Glacier-River Race 2004

A colourful account of the Icelandic Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team's participation in a 32k run in the Jökulsá National Park in Norht East Iceland, 2004.

Our contingent of 9 runners was finally ready to travel north-east of Iceland, where the most challenging stage of our marathon training was to take place. Some of us would be running the 32,7 km cross-country course, while others the 13,2 km distance. Still others had come to be of technical assistance and moral support, both of which proved to be priceless as the unpredictable journey unfolded itself.

Many of us had intended to participate in this race in a rather relaxed spirit, taking it as one more long-distance run rounding our preparation for the coming Self-Transcendence Marathon which was to be held scarcely one month later in the US, in up-state New York. But other factors were also at stake besides the carefree intention of enjoying the run, the comradeship within our running team being tainted by a happy spirit of friendly competitiveness. And likewise most of us, if not all, felt greatly inspired by our Marathon Team's conscious attitude of self-transcendence, through which we aspired to run and compete against our own selves, to do our best and surpass previous personal achievements rather than to excel over our peers. Self-transcendence is one of the pillar ideals of our team, inspired by the philosophy of our meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy. "When aspiring towards personal improvement and perfection", says Sri Chinmoy, "you are listening to the message of the ever-transcending Beyond, and this message is complete satisfaction."

Two other factors were also at stake. First was the fact that several of Iceland's best long-distance runners would also be joining the race – which naturally increased the adrenaline flow and the happy competitive spirit –, and secondly the fact that this very First Glacier-River Race was a cross-country feat traversing one of the most breath-taking and awe-inspiring landscapes in Iceland – the Asbyrgi National Park, one of the most volcanically active areas in this beautiful country of fire and ice.

Those of us running the longer course met early that Saturday morning, after a long Friday drive from the capital Reykjavik in south-west Iceland, a well deserved sleep, and a plentiful breakfast. We were now 32,7 km way inside the Asbyrgi National Park by the Dettifoss Waterfall, considered to be Europe's most powerful. A tenacious, marrow-penetrating arctic wind was fiercely blowing at the time; conditions became even more inhospitable as the desert-like terrain in this part of Asbyrgi is constituted mainly of volcanic stones, gravel and sand, grains now flapping against our bodies and faces and into our eyes. As an implacable witness to our mad-like audacity, Dettifoss continued roaring in the background with the echoing stertor of its 45 metre fall.

But many a courageous and determined runner, far from being dispirited by the bizarre conditions of the start, was searching for personal sources of inner power even resembling the colossal abundance of the nature around. More than one came wearing merely a singlet and running shorts, whether used to the gallant attire from experience or hopefully expecting the promising weather-forecast to become a blessingful reality - for despite Icelandic summer being in its full July splendour of perennial daylight and warmth, the predictability of this nordic weather is something that can never be taken for granted, heavy down-pours and sand storms being normal in this part of the land.

I could have never foreseen that the 2 hours and 46 minutes that elapsed after the brief moment of silence and the signal which I retardedly realised to be the beginning of the race would become one of the most unforgettable experiences in my running career. The race had after a couple of minutes transformed into an adventurous quest, traversing unthought-of lanscapes of both outer and inner beauty and depth – for long-distance runs somehow always provide amazing moments auspicious for deep introspection in the midst of the intense athletic ordeal.

The race verily proved to be an escalating journey – not only due to the steep slopes and the arising difficulties of the irregular sand and stone terrain, but foremost to the increasing fulfilment and satisfaction with which the valiant runners were being blessed. That Saturday turned out to be one the brightest and warmest days of that summer in north Iceland, celestial bounty that was duely answered by a majestic earthly response...

The first stage of the race was alongside the upper platform of the 500 metre wide canyon formed by the Jokulsa Glacier River, a canyon that reaches up to 100 metres of height and runs for over 25 km in the depth of a gorge formed by various prehistoric subglacial eruptions and catastrophical floods. The power contained in the river is awe-strucking, as it gathers its momentum through countless crevices, gorges, cliff formations, rock pillars, basalt columns, lava fields and huge cataracts all the way from its source south in the Vatnajokull Glacier – the biggest glacier in Europe – until it merges with the icy waters of the Arctic Sea. We runners were filled with this unlimited power as if by osmosis, prana and strength flowing unbound in our lungs.

As the race advanced I became more and more introspective and aware of my own state of consciousness, my spirit, mind and senses increasingly penetrating and keen. In what seemed to be a paradoxical situation, my inner state of self-immersion and concentration augmented, but also my perception of the scenery around. My awareness became sharper, my consciousness opening, expanding, fusing with the runners' group consciousness, uniting with nature and lanscape as well. That interplay of different but somehow correlated elements began to imprint an indelible sensation of vastness and oneness within me. Gradually, I felt as one more figure being drawn on the race canvass, perceiving and sharing the key role played by the other participants and the outer circumstances as a whole, a veritable communion between the one and the all.

The race had unequivocally become much more than a mere athletic endeavour or a matter of surpassing other runners. I now clearly saw how we were all running towards a common goal which was of its own accord pulling us all towards itself, aided by the excellent racing conditions. The selfsame race was the result of an astounding collective effort, and all individual efforts implied in the act of running thus seemed to merge with the group consciousness which was encouraging all participants to give the best of themselves. The runners themselves were mutually inspiring each other through their common exertion. "When it is a matter of self-transcendence, we have to depend on our inner purity, inner love, vastness and oneness with the rest of the world. We try to develop universal goodwill." As a precious undertone to these sensations and reflections that were revealing themselves as if descending from above, I started to hear Sri Chinmoy's words in my mind, finding in them understanding and supportive explanation to the experiences that were then being unveiled.

Thus my ascending state of lucidity finally reached levels of deeper perception that I can only describe as being spiritual. The normal boundaries of my limited mental and physical faculties were slowly but indefatigably transcended as my petty individual personality became merged with a wider and purer consciousness, propelled by the marvellous natural surroundings and the act of running itself, which seemed to be filtering and purifying all negativity within me and catalysing all things divine for which I could be open and receptive. I would often recall Sri Chinmoy's words about the spiritual significance of running, and how the breath of the runner can fuse with a Higher Breath. At that stage I was perceiving these words not from a mere symbolic perspective, but from a very vivid one: "While you run, each breath that you take is connected with a higher reality. If you are in a good consciousness, your breath is being blessed by a higher inner breath. Each breath will connect you with a higher, deeper, inner reality." Truly interiorising these words as a living reality while the race developed, I felt extremely fortunate and grateful towards this Higher Breath for rewarding my minuscule physical effort with such munificent spiritual gifts. I felt as if nurtured from an endless energy supply and continued running towards the promised goal.

A long way into the race, the runners had already dispersed from each other and a longer distance kept them apart. Now, the initial slopes of the course began to disappear. Suddenly and most abruptly I was surrounded by huge moon-like formations of lava and volcanic residues, as I had entered the Hljodaklettar or "Echoing Cliffs" area. This is a maze of castle-like cliffs with many caves of varying sizes among which petrified trolls can be spotted, that being the case of Karl and Kerling, a pair of millennial trolls standing on a gravel bank by the river.

After bidding farewell to my petrified friends and leaving the lava field behind, in the same unannounced way as the volcanic labyrinth had appeared, an unhorizoned plateau of verdant infinity was unveiled before my eyes, as I saw it merging with the azurian crystal-like sky. My legs, now enjoying the bliss of self-oblivion and communing uncensored with the affluent earth, became atemporal instruments soaring through pastures, trees, bushes, hills, rivers, even attempting to savour the sky. The feared down-pour of water had become an unalloyed down-pour of angelical Grace, drops of the same Providence now filling my eyes with the gratitude of a child whose minimal effort is unimaginably rewarded by the bountiful Father Above.

This magnanimous feast of spirit, body and mind was to be crowned with an honour even as unexpected as the previous stages had proven to be. Although at around the 27th km I had left quite some runners behind and had the feeling that I must be within the first lot, I didn't exactly know in which place I was. At last, having entered the proper Asbyrgi area and approaching the finish line -imperceptible amidst the lushful vastness of nature if it hadn't been for the small crowd gathered around it-, it dawned on me that my position was far more advanced than I had realised. Enjoying the sweetest and juiciest post-race watermelon that I could remember, still trying to fathom and assimilate the innumerable experiences and memories left by the race, I learned that my team-mate and close friend had finished first in this memorable First Glacier-River Race, myself being the third one to breast the tape. And so this remarkable run unfolded itself as an unforgettable feat of inner and outer transcendence, an unprecedented, showerless rain of unlimited Grace.

"If you pray to the Supreme for a drop of His Compassion, He will come to you with an ocean of Compassion. If you want something divine from God and if you make a sincere effort, then God will give you much more than you ever asked for. But you have to go step by step. You need patience and you must cheerfully wait for God's choice hour." – Sri Chinmoy.

(Reykjavik, July 2004, January 2005)