BY NICK GALVIN, The Sydney Morning Herald
One june morning at 6am, Grahak Cunningham set off for a jog around the block in the New York borough of Queens. It was a lovely day for a run – dry and not too hot. He ran up 168th Street, along Grand Central Parkway, then down 164th Street and along 84th Avenue back to his starting point. A circuit of exactly 883 metres. Then he did it again. And again. For the next 43 days he ran that same circuit 18 hours a day, 5649 times, until he had covered a total distance of 4989 kilometres. At the end, a small crowd greeted him and there was a brief celebration. A few people sang. He had won the 2012 Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, the world’s longest – and possibly strangest – foot race.
We arrange to meet up in Sydney. Cunningham is coming over from his Perth home for a speaking engagement, using his achievements to talk up the virtues of persistence and dedication to corporate warriors. “Let’s go for a run,” he suggests and we arrange a rendezvous at Darling Harbour. Initially, we have trouble finding each other as Cunningham scarcely stands out among the scores of lunchtime joggers. When we eventually connect he turns out to be a little below middling height, with sandy hair, bright blue eyes and startlingly white teeth that he shows often in an easy smile. He looks younger than his 34 years and has none of the classic, gaunt features of most ultra runners. Cunningham is an easy running companion. Not too fast, not too slow. Very consistent. Presumably, you learn not to go out too hard when you’ve got 5000 kilometres ahead of you.
“I’m just an average runner,” he says as we jog around the fish markets. “I’m not super-fast or particularly talented. If anyone puts their heart and soul into a project then they can get to the finish. I just had a bit of faith in myself.” This is the first in a series of “Aw, shucks!” pronouncements that from anyone else would be grating, false modesty. But it seems quite natural and heartfelt. Cunningham grew up in Busselton, south of Perth, and although his was an “idyllic” outdoor childhood (“Computers weren’t the be-all and end-all then”), he did very little running. “I just avoided it really,” he says. “Mainly I liked football, surfing, tennis and squash. I wasn’t brought up spiritual or anything, either. Although Mum and Dad were pretty open. Mum used to do yoga and a bit of meditation when she was younger.” It was only when he was about 16 and stressed with school exams that his mother took him along to a meditation class, ultimately setting him on the path that would eventually lead to that city block in Queens. At university, he began attending classes at a Sri Chinmoy centre. He felt at home there, so at home that he adopted the name Grahak (a Sanskrit word meaning “eagerness”) in place of his birth name, Stuart.
Sri Chinmoy was a spiritual leader born in present-day Bangladesh. He died in 2007 and, as gurus go, attracted relatively little controversy, despite his high profile. He placed an unusual emphasis on feats of physical endurance as a path to self-awareness, staging the first of his quirky around-the-block ultra-distance runs in 1996. Already running marathons and longer distances and getting ever more deeply involved in Chinmoy’s teachings, Cunningham first witnessed the New York race in 2003. “I could see the pain the runners were going through and the monotony, the blisters and the swollen feet, but when they were coming through the finish you could see a sparkle in their eyes that they had done something momentous. “I knew I was going to do that race one day. Sri Chinmoy asked me a couple of times whether I’d done his longest race. I think he was giving me the clue to have a go at it, so I applied to enter in 2007.” Runners must complete at least 80 kilometres each day to avoid disqualification. “A few days into the race I realised what I had got myself into,” says Cunningham. “You’re running on cement from 6am to midnight every day. You have 51 days to finish and once you start there is no turning back. It’s really frowned upon to pull out. I just had to do everything I could do to keep going forwards. “I’ve never been in that much agony before in my life. I’d wake up in the night to go to the bathroom and almost crawl to get there. My feet swelled to twice their size. But even though I was in physical pain, for some reason I was really, really happy.”
That first year, he averaged 99 kilometres a day over 50 days and swore never to do it again. Last year was his fourth time and he ticked off the distance in just 43 days, with daylight between him and the other finishers. He ran nearly 115 kilometres every day. Having run around the same block more than 22,500 times, Cunningham is on intimate terms with every crack in the pavement. And even the smallest distraction can turn the mind away from the pain and boredom. “Guys twist the top of a particular fire hydrant when they run past, like a Buddhist prayer wheel,” he says. “The other thing is there is a gate latch that you lift as you go past and it makes a nice ‘donging’ sound.” Several times I try to get to the heart of the most obvious question – why put yourself through such monotonous torture? But while there is nothing evasive in his answers, it’s clear he finds it hard to articulate a response: “When you finish it’s almost like a dream,” he says. “You think, ‘How did I do that? How did I run 114 kilometres a day for 43 days straight?’ ” Easier for him to answer is whether he will return to 164th Street: “Maybe in a couple of years,” he says. “I think I could get it down to 42 days.”
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au / Photo by Frances Andrijich