Devin Kelly | Longreads | January, 2022 | 27 minutes (7,394 words)
Read Devin Kelly’s previous Longreads essays: “Running Dysmorphic,” “What I Want to Know of Kindness,” “Out There: On Not Finishing,” “Repetitive Stress,” and “I Miss it All.”
There were seven of them. Their names were Ananda-Lahari, Andrea, Harita, Stutisheel, Takusumi, Vasu, and Wei Ming. They each had different gaits. Takusumi ran with his knees bent inward, almost like a ritual. Stutisheel shuffled each foot against the sidewalk like he was scraping dogshit off the bottom of his shoes. Sometimes Wei Ming ran like a dancer, floating for a second before the descent. Andrea and Vasu clicked off rhythmic steps, as if borne from an assembly line. To watch them was to watch some invisible piano player timing their notes off of the rhythm of their footfall. By just the second time I arrived, each runner had run well over a hundred miles. They were not stopping soon.
This past fall marked the 25th running of the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race. Race is an odd word, because to watch it unfold in real time is to lose any notion that the word race might allow for in your brain. It’s less a race and more an existence. The race began in 1996 as an event of both endurance and spiritual-seeking, based on the idea that it might be possible to transcend one’s own ideas of the self. That year, six runners attempted to run 2,700 miles. Five completed the distance, and the next year, the distance increased to 3,100 miles, making it the world’s longest certified footrace. Not everyone finishes. In fact, many people do not. But over the years, the race has grown slightly out of its initial insular spiritual shell and has drawn endurance runners from around the world. It offers no prize money, so those who enter the race are of a special sort: They are some of the world’s best athletes, but they are not sponsored, or famous, or anything other than willing to move and dwell in one place for an extended period of time.
And so, for 52 days this year, seven runners attempted to run 3,100 miles. They ran around a New York City block that measures just over half a mile. They started at 6:00 a.m. each morning and finished at midnight. The city block is a half-mile walk from the nearest subway stop, which is the second-to-last stop from the end of the line. The runners were put up by volunteers. They would sleep for a few hours, then come from small homes and apartments to the start line each morning. Two runners, Ananda-Lahari and Andrea, even rode bikes to and from the race each day.
When I arrived the first morning, the sun hadn’t yet announced itself. I climbed out of the F train and made my way up a hill that never ended. Before, when I had boarded the subway — long before dawn — I could still make out the silhouettes of multi-storied apartment buildings jutting up against the sky. It was maybe 5:30 in the morning when I got out of the train, somewhere on the outskirts of Queens. There was just a long hill and a row of homes whose chrome fences glittered in the pre-dawn moonlight. The only artificial light in the dark came after a 10-minute walk. Under the glow of a halogen dangling upon a fence stood the seven runners, about to amble off into the dark and return again. And again. Again. Again. Again.
That early morning, I stood by a chain link fence waiting for the sun to rise. In front of me, the runners milled about the start line — a piece of blue tape flanked by chalk-drawn hearts. There were maybe 30, 40 people there. Most were spectators. Nearly everyone was grinning. I, too, sometimes grinned, and then found myself shaking my head in disbelief, wondering why this place already — after just a few minutes — felt like solace.
Nearly everyone was grinning. I, too, sometimes grinned, and then found myself shaking my head in disbelief, wondering why this place already — after just a few minutes — felt like solace.
I watched the runners amble off into the morning and stood in the same spot for a few hours. In the distance I could make out the cars rushing by on Grand Central Parkway. After just a lap, the seven runners had spread out along the half-mile course, and every few minutes, one of them would jog or shuffle or walk past. I found myself struck by one of them. His name was Vasu: 54 years old, the foreman of a lumber company in Russia. He had run this race eight times before. That day, and each day after that I saw him, he wore a makeshift crop top printed with the race’s name, and his legs moved with the same powerful tenderness of an elephant’s. You could tell they respected the ground they landed upon. The first time I saw him, he also saw me, and his eyes — which are so blue that they leave an ache in the back of your throat — briefly met mine before they dropped back to the ground. He put his hand to his heart and nodded my way, and for a second I could not breathe at all. I felt unquestionably in the presence of someone whose capacity for gentleness far exceeded mine, and I stood there — alone, slightly cold, leaning against a soccer field’s chain link fence — wondering if I should change my life.
He put his hand to his heart and nodded my way, and for a second I could not breathe at all. I felt unquestionably in the presence of someone whose capacity for gentleness far exceeded mine, and I stood there — alone, slightly cold, leaning against a soccer field’s chain link fence — wondering if I should change my life.
Eventually, the crowd thinned out, and it was remarkable the way in which the block returned to being just a block. Someone who wasn’t part of the race jogged by. Someone else walked their dog past the chalk-hearted start line. The people who remained were the steadfast few who were committed to observing the race or were tasked with assisting individual runners. On that first day, I met Sahishnu, the race director, and Arpan, a carpenter from Queens who had finished the race years before and now was there as Andrea’s main crew member. I met Sanjay, a film director who had completed a documentary on the race back in 2018. I met a woman who ran a local vegetarian restaurant and would, over the course of the next almost-two-months, shuttle meals from her restaurant to the sidewalk where the runners finished each lap.
I stood next to Sahishnu as he arranged diced-up bananas on a folding table. He told me that part of the race was about “the humanity that comes forth from people when they offer something.” Already, on that late-summer-early-fall Sunday morning, there were so many people ready to offer something. Every time Andrea ran past, Arpan — his helper, as they called him — would jog alongside, whisper mantras of gratitude, and ask if Andrea needed anything. Later in the race, I’d arrive at the block and see Sanjay bringing pairs of running shoes and shorts for the runners. And don’t forget the runners themselves. Each time they came around, it was a kind of offering. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t something that would end soon. I had arrived at the onset of ongoingness, and I was a privileged witness. As such, almost immediately, I came to understand something about what was happening on that block in Jamaica, Queens. There’s a note scribbled in my notebook. I don’t remember writing it so big, but it takes up a whole page: Two hours in, too many smiles. The dominating feeling is one of gentleness, grace, and care.
There is a segment of the endurance running population in the United States that engages in multi-day runs. Just last year, with a few 24-hour races under my belt, I attempted my first and only of these endeavors, as I tried to run with my friends Nick and Matt across the state of New York, from Central Park to Niagara Falls. The three of us had run many ultramarathons before, from 50 to 100 miles, but never the kind of run that extended itself over multiple days. I don’t know why we did it. We hardly told anyone about it. We wanted to see if it was possible. We wanted to spend time together in that extended and exaggerated state that is prolonged by the act of endurance. We wanted, I think, to see what would happen.
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Matt had attempted something similar in 2017 when he entered the Vol State 500K, a race put on by Lazarus Lake, the now-perhaps-infamous founder of the certainly infamous Barkley Marathons, which were the subject of a 2014 documentary. In that race, runners navigate a treacherous and woodsy 20-mile loop that they have to complete five times. Almost no one does. In order to get in, runners must go through a series of odd application procedures that are not publicly known, but seem to involve mysterious addresses, license plates, and more. The Vol State 500K is more straightforward. Runners must essentially run across the state of Tennessee on a single road. There are a couple turns. Runners are on their own for food and shelter, reliant on one another and the kindness of strangers and the hopeful existence of convenience stores. Matt finished third overall in just under five days that year. The whole time, I followed his progress via a Google drive file that was updated daily. I told others about him as he was running, and everyone said the same things. He’s crazy. He’s wild. I didn’t have enough time to explain that this was who he was. That, well, this little endeavor checked out. I also didn’t have enough time to explain that I was spellbound, that I’d catch myself — teaching a class, walking to the subway — wondering about Matt. I wonder where he is. I wonder how he’s doing. I wonder how he feels.
The first time I saw Matt after he had finished that run, he was a little more gaunt than usual, yes, but also absolutely beaming. I was reminded of this a few days ago, reading a short article Sahishnu had written about the first ever 3,100-mile race. In it, he exclaims, quickly and briefly, as if to himself, and as if he can’t believe it: “They are actually enjoying this race!” After Matt’s race years ago, my friends and I bought him beer, and he told us stories, and, as he told them, I wondered about the soul. If the soul is like a garden, then it is most often something we prune for the world, worried about the way in which it might grow out of its plot, and reveal itself past the confines of whatever private property we have come to call ourselves. I think it is true that we so often equate struggle with progress, and progress with struggle, but one problem with that dominant narrative is the absence of joy. What I noticed about Matt in the aftermath of his race was that he was overcome with an almost boundless joy. It was a joy, too, that didn’t seem to arrive as a result of finishing, but simply as a result of being. For a few days, he had lived in a world that didn’t operate by the rules of this one, a world where the act he was engaged in — an act of extreme running — was simply an ordinary thing, taken on by a few other ordinary people. In that world, joy and struggle could exist as one.
If the soul is like a garden, then it is most often something we prune for the world, worried about the way in which it might grow out of its plot, and reveal itself past the confines of whatever private property we have come to call ourselves.
On the sixth day of our run across New York, I ran alongside Matt. Nick had been injured, and sat out that day. I was feeling ragged, and I knew I would have to lean on Matt for support, and his support came in ways that had little to do with running and more to do with the way he allowed for the world to enter into our lives. It came in small experiences of joy. We watched the sun rise over the Finger Lakes. We waved at cows that tossed their adorable ears back in our direction. We danced, albeit terribly and sorely, to songs blaring from a speaker Matt held in his hand. We let ourselves walk, and Matt asked me questions. I told him about writing and teaching, about the excitement of the former and the exhaustion of the latter, how I wanted to craft a life that held both in its hand, and how I was scared I wouldn’t be able to. Then we ran again, and chugged water in church parking lots, and dodged the world that manifested itself as cars — so many cars. When we finished that day, over 60 miles later, somewhere in a streetside park near the Erie Canal, we hugged. We hugged for a long time.
One beauty of endurance running is that it forces everyone involved — the runners, those helping them — to create a world within a world. “It’s crazy,” Arpan told me one day at the race, “but when you’re running the race, it becomes your home.” If you are running in this world within a world, the claustrophobic confines of the world-at-large — which is, paradoxically, bigger but less open — fall away, and you worry about the needs that are most present to you in that moment: food, breath, energy, each stubborn footfall. If you are helping, your world becomes simply the person or people you are helping. You focus the energy of your compassion on a few single beings, and you ask them questions you might never ask someone else in the world outside. What do you need? Are you hungry? Do you want to walk? Do you need to sit down? Perhaps you realize — as I have, writing this — that these questions could be asked of anyone in the world. Anyone right now. Maybe there is someone next to you while you are reading this. What do they need? Have you asked them? I haven’t asked anyone such a question today. I should have, I know. I should right now.
I told him about writing and teaching, about the excitement of the former and the exhaustion of the latter, how I wanted to craft a life that held both in its hand, and how I was scared I wouldn’t be able to.
After that first day at the 3,100-mile race, I found myself thinking about it in my spare time. I’d be in the middle of teaching a class, and Vasu would run across the classroom in my mind. I’d see Wei Ming, wearing the sandals he ran in each day. He’d be striding between the desks. I’d take the train to that stop almost at the end of the line as often as I could, and I’d walk up the long hill to the block, waiting to see one of the runners from a distance, struck by how ordinary they appeared, how, to anyone without any knowledge of what was happening, they’d just be simple joggers shuffling around the lingering dailiness that exists along the outskirts of a city. Another beauty of endurance is that it is happening at all times. It is everywhere we look. To see someone, anyone, in this world is to witness someone engaged in a feat of endurance. That’s what struck me, each time I went out to Queens. How ordinary it felt to be there. How un-crazy the whole thing was.
By the third time I went to the race, I had volunteered to become a part of it, and I found myself at the folding table set up near the chalk-hearted start line, counting the laps of each of the seven runners taking part. I had made a new friend, Hal, and the two of us divvied up clipboards — each labeled with the name of one of the runners. Each time a runner passed, we marked the time they had crossed the start line and initialed next to it. And then we shouted out to each runner their daily lap count. 63, Harita. That’s 70, Andrea. There were no sensors or absurd feats of technology. We had to pay attention, be accountable for each runner. In between, we’d talk: of our own running, my recent knee surgery and recovery, land art, the painful reality of automobiles, more. We’d talk about mindfulness and Strava, the excessiveness of information and the beauty of certain poetry. We’d show each other what we were reading. At the time, I was reading Eula Biss and David Graeber. Hal had a book called Send a Runner, about a Navajo family that used long distance running as a way to honor their past. I found myself struck that, at 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, penciling laps on clipboards that looked rescued from some ancient public school, I had found myself caught up in the joy of a conversation that I couldn’t resist. When a runner came by, Hal and I would get back to being dutiful. We’d find the necessary clipboard, make the necessary notation, offer our congratulations, and then find our conversation back where we left it.
In this way, our existence at the table began to resemble something out of a Beckett play. There we were, these two figures chalking notes on clipboards while people ran past and then disappeared. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir says: “It is not every day that we are needed.” Part of the joy of sitting at that table was the joy of being needed, in a way that manifested itself as some small action with some larger purpose. That first day I counted, one of the people who almost always seemed to hover in the vicinity of the race, Medur, sat across from me at the table. When I asked why the race hadn’t joined the many races around the world that utilize the now-ubiquitous help of electronic timing, he told me that it was important for someone to always be counting laps, because it was important that the runners were never alone. And all around us, while the runners ran through and past us, I witnessed this insistence on reliance, on care. Arpan shuffling off to whisper mantras to Andrea. Harita’s helpers offering her a massage. And once, I will never forget, a group of women walked to the start line, one of them carrying a bag with what must have been dozens of pickles. Sahishnu took the bag, thanked them, and then the women lingered for a while before walking away.
In his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist and cultural critic David Graeber makes the point that “all of us act like communists a good deal of the time.” He coins a term — baseline communism — and says that this is why “in the immediate wake of great disasters — a flood, a blackout, or an economic collapse — people tend to behave the same way, reverting to a rough-and-ready communism.” He continues: “However briefly, hierarchies and markets and the like become luxuries that no one can afford,” before adding: “Anyone who has lived through such a moment can speak to their peculiar qualities, the way that strangers become sisters and brothers and human society itself seems to be reborn.”
In the same way, in Eula Biss’ Having and Being Had, she writes about witnessing firsthand the “gift economies” of her fellow poets. She writes: “The poets gave away their own books, handbound sometimes, and letterpress broadsides made on antiquated machinery, they gave their time to editing each other’s work in their bedroom offices … they performed their work for nothing but applause, and they gave each other places to stay, couches to sleep on.” She makes her point at the end of the paragraph: “I guess … it’s easy for me to believe there’s an alternative to capitalism because I feel like I’ve lived it.”
I have both passages underlined, and I remembered them both each day I found myself at the race. Though the race was no disaster, it was a kind of sanctuary from the difficult-to-navigate bureaucracies of the world. It was a place of gifts, where love was exchanged without currency. One day, Arpan told me a story about the year he finished the race. “I hadn’t seen money in weeks,” he said, and, wanting to treat himself to ice cream, he thought he could just have it. It took him a confused minute to realize that our value was placed in money, and that he needed it in order to have something he thought worth enjoying.
Returning to in-person teaching in the wake (and ongoingness) of a pandemic, returning to a world that constantly attempted to insist the idea of normalcy upon myself and everyone else, I often wondered what the point of any of it was. What was the point of carrying on in the way we used to when the way we used to carry on was hampered by fault lines that were so easily exacerbated and exploited by global catastrophe? What was the point of rescuing old structures when the pandemic proved that such structures were already on the point of collapse? The baseline communism that Graeber spoke of didn’t feel like it existed in the world I lived in, where disaster had struck and — though there were hopeful stories of mutual aid, compassion, and trust — had only shown how easily we become polarized. I kept going back to the race because I needed models of the grace I found myself losing — in myself and in others — in the world outside the race.
I kept going back to the race because I needed models of the grace I found myself losing — in myself and in others — in the world outside the race.
One tragedy of living in this world is the way in which nearly any act — however trivial or radical — often becomes subsumed and consumed by the dominant narrative. Best intentions become exploited. Activists wind up competing for cash on a prime-time reality show. There can only be one winner. The very idea of limitlessness falls into this same trap. You witness someone breaking limits — running faster or farther than ever — and almost immediately such an act becomes a metaphor for the way in which we are supposed to approach our jobs, our lives, our loves. The trouble with this is that, when endurance is celebrated in this way, and pinned against what are seen as the daily failings of our lives, we collectively neglect to acknowledge the way in which simply being alive, and sometimes simply waking up — especially today, especially right now — is so often and for so many a feat of extraordinary endurance.
That is not to say that I was not perpetually astounded by the runners. I was, and still am. To witness the sheer volume of their collective movement was breathtaking. But the words that might come to mind as a result of witness, the words we so often as a society heap upon the characters of such endurance — grit, toughness, and more — did not really apply. Instead, there was a lightness. There was Harita beaming my way as I shouted out the number of each of her laps. There was Ananda-Lahari’s gentle downward smile, his decision, most days, to just simply walk. For a really long time. There was Wei Ming’s hand raised our way, his quick thank you — two of the only English words he knew. And then there was Vasu’s hand touching his heart. It took me a few times, but I finally worked up the courage to return the gesture his way. When I did, I felt joy. Real and true.
I often stood and watched the runners for a long time, marveling at the way in which so many of them looked like they were participating in something so very carefully. I don’t necessarily mean gingerly, the way the word carefully is often interpreted. I just mean that there was real care in the way they approached such a monumental distance. They were not renegades, or rebels, not mavericks darting out from a start line. As the race went on, my girlfriend and I would sometimes sit and watch the short recorded clips of the 6:00 a.m. starts from the days before. They were funny, even adorable. Seven grown people standing on a random sidewalk in the dark, many of them with hands clasped together, and then the signal to run is given, and only one of them — Andrea — would run off the line. The rest would sort of amble off of it, like people leaving their apartment to walk to the train. One time, someone literally turned around to get a cup of tea. Everyone laughed.
The first day of the race, each runner almost looked like they were tip-toeing, as if feeling their bodies into the race and feeling out the ground they would get to know so well. Later, I’d watch as Andrea engaged in a rhythmic run-walk routine that he kept up for a whole day. I saw Wei Ming pour a little bit of hot water into a cup, just to sip, and I smiled as Stutisheel walked by one day, calmly eating from a plate of food as he completed another lap. There was no frenetic energy, nothing particularly anxious about it all. The runners, though engaged in something some might describe as limitless, were well aware of their limits. Arpan told me once: “The point is to be aware of your miles, not to worry about them.”
Over the past few years, the sport of running has become particularly obsessed with data and information — these metrics of shareability. Almost every runner I know is on Strava — a kind of social media app for runners and cyclists, where you can upload your runs — complete with pace, elevation, heart rate, and more — for followers to see. I am part of Strava, as well. My last uploaded run was from about a year ago, when I thought I was on my way back from an injury that I was not on my way back from.
The entrance of shareability into the experience of running has had some beautiful consequences. When I was using Strava, I met people through races and cheered them on virtually in various comment sections. I kept tabs on friends who were running on different coasts. But there was a darker underbelly. I became obsessed with data, comparing my heart rate to those of others. I had a hard time allowing myself to run easily on days I needed to recover, knowing my miles were shared. Everything felt like it had to be extraordinary. I had entered the paranoid landscape of the digital age. Instagram was no reprieve, peppered as it was with perfectly polished photos of people just done with races and runs. I would periodically delete both apps from my phone, wanting to be away from places that made me feel, more often than not, an intense shame.
I think our current obsession with information is not the same as attention. I think we often confuse the two, that we assume the more data we collect means the more closely we are paying attention. At the race, I felt the real joy of attention that comes from care. Arpan would halt a conversation the moment Andrea ran by so that he could jog next to him, ask if he needed anything. Harita had a small legion of people who cared, including one man who rode a bike slowly beside her for laps at a time, keeping her company. Food was marked in containers decorated with smiling faces and little doodled animals. A soundless live stream was running at all times — one camera hooked up to the top of the chain link fence. Hal texted me once while I was counting laps: “I see you!” Sashishnu was periodically FaceTiming someone from another country, giving them updates, passing on their goodwill to the runners. Attention was being paid at all times. It was beautiful to witness.
Attention was being paid at all times. It was beautiful to witness.
On one visit to the race, Sashishnu, who started referring to me as “the teacher,” pulled me aside and showed me a photo someone had taken from the day before. “You have to see this,” he said. It was of Ananda-Lahari, wearing the characteristic bucket hat he sported during the warm early days of the event. But he wasn’t alone. He was surrounded by children, all going in the other direction. A sea of backpacks, and then Ananda-Lahari’s face — a beacon.
The race has been held each year on a block that contains Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School, a soccer field, and a slew of playgrounds and courts. Most years, the race has occurred in the summer, but this year was the first time the race would overlap with the school year. The picture was from the first day of school. Ananda-Lahari was surrounded by hundreds of kids making their way to their first class. I had no words for the photo. It was incomprehensible to me that such utter dailiness — a dailiness I experience each morning at approximately 8:45 — might swell up, and then encompass the 3,100-mile race.
But, thinking about it now, I can conjure up no better photo to encapsulate the ordinary nature of the race, the way in which everyone’s model of closely paid attention allowed the world to become a thing worth seeing, and worth seeing clearly. Nearly every time I was there, I’d walk a lap of the block, just to be among it all. I kept a page in my notebook full of the ordinary things I noticed. The two kids bouncing a basketball against a playground slide, just to see the sound it’d make. The endless soccer games. The group of men in lawn chairs between two parked cars, smoking hookah. Someone mowing the smallest patch of lawn you’ve ever seen. The occasional runner — unaffiliated with the race — jogging their own laps. The race was not private. There was no admission fee. You could be a part of it simply by being alive and present. It was part of the reason why, perhaps, it focused on doing such a small thing — one lap around a block — for so long, rather than to run across a state, as I had, or a whole country. The race was part of the fabric of that block. The principal of the high school had been a student there in the early years of the race. Now, the students at the high school sometimes do yoga outside.
I think we often chase epiphany, despite the fact that, at all times, the possibility of epiphany is right here, exactly where we are. The word itself has nothing to do with how it is commonly portrayed, which is that epiphany occurs out of nowhere, as if what is surprising someone didn’t exist before the moment of their surprise. In reality, the idea of epiphany has to do with seeing things exactly as they are. The people who do this most in our lives are children. They bump and waddle into the frame, say something surprising for its joy or for the sometimes vicious truth they maybe do not know they possess, and then they waddle away, and we are left, I think, so often scared — by their truth and by their casual handling of such truth.
I think we often chase epiphany, despite the fact that, at all times, the possibility of epiphany is right here, exactly where we are.
On the first day of the race, Arpan told me that, in order to complete the race, you have to be like a child in a garden. You have to be open. You have to let worry sit in the back of your mind, and, ideally, not in your mind at all. I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head. I watched the runners go past, and I tried to see them as people playing. The fact of play was everywhere. It was in the playground around the corner. It was there in the hand-drawn posters of support — definitely done by children — taped on the wall of the van where Harita would take her breaks. One read: My cat says meow which means go Harita. Another read: Be Storng. Yes, storng. I thought of that word — play — and the way in which, at a certain point in my life, I was supposed to abandon play for work, and then, all being well, make my work my life. Where did it go, the joy of play? Who made the rule that we should abandon it? How can we get it back?
The start of this year’s race occurred almost exactly six months after I underwent a cartilage transplant surgery in my knee, which, I was well aware, would put the way I had approached running in jeopardy. The six-month mark was important, because that was when I would get an MRI that would dictate whether or not I could try to run again. For the six months after my surgery, I worked really hard — in therapy, in my own head, in conversations with my girlfriend — to come to terms with some new future arrangement of running. I wanted to be okay with whatever might happen, especially since I had no idea about whatever might happen. I learned how to swim, and swam laps in the early morning, sharing a lane with an older woman at the YMCA who swam with these graceful, seemingly effortless strokes while I came up gasping for air at each end of the pool. I thought a lot about humility, and about how humility is itself a kind of play. In order to live with some degree of humility, you must be ready to smile at what once might have caused you to scream in anger — both at yourself and at others. It was humility that brought me back to that pool each morning, but it was play that kept me there. It was the joy of learning a new language: my body in water, struggling to become both a little more different, and a little more like itself.
Where did it go, the joy of play? Who made the rule that we should abandon it? How can we get it back?
As I laid in that MRI tube for the third time this year, listening to Bruce Springsteen through the staticky headphones the technician offered me, I wanted to believe that I would be okay with whatever the results showed. But the truth is, none of that is certain. The process of getting to be okay with something in the abstract is long and difficult work, but then the painful reality of life is that, when something happens, it happens. It never happens in the abstract, and you have to deal with it in the present moment, where all things live.
Thankfully, the results were good, and the transplant — which I refer to in my head as my ghost cartilage — had adhered to the bone. I ran the next day, with my physical therapist dutifully watching, for one single minute on a fancy treadmill that reduced my body weight to 70 percent of its normal weight. It felt — quite literally, not even metaphorically — like I was flying. I knew then, at that moment more than any other, that I loved running. That it was part of how I defined myself and part of how I viewed the world and my body’s relationship to such a world. And I was grateful more than anything for that. To be reminded that you love something, and that you love it to a degree that even the slightest encounter with it is enough to make you want to spend the rest of your life holding that small moment so close to your chest that it stays warm forever — maybe that is what it means to be alive.
As the race progressed, so did my running. I ran for 90 seconds, then two minutes. I was allowed, eventually, to run for a few minutes, walk for a minute, and then run again. My girlfriend and I walked to Central Park, and together we did this run-walk routine around the reservoir. On the final running interval, I ran a little ahead. I couldn’t resist. I waved my hand in the air like a child sticking their fingers out of the window of a moving car. I felt the wind moving past and around and all the way through me, and I smiled. And I thought of that phrase — a child in a garden — and I wanted life to be like that forever. It is a shame that it is not. I wish we could think of ourselves collectively in that way, like children in some really big garden, and not be reduced by structures and systems and power and the very real consequences of each of those things. If we cannot play, then maybe we are not alive at all.
I ventured out to Queens on the 43rd day of the race to see Andrea, the lead runner, finish. It was past 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday, but still a crowd gathered. Someone had hung a banner in peremptory congratulations that read “Gratitude! Pride! Joy!” Others scattered rose petals across the finish line, which was also the starting line, which was also the ordinary line that marked the beginning and end of every lap, which was also just a regular sidewalk somewhere in Jamaica, Queens. Though there was a noticeable buzz and positive tension in the air, I felt a little sad that it was ending. The race would continue until the 52nd day, but I already missed the ongoingness. I wanted it to continue forever. This was a selfish thought, I know. But I had encountered something there that I hated leaving each time I had to go.
When Andrea finished, Arpan — who had been there alongside him for almost every minute of every day, hugged him. He was pouring tears. He kept saying my hero, my hero. Andrea sat in a little folding chair in front of the chain link fence, and someone presented him with flowers. Then the crowd began to sing for him. They sang for so long. Some of them were crying. Someone was sitting cross-legged on top of a car, singing too. On the outskirts of the crowd, Ananda-Lahari stopped his own daily progress and held his hands together and watched.
When it was time for Andrea to speak, he didn’t say much at all. He thanked everyone, especially Arpan, and said that it “was a wonderful journey.” I thought of something Arpan had told me days before, that the point of it all was “to at least feel gratitude while we are doing this.” He had been telling me about how sometimes he had to remind Andrea the same thing, which is why he would offer mantras of gratitude to him as he moved through each day. It is a cliché to say that life is a journey, but it is one of those clichés that ring true. Would that we feel gratitude not just at the end of such a journey, but during it. When I would leave the race each day that I visited, I’d be harried by the demands of work and life. I’d refresh my email, moving myself on to the next thing, a little bit lonely and more than a little bit tired, and always a little bit stretched for time. When each person’s daily and ordinary feat of endurance is not recognized as such, then no care is extended our collective way. No compassion. No reprieve with which one might cultivate gratitude. I think we feel a little bit ashamed for being alive when we are not appreciated for simply being alive.
I made one last journey to Queens on the race’s final day. I wanted to see Takusumi finish. He would become the 5th finisher of the race, and the last of the seven participants to be able to complete the 3,100 miles within the allotted time frame of 52 days. The final two runners, Ananda-Lahari and Stutisheel, would wind up short of 3,100 miles. But they were still out there, steadily walking, sometimes jogging laps. They’d be out there until midnight.
It’s funny: The world so often makes me feel cynical and scared, and then someone I have only met a handful of times places a poem in my hands, just so I can read it.
A storm had hovered over New York for most of the day, but when I arrived, the early evening sky was peppered with spots of such bright and blue clarity. It felt like autumn — slick and cool and pungent with so much of the living and dying stuff of matter. A small crowd had gathered, and some of the runners who had already finished — Andrea, Vasu, Wei Ming — were in street clothes, looking so ordinary. They could’ve been coming back from the gym or going to work. I thanked each of them, offering my congratulations. Vasu gave me another one of his stares of bottomless grace. As usual, as always, I felt unworthy.
Arpan was there, too. “You write poetry,” he said, before offering me a paper folded in two. It was a poem he had written many years ago. He hadn’t yet run the race, but in his words you could tell he felt it — the shared joy that comes from real witness. I was touched. I thought about art, why we make it. That old, unanswerable question. The race had come at a time when I was not aware of how much I needed it. On my phone was an essay on loneliness that just lived as a fragmented draft in my notes app. I think sometimes, no matter the love, no matter the validation, no matter anything of intrinsic or extrinsic value, we feel a little bit alone, until some shared experience leaps over the wall we have managed to put up against the world. Days before, when Harita finished the race, she said that when she was running the race, her act of running was “such a small part of the whole thing.” She was right. The running inspired awe, so much of it, but the people, and their care — the wholeness of it all — that inspired something else. It’s funny: The world so often makes me feel cynical and scared, and then someone I have only met a handful of times places a poem in my hands, just so I can read it.
I also wanted to do one more thing before the race shut down. I wanted to run on the course, just to feel it. After more than a few weeks of running on treadmills and soft ground, I figured the pavement would be okay. So I put my running shoes on, stripped to my shorts, and started to jog. There was no miracle of revelation. It was, as it had always seemed, just an ordinary block. Some kids were milling about the school. I could make out the faces of a few teachers through the windows of their classrooms. A soccer game played itself out upon the field. There were leaves on the sidewalk, and a small trail through them from the paths of the runners. And, beside the course, there was the prevailing hum of evening traffic on the Grand Central Parkway.
As I ran, I remembered something that Medur had told me. He said that, over the course of 3,100 miles, the total elevation gain that a runner climbs during the race amounts to eight trips up Mount Everest. Later, I fact-checked this, and I think it was closer to two trips. But either way, I was struck by that. Not because of the easy metaphor, the one that makes you marvel at the sheer athleticism of the runners, but rather because of the fact that the block itself was relatively flat. There were inclines and declines, yes, but nothing that amounted to a serious hill. It was the time spent on the block that allowed for it to reach something of Everest-like proportions. It was the notion that any incline, no matter how mundane or indiscernible, becomes something close to immeasurable if you spend enough time moving up it. That’s what I mean when I say ordinary endurance. I think you, reading this now, are walking up a climb — slight or steep — that never ends. May you find gratitude along the journey. When I finished my first lap, and set off to do another, the volunteer lap counter — perched on a chair next to the chain link fence, clipboards in her lap, pencil at the ready — smiled and said, “That’s lap one.”
Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands