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Ultramarathoning ... on only one city block


By Kevin Gotkin and Corrina Laughlin
Kevin Gotkin is a third-year doctoral student, and Corrina Laughlin is a second-year doctoral student at Annenberg.

When we arrive to our field site on 84th Avenue in Jamaica, Queens, a friendly face rushes up to us with a plastic box full of small brass bells. "Grab one!" she insists, and we do.
Within a few minutes, these bells are clanging as we watch a runner, slow and steady, wind along the sidewalk towards us. He clutches his chest and bows his head in gratitude as he passes what is known to those here as "base camp." He pauses briefly next to his spot on the leaderboard, where the numbers read "1550". That's the number of miles he has covered in the past 25 days.
He's halfway to his goal.

One of the runners in the ultramarathon on day 25

We (two Annenberg Ph.D. students, Kevin Gotkin and Corrina Laughlin) have been here from the beginning of his journey in our role as ethnographers and participant observers. We have supported the 12 runners who are attempting this 3,100 mile race-- the longest certified footrace in the world. They run this race in what seems to be the most monotonous way: around a single city block measuring just over half of a mile. What seems unthinkably tedious for others, however, is a deeply personal journey for these runners. Each pines after the vision of the late Sri Chinmoy, an Indian spiritual master whose teachings combine sport with meditation and encourage "self-transcendence"-- the notion of perpetually pushing physical, mental and spiritual limits. This is the seventeenth year that his disciples have put on this race, often referred to as the "Everest of Ultramarathons."

Kevin Gotkin

Over nearly two months, the runners rise at 5:30 a.m. to make it to the course at 6. They run around the block for 18 hours while helpers and counters monitor their progress. At midnight they make their way home to get precious few hours of sleep before waking again to repeat the cycle.
Kevin was first introduced to this community after running their Self-Transcendence Marathon in 2010. Over coffee, Kevin mentioned this fascinating group to Corrina and we immediately decided we should collaborate on a project about this phenomenon.
For Kevin, whose research interests are in disability studies, the race poses a unique opportunity to think about ability through spirituality and super-ability. And it's a special opportunity too for Corrina, who researches the role of media and mediation in American religious and spiritual communities. The project, from its inception, seemed perfectly positioned at the intersection of our interests. Together we designed an ethnography that also included capturing film and audio. We hope to produce a multi-media piece detailing the race and its relationships to ritual, spirituality, sport, ability, and community.

Corrina Laughlin (left) on day 44

Collaborating affords us some logistical leeway. With two researchers on site, we can capture twice the amount of field notes and divide up the labor involved in operating cameras and audio equipment. Collaboration is also proving to be a crucial intellectual dimension for our project. While we stay committed to answering the most basic and yet the most complicated question about this race -- How and why does it happen? -- we do so together. We experiment with our methodology, we rehearse our analysis of the race, and we plod along toward a publication together. This togetherness transforms what is often the realm of unspoken and solitary contemplation into a bastion of layered investigations. As each decision about the project must be made collaboratively, so each crucial moment of research is realized collaboratively.
This project also affords us a critical ethnographic training, as we can test out methods that we might use for our dissertations in the years to come.
Researching people dedicated to pushing the limits of their bodies and minds has proved to be an inspiring way to spend the summer. We hope to take that inspiration back to Annenberg with us this fall as we face our own race: organizing and analyzing the data we have collected and producing a multi-media piece that does justice to this unique and fascinating event.