Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Day in the Park

One Friday night that November (1985), I found myself in the meditation hall at Progress-Promise sitting next to Ashrita.

The night’s function was almost over when a disciple named Trishul approached the microphone on stage to make an announcement. Trishul was a Canadian-born disciple living in New York who had a particular talent for ultra-distance running. He held -- and may still hold --numerous Canadian long distance running records (like, for example, running 221 miles in 48 hours).

As it turned out, Trishul needed some volunteers to run a 50-mile race with him that weekend. Apparently, the race -- which was to be held in Central Park -- had been designated as the National TAC 50 Mile Championship. The last time this had happened (1983), Trishul, Arpan (Giribar’s brother), and another disciple named Sammukh had run and won the team championship for the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team.

Standing at the microphone in front of all the disciples gathered that night at Progress-Promise, Trishul admitted that he had no expectation that the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team would actually defend its title. He thought it was important, however, for the Center to at least field a team (a team being three runners). Guru agreed and began begging those assembled -- a few hundred disciples maybe -- for two volunteers.

Almost immediately, a humble disciple named Kirit volunteered. Kirit was born in Japan and worked at the United Nations and he had accomplished some amazing feats of endurance himself (once running around a quarter mile track for 13 days). As Kirit raised his hand to volunteer, Guru said: “Very good, Kirit, very good. Now, who else? We need one more volunteer!”

There was no immediate response from those assembled. Everyone seemed to be looking around hoping someone else would volunteer. I thought about it. By that time I had completed (notice I didn’t say “run”) about a half-dozen marathons and just that August I had done my first ultra (the annual 47-mile race run on the eve of Guru’s birthday). So, I thought I probably could physically complete a 50-miler, but there were clearly a number of other disciples present at Progress-Promise that night capable of running a 50-miler on short notice and of doing it in a much better time than I was capable of.

As Guru continued to implore someone to volunteer, Ashrita seemed like he was about to explode. “Come on, someone volunteer,” he said under his breath, obviously disgusted. “God, I wish my knee weren’t injured, I’d volunteer!” That was no bluster. Ashrita’s knee was injured and he seemed on the verge of volunteering anyway. I felt like an idiot sitting there silently.

I raised my hand and volunteered. The Friday night function ended shortly afterward and then Trishul, Kirit and I met up to discuss logistics. That’s when I found out that the race was the very next morning (and not on Sunday as I had assumed it would be).

The next morning in Central Park , the race began with 43 runners (complete results here). After beginning with a two-mile down and back leg, the course was a four-mile circuit around the park. We were to complete 12 laps. I hadn’t run in Central Park before, however, and I found out the hard way that there were a number of other -- longer -- circuits around the park than the four-mile course we were supposed to run. In fact, a full circuit of the park is about six miles. So, in order to run the four-mile course of the race, runners were supposed to make a turn at a certain point, but I didn’t.

I ran two full circuits of the park before the race organizers figured out what was happening (based upon my “slow” split times). They didn’t tell me how much farther I had run. They just made a point to have someone on the other side of the park on my next lap to make sure I made the turn. Had I known that I’d just run an extra four miles for nothing, I’m sure I would have been dispirited. But, ignorance was bliss and I kept on truckin’.

It was a fine fall day in the park, but as the day wore on into late afternoon, there were fewer and fewer runners on the course. The winner -- a doctor named Michael Fedak who had encouraging words for me every time he lapped me -- finished in 6 hours, 20 minutes. Trishul finished just over an hour later, in 7 hours, 27 minutes. Kirit and I, however, still had a ways to go. Just as the park began to get dark and I was feeling a bit lonely, I noticed something strange up ahead of me on the course.

I was halfway through my 11th and penultimate lap, about 44 miles into the race (and at 48 actual miles run due to my earlier navigation error). Though the park was dark, it was lit at regular intervals by street lights. About a hundred yards in front of me, coming my way, I saw a woman jogging alone as she passed under one of the lights; I could see her pony-tail bobbing with each step. About half-way between us, though, in the darkness, I saw two figures move furtively back and forth across the park street and then disappear into the shadows.

“Come on,” I said to myself with a quiet, exasperated voice. I had run 48 miles and I could just feel something bad was about to happen. Sure enough, as the woman jogged past where I’d seen the two figures disappear, a man jumped out from behind her and started chasing her in my direction.

The jogger let out a B-movie scream of terror that simultaneously shut down my frontal lobes and opened up my adrenals. Without thinking I was running full-speed toward the attacker. Without missing a step I yelled out “Hey!” to get the guy’s attention, but he appeared oblivious to my scream as he closed on the woman. So, I lowered my shoulder and slammed into the guy.

He didn’t go down, but he appeared dazed and confused. Inexplicably, the woman stopped running about ten yards away. Her pursuer stood between us, looking at her and then back at me.

“Keep running,” I shouted at the woman. She hesitated, and then took off, hollering “Thank you, whoever you are!” (Even at the time I thought that line was a little melodramatic.) As she ran away, her pursuer turned on me. Only then did it occur to me that he might have had a weapon. I walked backwards and he took a swing at me, which I blocked. Then I realized that he was intoxicated. His eyes were glassy and he seemed unsteady on his feet. After I blocked his punch, he stopped in his tracks and I turned to continue with the run.

As I turned, however, I noticed a number of people waiting at a bus stop just outside the park grounds. They were facing us through the bushes and just watching – not doing a damn thing to intervene. I was in an immediate rage and cursed them for not lending a hand. They just turned back around and looked for their bus.

As I completed my 11th lap, I told the race officials what had happened and they notified park rangers. It was about then that I met up with Kirit, who was just about to start his last 4-mile lap. So, we ran together. Like me, Kirit had logged some additional miles early on in the race. We finished in 25th and 26th place with the same time: 10 hours, 6 minutes. There was just one other runner on the course, a few minutes behind us (of the 43 starters, there were 27 finishers). Thankfully, Trishul had waited for us to finish. Once we were done, we all headed back to Queens on the subway. What a day.

A few years later, a woman jogging in Central Park at night named Trisha Meili was brutally beaten to near death. When I heard that news, I couldn’t help but think about the woman jogger I had briefly met and wonder if she were the same person.

The great photo of Central Park at night is just one I found on Flickr, with credit here.

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