Friday, May 3, 2013

Race Report: Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 6-Day Race; or, How I Stopped Worrying About the Race and Learned to Love the Run, Part II

Numbers of all kinds were running through my head before the start of the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 6-Day Race, which started April 21, 2013 in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens. I had high hopes for big mileage totals, so those numbers were in my head, as well as my expected mileage per day, minutes per mile, hours I'd have to sleep, etc. But before the end of the race, none of those numbers really mattered at all, and the most important number was the huge number of friends who came out to crew for me, bring me food, or cheer me on.

So right off the bat I want to thank those people: Trishul and Kaaren Schilke-Cherns for their advice and for the use of their tent, Mike Arnstein for driving me to the start and crewing for me in the early hours, Otto Lam and Paul Kentor for helping crew at the beginning also, Shaun Leonardo for crewing overnight Monday night, Oz Pearlman for crewing Tuesday afternoon/evening and for the "inspirational" notes, Enrico and Sonam Curreri for their visit Tuesday, Deanna Culbreath for crewing Wednesday morning, Rick McNulty also Wednesday morning, Al Prawda for the afternoon, Cherie Yanek for later Wednesday, Richie Innamorato for coming by a couple of times, Susie Schmeltzer, Gerald and Donna Tabios, Mat and Lucinda Gerowitz, Shishaldin Hanlen, Glen Redpath with Pavel and Corinne, Keila Merino (twice) and Stephen England, Mike Mazzone, Otto again for the huge job of crewing for me Thursday night to the Saturday finish, and Elaine Acosta and Dennis Ball for coming to the finish and helping pack up my stuff, and John Garlepp and Barbara Saldick for the ride home. That doesn't even count the race directors, the race staff, especially the kitchen staff, Yuri and Arpan and Trishul and everyone in the medical tent, the musicians, the photographers, Utpal for the interviews, and the other runners who showed all kinds of love and support.
Phil and Sylvie Boisvert
I had a lot of reasons to feel good going into this race. Physically I felt good and well-trained and well-rested; this would by far be my longest race, my previous longest being a 48-hour race, but I seemed to do better the longer the race; this would be a reunion of sorts of the 2007 24-Hour world championship team at Drummondville, Canada, where I had my first real breakout race, with teammates Alex Swenson and John Geesler both running, as well as Canadian Sylvie Boisvert who won the open race in Drummondville, and even the race director in Drummondville, Michel Gouin.

With Mike Arnstein's help I got off to a good fast start, just as I was expecting, running 70 miles in the first 12 hours. But I realized that that pace was not sustainable, and my plans would have to be adjusted somewhat, even sleeping the first night, which I didn't plan to do. By nighttime I was on my own, and it was tough mentally, knowing how far I still had to go. It was then that I really questioned the wisdom of entering the race. But I got in about 45 minutes of sleep, from 1:45-2:30 a.m. and I managed to finish the first day with 120 miles. Monday afternoon, Mike and Oz came running by, literally, to give their encouragement and to check up on me, and to leave little notes among all my things, even in my tent.

Monday night Shaun came to crew for me, and although not a runner himself, he is a lifelong athlete, and was  an incredible handler, knowing just what I needed, even helping me into the medical tent for some early blister work, achilles work and massage. After just two hours sleep I was up again and on the road.
Me running on the last day
By Tuesday I was developing a routine of eating, drinking, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and chatting with the other runners, and worrying less about mileage. I seemed to run best from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. We were fed good full meals at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., and I usually loaded up a tray and walked with it, and usually felt a burst of energy after the calorie intake. By darkness, I usually slowed down some, and would do a cool-down lap or two before going to sleep, which nights 3-5 was about 11:00 - 3:00. The one thing I was surprised at was that I had a very hard time getting to sleep after the first couple nights. But I'd lay there and get whatever rest I could.

I've already thanked those who came by to help out, but by Tuesday and Wednesday it really became quite overwhelming, in a good way. By Wednesday I think I was gaining a reputation of having a lot of groupies come by, at least that's what Alex said! It was pretty amazing, and I hardly knew how to wrap my mind around it. But that's how I had my revelation. Before the race I'd asked for advice from Trishul, Dave Luljak, as well as from Martin Fryer and John Geesler during the race, and the one thing they all said was to just keep moving forward and not worry about the mileage but just let yourself get into the "flow" of the race. I kind of knew what they meant, but I resisted the part about not worrying about mileage, and it wasn't until Thursday night that I really felt what they meant. I had a visit from one friend who is a very good friend, but my conversation with him kind of jolted me out of the world I was in and brought in some negative outside attitudes. Otto arrived about the same time, and his enthusiasm jolted me a little as well, since I was in a pretty calm and relaxed state by that time. I actually felt the need to calm him down, saying nothing is that urgent. Then I was talking with him, trying to make sure he was going to be ok with enough food and rest, and he kept saying, "Don't worry about me. Just focus." I told him, "Focus isn't the right word. I'm just here, and this is what I'm doing. And now I get it." And at about 8:00 p.m. Thursday night, I got it. Amid the repetitive routine of eating, drinking, sleeping, peeing, and having briefly been jolted out of it, I suddenly realized I'd found the "flow," or possibly, the "bliss," and I understood the joy of what I was doing. As darkness began to fall I passed people walking, and I realized it was the same joy whether you're running or walking, and all of us were sharing the same experience.

I had been in a conversation with Nirbhasa Magee, and Irish runner in the 10-day. He's a very sweet and enthusiastic young guy and he mentioned how everything around us - the Long Island Expressway, the lake, the kids, the motorcyclists popping wheelies, the seagulls pulling worms out of the ground at dawn - was our environment, our theater that we were moving through.

Pavel, Corinne and Glen
So Thursday night turned into Friday, and at Friday noon I felt a big rush of energy from four sources: 1. The sun (and the weather was really beautiful pretty much the whole time, no rain, only occasionally some strong winds); 2. My handler Otto; 3. Lunch; 4. The knowledge that I only had 24 hours to go. Now with my legs still relatively strong, my feet feeling trashed but mostly numb, and newfound energy I began a long surge that took me from 391 miles at noon to 400 miles shortly after 2:00 p.m. and beyond. I did the calculations, and determined that if I kept the same pace (a little better than 4.5 mph) I could just reach 109 for the last day and 500 for the race! It's not a fast pace, and it felt comfortable, but as time went on it felt more and more like a sprint. Otto crewed me like a champ, having everything I needed ready for me. But by a little after 7:00 p.m., the wind came up off the lake, and I realized the foolishness of the task, and I fell into a walk. I thought, I want to enjoy the last day rather than push myself for an arbitrary goal. All I had to do was keep moving and I would win the men's race with a good total, and I would get much more out of the experience.
Martin Fryer of Australia and Kaneenika Janakova of Slovakia, 10-day winners; me and Diplai Cunningham of Australia/U.S., 6-day winners
 The most magical moment of the race came early Saturday morning, about 3:00 a.m. There had been musicians playing during the race - electric guitar/drums, saxophone, acoustic guitar. Saturday morning an electric guitarist was playing eastern-style riffs on the plaza by the lake at the concession stand building, amid the still night sky under a bright full moon, accompanied by a low electric drone. The absolute peace of the moment was only broken by my own traveling around the course.

So after several more hours of traveling around the course, the race was coming to a close. In the end, I won the 6-day race with 462 miles, the great Dipali Cunningham won the women's 6-day race for the 16th straight year. Martin Fryer, my Australian friend, won the men's 10-day and Kaneenika Janakova of Slovakia won the women's 10-day. I was very proud to have finally met Dipali and had the chance to talk with her periodically during the race, and she very kindly gave me words of encouragement. My proudest moment came at the finish when she came over to congratulate me and told me how I helped pull her through the last day. She is truly one of the all-time greatest ultrarunners in the world, and yet one of the most gentle and humble. Early in the race John Geesler had told me that he hoped that he, Alex and I would finish 1, 2, 3, and we did, with Alex and John both finishing with 409 miles (Alex took the 2nd spot by reaching the distance first).

John and me
Alex, me and John
 Now, several days after the race, I am beginning to understand how it fits into my running career and into my life. Over the last year, after some bad races, I've begun to reevaluate my running and my motivations. I'm taking a more personal approach, a more philosophical approach, trying to understand how this fits into my own personal fulfillment, rather than how this fits into the local or national or world scene, or trying to prove to people what I can do. I realize that I have a lot of supporters who want me to do well, but I think I can be a better positive influence by taking this approach. This really only touches the surface of the events and thoughts on the race, and the lessons I learned and the people I met. Some things will have to remain my own personal experience. The "Part II" in the title refers to the Febapple 50 Mile race in February, which was Part I. There I finished a tough race much slower than expected but with as much satisfaction as if I'd won, and maybe more, because it was a victory in its own way. The Self-Transcendence 6-Day Race was a victory as well because I rediscovered the joy of running, of dissipating stress, of coexistence, of relaxation, of smiling and laughing, of showing a positive image, of learning gratitude.
Me and Dipali after the race
Otto, me and Elaine after the race


  1. This is a beautiful, touching and deeply personal account of your race. I am so delighted that you made it to this race and rediscovered yourself and the joy of oneness in the moment and with humanity. The images and feelings will stay with you forever- you will never be the same. Thanks for all of your help and friendship - a great privilege for me. Congratulations on a fine race in all respects. Martin

  2. Thank you Martin! Naturally, I didn't give you enough credit here in my report. It was great having you visit and being able to discuss some of these things after the race. My very best to you and congratulations to you as well.

  3. Thanks for the report, Phil. Very inspiring.

  4. And Phil is just as nice a guy in person as he comes across in this report. Well done, buddy!