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Rob Apple ran three ultras in 2020. With only four slated for 2021, he’s in trouble. Well, kind of.
Since 1990, Apple, now 59, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has averaged 24 ultras a year. If that number seems absurd, well, meet Rob Apple. Sucking on a peppermint candy as he bounces along a greenway near Stones River Battlefield, he’s the jolliest runner you’re likely to meet. With his headlamp on and his buds blaring AC/DC, you’d never imagine this guy was the most prolific ultrarunner in history.
For starters, he laughs a lot. No, really … a lot! “If we knew you did all these ultra runs,” his boss once told him, “we would have drug tested you.” Apple lets out a chuckling, jocular laugh. It starts deep in his gut and builds up through the chest and echoes out from his wide smile like a megaphone.
He looks more like a hairband rocker from the ‘80s than a grizzled, sinewy athlete. His bright, glowing eyes and massive head of hair offset an enormous, gleaming smile. Many approach him and ask if his teeth are real. “Never even had braces,” he says. “My mom gave me these.”
If running ultras is any measure, it’s easy to see why Apple is so happy: he has completed a whopping 761 of them. 761! That’s over 23,560 miles from trail to road to timed track events lasting days. Add up the totals for Yiannis Kouros, Camille Heron, Courtney Dauwalter and Scott Jurek and you still wouldn’t reach half the ultra miles Apple’s run. And he’s competed in the biggest: Leadville, Western States, Wasatch, Massanutten, Vermont, Catalina and UTMB, most multiple times. He’s even run the Boston Marathon. “Yes, I’ve actually done regular marathons, too,” he says, laughing.
Since 1976, Apple has completed a total of 903 races, including 69 marathons. His seven Western States completions are impressive, but his other race repeats are downright nuts: 18 Mountain Mist 50Ks, 21 Strolling Jims and 28 Howl at the Moon 8-hours. He has run an ultra each year since 1982 and has logged a grand total of 185,310 lifetime miles. Each race and training run is meticulously detailed in a journal he’s kept since he was 16. He includes his time, the weather, what he wore and who he talked to. On top of that he loads the data into spreadsheets! An accountant by day, Apple is a numbers freak.
His biggest enemy now that he’s 59, he says, is time. He admits he’s getting slower, and DNFs due to missing time cutoffs in longer races have forced him to focus on 50Ks and European events where cutoffs are more manageable. At this point he doesn’t care about improving his pace; he just wants to be out there as long as possible.
“It’s not about how fast you go; it’s how many pictures you take along the way,” he says. But don’t think he’s lost his ambition. Quite the contrary. He sees himself as an astronaut on the fringe of running. His goal? To become the first in history to reach 1,000 ultra finishes.
Known as the Main Street of America, Route 40 stretches from Delaware to Utah and becomes Cumberland Avenue in the tiny village of Lewisburg, Ohio. Rob Apple grew up in a small u-shaped cul-de-sac on its southern side. For him, the great highway was like the mighty Mississippi; it made him dream of taking it as far as it would go.
Something was always off about Lewisburg. A Children of the Corn kind of atmosphere. The local barber that cut his hair also burned crosses in his yard on Friday nights.
“I always knew I was going to get out of there, somehow, someway,” he says.
Ironically, there was little laughter in the Apple home, and affection was rare—no hugging, no kissing. Being an only child in a poor neighborhood, he learned quickly to find his own fun. His earliest adventures were roaming around his mother’s flower garden. Intoxicated by the smells and colors, he memorized their names and wrote them down, a habit he continues to this day. (He has spreadsheets for those, too.)
His mother, Ruth Ann, loved seeing people travel through. She often left food out for hoboes. As a result, they marked the telephone pole in front of her house to signal to others that they could get food there. When the famous breatharian, Barbara Moore, walked across the United States in 1960, she followed the marks and wound up at the Apple home. She left behind a food wrapper, which made its way into the family scrapbook along with a picture of Moore walking in her work boots. Ruth Ann idolized women like Moore and Grandma Gateway. She was a homebody but dreamed of someday getting out and exploring the world. According to Apple, it just wasn’t in the cards. So, he wanted to do it for her.
By 13 he was the hippie kid with long hair, looking for a way out. His uncle owned a motorbike shop and turned him onto motocross, and perhaps his ticket to a large world.
“The bikers were a lot like ultrarunners,” he says. “They were openminded, free, carried no judgement.”
When a bad spill upended his Honda XR75, his racing career came to an abrupt halt. The gangly teen was distraught and became a roaming figure around the track. He’d show up to watch, desperate to be around it. But it wasn’t the same; he needed more.
Of all the places a running career can start, the local library is an odd one. The year was 1976, and two things captured the young Apple’s imagination: the Guinness Book of World Records and a black-and-white copy of a popular running magazine. It was the nation’s bicentennial, and the magazine was promoting an unusual campaign. If you ran 285 miles in a year and documented it, you got a certificate. So, Apple set up a three-tenths-of-a-mile circuit around Crescent Drive and did just that. By the time the certificate arrived in the mail, he was hooked.
He ran track his freshman and sophomore years but wasn’t good. His PR in the mile was a meager 5:30. He opted for trade school his junior and senior years, where he learned to draw. After graduation, Apple took a job designing school buses during the day and went to Wright State at night, where he studied accounting. Money was tight. It had always been tight. In the 10 years it took him to graduate, he’d get married, divorced and discover the one thing in life he wanted to do more than anything else: run ultras.
In another two years, he got his masters in sports physiology. A better paying job in accounting would follow, and weekends became an obsession to travel and race. Though he swore he’d never marry again, he would, and again he’d get divorced, but running would eventually take him, not only out of Lewisburg, but all over the world.
In the 1980s, Apple was known as “the heartthrob of ultrarunning,” says Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake. The former Trans-Am race director Jesse Riley likened him to a Greek statue. “He was just so damned good-looking, like he was carved out of marble.”
He was a real chatterbox and a fun guy. Back then, he and Lake enjoyed tapping kegs post-race and watching people go to church. Lake has enough anecdotes about Apple to fill a healthy-sized book. One involves the Oak Mountain 50K, a dodgy motel with one bed, beer, weed and waking up to find trees snapped and patio furniture tossed in every direction. The two had slept through a tornado.
Lake later introduced Apple to who would become his second wife, Pam Jordan. At “Strolling Jim,” she asked, “Who was that man that passed me?” Lake answered before she even finished her sentence: Rob Apple. Running finally took him from Lewisburg to Tennessee where Jordan lived.
Back then, the slim, six-foot two runner was not only handsome, but he was also fast.
“Oh, he could move,” Lake says, citing a 1989 performance. At Lake’s 41.2-mile Strolling Jim race in Wartrace, Tennessee, Todd White was crewing top competitor Dink Taylor when around mile 30 he looked back. “Dink, I don’t know who’s coming, but he’s coming hard,” he said. Taylor turned around just in time to see Apple fly past on his way to finishing in 4 hours 58 minutes, making the top 10. In the ‘80s, Apple recorded a 34-minute 30-second 10K, a 6-hour 26-minute 50-miler and logged 122 miles in 24 hours. In Richmond, Ohio, he got revenge on his high-school nemesis, the mile. In the costume themed race, he ran a 5:06 dressed as Don Johnson from Miami Vice: linen suit, teal tee underneath.
The ultrarunner and professor Dr. Thomas Mueller says Apple’s attitude is everything, “He never met a person that wasn’t his friend.” After qualifying for Boston with a 3:06, in the race, he stopped at mile 23 to drink a cold one with a talkative spectator. He finished in 4:09.
For someone dedicated to numbers, Apple is surprisingly more about the journey. He has developed a simple philosophy toward running long term: speed kills.
“If you want to be in it for 40 years, you gotta let that go,” he says. The realization was sudden. Not like the inevitable giving up the ghost many experience when the body starts rebelling with age, Apple’s breakthrough actually came when he was running his fastest times.
It was fall of 1990 and the 100K World Championship was coming to the Edmond Fitzgerald road race in Michigan. Apple was hyped. Just a few years before, he’d run an 8:28 and was hoping to place in the top 20. At that time, Apple was still an undergrad, and when a midterm was suddenly moved, it prevented him from participating.
Dejected, he found a closer race on the same Saturday, Virginia’s Mountain Masochist 50-miler. Still, Apple couldn’t get motivated, couldn’t get his mind right but managed to finish feeling OK. So, for the next day, he found another race near Columbus, the Wolfpack 50K. Apple finished again, and fell in love with “weekend doubles.” That weekend was a Eureka moment.
Trail running was just starting to boom, and there were now more racing opportunities than ever. And Apple started ripping them off. The Texas Trail 50K—17 finishes. The Ice Age 50K—17 finishes. The JFK 50-miler—15 finishes. The Rattlesnake 50K—15 finishes. The Vermont 100—seven finishes. Five Massanutten 100s and two Leadville 100s. And the list goes on and on … and on. In 2002 alone, he ran a total of 44 ultras.
Usually a fixture at the back of races, Apple has managed a podium finish. In 2000 he was running Illinois’ Howl at the Moon’s half-trail/half-road ultra for the eighth time. He didn’t feel particularly good starting out and didn’t know what to expect. Around the halfway point, things turned around. He was feeling better and surprised that he was only down six minutes to the leader. Apple remembers thinking, “Hey, I’ve got a shot at this.” He made a move, felt more and more energized as his pace increased. Then, he was suddenly in the lead. “I was just hoping to hang on,” he says. Nervous at his prospects, he kept repeating to himself, “I want it to be over now!”
That was over 20 years ago. Now, his lack of speed is his biggest impediment in reaching 1,000 finishes. In 2013, he had five DNFs, and in 2014 couldn’t finish the Mountain Mist 50K, a race he’s run 18 times. Apple combats the hard cutoffs of longer races by focusing on 50Ks and trail runs in Europe. While they may be technical and more difficult, the cutoff times tend to be more generous. But it’s a gamble.
In 2018, he made two long trips to Europe, but weather and tough conditions resulted in two DNFs and four non-starts. His yearly output slipped to seven races, and his pocketbook took a big hit. Apple funds these adventures on his own dime. He’s never had a sponsor but says he regrets nothing.
“No car or house could replace what I’ve spent on running,” he says, a solemn tone to his voice.
Last December, Apple was looking forward to completing ultra #760 at the Bloodrock 50K outside of Birmingham, Alabama. The website describes the UTMB qualifier as “likely the hardest 50K you have ever run.” With over 18,400 feet of elevation change, it is renowned as both technical and treacherous. Parts are so steep, they have ropes.
Apple had a rough go.
“I did the first loop and got back to the aid station and was going to have to do the next one backwards, which meant I would have to go down those ropes in the dark,” he says. “I wasn’t going to die out there, so I decided to go back to my hotel.”
But yet another DNF hasn’t gotten him down. Apple is so positive you expect rainbows to shoot from his eyes. He says even if time does eventually catch up with him, he’s found a lot more to running trails than just the finish. In the past few years, the most important factor for him in choosing a race is location. His motto: “Never waste good meniscus on a bad view.”
However, when his runs began taking him to England, France, Switzerland, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand, his second marriage also succumbed to his dedication to racing. And he’s not bitter about it. Single and in great shape, he is not currently dating. He says he can’t afford it, and it’s too much hassle.
Apple rarely looks back. Of the 903 races he’s completed, he doesn’t have a single medal on his wall. Instead, he leaves them on his mother’s tombstone back in Ohio. When her son would toss his medals into a corner or dump them in the closet, she would take them out and mount them on the wall. “I usually go up there every few years with about 10 pounds of medals,” he says. His thick laugh trails off a little quicker. The small cemetery doesn’t have anyone to clean off the stones, so Apple’s medals form a sizable memorial to his biggest inspiration—the mother that taught him to dream big.
On the cusp of 60, Apple still has a lot to do. He won’t say where he’s planning his 800thrun, but he doesn’t deny it’s in Patagonia. At heart, he’s an adventurer, in it for the people, the journey and the laughs. But don’t tell him the finish line doesn’t matter, because everyone knows he’s counting.
“You don’t wanna be that guy that dies at 799,” he says with a wild howl. “I have fun running ultras, and it’s up to me to make the party happen.”
Jared Beasley is the author of In Search of Al Howie, a deep dive into one of ultrarunning’s most enigmatic and prolific mega-distance runners. It was awarded the Kirkus star for literary merit and selected to their best of 2019 list. He has written for numerous magazines in the U.S, Canada and the UK. He holds a degree in theatre and literature from the University of Alabama.