In August 2004 I ran the Self Transcendence Marathon in Rockland State Park, New York.
Before I became a student of Sri Chinmoy, I had never run more than six or seven miles at a stretch previously. I had never particularly enjoyed it up to that point, I was always begging the time to fly so I could be home and have a hot shower! Soon after I joined the Centre however, I started going out for runs with Ambarish - the combination of good company, lovely summer settings and the realisation that running was something I could really use to reach deep within myself awoke my enthusiasm. The mileage kept going up, first to eight, then to ten, then to twelve....and it was then I could concieve of possibly running a marathon.
I was warned to step up the running schedule slowly and gradually to avoid injury, but some things I just seem to have to learn the hard way! Sure enough, I developed a calf muscle injury and didn't allocate near enough time for resting it. It persisted what seemed like ages. It subsided after some intensive massage, but I could feel it still lurking in the background; I still managed to participate in the Dublin City marathon that year and come home in 3:23.
I kept on running in the winter, hoping some physio exercises would be enough to keep it at bay; things came to a head on St Stephens Day when I ran up the Schockl mountain outside Graz, Austria. I felt great afterwards but as the day wore on I was barely able to walk - my left knee was seizing up. Thus began an injury which was to persist for the best part of a year.
The physio didnt help; maybe it would have if I had given it enough time, my problem was I wanted an instant cure. Other proposed remedies were tried and tossed aside with similar churlishness. I really wanted to compete in the marathon in August in New York, and it was very frustrating that things wouldnt come right.
I did most of my training for the marathon on an elliptic trainer in the gym - I didn't know how that translated into road fitness, and so I ran a belated 9-mile and a 10-mile run, which didn't do the injury any good at all.
The marathon took place whilst we were visiting Sri Chinmoy in August - the two weeks I was in New York leading up to the marathon were so intense, with something new happening every day, I didn't have time to think about the marathon at all. I was in a singing group that was performing the day before, and a lot of my preoccupations were on that.
It thus struck me quite suddenly on the morning of the race that, yes, today I was going to run a marathon. I could feel the dull reminder of an ache in my knee. I really didn't know what to do. Should I start, not start, start and pull out? We boarded the bus at 4 a.m - the race was due to start at 7 so that we could stay out of the scorching midday heat. On my way to the bus I had a brief conversation with a long-time student of Sri Chinmoy who, despite her tiny frame, has completed many arduous multi-day running events and swum the English Channel. I asked her what time she was hoping to make - she just smiled and said "Oh, I'm just a small girl. The main thing is that I have joy."
The race took place in a state park - almost nine laps around a three-mile circuit of a beautiful lake. I stood watching the sun rise over the lake and those words came back to me, just to have joy, just to be happy no matter what.
And with some inspirational starting-line words of Sri Chinmoy, followed by a short and powerful meditation, we were off. Just to have joy. I started extremely, extremely slowly. I took in the surroundings, enjoyed (frequent) toilet breaks, enjoyed watching people twice my age pass me out - not having any idea about completing anything, just out for a morning stroll. It was only at around the mile 6 mark that the idea occurred to me: perhaps I could finish under 4 hours...
Gradually I picked up the pace, until I could feel myself running at the same pace as for my first marathon. It was just so nice being able to feel myself running at speed for the first time in a long time, to feel myself scything through the wind, once again to feel that sense of one-pointedness when you know the goal lies ahead of you, only ahead of you.
This went on all the way to mile 17. I started to get pain, which at first I thought was something like a stitch, but turned into something like the whole right side of me on fire. It came to a point where I had a choice between running and breathing - I chose the latter. I was fortunate to be close to the finish line so I could call on the services of the marathon doctor. He begins all his treatments with a short meditation, and I was no exception, even with the clock ticking (I've resisted the temptation to subtract it from my race time). He diagnosed me with an electrolyte imbalance. "But I've been horsing the purple stuff into me all race!" I protested. "Yup," he shrugged pragmatically, "sometimes we just don't know why these things happen."
I had to walk for 10 minutes until the various concoctions the good doctor gave me took effect, and then run for the next 10 with one arm held behind my back to stabilize my ribcage, because it still hurt when my ribcage wobbled.
In one way it was great that it happened, because it presented me with a real self-transcendence challenge. With two laps to go, I looked at the clock which read 3:07. I was going to have to step it up to break four hours. The last six miles stretched ahead of me as ominously as a dark cloud. The change in momentum caused by my stop had not helped, I was fealing really fatigued. I urged myself forward, trying to identify with the silent strength of the trees, the vastness of the lake, the sky, the fillips of encouragement from my fellow runners, anything but my weakening body. The finish line came around again with one more lap to go, and I was so busy looking at the clock and scheming and calculating what I would have to do to break four hours that I never saw Sri Chinmoy sitting there at all, but somehow, I could feel his silent encouragement and it made me feel immediately and suddenly stronger.
That last lap turned into one of the most enjoyable I have ever run. And somehow, during that last lap, all of my struggle before and during the race was put into perspective; it felt like I had spent a microcosm of a lifetime on that course, so many things had happened, been through so many differing emotions, and this was to be the farewell lap; farewell to the sunlight through the trees, farewell to the wooden bridge over the river, farewell to James at the water station who always knew exactly what I wanted, farewell to the musicians dotted around the course who always played the right tune; farewell, farewell. That last lap turned into one of the most enjoyable I have ever run. I got a bit emotional at the end - later, I took one look at a photo of my blubbering face crossing the finishing line (3:58) and decided not to buy it.
Soon after that, I found a regimen of stretching and massage that helped my knee - I still have to do it regularly, but it's a reminder to me that I always have to give my body something back and be grateful to it for letting me put it through all that abuse. Ultimately, I have a feeling that the whole experience was all about teaching me patience and showing me what happens when I try and push and pull things to my own will. Hopefully a few more experiences akin to the last two laps, of reaching into some higher purpose where everything happens the way it's supposed to, will set me straight.