This is the strange talc of how an Eastern mystic saved a Western sport from oblivion. The unlikely mix of characters includes Sri Chinmoy, a 58-year-old Indian spiritual master who has built a small sports empire in America; his 1,100 persistently faithful disciples; a select group of the world's greatest long-distance runners; and the top organizers on the New York racing scene. But the star of the story is ultrarunning, a catchall term for footraces longer than a marathon. (The races cover either a certain distance, 100 miles, for example, or a length of time: the six-day race.)
Sri Chinmoy and his students around the world put on most of the major ultras contested on roads today. In fact, the elite runners believe their sport might not exist if it weren't for the guru. "Without Sri Chinmoy, we would have few races and little future," says Yiannis Kouros of Greece, the world's top ultrarunner. "He has been the sport's lifeline."
A hundred years ago, ultras were major affairs. A six-day race sold out annually at Madison Square Garden in New York City, with spectators paying hefty fees day and night for three-or four-hour admissions. Prize money of up to $25,000 went to the top finishers, making it one of the richest sports events. But the ultramarathon faded as more dramatic spectator sports, such as horse racing and baseball, gained popularity. Madison Square Garden held its last six-day race in 1896.
As late as 1972, even the marathon seemed somewhat bizarre for some Americans. But Frank Shorter's gold medal at the Munich Olympics helped make the race "respectable" in the U.S. When more than 14,000 competitors entered the New York City Marathon in 1982, Fred Lebow, president of the New York Road Runners Club ( NYRRC), felt it was time to stage a longer event. The next year, at Randalls Island, he revived the six-day race with huge success. "We marketed the race with pizzazz, and there was worldwide network television coverage," Lebow recalls. The best American runner, Stu Mittleman, was trussed up with 25 pounds of broadcasting equipment for five straight nights so Nightline host Ted Koppel could carry on conversations with him as he ran. After staying back in the pack for days, Mittleman rewarded Nightline with a stirring second-place finish.
A star was born, and a sport reborn. The television exposure helped Mittleman parlay ultrarunning into a living. "I had Nike and Gatorade endorsement contracts," he says, "and I lectured everywhere to drum up interest." New ultra-marathon race sites began to spring up around the country.
The next year, the Road Runners' six-day race attracted more media attention when Kouros ran 635 miles and 1,023 yards, shattering the 96-year-old world mark. Lebow vowed to hold the race annually. Instead, he had to cancel it in 1985 to repair the track on Randalls Island—the only site that could be found locally for an event at which competitors eat and sleep alongside the course. When the NYRRC seemed to be abandoning the sport, sponsors elsewhere bailed out of races as well. "They decided ultrarunning was too outlandish for the public," says Mittleman, who lost his endorsement contracts. "They couldn't handle all these weirdos running 10-12 hours a day."
Enter Sri Chinmoy. The balding, soft-spoken meditation teacher, who keeps his eyes half-closed as if he is constantly communing with the spirit world, hardly seems the type to be obsessed with athletics. But during his youth, he was sprinting and decathlon champion of the religious retreat (ashram) in Bangladesh where he was raised. He was convinced that sports were one path to peace and godliness. When he arrived in the U.S. in 1964 a "fully realized holy man" (to quote his devotees), he was intent on spreading his blend of spirituality and athleticism.
By the mid-1970s, an enclave of 200 or so followers had formed around his home in Jamaica, Queens. (Most were Americans, but many dressed in Indian style and adopted Indian names.) He churned out a prodigious amount of devotional songs, poems, and paintings, as well as a few hundred books of essays and meditation lessons. He established 80 Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centers worldwide and led twice-weekly "peace meditations" for United Nations personnel.
In 1976, he made his first splash as a running-event promoter. His disciples put together the mammoth Liberty Torch Relay, a nonstop, 8,800-mile relay through all 50 states to celebrate the Bicentennial. When the spectacle generated coast-to-coast goodwill as well as favorable press, the guru and his disciples founded the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team (SCMT) to organize events on a regular basis.
Thus began Sri Chinmoy's enchantment with endurance running. "Although I'd been a sprinter, I saw that long-distance running was better for most people," he says. "Few of my disciples were blessed with speed. But they could easily develop stamina by practicing a few months."