Their Sport is on the Verge of Extinction. These Runners Wont Give it Up.
HAINESPORT, N.J. — The livestreaming was down, the tracker wasn’t up, the star guest was a no-show and eight hours into the 48-hour race, there was no leaderboard. A steely pride burned behind Trishul Cherns’s reddened eyes as he began to write down times on a whiteboard.
“We were a website,” he said, looking out on what he had created. “Now, we are an organization, and this is a championship.”
From a parking lot in Hainesport, N.J., 20 miles east of Philadelphia, the event looked less like a race and more like a traveling carnival. Tents of all shapes and colors were huddled next to each other while odd characters moved around the one-mile loop as if on a conveyor belt.
There was the strongman power walking in a makeshift headdress. There was the tattooed man, covered with devils, whales and horses, beneath a Walt Whitman beard. A nurse, on call, power walked and sang, her multicolored umbrella hat sticking up like a cocktail garnish. Another participant walked, reading a book in one hand and sucking on a freezer pop in the other.
Multiday foot races are the fringe of an already fringe sport, and devotees such as Cherns often feel like the floppy disks of ultrarunning: outdated and rarely seen, but keepers of the origins of the sport.
Six-day races and multiday challenges date as far back as the 18th century, and were reborn in the 1980s as an inclusive medium for self-challenge by leaders like Sri Chinmoy. When Fred Lebow and the New York Road Runners started a six-day race in 1983, it seemed multiday racing might explode into the mainstream. But the event was canceled two years later and has not returned.
A sport in which times were tracked in miles per hour not minutes per mile failed to resonate with the masses. The distances they ran made more sense in relation to truck drivers and migratory birds. So last September, many multiday events were decertified by their own governing body, the International Association of Ultrarunners. It was the final straw for Cherns. He had seen enough and created his own group: the Global Organization of Multiday Ultramarathoners. The key, he thought, was creating the allure of being crowned a “World Champion.”
And so the 48-hour World Championship was born. The race, which started on Sept. 3, drew a meager 47 runners, seven of whom were in their 70s, three who were in their 80s and many who signed up not to claim victory but to move up “the list.”
The brainchild of Nick Marshall, the longevity list is in an encyclopedic Excel sheet and ranks ultrarunners’ careers by the time span from their first 50- or 100-mile race to their most recent. Some runners have 40-year careers and others, like Willi Furst of Switzerland and Werner Hohl of Germany, have more than 53 years of races documented.
With a generous 48-hour cutoff on a flat, paved course, the new championship attracted many who thought it gave them a chance to get another race on their records.
At 82, Ed Rousseau flew in from Minnesota and set up camp on a wooden bench. He rubbed his feet with salve, put on socks, then pulled up knee-high pantyhose. Built like a pair of scissors, he power walked in a hunched position with his head down, eyes ahead. His feet stretched out in front of him as if kicking a ball. “I feel like I’m dying,” he said with a wry turn of his lip. “But I’m afraid I won’t.”
Jim Barnes drove up from Alabama and moved with a leisurely shuffle as he talked and laughed with anyone who would listen. When the midday sun broiled the field, the 84-year-old Barnes broke out a remarkably white button-up shirt dotted with holes. Barnes cut it up himself back in 1989. “Country air-conditioning,” he quipped with a wink.
By four in the afternoon on day two, Cherns stood watch, arms akimbo. “This,” he said coolly, “is when the race really begins.” The course, however, was nearly empty of runners and base camp looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Bodies were scattered anywhere there was shade. As very few runners are able to run for 48 hours without breaks or some semblance of a nap, multiday racing is as much about strategy and pit stops as speed and endurance.
The pre-race favorite, Viktoria Brown, a 47-year-old mother of three, kept pushing forward. Now wearing a ventilation mask for her asthma, she looked like Darth Vader and ran like a bulldozer. Her gait was heavy and determined, her head and shoulders in front of slightly duck feet. Somewhere on the next lap, her power vanished. At the aid station, she slipped the mask down from her reddened face and said, “this is the toughest fight of my life.” She looked like a person being smothered.
A Greek special forces officer had led from day one. Dimosthenis Marifoglou, who goes by Dimos, ran the way you’d expect a navy seal to run. His gait was quick and aggressive, his posture erect as if sitting in a saddle. He looked invincible until the furnace of day two had him on his back listening to the faint trickle of a nearby creek.
“The heat was a gut punch the first day,” said Marshall, who at 74 was also in the race, “but the second day was a knockout.”
It was precisely at this time, when every stable-minded person was indoors, that the magic of multiday races revealed its distinctive peculiarity in the form of 71-year-old Tom Green. The leader — the soldier — was down for the count. Second place was pushing and bonking, looking like the walking dead. Yet here was Green at the 48-hour championship, pushing a jogging stroller while recovering from brain trauma in 90-degree heat, hoping to get another 100-mile race on the list.
It’s still not clear if the creation of the 48-hour race and the Global Organization of Multiday Ultramarathoners is the end of an era or the beginning of one. What little star power there is in the sport was noticeably absent. Yiannis Kouros, vice president of the organization and widely considered to be the greatest ultrarunner in history, couldn’t attend because of vaccination issues. Other Europeans, such as the Lithuanian phenom Aleksandr Sorokin, faced visa problems.
Long after the finish, as the tents were coming down and the music stopped, Marshall and Ed Dodd, second and third on the longevity 100-mile list, reflected on the future of multiday racing. “I used to run and walk. Now, I walk and lie down,” said Dodd, 76. He had hoped to put another 100 in the book, but “the leans” had taken their toll on him by mile 57.
Marshall, who was an elite 100-mile trail runner in the 1980s, also found himself off kilter — his hips pointed forward while his bare upper torso leaned toward the infield. A common phenomenon in multiday races, many runners over the age of 60 will begin to lean to one side or the other as the miles pile up.
Budjargal Byambaa, an established multiday runner, won the championship by running over 208 miles, edging out Brown by 13 miles. Although Jeff Hagen could be named a certain champion, too. The 75-year-old ran 166 miles in two days — the equivalent of six marathons and the best performance ever recorded for his age group in a 48-hour race.
For Cherns, the race was an unmitigated success. Next year, they plan to hold a 6-day championship in Policoro, Italy, and another 48-hour championship in Gloucester, England. “It has begun,” he said in front of his organization’s new logo, a dull blue over a field of white.
Marshall wasn’t so sure as he watched the award ceremony from afar. “It will never be mainstream,” he said softly. “It’s an odd sport. Everybody’s a finisher.”
Dodd was more optimistic. Having started running in 1962, he has seen famine and feast for both multiday and trail races. “The bottom line is, I get to see old friends again,” he said, his eyes smiling as he helped Marshall pack up. “And I don’t want that to go away.”