Spirit carries Surf City man through 3,100-mile race

PEOPLE: Ed Kelley wins world's longest footrace for second time in three years.

The Orange County Register/August 8, 1999
By Tom Berg

NEW YORK CITY -- There is an old joke that Edward Kelley tells his friends in Huntington Beach each year.

He says he's going to Jamaica for the summer. He doesn't tell them it's in Queens in New York City. Or that he will spend 48 straight days running an endless loop of concrete, 18 hours a day, until he's lost 25 pounds, most of his toenails, and so much physical strength that some days he must rely on spiritual strength alone.

He won't be able to fool them anymore.

On Saturday, Kelley, 41, won the world's longest footrace -- the Sri Chinmoy 3,100-Mile Ultramarathon -- for the second time in three years.

Word is getting out. He beat his nearest competitor by 85 miles. And he did it by running an average of 64 miles every day for almost seven weeks.

Twenty yards before the finish line, he swooped up his waiting wife and carried her through a gantlet of fans.

"We did it!" he said, as he and Kimberly kissed.

"I love you!" she said, her cheeks wet with tears.

Kelley, a part-time actor, earned no prize money for his effort, and little recognition. U.S. Track & Field, the governing body of American athletics, does not recognize races or records of more than 1,000 miles. If it did, Kelley would hold 60 American records and six world records in long-distance running.

The Sri Chinmoy race is a strange brew of world-class athleticism and small-town sack race. World-class in that it attracts some of the fiercest competitors in the world, each running the equivalent of two marathons a day for a month and a half. Small-town in that the trappings are austere and home-grown.

There is no stadium, no grandstand, no masses of rabid ultramarathon fans. A half-dozen students of Sri Chinmoy -- a meditation guru with anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 students around the world -- staff the event, handing out drinks and food to runners, keeping tallies of time, and performing other duties.

Four of this year's starting field of five runners are or were students (some call themselves disciples) of Chinmoy, a charismatic guru and sports buff originally from Bengal who now sponsors dozens of ultramarathons around the world.

Chinmoy held a 47-mile race, which he entered, in 1978 to celebrate his 47th birthday. That grew to a 1,000-mile race, a 1,300-miler, a 2,700-miler and now this 3,100-miler. Each distance is based on a significant number in Eastern philosophy.

The 3,100-miler loops endlessly around a school and ballfield. Race headquarters are two aged vans (one hauling a portable toilet), a small banner bearing the name "Sri Chinmoy 3,100," a few card tables with drinks, bandages and vitamins, and a large timekeeper's digital clock set on the sidewalk.

Runners occasionally bump into pedestrians and bike riders. One runner -- Aleksandar Arsic of Yugoslavia -- got bit by a dog on Day Three. On another day, they watched someone set a car on fire.

Each runner except one has a small entourage of helpers, usually friends, and often Sri Chinmoy devotees. They carry small plastic trays of salts and cantaloupe and drinks containing barley grass and brown rice powder and soy. They dispense plastic cups of vitamins like coline, capsules of flaxseed oil, and potions of Chinese herbs that resemble thick, bog water.

The helpers quick-step beside their runners after each lap, dispensing one sip at a time. The single runner without a team and without a connection to Sri Chinmoy was Kelley.

Kelley's regimen goes beyond herbs and vitamins. Over 48 days, it's estimated that he ate 30 entire cheesecakes, 300 hard-boiled eggs, six large sausage pizzas, 100 burritos, 35 quarts of chicken soup, and 150 liters of ginger ale.

"Ed is in a class by himself," said fellow runner Trishel Cherns, 42, a Canadian living in New York, who has competed in more than 130 ultra races (anything longer than a 26.2-mile marathon, or one spanning more than one day). Cherns holds several Canadian national records.

"Ed can put miles on any of us, so we're not competing against Ed," he said. "The other four of us -- there's no comparison. I come here just to complete it."

Kelley has run the race all three years it's existed. He also ran the 2,700-mile race that preceded it. He recognizes every crack in the concrete.

"I fell there," he said Saturday, still more than a marathon away from finishing. "Here's the place I wiped out with a bicycle. I landed on a car right there."

The sidewalks wrap around a playground, a basketball court, a baseball diamond and a high school.

"At night, this side is party lane," he said, running along 84th Avenue in 84-degree heat. "That street over there is lover's lane."

He pointed to an uneven seam in the concrete where he'd fallen July 5. The entire night before, he inhaled lacquer fumes from a floor refinishing job at the apartment where he was staying. For two days he had migraines and nausea. Several times, his eyes went black and he fell to the ground.

It was the closest he'd ever come to quitting the race.

"I ran into the fence," he said. "I grabbed the fence. When I felt like I was blacking out, I went down on one knee."

How he pulled out is what this race is all about -- the followers of Sri Chinmoy say the race is meant to show that it's not the outer condition that controls what you do, it's the inner condition.

This is how Kelley put it: "Sometimes it's the physical part of me that pulls me through. Four or five times this year, it was more. When I blacked out, it wasn't me that got up. I didn't have the strength. I call it an act of God. The old man upstairs. I don't call him no name. The spirit I have in me, it's in there."

That covers the bad times. And the good?

"You start floating," he said. "You start enjoying what you're doing -- a straight-out high."

That wasn't enough to keep one competitor in the race. A German runner dropped out after 21 days.

Race officials estimate that only 15 to 20 people in the world are capable of running a race this long and grueling.

As the race drew to a close, about 80 Chinmoy followers arrived -- many in colorful tunics -- to cheer on the runners. They sang and clapped as Kelley arrived.

After Kelley's finish, all the runners joined hands and held them aloft. Kelley said he felt like a brother to them all.

Asked if he would run the race again, Kimberly answered before her husband could open his mouth -- the first time he'd been beat in 48 days, 12 hours, 34 minutes and 36 seconds.

"NO!" she said. "His next training is going for a baby."

Copyright © Rick Ross

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