were bright and the room was adjacent to the rather noisy counting station – noises. I must say, that were mainly the good-hearted encouragement of the counters towards the runners. I lie down and close my eyes anyway. Another ten minutes go by but I cannot sleep. So I get up and take my leave, while my hosts indicate that tomorrow I will be able to enjoy heat in my shelter. On those comforting words, I head towards my shelter and there, dressed in my Lifa underwear, cotton sweater and winter coat, I lie down in the cold late fall night. My eyelids get heavier and I fall asleep with the wind whistling through the shaky roof of my shelter.
A few hours later, a cold drop of water finds its way through an opening in the roof and ends up on my nose. I awaken and get up – it’s still night. I might as well return to the track. I greet my lap counter, who seems happy to see me back, and then I plunge into the dark night. By 8:22 am I have run another nine miles and completed my first day. I’m in 6th place with 72 miles.
Saturday, November 30th
The second day is going to be the low point for most of the runners. On the one hand, the humid weather was dampening our enthusiasm; on the other hand, the accumulate fatigue from battling the elements on the first was painfully felt. The first victim is Sammukh Sheridan – the first to reach 100 miles yesterday. Today he was forced to rest. Geoff Richardson would have to be satisfied with a meager 25 miles today and then would pull out completely – things were not going well for this 34 year old charming athlete, a native of Scotland who is now living in Columbia, South America. He lives at 9,000 feet and trains in hot weather, but it was not to serve him this time. Our conversations, sometimes in French (Geoff teaches French), sometimes in Spanish, indicated that this would not be his day. There are some days when you wonder why you just didn’t stay in bed.
Others had problems, too. Samara Minoli, the eldest of the group at 58, had to be content with 34 miles after covering 81 miles the first day. Stan Leventhal was struggling to stay on the road and could barely manage 40 miles after 86 yesterday. As a group we averaged 45 miles, down from 65 on Friday.
It was a day when one had to draw motivation from one’s inner resources. As far as I was concerned, I had to suffer for a few hours, something that I did not want to show. In the early afternoon I started feeling pain on the top of my left foot, probably remnants of a broken bone suffered during a cross-country skiing accident in January, 1982. I kept going as best I could, trying to stay cheerful and even smile, although I was really discouraged with my slow progress. The idea was not to attract any attention and to prove to myself that I was not finished. I was glad I had done an extra 10 miles the first day; even if I couldn’t do my 62 miles today, I could at least reach 124 for the first two days.
It was on this last day of November that I met a true veteran of Ultrarunning – 53 year old Clarence Richey, a retired university professor from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Clarence sports a thick and elegant beard and has bright eyes behind his dark-rimmed glasses. He is an ultrarunner of more than 30 years experience. He was a training companion of Ted Corbitt in the 1950s’s. Until recently he held the North American record for six days for his age group (376) miles. As a philosopher, linguist, polyglot and idealist, he is gifted with a profound and intense love for humanity, an extraordinary sense of humor, and a rich and delightful personality. He encourages me and, almost on a fatherly tone, admits to having studied and recognized in me the seed of a great ultra runner! (I note this with modesty, since I feel that his beliefs are based more on his friendly attitude towards me than on any scientific basis). I have learned some lessons from this veteran runner, hardened by years of efforts and experiences – stay on the track, go at your own rhythm, intelligently avoiding injuries and knowing when to rest. I listen intently. When I quietly admitted to him of suffering from a pain in my left foot, he suggested that I see the chiropractor in the medical tent.
The visit turned out to be a salvation. After examining me, the chiropractor told me that I had displaced a bone in my foot. After a few manipulations to my foot, leg, back, and neck, I am on my way to my now warm shelter for a 4 hour sleep and a chance for my swollen foot to regain its normal size.
I wake up in the middle of the night, well-rested and eager to get back on the road. Miraculously I finish my second 24 hours with 60 miles, or 132 in total so far.
Sunday, December 1st
I feel good. The air is fresh and I run freely, happy to be through with a day that could have been fatal. I am running so freely that I cover 49 miles in the first 12 hours (an average of 4.1 mph), without hardly noticing it. That is a very respectable total for this kind of race. At 8:22 PM we reach the halfway point of the race. Sixty hours of activity interspersed with short rest periods is behind us, sixty more hours ahead. I notify the race director that I am leaving to give my old 1974 Ford some exercise en route to a local hotel (of course, I first got the approval of my advisor Clarence). I make a brief stop at my shelter in order to put on some dry clothes and comb my hair. Then I go off with a smile in my old battered car with 123,500 miles to its credit. Metropole Hotel, here I come!
I take the opportunity to pay a visit to the washroom, check my teeth and then I stop at the bar. I catch a quick look in the mirror behind the counter to make sure that I still look human. The face is a bit pale, the eyes are somewhat lifeless, the face a little more lined than usual, but everything else seems to be in order. I sip a beer very slowly in order to prolong the pleasure. I feel as good as a high school student skipping classes. Suddenly, the other part of me is telling me that I should not drag on too much, that I had to take things seriously, I shouldn’t sit on my laurels, and that duty was calling. In any case, my not so well cushioned ‘laurels’ were not feeling very comfortable sitting on the hard bench. After two and a half days of running I had lost the habit of sitting down. ‘Come on lazy bones, let’s get back to work!’ A last visit to the washroom and then I am taking the stairs three at a time, coming out onto the sidewalk which is damp and cold from the drizzle that has now begun to fall. In the hotel I had felt like a fish out of water. I am now feeling part of a world different from the civilization of this big city. I feel a sudden urge to be back with my kin, on the track with my fellow runners and surrounded by the support and encouragement of the race crew.
Fifteen minutes later I am back on the track. The time allotted to sleep tonight will be reduced to a minimum – 1 ½ hours. But when morning comes, I am smiling despite the hardships of the day before. 81 more miles done, 213 for the three days so far. My little escapade to the Metropole has greatly refreshed me!
Monday, December 2nd
Another very special day for me. I am exploring new ground. I have never before run for more than 70 hours, an adventure I experienced in 1983 in my hometown of Hull, in the company of two great Canadian ultra runners, Phil Latulippe and Al Howie. I completed 234.5 miles (375 km) on a 1415 meter long course and the whole experience is engraved in my memory forever. This December 2nd would see me surpass my previous limit.
The day would also allow me to meet some more of the extraordinary participants in this race. The first of these was Vivian Corres, Clarence’s friend, also from Milwaukee. Although I can’t be sure, I suspect that Vivien was on the track more than any of the other women in the race. Warmly dressed, with a thick raincoat protecting her from the wind and rain, and wearing shoes, Vivien was walking at a brisk pace (she walked the entire race). She was also keeping an eye on Clarence, who had lost the enthusiasm of the first hours. When he had to rest or was experiencing bad spells, Vivien knew how to encourage him and urge him on with her sweet, feminine psychology.
Another nice person I met was Kim Cavanagh, 34, from Winchester, Mass. Kim once held the North American record for 48 hours at 161 miles 75 yards. She had run 15 ultras before this. My discussions with her were mainly on the subject of Guru, Sri Chinmoy. We discussed the personality of the Master, his multiple talents, his spirit of determination, and the consistency of his moral and spiritual power which transcends all of his outer activities, giving these a dimension which might appear super-human to common mortals. Kim, once a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, talked at great length of the generosity, depth and intensity of the Master. She was putting as much effort into her talking as into running. But her warm, sweet voice showed no signs of exertion and her thin legs and elegant body were well suited to this gifted ultra runner who is enriched with penetrating intuition and a heart as big as the world.
Then there is Kanchan Scott, a 39 year old Canadian from Ottawa and the first woman to run across Canada, a distance of 3,800 miles. She holds the Canadian women’s record for 24 hours with 106 miles 313 yards. I had met her twice before, thought I’m sure I remember the occasions more than she does. Now, during the 5 day race, I was really in her clan as I was completing the Canadian trio of Trishul, Kanchan and myself. I couldn’t allow myself to blow this one!
During the second day of the run, when I had problems with my left foot and my general performance suffered, Kanchan had subtlety suggested that I take some rest. She was wondering, and rightly so, why I forced myself to stay on the track. I had told her that, despite appearances, everything was going fine; my spirits were good and I felt that everything would fall into place soon. When you talk with a disciple of the Guru and mention the word ‘spirits,’ the argument is already won! After all, doesn’t the Spiritual Master teach a philosophy of transcendence of oneself and of reaching for ever higher goals, often through the arduous road of going beyond the pain? Kanchan, who almost reproached me for staying on the track, often gave me looks in which I could feel some worry for my well-being. Forty-eight hours later, on this fourth day of the run, she didn’t miss the opportunity to tell me that I was running well and that I seemed to be at ease and relaxed. I returned the compliments as she also greatly deserved them.
I was so absorbed in this pleasant company that I didn't notice the fourth day and night go by. I was feeling better, happy that I would come out of this race with a feeling of having grown.
On a more athletic level, five runners had done at least fifty miles for this fourth consecutive 24 hours. I did 64, for a total of 277 miles for 4 days.
Tuesday, December 3
The fifth and last day is dawning. The rain has stopped and a reddish sun is taking its place in the sky – a good omen for the last 24 hours. My diet has changed. Oatmeal cookies, chocolate, sugar tarts and whole milk now constitute my nutritional intake. Last night I rejoiced over a plate of rice and mushrooms. I am virtually assured of reaching my objective, having a full day and night to cover the remaining 33 miles. I have decided to take things easy.
So, why not try to further deepen the already rich human experiences by strengthening the inner feelings that remain forever imprinted in our minds and hearts? The improvement in the weather has given rise to new incentive and inspiration. The long grinding hours on the track have had an effect on the athletes’ perceptions. The fatigue has made them more sensitive and communicative with each other...
The last night I actually rested. Yes, I slept well for a full five hours. When the day dawned on Wednesday the 4th there were no clouds to be seen. It was as if Mother Nature was trying to be forgiven for the past four days of cheerless weather. After a quick wash-up, I slipped into the running suit which I kept for special occasions. I then ran without much conviction since I had attained my set objective (I would end with 343+ miles).
During those last ultimate kilometers, the great moments of these five days went quickly through my mind; the rich encounters of human experience; my escapade to the Metropole Hotel at the halfway mark; the nights spent in the shelter lying under wet clothes strung on a line waiting to be put on again; those carefully prepared meals devoured so quickly; those devoted, benevolent helpers who kept coming all hours of the day and night without ever losing their good spirits; those runners, who were sometimes so full of energy and at other times trying to recover their motivation; those dull, grey, rainy and windy days; the sunrays of the last few hours which had followed the spring-like breeze of the lasts night.
A five day race is all this...and much more.”
Careau, Michel. “Life at the Sri Chinmoy 5 Day.” May 1986. Ultrarunning. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.