by John Budge
I’m 100 kilometers into The Great New York 100 Mile Running Exposition and in rough shape. Severe blisters have formed under both feet, causing me to wince in pain with each step. I plop into a folding chair at the Forest Park aid station in Queens and take off my shoes to assess the damage. Not good…especially with 38 miles to go.
Trishul Cherns, the seasoned aid station captain and assistant race director curiously asks how I’m doing. “Pretty grim,” I say. “I’m reduced to a limp and can’t run anymore.” Cherns looks at his watch, processes some quick math in his head and states matter of factly, “Well, you have fifteen and a half hours to go 38 miles. You can walk. No excuses.”
Looking into his convincing eyes, I simply nod, knowing this to be true. I put my shoes back on, grab a slice of pizza for the road and shuffle my way towards Brooklyn and the long night ahead with “no excuses” lingering in my mind.
These simple but wise words from Trishul Cherns aren’t taken lightly. At age 60, this distance running veteran and former monk has lived a rare and impressive journey, holding many Canadian national records. In his career he has logged over 42,000 ultramarathon racing miles. I figure I can go another 38.
Born in 1957 in Hamilton, Ontario, which sits an hour south of Toronto on Lake Ontario, Cherns was an active kid. In the eleventh grade he began running with his high school’s track team, entering his first race to run the 3000 meters. He finished dead last. His coach approached him and said he should get back on the track for the next event and give the 1500 meters a try.
“I wasn’t ready for that. I should’ve just done one race,” he recalls, amused. “So he puts me in the 1500 where these guys are super fast. We’re talking about 4:20 milers, you know. They take off and after one lap…they lapped me. I just walked off the track. I was embarrassed. But I just did the 3000 meters and gave my all, right, and the track coach put me into the next race!”
Few could predict the running life that would follow his first failure. Around the same time, Cherns began watching the television series Kung Fu starring David Carradine about a young man known as “Grasshopper” by his master, who joins a monastery to become a Shaolin priest and martial arts expert.
“He represented the seeker in me,” Cherns said. “I always had an interest in religious practice or spiritual practice. It just was inside of me. I was more interested in learning spiritual wisdom rather than intellectual thoughts. Was just more interested in something deeper. Something with a little more substance, meat on it.”
And so, right after high school, he discovered the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Toronto and joined to learn the practice and art of meditation. While there, he also reinvented his relationship with running. Where the Shaolin priests used kung-fu as an extension of their spiritual practice, Cherns did so with running.
“Running…that makes me feel good,” he explained. “It just feels like it’s the right thing after meditation to do. You built up all this energy…now let’s express it.”
He made it part of his routine and eventually found himself joining teams for long distance relays, running five miles at a stretch before passing the torch, completing around 15 miles a day for three to four days.
Cherns spent two years at the meditation center in Toronto before moving to New York City in 1977 to be closer to the spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy. He was 20. “I wanted to be with him directly,” he said. “He was in New York. I’m in Toronto. I said, ‘let me learn from the master himself.'”
He lived in an ashram without walls in Jamaica, Queens, eating vegetarian, practicing celibacy and learning the ways of self-transcendence. Sri Chinmoy bestowed on him the spiritual name Trishul, meaning trident, the three-pronged mythological spear used to pierce ignorance. He heartily accepted, perceiving it as a powerful name, and has kept it to this day. Lorne Cherns was his birth name.
Not an ordinary spiritual leader, Sri Chinmoy had begun to promote running as another form of the practice of meditation and created the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. Cherns joined and shortly thereafter set out to run his first marathon at the New York City Marathon in 1977. At one point during the race a friend pointed out ultramarathon pioneer and Olympian, Ted Corbitt. Cherns recalled, “I said, ‘Who’s Ted Corbitt?’ I didn’t know who Ted Corbitt is! But I remember, the first time I ever met the famous Ted Corbitt was in the New York City Marathon.”
His goal was to finish, yet he still ran a respectable time of 3:08:49. He could barely hobble down stairs the next day, but was so enamored with the experience that he ran another marathon six weeks later.
In 1978 he ran his first ultramarathon, completing 47 miles worth of loops around Jamaica High School in Queens to celebrate Sri Chinmoy’s 47th birthday. Two weeks later he wanted to see how far he could run, so he convinced a friend to count laps for him on the Jamaica High School track. He went 90 miles.
“The key for me is not always how fast I could run…it was how far can I go,” he said. “I was more interested in the journey of it. How can this experience change my life? What did I spiritually get out of it? What did it teach me? What was the life lesson? Then it gives you the hunger to want to do another.”
He began to realize the more he ran, the faster he recovered and started ticking off ultras regularly. In 1981, he ran his first 12-hour track race, followed shortly by his first 24-hour. He mixed in all different race distances and timed events, including a stout 700 mile solo run from Toronto to New York City.
In July of 1983, he entered his first multi-day event, a 6-day run at the track in Downing Stadium on Randalls Island, put on by the New York Road Runners Club and their legendary president, Fred Lebow. He finished 6th with 445 miles.
In the middle of the race, severely sleep deprived, he started to hallucinate and noticed there was a part of the track that had a roll in it, rising about a foot off the ground. He stopped to examine and noticed that fellow runner Colin Dixon was doing the same thing. He asked what he was doing, to which Dixon replied, “there’s a roll on the track.” Cherns got excited, “No way! I see the roll too!” The two boyishly stepped back and forth over the roll, transfixed as other runners passed them. “I was like, ‘I can’t feel it, but it’s there!’ Colin said, ‘I would be doing these distance races so I could hallucinate. I don’t need to take drugs. My LSD is long, slow, distance.'”
A year later in 1984, he traveled to England and ran 457 miles in six days, then two months later returned to New York and completed another 6-day race with 479 miles, each time bettering his previous mark. But it was in the fall of 1984 when Cherns crossed a major threshold for himself in La Rochelle, France, running 504 miles in six days. His goal had been to run 500 miles, which was the world class standard then. He gained several sponsorships who would pay his entry fee and travel to both domestic and international races.
In search of new life lessons and experiences, he toed the line at the 1985 Sri Chinmoy 1,000 Mile Race. It would be the first 1,000 mile race ever run in America, consisting of a one mile loop in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens. “What was cool, besides the characters that were in the race…seeing nature change in the late spring,” he remembered. “You see the buds starting out and by the end of the race two weeks later, they’re flowered.”
Out of twelve starters he came in 2nd in 15 days, 9 hours. Fred Lebow was there to present the awards and congratulate him. “It was just to show, hey, look, it can be done,” Cherns explained. “And then I said, ‘Well, there’s no other Canadians doing this so I can set some national records and have it as the standard so other people can try it too.'”
Only a month later, Cherns recovered from the 1,000 miles in time to run the New York Road Runner’s Shea Stadium 100 Mile race. Participants would keep their belongings in the dugout and run one mile loops that went around the baseball field and out into the parking lot. He finished in 18:11:01, sponsored by the MAF team of heart rate training pioneer Dr. Phil Maffetone, who would give him chiropractic adjustments during the race.
Cherns was drawn back to La Rochelle, France in the fall of 1985, improving his 6-day PR to 530 miles. He would better it again there in 1986 with 538 miles. “One thing I loved about France was it was like the old pedestrian 6-day races,” he said. “The best in the world were there and they pulled you along, so you better be fit when you went to these races. People would pay to come to see you. At nighttime they had all this entertainment, singers…it was incredible.”
After the 1985 race he sat down next to an American woman named Käären who had been the handler to another runner. They started a conversation and intrigue began to set in. “Now you got to understand where I come from. I was being a celibate monk. So all a sudden you see this beauty, you know, the testosterone says ‘Hello!’ France, Käären, French women, French cheese, eyes…I was screwed,” he said, laughing. “I went the other direction. I was a close student of [Sri Chinmoy]. That’s where I started out. And it worked until it didn’t work. But you know in the long run, it’s all good. I got to see both.”
That would mark the beginning of the end to his monastic life. Shortly after he followed her to Vail, Colorado and enrolled in massage therapy school. They were married in 1987. While in Colorado, he ran the 1987 Leadville Trail 100, blown away from being “above the clouds” on Hope Pass and wondering to himself, “How can anybody run this?”
He moved back to New York City with Käären, settling in the Middle Village neighborhood of Queens. While running a 1,300 mile Sri Chinmoy race in Flushing Meadows Park, he had an unusual experience when an affectionate dog began to follow him. Over the next 100 miles the dog ran with him, forming a lasting bond between the two. He adopted him afterwards, naming him Dharma.
Cherns frequently ran ultras from 50 km to multi-day events. His training consisted of 125-mile weeks, with half of those miles being speedwork. Three times a week he would go to a track or to hilly Forest Park and run 20×1 mile repeats.
While at peak fitness in 1995, he went to Surgeres, France to run a competitive 48-hour outdoor track race that attracted the best ultra-distance runners in the world. The temperature was a scorching 100 degrees, but he was fit and went on to set a Canadian national record for the 48-hour with 221 miles, finishing 5th overall. It is one of his many Canadian records which still stand today.
Finishing in 1st place was a legendary performance by Greek runner Yiannis Kouros, setting a world record with 292 miles (he would better his mark the next year with 294). “I called myself a running spectator,” Cherns said. “I’m witnessing all the great performances, but yet, I’m doing a great performance. These were world class 24-hour and 48-hour men. What I remember about Kouros was how easy he made it look. It’s a 300 meter track. So you’re running with him…all of a sudden he starts moving ahead. Next thing you know, he’s lapped you. And you start running with him again, and he starts moving ahead…and he laps you! He made it look so easy.”
In 1996, Cherns continued to challenge himself, running the Sri Chinmoy 2,700 Mile Race in 45 days, 15 hours. Then in 1999, he set out to run the world’s longest certified road race, the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race, around a single city block in Queens. He gritted his way through consistently hot and humid temperatures to finish in 50 days, 3 hours.
He would return to run the Self-Transcendence 3,100 two more times, completing it in 2003 in 55 days, 2 hours, and again in 2005 in 54 days, 16 hours.
“We’re time travelers,” he said. “That’s what’s so cool about the 3,100. You start at the beginning of the summer and then by the end you’re into August and so you can watch the little things happening, you know, certain people that have certain routines. The most important thing wasn’t even finishing but the lessons I learned from it. It really taught me how to be in the moment because the distance is so daunting. It’s 3,100 miles. How do you comprehend that? You can’t. So you take it day by day. I’m very rational, so I said, ‘Ok…Morning session. Afternoon session. Evening session.’ When you’re in the morning session…you’re there…you have to be right in that moment. As soon as that morning is over…it’s gone. It’s past. You dismiss it.”
Phil McCarthy came up with the concept of a 100 mile course starting and finishing in Times Square, traversing the far reaching boroughs of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn to showcase New York City’s lesser known areas. It would be called The Great New York 100 Mile Running Exposition (TGNY 100), and Cherns, having run virtually every other ultramarathon in the area, had to try it. So in the humid summer of 2012, he took off with 20 other brave runners for the inaugural running. The course lacked proper volunteer support which added another layer of difficulty.
“I dropped out at the halfway point. I just was so dehydrated,” Cherns recalled. “I understood the concept of the race and then I realized, you know, I love what this race is about. I think I could add a positive force. I want to help.”
He approached McCarthy and the next year joined as assistant race director, in charge of coordinating volunteers and captaining the 100 km aid station, to which a 100 km finish option was added. His wife Käären and other top notch volunteers join him each year to make sure the runners are well taken care of and fed, with pizza and eggplant parmesan ready to serve.
McCarthy and Cherns make an impressive duo, both members of New York’s Broadway Ultra Society (BUS) Hall of Fame and both have been national record holders for the 48-hour (Cherns still has the Canadian record and McCarthy held the American record from 2011-2017). “Without his work getting the volunteers, this race wouldn’t have gone on to be what it is, if it would have gone on at all,” McCarthy said. “He’s great to work with, very enthusiastic, and always coming up with new ideas to make things run smoother. And certainly his history and his record go a long way towards trust and credibility for the race.”
Cherns continues to live in Queens, five miles from the Sri Chinmoy ashram where he once resided. He works as a massage therapist, trekking his portable massage table into people’s homes throughout Manhattan and other sections of New York City. Although he has been in the United States for 40 years, he has retained his Canadian citizenship, thus keeping all of his Canadian national records.
He maintains a thick timeworn binder with meticulous notes of each race he’s completed. When added up he has run 247 ultramarathons with over 42,000 racing miles… and counting. By his estimation, in May 2018 at Rock the Ridge 50 Mile, he will reach his 250th ultramarathon. He’s hoping for some friends to join and run it with him to celebrate.
“To me I take such pride in longevity and durability,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve tasted the whole pie. I’ve won races and I’ve come DFL. There was a lot of life lessons that I liked about ultrarunning and the multi-days especially. There’s always something you learn. I’m still learning. How do you deal with being in the top ten all the time to being in the last three? The whole ego. Letting go. Can you let go? And if you can’t let go, why are you not letting go? So it’s kind of the philosophical things of ultrarunning.”
And so at the 2017 TGNY 100, after limping my way through the night, crossing over the Brooklyn Bridge and finishing in the heart of Times Square, Trishul Cherns was there with a smile to congratulate me for finishing 100 miles. His presence continues to enrich the New York running community.
“Try everything. Taste the whole pie. Don’t get caught up in just trails. Try road races. Try things that you’re not good at. Experience it. See what it’s like. It brought me my first dog, Dharma. Most importantly, if I never did ultras, I would never have met Käären. And I would have never met all these wonderful people. You get to know people. Get out of the house and do the do!”
John Budge is a New York City based writer and ultrarunner. www.johnbudge.com