If you visit Flushing Meadows Corona Park between now and Saturday, you’ll see a peculiar thing: Some 80 runners repeating a one-mile loop over and over again, day and night.
The runners, who hail from 19 countries, are participating in the six- and 10-day foot races, which the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team — named after the late Indian spiritual leader — organizes annually.
It doesn’t work like a typical race. Instead of seeing how fast they can run a certain distance, contestants have a set time frame — either six or 10 days — and the goal is to log as many miles as possible. Nobody runs fast — that would be unsustainable; instead, most jog or even walk for much of the time.
Despite the laid-back pace, the miles add up. In past races, winners have put away close to 1,000 miles in 10 days, which is the equivalent of almost four marathons each day. Even the slowest participants do 25 to 30 miles a day, according to assistant race director Bipin Larkin.
The runners are allowed to stop whenever they want to sleep, eat or rest. Tents are available for sleeping, shower stalls have been set up and each runner has a personal area in a shade pavilion, where they can relax, tend to blisters or be given massages. A temporary kitchen serves three meals a day plus constant snacks — which is essential, as the racers burn an average of 10,000 calories each day.
Most runners choose to sleep only about two hours a night, with a few short daytime naps. Yet despite their lack of sleep and constant physical exertion, they say they don’t usually become particularly tired, as they stay on a runner’s high.
Nor do they get bored, even though they run the same loop hundreds of times in a row.
“You have a different experience every time you go around,” said Nabhoniya Butler, 40, of New Zealand, who is doing her second six-day race. She said she listens to music to keep her mind occupied.
Some of the runners also say they meditate while running.
“You can make it a spiritual experience, so sometimes I just don’t want to talk to anybody,” said Karnayati Morison, 62, of Ottawa, who is doing her third 10-day race. “If I want, there are 100 different interesting people to talk to.”
Even if boredom isn’t an issue, completeing six- and 10-day races is anything but easy. Between blisters, shin splints, thunderstorms and vast temperature swings, runners have their fill of challenges.
“I felt like I was in the Australian desert, it was so hot [over the weekend],” said Dipali Cunningham, 50, a Queens resident who set the women’s world record for six-day races in 2001. Cunningham has cut the toes off her shoes to alleviate blisters and has aquired a noticeable sunburn.
“I say to myself, ‘Just keep moving and forget about it,’” she said. “The mind tries to tell you that you shouldn’t have come out here. Yesterday I had one of the mind challenges, and I said, ‘No you don’t! We’re ending the race on Saturday and we’re not having that.’”
Wolfgang Schwerk, 54, of Germany, who is leading the men’s race, said the dramatic temperature swings have been hard on his muscles — and his morale.
“In the end of day five I stopped in the sun for three hours, thinking, ‘The race is over,’” Schwerk said. But he kept going, and he said the race gets easier as time goes on and the body builds up strength.
“In the beginning you are thinking too much,” he said. “That’s not good; you must only run.”
So why do the runners put themselves through this much discomfort?
“I like to do things that are hard,” Butler said, summing up the answer many runners gave. “While you’re doing it, you wonder whether it’s worth it. At the end you feel great.”
“You’re walking and laughing, and it’s joy,” Schwerk said.
“I love being outside,” Morison agreed. “I love the little world that they build here. And for some reason — I suppose because we’re going to the very edge of what we’re able to do — it brings out the absolute best qualities in people — such oneness and love and harmony.”
Morison added that the environment is non-competitive. Runners try to beat their own best mileages, but there’s almost no rivalry between participants. Morison also said she appreciates the break she gets from daily life by participating in the races.
“When you’re here you’re totally looked after,” she explained. “You’re fed. All you’ve got to do is walk. In life you have to balance your home, your work, sometimes you have kids and this and that. Here there’s nothing else except this.”
And of course those who participate love running in general. Cunningham says her day is always a bit off if she doesn’t start it with a run. Schwerk said he normally logs at least 100 miles a week. And Joe Cleary, 69, who is originally from Ireland and is running his first six-day race, said he constantly runs marathons. Last year he did 35 of them, and his current total stands at 400.
About three-quarters of the participants are students of Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual teacher and philosopher who urged his followers to stretch themselves to their limits physically and mentally, with the goal of self transcendence. Chinmoy himself was an avid runner and weight lifter.
This round of races ends May 2 at noon, but the runners will be back next year. The Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team has been holding multi-day “Self Transcendence” races for the past 14 years and also holds a 3,100-mile race each summer. That race follows a half-mile course around a city block in Jamaica.