For most iPhone-toting Americans, a meditation practice – if it exists in the first place – begins and ends with a quick swipe to Headspace. That’s not meant to be dismissive; pop in your earbuds and let an ASMResque voice cruise-control you through 10 minutes worth of brainspace? Pretty enticing. And with consistency? Proven effective.
At the other end of the meditation scale falls someone like Ashprihanal Aalto, a postal worker from Helsinki and the protagonist of filmmaker and social activist Sanjay Rawal’s latest project, 3100, Run and Become. The film documents the 20th annual Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendance 3100 Mile Race, a lengthy title befitting the world’s longest certified footrace. Since its inception in 1977, the race has taken place annually on a half-mile (one more time, with feeling: h a l f - m i l e) loop of sidewalk surrounding a community park in Queens. Participants must complete 3100 miles within 52 days to be considered a finisher. We’ll do the math for you – that’s an average of 59.6 miles per day, every day, for nearly a month and a half. Keep that in mind when considering 48 year-old Aalto has completed the race 14 times since 2000, and in 2015, set the course record of 40 days, 9 hours, 6 minutes, and 21 seconds.
These numbers launch what seems impossible at face-value into the unbelievable. But 3100 doesn’t dwell on the quantitative. The race and its spiritually inclined runners act as a linchpin for the multiple narratives Sanjay condenses so masterfully into just a couple hours. His other “aspirants” include Navajo ultrarunner and cross-country coach Shaun Martin; Gaolo, a Kalahari Bushman preserving sustainable hunting traditions in the face of violent government suppression; and a Japanese monk, Gyoman-san, elected to attempt 1,000 days of marathon-distance hikes of the sacred Mount Hiei in search of enlightenment. Through the lens of running as meditation, Sanjay and his team crack open the esoteric devotion required to run ultra distances. After watching the film, we hopped on a call with Sanjay to discuss the behind-the-scenes work of 3100, as well as his own relationship to movement as meditation.
First off, what does the phrase “Move your body for your mind” mean to you? It’s an idea we bounce around pretty frequently at OV HQ.
Great question! I’d say I have a fairly deep spiritual background and practice. I moved to New York after school to study the philosophy of Sri Chinmoy [an avid runner and founder of the 3100 Mile Race, Chinmoy was in large part responsible for introducing meditation to the Western hemisphere]. He really didn’t advocate a separation between one’s inner and outer life. Ancient tradition encouraged living in the mountains and ashrams to achieve enlightenment, but Chinmoy taught us that divinity is everywhere and that we have to integrate ourselves into the world. On the flip side of that, the outer life is really just empty without the influence of the inner life. Silence can’t exist without sound, contemplation can’t exist without movement, and vice versa. To your question, I ran track in high school, mostly races like the 400m, 800m, the mile. I ran competitively and also started running in college, but really I didn’t think that running those races could have any spiritual benefit until I began work on this film.
What goes into piecing together a project like this?
Filmmakers, to a certain degree are pretty snobby. I’m not an exception! We wanted to make a film that was beautiful, cinematic. There aren’t that many good running movies, mostly because watching running isn’t that interesting. The approach had to be different: no experts, no doctors, no talking heads. We needed continuity in the visual. We only shot about 40 hours of film.
Filming the race, the crew was minimal – four or five people, just a single camera, no mics. We didn’t want to hurt the runners’ attempts by trying to get too much access. For instance, in Arizona with Shaun’s run, we had a whole separate drone crew. We spent almost two weeks in Japan, but were only allowed to film the supervising monk for a half-hour, and could only be on the course for 2 days of the monk’s journey.
How did you go about choosing your story lines? Did themes emerge organically?
Our approach was simple: we needed to get access to cultures that had an incredibly deep spiritual tradition. The execution, less so. Most cultures who have that don’t share those traditions publicly. They had never really allowed anyone to film those aspects of their life that we did, so we tried to spend a lot of time with our characters. As that happened, the characters and the access they were willing to lend us went hand in hand. In comparing our storylines, they all approached running in completely different ways. Those themes drew themselves out, as a result.
You talk about your subjects having a “responsibility to run.” Based on the connection you make between running and mindfulness, is this an extension of a responsibility to be mindful?
Personally, I realized that running with a purpose is the essence of sport. I can say that I very rarely ran with purpose in a run other than a race, because that idea of running with a purpose entails running in the moment. The thing I realized personally is how exactly to develop that purposefulness in each and every run. It’s frankly as easy as just listening to your footfalls on Mother Earth, listening to your breath. When you do that, you’re finding illumination and clarity, consciously. How many times have we run with deep emotional baggage on a training run and experienced relief as a result?
I really look to Shaun Martin as an example. [In the film, Martin completes a 110-mile run as an homage to his father’s escape from a US-government boarding school at just 6 years old, where he and thousands of Navajo children were taken in accordance with forced assimilation policies.] When I met him at home in Arizona, we connected like brothers. I was able to go on a training run with him, and learned that he’s fully expecting a spiritual experience each run. He really believes that running is a prayer, a teacher, and a celebration of life.
How do you think the 3100 race will change in the coming years? Do you anticipate the film encouraging more runners to attempt it?
There’s been this divergence in the past 20 years between ultrarunning and multi-day running. There is a host of elite ultrarunners that traditionally run mountain races that would have exceptional experiences doing the 3100.
However, I’m encouraging everyone to bring a lawn chair there, bring some food, spend a day watching. It kicks off annually on the 3rd Sunday of June. If people can get something out of Nascar, I think they can get something out of this race! What’s interesting is how deeply peaceful the course is. When you have people who are pushing themselves to the limit of human potential over and over, it becomes a temple for self-transcendence.
Recreationalists of New York! We’re sponsoring a screening of Sanjay’s film at the Angelika Theater on Tuesday, December 4th, 2018. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session. RSVP here. For more information on the film, click here.
For those interested in running the race, there is more info about the Sri Chinmoy races here. On the film’s site, you can sign up for the 3100 challenge. They also provide training materials to help you prepare for the journey.
Plus, a note from Sanjay: “Shaun is on the board of an organization called Wings of America that does exceptional work to revitalize and empower Native running in the lower 48. Their core philosophy is something that deeply informed the film, and it’d be great to spread the word about the work they’re doing.” Click here to learn more about Wings of America.