Canada’s Mega-Ul­tra Man

Canadian Running - - NEWS - By Jared Beasley

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. Ul­ 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.

OP­PO­SITE Tr­ishul Ch­erns runs in Flush­ing Mead­ows, New York City, in the 1980s ABOVE Ch­erns in New York, 1977

RIGHT Ch­erns fin­ish­ing his first cer­ti­fied 1,000-mile race in 1985, the first Cana­dian to do so TOP AND OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM Ch­erns and Sri Chin­moy at the post 1,000- mile race award cer­e­mony OP­PO­SITE TOP The start of the world’s first cer­ti­fied 1,000-mile race

OP­PO­SITE LEFT Guru Sri Chin­moy, with Ch­erns, be­hind, in 1986 OP­PO­SITE RIGHT Ch­erns, at left, with Yian­nis Kouros,right, after Kouros won the 1986 Sri Chin­moy 100-miler ABOVE Ch­erns, at right, at the 1986 Sri Chin­moy 1,000-mile race, with Stu Mit­tle­man left RIGHT Ch­erns at the 1986 1,000-mile award cer­e­mony, stand­ing to the left of the tro­phy

OP­PO­SITE TOP Ch­erns with Käären Schilke at the first 1,300-mile Im­pos­si­bil­ity Race in 1988 OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM Ch­erns at the La Rochelle 6-day race TOP Emil La­har­rague at the 1986 La Rochelle, with Ch­erns at far right RIGHT Ch­erns, cen­tre, at the 1987 West­field Syd­ney to Mel­bourne, with Emil La­har­rague at left

OP­PO­SITE TOP LEFT The 1988 Seven Day Race, Sri Chin­moy on left, Emile La­har­rague No.8, Ray Krolewicz No.7, Ch­erns in or­ange pants OP­PO­SITE LEFT AND FAR LEFT Ch­erns fin­ishes his first 3,100-mile race in 50 days three hours, 36 min­utes and one sec­ond in 1999 OP­PO­SITE TOP RIGHT Ch­erns at the 3,100 fin­ish with Schilke-Ch­erns ABOVE Ch­erns rac­ing Florida’s Croom Trail in 2008 RIGHT Tr­ishul Ch­erns in 2020

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