I once ran in a race along the length of Te Oneroa a Tohe
. It was a 60-km race and an especially magical one. After the race I was sitting in my friend John’s car outside the Ahipara fish and chip shop waiting for some dinner. John had in the car a small book of poetry. I started to read the poems. I may well have looked at the book before, but suddenly the poems hit me with intensity. Each one seemed a revelation. I read them with a clear eye of perception and comprehension - each one revealing its depths openly to my clarified understanding.
It was an experience I have noticed on other occasions as well - a certain clarity of perception brought on by long-distance running. It may well be that university English departments should take this into consideration - the standard of literary interpretation may well go up if students were required to run 100 km directly before each study session.
During the ten-day race I had with me a book of poems that I dipped into occasionally as I sat beside the track.
I have never had any aptitude for remembering poems, but again the conjunction of ultra-running and literature proved fruitful - I could mull over a brief verse for half a day with enhanced perception and recall it at the end of a week.
I had had a strange encounter on the morning of the race’s start. I had been mooching about aimlessly - as one does before setting out to run 1000 km - when I was approached by a woman. She asked if I were Barney. We fell to talking. She ended our conversation with the enigmatic advice - ‘I think you should spend the course of this race thinking about your soul’s qualities.’
I was certainly going to have time to think about things. It seemed an interesting challenge.
In the end it proved a lot more difficult than I had thought. I suspected I had a soul, but . . . its qualities?
I didn’t think that obvious personality traits could be classified as soul’s qualities. This was something that would need serious contemplation and self-awareness. A ten-day race was the perfect place to undertake this investigation.
Half way through day three, with no progress made at all, I decided to cheat.
Did it not say in the Bible that man was made in the image of God? If I could find out the qualities of God, perhaps I could work backwards to my soul’s qualities. And after all, endless tomes have been written about the nature of God: rather less about me.
I turned to my book of poetry for some clues.
God's express Compassion-Train
My fresh ultra-runner’s eyes lighted upon this and would go no further.
A quality of God seemed to be compassion - indeed, an extreme compassion.
My grandfather was a railway station master. My mother was a train-lover from girlhood. Railways were in my blood. And there was one thing I knew: an ‘express’ is the train that does not stop along the way at all of the little stations - it just goes, as my aunt - daughter of a railway man - would say, ‘rocketing through the night’ to its final destination, its ultimate station.
One could picture the great steaming locomotive. What is a more vivid image of power and massive, unstopable power than a train? The roar of metal, the pounding of engines, the hissing of steam, the rhythmic crash of its movement - a great behemoth wreathed in smoke and steam like an armoured dragon ever on, ever on along its ribbon of steel. Power to terrify the horses to gallop along the fence-line, power to make children squeal with delight and wave.
There have been many definitions of infinity propounded down the centuries, from the dully mathematical to the theological and the poetic but here was a new one - awe inspiring in its descriptive force: the express with no ultimate station. For an express only
stops at its ultimate station, and an express with no ultimate station is one, as Aunty Moira would say - ‘rocketing through the night’ . . . forever.
That is God’s compassion.
Of course I was getting no nearer to defining my soul’s qualities. Perhaps there was a little spark of compassion down there somewhere - image and likeness of God and all that.
By race’s end I had to admit defeat in the hunt for my soul’s qualities. Later I thought maybe I was reading the wrong poems about the wrong things. I chanced upon a poem about a camel ‘Camel, my camel, Your forbearance-height Is God’s Revelation-Light . . .’
Forbearance - that wasn’t such a bad quality
And then I found a story about a horse that a god turned into a camel (and who demanded to be changed back). The god said, ‘Each thing in my creation has its own good qualities. The camel is not as beautiful as you are, but it carries heavy loads and has a tremendous sense of responsibility. You stay with your beauty, which is absolutely needed. Beauty is definitely one of my divine qualities. And let the camel remain with its sense of responsibility, which is another divine quality of mine.’
Responsibility: that wasn’t such a bad quality either.
The Self-Transcendence Ten Day Race
was founded by Sri Chinmoy
Details of the race - results, photo galleries and such like - can be found at the race webpage - 2006 Self-Transcendence 6 & 10 Day Races
The poem about the compassion-express is number 2,418 from Volume 3 of Sri Chinmoy's series Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees
The poem about the camel
is taken from Sri Chinmoy's book Animal Kingdom
The story about the horse who was turned, briefly, into a camel is The Horse Who Wanted More Beauty
The 60 km race along Te Oneroa a Tohe mentioned is one I have written about on a number of occasions: Ultra-marathoning: The Te Houtaewa Challenge
, Art, Running and Ahipara
, The Kumara
, The Te Houtaewa Challenge: 2006
, A Brief Letter On Failure
The website of the race can be found at newzealand-marathon.c0.nz