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Interviewing an Elite Ultra Runner: Marshall Ulrich’s latest challenge

Posted Sep 28 2012 7:15am

I’m taking a break from the “what I did/what I learned” Fitbloggin updates and coming back to a story I alluded to several weeks ago.  I had the opportunity to interview Marshall Ulrich about his latest endurance adventure, and finally pieced it together for you. I’m also linking up with Jill for Fitness Friday. Enjoy!

Who is Marshall Ulrich?

Marshall is the author of Running on Empty , the story of his journey across America with the goal of setting a new record (he holds the third fastest time).  He is an endurance athlete, and has completed 124 ultramarathons, averaging 125 miles each.  He has won or placed in many races over the years, including winning Badwater Ultra four times, known as the toughest foot race.  He is also a mountaineer (completed the Seven Summits), trainer, speaker and guide.

 

Marshall’s recent Challenge

In July, Marshall and his friend Dave Heckman attempted the first unassisted circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park.  The journey totaled over 425 miles with 40,000 feet of elevation gains in temperatures hitting over 120 degrees.  Marshall ran his 18th Badwater Ultramarathon (135 mile race in extreme heat) a mere three days before setting off with Dave.

What were the dangers?

The greatest danger was dehydration.  Physically, Marshall said this navigation was harder than his Badwater Quad (running the 135 mile race four times back to back) and more challenging than climbing Mount Everest.

How did he prepare for the challenge?

Marshall and Dave spent years researching and planning.  From experience, they knew they would need six gallons of water a day on average, or 100 gallons of water total.  They buried food and 350 gallons of water spread out in 37 caches , with one or two between each overnight stop.

To prepare physically, Marshall did some of his training jogging in a sauna, and for the two months beforehand he trained in 105-110 degree temperatures.

They also mapped out their course and packed a spot tracker, batteries for emergencies, a phone with emergency numbers and a GPS.

Were they successful?

Marshall and Dave were able to complete the journey unassisted.  Almost all of their caches were untouched, so they never ran out of water.  They averaged 20-34 miles per day with their 50 pound backpacks, finishing in 16 days.

Were there any scares or injuries along the way?

Their biggest fear was finding a cache that had been destroyed or bug-infested.  There was one scare about 11 days in where they were off road and zigzagged more than they anticipated, adding 3-4 miles to their day.  This caused them to come dangerously close to running out of water.  They rationed it very carefully and just barely made it to their next stopping point. Another time, one was upside down and almost empty, but they happened to have 50-100 extra ounces on them and made it on to the next one without a problem.

In terms of injuries, Marsh dealt with Achilles Tendonitis and had to slit the back of his boot to relieve the pressure.  He also had numerous blisters and back pain from the weight they were carrying.

What was it like to be removed from society and experience that level of solitude?

In a word, I think Marshall would have said thrilling! Dave and Marshall spread out 20-30 feet, so there was a lot of time alone with Mother Nature and their thoughts. They slept on the dirt and were amazed by star-lit sky.  Life was refreshingly simple and slower paced.

After finishing, simple pleasures like air conditioning and ice in their drinks were unbelievable.  Back in their car, they found themselves astonished by the radio,  and amazed at how quickly scenery was passing by them on the highway.  Life’s distractions keep us from connecting with nature in the way that this trip allowed them to.

What are Marshall’s tips for runners interested in ultras?

Marshall recommends moving up in distances slowly, from the marathon to the 50k, then the 50 miler and 100 miler.  He emphasized the importance of learning to listen to your body to determine your hydration and fueling needs.  Become very methodical with your training and planning out what your needs will be.  For example, be prepared for freezing temps at higher elevations (such as Mount Whitney).  Salt tablets are also essential for endurance workouts.

As you graduate to longer distances, train your body and your mind to accept those distances.  Gain the confidence that you can do them!

What will come of this challenge? Is there another book in the works?

The men shot footage of their adventure, and hope to produce a book and documentary film from it.  In the book, Marshall wants to emphasize the importance of connecting with the essential elements of life, and finding pleasure in simplicity.  He also hopes to tie in stories of perseverance of the pioneers and others, including the Shoshoni who have lived in that region for over 1,000 years.

As for what’s next, Marshall is always doing something.  Age is not a limiting factor for him, but he also recognizes that he may not be able to continue to tackle such extreme adventures.  His next undertakings may be a bit more cautious and conservative (which his wife would appreciate!)

My final thoughts

I have really enjoyed getting to know Marshall through this interview and his writing.  While I do not have the drive or desire to tackle extreme sports or ultra running, I admire his adventurous spirit and desire to motivate others.  I love that he wants to use the next book to talk about simplifying our lives and becoming more in touch with nature and the world around us, a message that we can all benefit from in our noisy, over-stimulated culture.

Would you ever consider an ultra? Are you inspired by the adventures of elite athletes like Marshall?

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