Is there a little tension between multi-days and trail ultras? Jared Beasley digs in to find out and, more importantly, to reveal common ground.
When the question was recently posed to me whether there was tension between the multi-day community and the ultra-trail community, I was immediately reminded of my old friend Jim. Deep into his 70s, he loved his sake. He’d often try to order in Japanese. When seconds turned into minutes and no response and no sake, he liked to say, “the one thing I can’t stand is ignore-ance.” Many old school multi-day runners feel the same – not angry but forgotten – aged out. I find trail runners are somewhat oblivious to the world of multi’s. Let’s face it, multi-day races are in a slump, a severe one. And there lies the quick answer: yes, there is some friction, but it’s mostly one-sided.
There’s no denying multi-day runners are the pioneers of the sport. Ultras began on tracks and concrete, not dirt and rock. This older crew has no animosity towards what the sport has become per se but would be more accepting if their piece of the pie was more recognized. Meltzer, Jurek, Trason, Walmsley, Carr, Dauwalter, Magatron: these are household names in the running world. Choi, Mittleman, Howie, Cunningham, Barwick, Fejes: not so much. It’s understandable that multi-day hackles rise when they hear Joe Rogan claim Moab must be the farthest anyone has ever run, that the 3,100 must be a relay race, or hear the studious Rich Roll ask who Ted Corbitt was. That hurts.
Perhaps the most cynical old schooler when it comes to the great trail migration is former Trans-Am RD, Jesse Riley, who refuses to run on trail. “They’re on top and we’re nothing,” he says. “We can complain all we want but no one is going to care.” He, admittedly, is in the minority. For the most part, ultrarunners from the ‘80s have embraced trails. Even Rob Apple, the most prolific ultrarunner in history with 763 finishes and profound lover of short-loop courses, finds trails give him more opportunity. The man who likes to say his favorite surface is “black, freshly-paved asphalt,” has become completely smitten with Mont Blanc. His new phrase: “Never waste good meniscus on bad scenery.”
Multi’s are far from dead, however. And some trail veterans not only revere multi’s but are putting them on their calendars, hoping to find a new journey. Jess Mullen has run over 150 trail ultras and is a proven mountain warrior: Angeles Crest, Crewel Jewel, a 26:39 Western States, Badwater. Currently, she’s transitioning to multi-days and finding there’s a lot more to them – an inward journey – a path of personal transcendence. Her first was a 24 hour in 2011. Then a 48 hour in 2018 before jumping to a 10-day in 2019-2020 at Across the Years. “Why not?” she asked herself but was surprised at the blowback from her trail friends.
But some veterans often feel slighted about their short-loop love. At a recent trail race, multi-day ultra-legend Trishul Cherns was told, “they just aren’t sexy.” Like Apple, Cherns also adds a healthy dose of trails to his calendar, hoping to fill out his schedule. He loves a good 100-miler. He’s done Leadville, Rocky Racoon, and three Vermont’s but was surprised at a recent trail run to hear the comment, “multi-day runners are plow horses. Trail runners are thoroughbreds.”
“A lot of the trail runners think multi’s are stupid,” she says. “Why would you want to do that?” There’s an attitude, she says, that it’s easy to run long distances on a flat, short-loop course. Her friends believe she’s going downhill. She admits love for both ultra siblings but is more intrigued these days by multi’s; they offer her something different. Unlike the trail, where the focus is on everything in your way and how you’re going to deal, on a 400-meter track or a one-mile loop, “the only thing blocking you is you,” she says, unashamed that she might be morphing into a flatlander. “What matters to you, is what really matters.”
Camille Herron also has hopes of a multi-day career. “Having a variety of ultra races makes the sport more accessible,” she says, and it has “helped grow the sport.” She has a talent for the positive spin, but she’s passionate and adamant: “I made it a personal goal to change any attitude and biases that exist in the sport by crossing over a variety of distances and surfaces,” she says. “I wanted to help road/track/multiday ultras gain greater respect and appreciation from the trail running community and vice versa.”
When it comes to trails, let’s be honest, mountains are just plain sexy. Mont Blanc is the Cary Grant of ultras – an elegant, chiseled face that seduces anyone who comes near it. Just saying “Chamonix” tingles my skin. I can imagine a single me sitting at its base in a mountain café, sipping champagne with the great peaks in the background. I meet someone. She asks what I do. The attention feels good. I say, “I run… that,” and point my glass up at the gawdy cliffs and pastoral, post-card worthy trails. That date is a winner.
On the other hand, I spy myself having a beer by a hot dog vendor in Queens, New York, watching this year’s Sri Chinmoy 3,100. I meet someone. The same question is asked, “what are you into?” I smile and point with my hot dog, “I run around this block… a lot.” She smiles, mystified. “Are you putting me on? No, I mean really.” I see her earnestness. I chew the spongy dog and swirl the remnants down with my Brooklyn Lager. “Actually, there’s nothing like it. It’s spiritual,” I say, confident, cocky. “Ran around this thing for a month and a half, straight. I tell you…” I pause with an air of whimsy in my voice. “I wouldn’t trade anything for the experience. You know?” Proud, I look back over to her, but she’s vanished.
All seriousness aside, we can have a wide strike zone when it comes to sexy. What turned us on in our 20s is not what turns us on in our 40s. We change and explore. We find new things to push our buttons, be it in the mountains or in a park. Beyond the marathon, we are one large, growing family of like-minded mile-hogs. We don’t all need to prefer the same surface to empathize. Ultras have always been a sport of diversity, and with the trail boom still gaining steam and backyard ultras taking multi-days into new territory, it seems the world wants more. It’s a big, weird world after all. So, “buy the ticket, take the ride.”