Canada’s Mega-Ultra Man
Who is Canada’s most prolific ultrarunner? If you guessed Rob Krar or Gary Robbins, or even Al Howie, you’d be wrong. The answer is Trishul Cherns, who has well over 250 ultra completions – far more than any other Canadian. Due to the pandemic, his goal of reaching 275 is currently on hold. But for the man who hopes to reach 50,000 miles in competition, ambition never sleeps.
Trishul Cherns, originally from Hamilton, was on track to reach 275 ultra completions by early June — far more than any Canadian has ever run. With the pandemic, his goal is on hold. But for the man who hopes to reach 50,000 miles in competition, ambition never sleeps.
As the sunset casts purpling shadows over New York state’s Wallkill Valley, Trishul Cherns appears as a distant speck on the trail. His gait is methodical. His long, trained legs eat up miles, while his eyes and ears take in the sights and calls of the red-winged blackbird, the barred owl and the pileated woodpecker. You’d never guess he was 63 years old, an ultrarunner, and just one ultramarathon shy of 275 finishes – a milestone far beyond what any Canadian has ever achieved.
Cherns’s goal is to compete into his 80s and reach 500 ultra finishes – which is not so far-fetched when you consider that last year he finished second in a Massachusetts ultra, putting up 190 miles over three days. Or that two weeks later he completed Six Days in the Dome, the Milwaukee event where Zach Bitter of Phoenix, Ariz. broke the 100-mile world record. And he is surprisingly undaunted by the lockdown, seeing it as a mere pause in his plan. Virtual races? “They don’t count,” says Cherns. “There’s a difference between running an ultramarathon distance and running an ultramarathon race.” He sees the appeal of virtual races, but they don’t add to his count.
The monklike Cherns is all about the numbers. A Hamilton native who now makes his home in Queens, N.Y., he has quietly broken 112 Canadian ultrarunning records, most notably for multi-day races, of which he boasts 57 finishes totaling a whopping 54,222 kilometres. He’s run 26 races over 400 miles in length, run farther than 1,000 miles on six separate occasions and he’s logged more than 65,000 kilometres in certified ultra competitions – each race meticulously recorded in a dusty, thick three-ring binder.
In March, the ultrarunner retreated from his home in New York City to his property at the base of the Catskills with his wife, Käären SchilkeCherns. They spend their days exploring the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. Before each hike, Cherns takes three deep breaths – again, the numbers. Three is tied to the name Trishul, bestowed on him by his former guru. (His given name is Lorne.) A trishul is a trident – a three-pronged spear held by Poseidon, Mother Kali and Lord Shiva, Cherns’s personal deity in Hindu philosophy. “Someone once referred to me as a ‘Hind-Jew,’ which I absolutely love,” Cherns laughs.
But inside Cherns’s binder is something far greater than just the sum of his races. Poems written in Sanskrit, rare photographs and poignant letters from ultrarunning legends like Yiannis Kouros and Ted Corbitt pay tribute to the spiritual journey of an impressionable young man looking for answers. (Kouros is widely considered to be the greatest ultrarunner in history. His six-day record of 1,038 km and his 1,000-mile record of 10 days, 10 hours remain not only unbeaten, but unthreatened. Corbitt, known as the father of modern-day ultrarunning, was part of the U.S.’s first racially integrated running organization, the New York Pioneer Club. Also an Olympian and the first president of the New York Road Runners, Corbitt helped plan the inaugural New York City Marathon.)
Cherns, Kouros and Corbitt all crossed paths with a charismatic guru with a taste for extreme distance: Sri Chinmoy, a U.S. immigrant from Bengal whom The Wall Street Journal once described as “the stuntman of the spiritual world.” But the impact on Cherns would be different. At 20, he would leave Canada to follow the guru and become one of the his greatest mega-distance champions.
In the course of both men’s obsession with record mileage, a relationship would gel and then splinter in dramatic fashion. Cherns would ultimately be expelled, only to make a comeback on his own terms, determined to log more miles in competition than any other runner in history. But as fate would have it, he would need the guru to get there.
There’s a subset of runners known as mega-marathoners whose fixation is not with times or placements or PBs, but with the number of races they can accumulate. It’s all about the count.
In 1994, four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers showed up in Buffalo to watch Norm Frank of Brighton, N.Y., run his 525th marathon. “You can’t comprehend it,” Rodgers told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. “The hallmark of the marathon is persistence, still, it’s hard to comprehend.” When Frank passed on in 2015, he had racked up a Guinness World Record 965 completions. Currently, that mark is a mere fourth in North America.
There’s a similar subset in the ultra community. Ray Krolewicz is a name that is often passed around in discussions of ultra completions. The schoolteacher from South Carolina has more than 500 ultra finishes. Similar to mega-marathoners, who tally completions online, he is a rare breed of mega-ultramarathoner.
A call to Krolewicz finds him breathless. It’s 2 p.m., and he’s on his second run of the day. “Hell no, got no idea how many I’ve done,” he giggles. “I don’t keep up with it. But Rob Apple knows.”
Apple, a mashup of Brian May from Queen and Weird Al Yankovic, possesses an infectious smile. You would, too, if you were the Secretariat of mega-ultramarathoning. Apple has documented a whopping 756 ultra finishes, and he’s only 58.
But tracking such claims is tricky. “There’s a lot of dishonesty,” Apple admits. Ultrasignup.com may be the largest database of ultra finishes, but its record compilation is far from comprehensive. It records Apple with 612 ultra completions, Krolewicz with a meagre 239 and cross-Canada record holder Al Howie with a puny three. duv, a growing database out of Germany, is also grossly incomplete. It has Apple at 545, Krolewicz at 255 and “Alastair Howie” (one of Howie’s aliases) at 17.
The king of the Canadian hill in total marathons run, with 730, is Saskatchewan’s Wally Herman, who is now 95. But of those, fewer than 200 were at the ultra distance. For his part, Howie focused much of his career on mega-distance runs known as journey runs, and while he had a nearly unrivaled winning ratio of close to
80 per cent, his tally of competitive ultras at the end of a 20-year career was under 100. Gary Robbins and Rob Krar, two of the biggest names in the Canadian ultra scene, both have fewer than 75.
Enter Cherns. His Canadian record of 274 finishes and 44,004.17 miles in competition seems likely to hold for many years to come. A spry 63-year-old, he has his sights set on reaching 50,000 miles (80, 467 kilometres) in his lifetime.
But to capture the world record for most miles run in competition, he would need even more. Ironically, the current record is held by another Sri Chinmoy follower, the Finnish phenom Ashprihanal Aalto, who has 52,700 miles in competition.
But if the story of Canada’s most prolific ultrarunner represents anything, it is the importance of the finish over the win, the journey over the destination and the length of the road over the speed travelled.
Inside the binders are poems written in Sanskrit, rare photographs and poignant letters from ultrarunning legends like Yiannis Kouros and Ted Corbitt that pay tribute to the spiritual journey of an impressionable young man looking for answers.
It’s October 1986, and Trishul Cherns is sleeping on the third f loor of an abandoned building in Queens. He has $7.26 in his pocket, and a plane ticket to Denver. He’s just been kicked out of Sri Chinmoy’s spiritual group, to which he has devoted the last 10 years of his life.
The guru’s prize pupil, in 1985, Cherns was the second person ever to finish a certified 1,000-mile race – a Sri Chinmoy event put on in Queens. In the spring of ’86, he placed third in the same race and improved his time by two days. Sri Chinmoy dedicated a song to him and presented him with a trophy almost as tall as the runner – white wood adorned with gold leaf. Big, bold letters spelled out “World Class Ultra-Runner.” In the fall of the same year, he would set the modern six-day Canadian record in La Rochelle, France, with 538 miles. But in a headshaking turn, just one month later, Cherns would abruptly get the boot. The guru himself decreed his dismissal, and the repercussions were immediate. Cherns lost his work, and his landlord of five years (also a disciple) gave him seven days to clear out. He left in three.
Cherns had just done a run with ultrarunner Stu Mittleman at the Duke University track in North Carolina. It was pitched to him as a charity run, but he showed up to find that he and Mittleman were alone. So the two knocked out 50 miles together. But the real rub was that he hadn’t sought Sri Chinmoy’s permission to go. While Cherns saw this merely as a training run, the guru saw it as disobedience.
The greater faux pas may have been his increasing interest in the opposite sex. When a female friend passed through New York on her way back to the U.K., she stayed in Cherns’s basement apartment. She woke up the next morning with rose petals spread over the sheets. Overwhelmed, she cried. Though Cherns insists nothing happened, “It was enough to get tongues clicking,” he says. There had been strict rules in place for years demanding celibacy of the guru’s followers. “They were all repressed celibate monks,” according to Cherns. “And reporting on someone potentially getting it, when you’re not, must have felt good for them.”
Cherns was acutely aware of the gossip that had been spreading for some time. In 1986 he reached the highlight of his running career with that remarkable six-day race in La Rochelle, a romantic spot set against the drama of the Atlantic. He also broke the cardinal rule: he fell in love.
The guru was determined to possess the longest race in the world, and Cherns was intent on following him. First, there was the 1,300-mile Impossibility Race, arguably the toughest the guru had ever created. Then there was the 2,700.
Cherns ran both.
"When I first met him, I thought how strange is this guy?” Käären Schilke remembers. “His face was like a cartoon after sipping some bitter tea.” It was 1985, and the grand party that was the six-day race at La Rochelle was over. (Imagine a 200-metre indoor track and spectators jampacked in the centre, smoking and drinking.) At a post-race dinner at a quaint restaurant on the coast, the two struck up a conversation. “Yeah, over food,” laughs Schilke-Cherns. “I was vegetarian, with a little of this and a little of that. Trishul was completely vegan.” A large fish was laid out on a banquet table, fresh out of the ocean. “Come on and look at it, it’s gorgeous,” she teased.
After a year of writing letters, Christmas cards and valentines, the two still saw each other as just good friends. SchilkeCherns says she was moved by “his goals and the spiritual wisdom he had to pursue those races.” They met again at La Rochelle in ’86, and again chatted over food. Within a month of returning home, Cherns would be expelled. He’d f ly to Denver, and within two weeks, he and Schilke-Cherns would move to Vail together. They got married a year later.
Cherns was able to find work as a busboy and locker-room attendant at The Sonnealp ski resort in Vail. He ran the Leadville Trail 100 and placed fifth at the legendary Westfield Sydney to Melbourne road race. Schilke-Cherns was a veteran at crewing runners, and the two were a perfect match. Still, Cherns longed to be back in the mega-distance world of Queens, so the couple decided to go back to New York to see if they could make a life around the Sri Chinmoy scene. But Cherns would never be accepted back into the f lock.
At the time, the Sri Chinmoy races were open to anyone, and Cherns was more resolved than ever when he showed up at the 100-miler in April 1988. It had been almost two years since he had run one of the guru’s races, and he felt awkward at the start. “Once you are an ex-disciple, no one wants you around,” Cherns says. But when he crossed the finish line in fourth place,
he and the guru realized he’d just run his best 100-miler to date. One month later, Cherns was at the start line of the Impossibility Race, one of Sri Chinmoy’s most brutal inventions.
The guru was determined to possess t he longest race in the world, and Cherns was intent on following him. First, there was the 1,300mile Impossibility Race, arguably the toughest he’d ever created, with its 18-day cutoff. Then there was the 2,700. Cherns ran both. Soon, Sri Chinmoy raised the bar to 3,100 miles. It was 100 miles longer than the recent revival of the Trans-American Footrace and the guru was confident the longest certified race in the world would belong to him for years to come. In 1999, Cherns ran it in 50 days and three hours. (According to one of his many binders, it was 50 days, three hours, 36 minutes and one second.)
On three separate occasions, Cherns completed the longest race in the world. Total mileage for those is simple math: 3,100 x 3 is 9,300 miles, or 3k shy of 15,000 kilometres. But in the annals of mega-ultramarathoning, they are represented simply as three ultra completions.
When Sri Chinmoy died in 2007, Cherns was allowed to attend the week-long funeral ceremonies, called samadhi. Some followers believed the guru wasn’t actually gone, that his body wouldn’t decay. Cherns was more realistic. “I felt as if I had lost a great teacher and friend,” he says. Remarkably free of bitterness, he insists he simply “was overcome with reverence and respect.”
Cherns’s journey continued. If anything, he has only become more prolific since the guru’s death, completing 71 ultras in the last decade alone – up from 50 in the 2000s and 64 in the 1990s. He says that with a minimum of one ultra per month for the next 20 years, he could easily reach his goal of 500 ultra completions and 50,000 miles. Perhaps he would even eclipse Aalto’s record.
What’s certain is that if he reaches that mark, he’ll quickly find something else. In the end, for Cherns, it’s a journey – and it’s spiritual. If you never become, you just keep running. If you stop running, you may stop becoming.
“His goals are always changing,” says Schilke-Cherns. “That’s what I love about him the most – he has evolved with age. ‘What’s next?’ he always says.” At a recent dinner with Schilke-Cherns’s mother, Cherns proclaimed he wanted to run a 100-miler on his 100th birthday. His mother-in-law chuckled and said, “Great! We’ll have an open casket and just pitch you in.”
As the lockdown persists into July, everything remains on pause. “Virus is keeping me at 756,” posts Rob Apple, with a frowny emoji. Apple’s goal is to reach 1,000 ultra finishes. “You just can’t sit down,” says Krolewicz, a recent finisher of Lazarus Lake’s Last Annual Heart of The South ultra. After a gruelling six days 23 hours and 11 minutes, “I lay down for a rest,” he says, “and I swear, two vultures landed right next to me.”
For Cherns, this is a time of ref lection and rejuvenation. He pays attention to the blossoming trilliums, violets and red columbines and picks wild mustard greens for his salads, waiting for the time when he can start counting ultra finishes again. “I’ve learned to think in the long term,” he says. “I guess my goal is to be the last man standing.”
Jared Beasley is the author of In Search of Al Howie, chosen by Kirkus as one of the best indie books of 2019. He currently lives in New York.
At 63, Cherns has run 44,004.17 miles in competition, and he has his sights set on reaching 50,000 miles, or 80,467 kilometres. But to capture the world record for most miles run in competition, he would need more.