This article originally appeared on Trail Runner
On the face of it, the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a day-in-the-life style portrait of Jiro Ono, one of the most revered sushi chefs in the world. But the film's real subject is what it means to have a vocation in the truest sense of the word. Ono's apprentices, we are told, have to toil in the kitchen for ten years before they are allowed to try their hand at making tamago--a kind of Japanese omelet that is one of the specialties of the house. A decade of work before you're even allowed to touch the eggs. And then the hard part starts. There's a scene where one of these dedicated trainees recalls his first attempts at making the egg dish. Initially, he failed over and over again. It took four months and several hundred attempts, before he finally succeeded in making one omelet to his master's satisfaction, at which point he was so overwhelmed with joy that he started to cry. For his part, Ono holds himself to the same exacting standard. Ono, who was 85 years old when the documentary was made, is still perfecting his craft: "I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit," he says. "There is always a yearning to achieve more."
This sentiment came to mind when I recently spoke to Andrea Marcato, an accomplished multi-day endurance runner from Italy. Earlier this month, Marcato won the 2023 edition of the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race, an ultramarathon that holds the distinction of being the world's longest certified footrace. Founded in 1997 by the late spiritual leader and exercise evangelist Sri Chinmoy, the event requires participants to run a .5488-mile loop around a block in Queens, New York, 5,649 times. Each day of competition begins at 6 A.M. and ends at midnight. There is a 52-day cutoff to complete the race. (Marcato's winning time was 43 days, 13 hours, 33 minutes and 23 seconds.) Needless to say, it takes a certain kind of person to attempt something like this even once, but Marcato is now the event's four-time defending champion. When I asked him what was so compelling about spending six weeks out of the year running around a single city block, Marcato told me that a big part of it was the simple desire to improve. "In this race, I learn something new every year," he told me. "I dream about improving my time by a day or more. It becomes something genuinely addictive." After running around the same loop several thousand times, Marcato told me, he was getting really good at nailing the tangents.
When it comes to honing one's craft through endless repetition, striving for culinary perfection might seem like a more justifiable use of one's time than probing limits of extreme ultrarunning. For one thing, it's possible to earn a living as an aspiring purveyor of omakase bliss. Elite-level multi-day racing, on the other hand, is not a particularly lucrative endeavor. (There is no prize money for the winner of the Self-Transcendence race.) For normie runners like myself, it can be tempting to sneer at these self-consciously extreme events. Part of my skepticism, I suspect, comes from the fact that the multi-day race exposes the fundamental absurdity of my own running habits. I confess that I was slightly disconcerted to learn that Marcato's principal motivation was more or less the same as mine: it's all about the eternally tantalizing prospect of incremental improvement. (I was secretly hoping he was going to rationalize his outlandish feats of endurance by invoking a kind of mysticism, or framing it as a spiritual quest.)
Even Marcato's more abstract explanations for what attracted him to the Self Transcendence race sounded familiar. Part of the appeal, he told me, was spending his days with a clear sense of purpose. It was a reprieve from the messy ambiguities of everyday life. "When I do this, I enter into a certain state of mind where everything is crystal clear and I feel this alignment between my thoughts, my physical body, and my emotions. Whereas, in normal life, I feel more distracted," he says.
By the way: In his "normal life," Marcato lives in Zurich, Switzerland, where he works for Soyana, a vegan food products company. After starting out on the production side, he was eventually promoted to a sales role, but soon realized that the office life wasn't for him. "I did sales for a while," Marcato told me. "They actually wanted to move me upstairs to the corporate level, but I wanted to have a simple job that gives me joy. I'm much more in tune with the physical job, so I asked to be downshifted back to production."
It's safe to assume that most people's idea of a restorative vacation would not involve spending 18 hours a day running around the block for 3,100 miles. But when I spoke to Suprabha Beckjord, who completed every Self-Transcendence race from the inaugural event in 1997 until 2009, she echoed Marcato's point that there was something liberating about dedicating yourself to a singular, monastic task for weeks on end.
"It's really a kind of freedom," Beckjord, who owns and operates a gift shop in Washington D.C., told me. "3,100 miles is so long, but you don't have to deal with the obligations of paperwork and other aspects of running a small business. All you have to do is stay in balance, and keep going around that loop. I just found that I got so much joy from that feeling--almost like I was a child again, running for the pure joy of it." But Beckjord also conceded that the Self-Transcendence race would probably strike most people as a "recipe for madness."
Similar things have been said about Big's Backyard Ultra--another kind of multi-day, self-transcendence race in which participants run a 4.16-mile loop every hour for as long as they can physically and mentally hack it. The concept was dreamed up by Gary Cantrell, the sufferfest impresario behind the infamous Barkley Marathons, who is better known as Lazarus Lake. This year's Big's Backyard, which concluded on Thursday, saw a record-setting performance by Harvey Lewis, a high school teacher from Cincinnati who completed 108 loops (or "yards" in Backyard parlance) to run 450 miles on minimal sleep.
It was not Lewis's first rodeo; he'd already won the event in 2021 and held the previous course record of 85 yards (354 miles). As with the 3,100-mile block party, Big's Backyard tends to have a loyal cadre of returning masochists, a devotion that seems to be at least partially inspired by the magnetism of the race founder. (Typically, the majority of Self-Transcendence runners are Chinmoy disciples.)
"Laz is quite a remarkable character and he's kind of influenced a lot of us out there," Lewis told Rich Roll when he appeared on his podcast last year. Among other things, Lewis revealed that he kept a quote from Cantrell about the transformative potential of exceeding one's physical limits on his bathroom mirror. "To just see his joy and inspiration, of us making 300 miles and having three runners do something that he didn't think might be possible on his course, was something that lit me up. That was super powerful."
If you wanted to be ungenerous about it, you could probably see something a little ominous about a charismatic guru figure inspiring his acolytes to run in endless circles. But it would be disingenuous to pretend that the elation of extreme endurance running is somehow not real. Every runner who has spent themselves in a race knows the sense of euphoria at the finish. There's no reason why the feeling wouldn't scale up.
Beckjord started having trouble with her hip during the 2009 edition of Self-Transcendence. By then, she was in her mid-fifties and knew that it would be her last race. But she still managed to get it done, thus pushing her lifetime total of miles logged around that Queens block to more than 40,000. When I spoke to her, I didn't get the feeling that she had any regrets.
"If I could still do it, I would," Beckjord says. She told me that her background as an endurance athlete came in handy after a few of her longtime employees decided to retire after 2020. Suddenly, she had to do everything herself. "The ultramarathon spirit has merged right into my work. Self-transcendence happens in different ways."
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