Foot soldiers of the soul

Meditation and marathons run in perfect harmony in the world of Tony Smith

At 4.15 on Tuesday afternoon the Indian peace advocate and guru Sri Chinmoy will appear at the House of Commons at the invitation of MPs Jenny Tonge and Piara Khabra, and Baroness Flather. He will share his vision of world peace and he may play his flute. So far, so run of the mill as far as visiting gurus go. However, where Sri Chinmoy differs from your average mystic is that he also happens to be a hero of the running community.

At 4.15 on Tuesday afternoon the Indian peace advocate and guru Sri Chinmoy will appear at the House of Commons at the invitation of MPs Jenny Tonge and Piara Khabra, and Baroness Flather. He will share his vision of world peace and he may play his flute. So far, so run of the mill as far as visiting gurus go. However, where Sri Chinmoy differs from your average mystic is that he also happens to be a hero of the running community.

Sri Chinmoy's philosophy is not Buddhist, although it shares some of the same values, including emphasis on meditation. Which is where, intriguingly, running comes in. Now in his 70th year, this former champion decathlete and marathon runner, who is based in New York and is currently working on his weightlifting, believes that running is a form of external meditation.

"Part of his philosophy is that running makes you smile," says Tony Smith, one of his followers in the UK. "He's been an athlete all his life and he recognises the benefits you get from running - it helps to keep the body fit, it clears the mind and it gets to the heart of the issue. His feeling is that although meditation is essential for those who want it, that's only one side of the coin - there's also being active and dynamic."

That Sri Chinmoy's name is familiar to a wide and varied cross-section of British runners is due in no small way to Smith, who as a dissatisfied quantity surveyor during the Seventies went on a course of philosophy lectures and was introduced to meditation by a lady from the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Shepherd's Bush.

For Smith, it was a turning point in his life. "I had felt I was imprisoned in being a quantity surveyor until I was 55. That was what I had trained for and that was what I would remain."

Instead, Sri Chinmoy gave Smith the spiritual name Ongkar - it stands for the quality which energises the universe - and the suggestion that he opened a business enterprise which would reflect his teachings and values.

"I was happy to give it a shot," says Smith, who is now 61. "I could have chosen any sort of enterprise - a lot of his students open restaurants, cafés and health food shops - but I had been particularly attracted to him because of his delight in sport, because I hadn't met anyone before who meditated who also believed in sport." Accordingly, Smith and his wife, Cheryl, decided to open a specialist running shop in London's Victoria. The name, Run And Become, was also suggested by Sri Chinmoy.

It is odd to think about it now, when almost every high street boasts at least one sports goods chain, but cast your mind back to the early Eighties and you will realise that there was no such animal as a specialist running shop in Britain. The Smith family venture was so successful that two more stores have subsequently opened - one in Edinburgh and another, last March, in Cardiff.

The Edinburgh shop is managed by Adrian Stott, who has just returned from the European 24-hour championships where, in covering 143 miles to finish eighth, he could well be described as a hero of running himself. The flagship store is still going strong, its turnover soon to receive its annual strengthening when people receiving their London Marathon acceptances through the post begin the steady trek to Palmer Street to be kitted out. In fact, it might be said that if Ongkar helps energise the universe then Tony Smith shoes its runners.

Meanwhile, Sri Chinmoy's name and one of his maxims have inspired a series of races, organised by the Sri Chinmoy Athletic Club. The Runners Are Smilers series is run in the summer months in London, Oxford, Ipswich and Edinburgh. In London, these two-milers are held in Battersea Park on Monday evenings.

"The idea is to make the event as runner-friendly as possible," says Smith, "so the course is flat and it's traffic-free. We hope to inspire the runners, and the runners inspire us as well, seeing people who are trying to achieve their best. It does not matter to what standard - it's all part of Sri Chinmoy's philosophy of transcendence, trying to go beyond your own limitations." Weekend races also take place throughout the year, at distances from five miles to the marathon. The next, a 10 kilometre event, is on Saturday 18 November.

They are races exactly the same as any other (though rather better organised than many) and sceptics can be reassured that no mysticism is involved in taking part.

"There's no meditation at the races," says Smith. "We don't mix the two. We put them on for the public, we don't preach. Running can put you into some kind of transcendental state - in running a marathon I have certainly experienced a flowing, almost resting feeling - but it's nowhere near what meditation can do. It would be dangerous to get into a true transcendental state while running - you would get run over!"

The Sri Chinmoy Athletic Club also promotes ultra-distance events throughout the world, from 50km up to the three races of 1,000, 1,300 and 3,100 miles held annually in New York. You have just missed one of the big ones, the 24-hour track race run (and towards the end of the event, staggered) at the Tooting Bec track in South West London.

To those who might say that 24 hours on your feet would surely make you feel pretty miserable rather than smiley, Smith simply says: "The analogy is that you experience highs and lows, just as in life, but you keep going, you don't give up.

"One of Sri Chinmoy's beliefs is never to give up on anything. You're never too old. We know a lady who has started running at 76. He says we limit ourselves with our thought processes - 'I'm too old for this, I couldn't possibly do that' - whereas we're all capable of so much more if only we'd believe it."

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