(2018) Documentary (Illumine) Ashprihanal Aalto, Shamita Achenbach-König, Yuri Trostenyuk, Shaun Martin, Gaolo, Rupantar LaRusso, Dohai König, Nirbhasa Magee, Ray “The K” Krolevicz, Jumanda Gakelbone, Sahishnu Szczesiul, Supan Tsekob, Ilgyasu Tervo, Ajari Misunaga, Isomura-san, Tess Thakara, Petra Aalto. Directed by Sanjay Rawal
It is well known that physical exertion can lead to a feeling of well-being. It’s not just the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing a particularly difficult goal, but also the physical rush of endorphins one gets from such exercises as yoga, weight lifting and running.
Some even say that running can be used as a means of spiritual enlightenment. A particular proponent of that line of thought was Sri Chinmoy, an Indian sprinter, philosopher and running guru. He helped spread the philosophy throughout the world. One of those who picked up on it and ran with it (literally) is Finnish newspaper delivery man Ashprihanal Aalto. Aalto is what is known as an ultra long distance runner – someone who runs races of extraordinary lengths. He has been a dominant force in Chinmoy’s 3100 Mile Self-Transcendence race, running it 13 times and winning it five times, setting the course record in his most recent attempt.
He is 45 now and really has no mountains left to climb when it comes to the race. However his spiritual adviser Ilgyasu Tervo counsels him to give it one last shot – soon he will not have the physical stamina to run the race in the style he is used to. He elects to go to New York for one last run around the block.
That’s literally what the race is; it’s a grueling run taking over the course of 51 days. Runners go as fast and as far as they can each day, finishing only when they reach the magic 3100 mile mark. The course is one city block in the Bronx, one half mile in length. Runners circle the block over and over again, trying to make 120 laps each day. It’s not a particularly photogenic block but the repetition supposedly helps runners reach a trance-like state where they can focus in on their spiritual side.
Many of the runners are middle-aged; most are men and all are white – at least in the 2016 race. While they come from around the world and many have converted to the faith Chinmoy espoused, there is a homogeneity about the runners in the race that doesn’t particularly make for compelling filmmaking. It’s no surprise therefore that Rawal elects to add other stories that make the connection between running and spiritualism.
For example, Native American Shaun Martin of the Navajo tribe re-creates his father’s escape from a government-mandated boarding school back to his home (both buildings no longer exist) in order to plug in to his cultural and personal heritage. Buddhist monk Ajari Misunaga mentors Isomura-san on the rite of kaihgyo which involves running around Mount Hiei in Japan for one thousand consecutive days – just under three years. The distance is just over 60 miles and is done in robes with stops to pay devotion at various places. Misunaga also casually mentions that those that fail are required to commit suicide. Self-flagellation suddenly seems a whole lot less barbaric.
We also see the plight of a tribe in the Kalahari desert who for thousands of years have fed themselves by running down their prey during the hunt. When the government of Malawi (where the tribe is located) enacts a law forbidding the process, the tribe begins to fail, unable to subsist on the meager rations they are provided but also losing tribal identity. Tribesman Gaolo elects to defy the ban with serious consequences to him if he is caught.
The three additional stories are actually in many ways more compelling than the story of the Race which is grueling as New York City suffers through a murderous heat wave and triple digit temperatures, but seems to be more of an “inner self” kind of thing that doesn’t have much connection to a larger culture, at least not the way it is presented here.
The cinematography, particularly outside of New York – i.e. the Arizona and Kalahari deserts, the cold winter landscapes of Finland and the beautiful mountain landscapes of Japan – are often breathtaking. However, there feels like there is more than a little proselytizing here which made me feel uncomfortable. And after seeing some recent NYC DOC films that are about making the world a better place, watching white people try to find spiritual harmony doesn’t feel quite like it has the same urgency or importance.
Running is inherently a selfish sport. It is done solo and even if you are on a running team at the end of the day it is always the individual versus the course. The race finale, although extraordinarily close is ultimately anti-climactic – winning is almost beside the point when the reason the race exists is right there in the title of it: self-transcendence. Improving oneself is not a bad thing by any means but this feels like it falls in line with a self-absorbed generation that is making the world an increasingly harsh place to live in.
REASONS TO GO: Some of the cinematography is beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The stories of the two ultra-marathoners, the tribesman and the Native American don’t really mesh well together.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a brief picture of blisters that may be a bit disturbing for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The race was founded in 1997 by Sri Chinmoy and is currently the longest certified road race in the world..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hare Krishna!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Up and Away