This summer, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing ultra marathoner/extreme athlete Marshall Ulrich. Many thanks to Mr. Ulrich for taking time out of what readers will soon learn to be a very, very busy (but thrilling) schedule. I’m excited to share your story with our SeniorsforLiving.com followers…
Marshall Ulrich turned 60 on the 4th of July. Wanting to celebrate properly, he decided to finish what’s known in the climbing world as the “Mt. Blanc trilogy.” Thus, having already conquered Mt. Blanc, Ulrich spent some time in Europe this July, climbing the iconic mountain peaks of the Alps, repeatedly ascending more than 4,000 meters into the thin Alpine air during some pretty severe weather, including white-out conditions on Mt. Moench.
Besides being an intrepid climber, Ulrich is perhaps best-known for his record-setting transcontinental run, completed on November 4, 2008. Chasing a 28-year-old’s record (set in 1980) for the run, Ulrich raced from San Francisco to New York, clocking 17 hours on his feet (58 miles total) each day – at the age of 57. (Inspired yet? Just wait…)
Although he didn’t break the 28-year-old’s record, Ulrich took the Grandmaster’s Record (for runners above the age of 50) and the Master’s record (runners age 40 and up).
During the transcontinental run, Ulrich ran in all kinds of weather – peaking around 97 degrees in the Nevada desert and plummeting to 25-30 degrees in parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio – and of course, through all kinds of scenery. Nevada stood out, he said, as he trekked along Route 50 (the loneliest highway in the United States), enjoying sweet solitude and brilliant stars in the night sky, which were intensified by the remoteness of the desert road.
When he ran through his home state of Colorado, Ulrich relished the high altitudes (up to 10,400 feet) and dramatic scenery of the Rockies, and witnessed the aspens turning colors in Steamboat Springs. And I was proud when he mentioned my home state of Pennsylvania, where he experienced the most altitude gain of any state, drank in cooler temps, and loved witnessing the spectacular changing of the seasons.
I was curious to find out about the logistics of such an immense undertaking; when did he eat/sleep – and how did he do it – if he was running 17 hours a day? And did anyone ever compare him to Forrest Gump (“I just felt like runnin’?”)?
Well, he didn’t exactly attract a following like Forrest Gump (who could keep up with his grueling pace?), but he did testify that many people made reference to the film after he returned from his transcontinental expedition.
And a team of 4 people made his amazing race possible: these devoted friends and fellow ultra marathoners drove the RV and van that stayed ahead of Marshall all the time, brought him food, and logged the journey. A typical day? He started running at 7am and would continue until 2 or 3am, eating “on the run” every mile, and finishing with 4 hours of sleep before the cycle repeated itself.
This intense schedule meant that Ulrich burned about 9,000 calories a day – so even though he was running more than doing anything else, he only lost about 4 pounds between San Fran and the Big Apple.
What Ulrich did is truly incredible and awe-inspiring, and though I’ve never, ever been a runner or even remotely interested in running (I’ll be honest – not even for a “Race for the Cure” or some other good cause), I will admit that talking to Marshall gave me a completely new perspective. After our phone conversation, I found myself feeling the most inspired I’ve ever been to take up running.
But the reason that Marshall himself took up running was more complex, a painful path that he shares in depth in his book, which was released on April 14th.
Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America opens with a brief telling of Marshall’s early years, growing up on an eighty-acre dairy farm with his parents, brother and sister (even at a young age, he could outrun his brother and Dad). He shares that his mother always told them they could accomplish anything; clearly, Marshall took that truth to heart and lives it each day.
In one whirlwind of a week in 1974, he graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, married his first love, Jean Schmid (they met on a blind date at a church hayride), and started his first business. Continuing on this busy track, Marshall built his company while Jean went to law school. She passed the bar exam when she was eight months pregnant. After she gave birth to their daughter Elaine in 1979; Marshall states, “I was sure life couldn’t get any better, and I was right. Everything was perfect.”
But just a year later, Jean was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in November 1981, at the age of 31.
Marshall’s world was turned upside down. His blood pressure went sky-high, and his doctor advised him to take up running, or do some kind of exercise to maintain his health and avoid a dependency on medications.
Obviously, he took his doctor’s advice…and went an extra couple hundred miles too.
Marshall says that his delayed grief process is what allowed him to survive. It took years – even after meeting and marrying his current wife, Heather, in 1982 – to process the pain of that first loss, and running was the vehicle through which he processed that deep ache.
“It wasn’t until the transcontinental run that I found out how fragile I was,” Ulrich said. “I realized I had to reconnect. And the book is not just about running, it’s also the love story of how I came full circle with Heather, who taught me how to love again.”
Ulrich also emphasizes that the book, though it details his amazing running and climbing feats and records, is about everyday life, about love and loss – things we all experience.
Of course, if you love to run or climb, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the book. But Ulrich says the book has another target audience besides extreme athletes: he hopes that boomer women (between 40-60 years old) who never even thought about running will read the book and consider taking up this healthy habit as he did.
When he does book signings or speaks to people about his expeditions – and the intensely personal experiences that launched them – there are three things Marshall Ulrich likes to emphasize:
- “People can recover quicker and do more than they thought they could or think they can.”
- “One reason I did adventure racing and climbing (he started mountaineering at the age of 52) was to diversify and overcome fear of water/heights. So don’t be afraid to try something new.”
- “Keep on doing whatever you do – and keep setting goals.” At 52, Ulrich was determined to climb the 7 summits. At 57, he went after a record set by a 28-year-old, two and a half decades earlier. At 60, before heading to Europe to finish the Mt. Blanc Trilogy mentioned earlier, he first had a race to finish: the Badwater Ultramarathon across Death Valley, plus a few extra miles up Mt. Whitney—as if 135 miles of the official race course wasn’t tough enough, Marshall always goes the extra distance to make it 146. (By the way, it was his 17th time doing this particular race, which means he has done it more than any other person on the planet.)
What are you waiting for? Get yourself a new pair of running shoes and get out on the road (and don’t even think of using age as an excuse)!
For more information about Marshall Ulrich, visit his site.
Talkback: What inspires you? What holds you back? Do you feel limited by your age?
- Michelle Seitzer