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Runners on the Way Up

Suprabha Beckjord: Ultra-Runner

By Rhea R. Borja
November/December 2006
For the Washington Running Report

Washingtonian Suprabha Beckjord is the only woman to compete in the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race, the world's longest certified foot race. The 50-year-old small-business owner and artist is also the only runner to finish all ten editions of the race. She holds the Self-Transcendence women's course record of 49 days, 14 hours, 30 minutes, and 54 seconds.

Held in a Queens's neighborhood in New York City in the scorching days of July and August, runners must average 60 miles a day for 51 days straight to complete the race. That is 5,649 laps around a course that is just a hair over a half-mile long. The race is sponsored by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, of which Beckjord is a team member.

As one might expect, the race does not boast many participants. Fourteen runners completed the Self-Transcendence race this year. They came from all corners of the globe - from as far away as Australia, Wales, Montenegro, and Bulgaria. Well-known masters marathoner Edward Kelley of California ran the race three times. His personal best was 47 days, 5 hours, 39 minutes, and 58 seconds. This year, Beckjord was both the only American and only female runner.

A slight, blonde woman who exudes calmness and also a puckish grin, Beckjord is the owner of the quirky Cleveland Park card and gift shop, Transcendence, Perfection, and Bliss of the Beyond. She has been running more than half her life, soon after graduating from Vermont's Bennington College with a bachelor's degree in art.

In the fall, which is her off-season, she gives her legs a break and walks. In the winter, once the snow melts, she begins training in earnest for the 3,100 mile race. She will run one to two hours a day, averaging between 50 to 70 miles a week. One favorite route is running from her home near the National Zoo in Woodley Park, north on the Capital Crescent Trail to Bethesda, then south on Connecticut Avenue back home. She also likes to run on the trails in Rock Creek Park on the weekends.

When did you start running?

I have been running for more than 27 years. When I started running, it was in summer in Maine. And I was judging my progress by the telephone poles. I was just adding a telephone pole at a time that summer. The fall of that year, I joined the Sri Chinmoy marathon team.

The first race I ever did was four miles. I have one funny memory of another girl that I did not know that well. I thought to myself, 'I will just try and keep up with her.' Four miles was longer than I had ever run before. But I did not have any problems, actually. I enjoyed it.

My first marathon was called the Inspiration Marathon and it was in Vermont. It was freezing cold. It was in January, on an out-and-back course and we had the wind coming against us. [The race] took exactly five hours. It was pretty wild, but it was also pretty fun. I was running with my marathon team, and Sri Chinmoy, who is the head of the marathon team, encouraged people to keep running.

Who is Sri Chinmoy?

Sri Chinmoy is really into physical fitness. Even though he just turned 75 years old, he is very much into staying in shape. And he has a meditation group that goes hand in hand. And if you are part of one, you are part of the other. He is a spiritual figure. He has written many, many spiritual books. He is also a composer and a musician, and plays many musical instruments. He is also an artist. He is painted literally thousands of paintings. That is actually what first spoke to me - his art. I was trained as an artist at school. What he offers is a spiritual path, a meditation on the heart center.

Are there many spectators at the race?

More than ever. We had musical groups come and sing. One is called Enthusiasm. They came at 6:30 in the morning. Their goal was, within two weeks, to sing all of the songs [1,200] that Sri Chinmoy wrote in English. They are short songs, very beautiful, but also cute at the same time. They offer a lesson. The [group] enjoyed it so much that they came every day of the race. They sing from 6:30 to 7:30 am, and then they went off to work. Most of them work at the United Nations. There were a lot of things like that happening to inspire us. But they were also getting inspiration from the runners, as we're running by them every 7 to 10 minutes.

Tell me about the race course and race support.

There is one main aid station, and there are counters to count everyone's laps. And they had food tables and medical people who came a couple [of] times a week to treat the runners. They have everything you need there. There are vans there, with two to three [runners] for every van. So if you need to change or if it is raining, you can rest in there. It is like a little camp.

Part of the course has a park-like feeling. We are running around a block that has a vocational school at one end. And then [on] the other side, we are going around a big playing field, and there is always a lot of activity--softball teams, with big games and spectators. At the far end of that, there is a playground for children, which is always hopping.

And there are basketball courts and handball courts. New York is actually famous [for handball]. It may be the handball capital in the world. They have these incredibly intense tournaments in the summer. You have to [run] around the people watching [the matches] because they congregate around this one court. So there is a lot going on, and it is good because it brings energy. If we were just out there on a country road by ourselves, it would not be the same.

It is a just a little over a half-mile loop. And that sounds like a tiny little thing. But in the summer, you need to drink that often anyway, so I drink every time I come around, six or eight ounces of water. I also have a replacement drink.

How did you do in the race this year?

You run all day. You start at 6 in the morning and the course stays open until midnight. Since you start early, there is always some coolness during the day. And many of the boys stay out until midnight. I do not do that. I try to go home at 11 [pm].

This year, I was doing just over 50 miles a day for much of the race. But the race directors have a lot of compassion. They allowed her to finish the 2006 race in 60 days. In the first few years, I finished well within the time [limits]. But gradually, I needed more time, and last year I needed a lot of extra time. This year, I took three days less than I took last year. I do about 15 to 16 minute miles.

What is the attraction in running a race that is more than 3,000 miles long?

It is a commitment. But I have to say that in all of these years that I have been doing [the race], I have never gotten to the point where I would say, 'You know, I really want to stop. I want to quit.' I get a lot of inspiration from doing this kind of distance. It really is like a pilgrimage. You are not dealing with the things you have to deal with at work, at home, like phone calls and faxes. In my work, I place orders and pay bills, things like that.

You have to keep the inner and the outer parts balanced. Of course, physically you have to be focused on the road. But I can stay really happy if I do not get too involved in the mileage. Earlier, I really did, because I had the capacity to run faster. But to keep up the joy level, the less I focus on the pavement and the time, it is easier for me to stay in my heart, which is what we say in meditation.

I get a lot of joy from just running. And when I can be free from the little details that can be confining, then the mileage goes by much faster. All of a sudden, [I see that] I have run 25 laps. What is nice is that every day we start fresh with our laps. We start with Lap #1. Every day is a brand new day.

What is the connection between running and meditation?

My running and my meditation absolutely go together. Without my meditation, I would not ever even attempt to run 3,100 miles. It becomes an inner journey. After a few days or a few weeks of running, almost everybody who participates [in the race] feels the need to reach inside for inner strength.

How did you keep your body healthy? What did you eat during the race?

It is funny, everybody experiences similar things in similar ways, like after three weeks of running, you really start losing your body fat. And the diet has to become much, much, more rich, because otherwise you will lose your muscle, too.

[Race support supplies the runners' food.] They bring us vegetarian food. I am a vegetarian, anyway. Over the years, we have had runners who are not vegetarians, and I could be wrong, but it seems to me that they came around to realizing that vegetarian was the best diet for this kind of ultra distance, especially in the heat. There was this one fellow who came for several years. He asked the race directors to pick up hamburgers. He realized after awhile that that was too heavy. You just ca not handle that kind of food.

Some [of the runners] sit down and eat, but I like to walk and eat, just to keep up the momentum. I would rather just rest when I take a break. They bring eggs and toast for breakfast, oatmeal, and some people like mashed potatoes. They bring all sorts of different things. For lunch and dinner, they bring grains and vegetables, tofu, or different kinds of protein. And cheese. They sometimes make lasagna.

One thing I discovered was that butter was very easy to digest. In other years, I would take drinks with cream and berries and protein powder. Kind of like a shake. But this year, I could not handle that. So I was really relying on butter-on bread-to get my fat. I was having other things too, but that is what I came back to for extra calories.

I take usually two breaks, one at noon and another at 5:00 or 5:30 or so. I usually stop for about 20 minutes. The first thing in the morning I put on sun block. And when I take my breaks, I clean it off. You cannot imagine what is sticking to you. And then I put on sun block again each time. I still get pretty roasted, but at least my body does not get all burnt.

Have you gotten injured in the race?

I have never had a sustained injury. I do get a lot of blisters on my toes. I seem to get more than the other runners [laughs]. I wrap the toes. I always used to use gauze, but then over the years, the makers of the gauze switched from cotton to synthetic, which does not make sense to me. So this year, this one person helped me in the race. She is from Europe, and the Europeans always seem to have natural remedies.

And she said, 'Have you ever tried using leaves?' And right on the course there are leaves that [looked] like small plantain leaves. She called them neem leaves. [The leaves come from the Neem tree, which is indigenous to India. The tree's leaves, bark, oi,l and seeds are an antiseptic, and also have medicinal properties that help alleviate skin diseases, fevers, and other illnesses.] I tried them and they had a sort of cooling effect. I used breathable paper tape to hold them on the toes. Some of the toes still needed gauze, but the leaves worked quite well.

[Beckjord also snips off the plastic or fabric details on the outside of her running shoes, along the toe box, to give her feet more breathing room.]

How do you keep running, day in and day out, when your body gets so tired? What were your big challenges?

One thing that plays a big role is God's grace. I know that on my own, I could never do this. I pray and meditate. It is like a moving meditation. Certain parts of the course are also very special to me. I almost feel like the course is sacred. So many people have run around it so many times and had so many experiences, not all of them with smiles, maybe a few tears.

This year, my major challenge was that I had lost weight- everybody who runs this race loses weight-but I had trouble gaining it back. I started at 115 pounds, and I lost about 12 pounds. And I did not want to go under 100. My main thing was trying to get my weight back, because when you get really light, that takes away some of your strength. When I lost weight, it was hard to keep up my pace.

How did you keep from being bored? Again, that goes back to the meditation. I am going into my own special garden, and I am bringing forward qualities like joy and enthusiasm and eagerness. I remember that I do love this event.

I also have to say also that over the years, I have appreciated more and more just being outside all day. When we arrive, the sun is rising. And we see the sun setting. The first three or four years I did the race, I would finish up my mileage and go home by 10 o'clock. I never wanted to stay out until midnight because I thought I would be so tired the next day.

Then one year, I broke through that, because I needed the extra time. For safety, one of the directors [on a bicycle] is behind me or ahead of me, because I am the only woman [runner]. I discovered that there was something magical in being out there in that last hour, between 11 and 12. It gets very, very quiet. There is a kind of peace at the end of the evening.

A member of the DC Road Runners Club, Rhea lives in Alexandria, VA. She can be reached at borjar@yahoo.com .