Last updated: 06-Nov-18
By Ian Corless
Marshall Ulrich has run more than 120 ultra marathons averaging over 125 miles each. He has completed 12 expedition-length adventure races, and climbed the ‘Seven Summits’ all on his first attempts. Is he, ‘the ultimate endurance athlete?’
He finished the first-ever circumnavigation on foot of Death Valley National Park, about 425 miles in one of the hottest, driest places on earth. He ranked this expedition as tougher than ascending Mount Everest, but not as challenging as his record setting transcontinental run of more than 3,000 miles from San Francisco to New York City, which was the subject of his book and memoir; Running on Empty.
In his sixties, Marshall inspires adventurers, active and armchair athletes, and a growing general audience by sharing his experiences and defying the ideas of “too far,” “too old,” and “not possible.”
I caught up with this amazing man to get a glimpse into what makes him tick.
IC: Marshall welcome…
MU: Well thanks for having me Ian, it’s a pleasure!
IC: It’s a pleasure to have you join me. It’s a little bit daunting looking at everything you have achieved and thinking how on earth do we start and at what place do we start? So, we are going to start from right far back and just ask you what the catalyst was, what was the thing that created you to become this person who wanted to achieve so much, not only in the endurance world but in life in general?
MU: Well I think it all started when I started my own business called ‘Fort Morgan’s Pet Foods,’ which is a dog food rendering plant in Fort Morgan: I was pretty well driven with that. I started that business and it was very shortly after I got married. Unfortunately my wife had gotten cancer after my daughter was born; she was about two years old. So in business I was very driven to get that started and accomplish so it just kind of fit in with my mind set that I needed to keep busy and keep doing things. My blood pressure went up with the pressure of my wife’s situation and so I started running. I found that I was not very proficient at going fast but I could run a sub three-hour marathon. That was about as good as it got.
I started doing ultras and found that I could go the distances that where longer than a marathon and I seemed to be able to keep up a pretty brisk pace. So I started doing lots of ultras and I sort of transitioned into the first eco challenges back in 1995. I liked the diversity of that. At the age of 5-years I had the dream of climbing Mount Everest and I finally got around to it in my early fifties. So that’s sort of it in a nutshell… I was just driven by different things and after all this time I have settled down and I can kind of pick and choose what I want. I still have that fire that burn’s in me… I want to go out and hit the trails, go up and get high in the mountains and stuff like that.
IC: Yeah, like so many I have read ‘Running on Empty’, and you talk about these things in the book and if I may I want to go to something that you wrote. And I remember reading it at the time and thinking to myself, wow, this was obviously an extremely difficult thing to write but an extremely difficult part of your life, and for me it seemed to signify everything that you have done since:
“There was one day though when Jean lay in her bed at home in a darkened room, battered and exhausted from all that disease was doing to her. The gloomy scene made me claustrophobic. My wife was wasting away in a lightless cabin I wanted to run and I told her so. “How can you leave me right now? How can you be so callous? I need you. I’m so tired. Please stay.”
“I have to run.”
“Don’t do. Please, god I’m alone.”
I looked at her desperate to go. I left. I ran and I still regret it.
IC: That’s a real powerful part of a book and it’s actually quite difficult to read out. I’m pretty sure that it must be a little difficult for you to hear me read it, how significant was that process?
MU: Well you know, that kind of says it all. You hit the nail right on the head. We are all faced with difficult situations and we are torn between what is the right thing to do and kind of satisfy our own needs. Mine was coming out of survival just like she was trying to survive so it was a very difficult decision and I can’t say I made the right decision and I can’t say I’m completely the man I’d like to be.
If we can at least admit that and admit our flaws, I think we can at least identify and grow as an individual and try and improve on the people that we are. If people really get the message behind my book, it’s not about running at all, and a huge part of that is a love story between my current wife, who rescued me after 20 years of going through this turmoil of just doing things to make myself busy so I could live with myself.
IC: I found your book fascinating from that point of view and I hope you forgive me for saying this but I was reading it and I wasn’t actually sure whether I liked you.
MU: Yeah, absolutely.
IC: I did question and read certain parts and thought wow. But equally I looked at it and thought equally what you have achieved and I thought there is a very fine line between running, Badwater Quad and Badwater and the Western States and Leadville, summiting the ‘Seven Summits.’ It needs that gritty dogma and stubbornness that is there in you. There’s a very fine line and of course you have just said recently your love affair has been able to go some way to softening you. Do you feel that that is something that has happened, that it is a complete transformation or is that grittiness still there; or that you have just learned to temper it?
MU: Yep, I think the grittiness is still there, I have retained it, as I’ve grown older, I’m 63-years old now. Age softens us all I think as you can’t do what you were able to do early on. When I ran across America it became very apparent that I couldn’t go out there and do what I was able to do when I was 15-years younger. Instead of averaging 6 mph I was averaging 4 to 4.5 mph and so that’s what tempers you and hits you in the face and lets you come to your senses. So I think maturing just a bit helped and then my wife points those things out too; my character flaws and me being able to say: ‘you are right!’ It brings me into the real world kicking and screaming.
The grittiness is still there though, it rears its head, I don’t know if it’s an ugly head or interesting head or if it allows my survival but it keeps me going forward and I think that’s the point of it. I’m not looking back so much, I’m just looking forward and all of those things I have accomplished really seem very insignificant other than the fact that they allowed me to survive and they have made me I hope a more complete person, just as my wife has.
IC: I looked at your list of race results and like I said it almost leaves me an impossible task of where to go with races. I’m going to stick to the 100-mile distance to start with and then look at some of the longer things you have done but way back in 1988 you did Western States and Leadville. Funny thing is you move through the years and Western States, Leadville and Badwater are your staple races. You always go back to them, particularly Badwater and Leadville, how important have those races been in your life?
MU: Badwater and Leadville have been very important, Western States of course I ran 5-times and then when I didn’t get in as per lottery, I just kind of gave up the ghost with that but Badwater became kind of my brand. I had a friend, Scott Webber who had done several Quad Pike Peak runs and had run across Colorado and he said to me once, ‘if you want to identify with something, identify with Badwater and that’s something that people will eventually relate to’ I kept going back to Badwater and that became ‘my thing.’ People are what bring me back, they are the salt of the earth and that’s kind of the attraction to me.
IC: What inspired you to come up with something like the Badwater Quad?
MU: I wanted to do something that nobody else has done. So I had to create things. Like I just mentioned with Pikes Peak, which I won 4 times in a row. Then it was the Quad Badwater; which seemed a natural progression.
Running across the United States trying to set a record, running Pikes Peak and Leadville on the same weekend… these crazy things that people wouldn’t even think about doing. I wanted to prove that they could be done which was the attraction for me. A calling card!
IC: You have obviously done these things with charity in mind, you have Dreams In Action and that has been a huge motivator for you yes?
MU: It gives life meaning; it gives me more of a dimensional type personality instead of me just me being an ultra-runner who has accomplished this or that. I’ve kept doing charity work on and off and I have probably raised around $800,000.
At the Everest summit (2004). Photo credit: Marshall Ulrich.
IC: I’m going to go to early 2000 and you mentioned previously and you mentioned earlier about having an identity and the fact that some people just couldn’t relate to a 100-miles but they could relate to mountains, particularly Everest. So instead of you just deciding to do Everest you decided to do the seven highest mountains on seven continents. We will get on to the nitty-gritty of those mountains but what I find interesting here is that Kilian Jornet at the moment is having his ‘Summits of my Life’ project and all the razzmatazz and the PR that goes with it. But you know we look back to 2002 and here you are going to McKinley, Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Everest and the rest of the seven summits and achieving all of them on your first attempts. It’s a pre cursor to Kilian.
MU: I don’t want to take any credit from Kilian and what he has done and what he will continue to do. He is an exceptional athlete; he’s way of the charts and more than I could ever hope to be. But what I didn’t want to do in one of my other missions in life was to take some of those people who I run ultras with and give them more dimension in their lives such as transitioning into mountaineering so that there life could be enriched and see other parts of the world and experience them and experience them in slightly different ways. I wanted to be a bad influence on everybody else.
IC: I love that, so tell me about the mountains, because pre 2000 did you have experience as a mountain climber? Or was this something that was completely new for you?
MU: Well it was somewhat new although we dabbled in it in the Eco Challenges. We would go to New Zealand and Patagonia and we would go up some fairly high mountains. The real longing for doing the mountaineering was when I was 5-years old, I had a thing for mountain climbers on the black and white TV, and I thought, I want to feel what they feel and I want to be there. So, I think that was the reason for getting on to the mountains. And here I was growing up on a farm where I couldn’t see the mountains and I can only remember 5 or 6 times where I was up in them. But now I live in the mountains and it quenches my thirst for mountaineering and high altitude. I’m always intrigued by altitude and reaching the next summit and I’m sure you can relate to going up some trail and reaching the top of it, it’s always the same type of satisfaction and experience you have; just great satisfaction.
IC: Oh yeah, out of those seven summits which was the most difficult?
MU: Well I think it was Everest. Not that it was the most technical, I did go up the north side, which is more technical than the south side or so they say. But I think what makes it technical is the altitude, it’s a whole different ball game up there when you get up to 24-26,000 ft. Then it’s like trying to breathe through a straw and you can imagine just tying your shoes becomes difficult. So I think that’s what makes it difficult. As far as being a little more technical, I think a real mountaineer’s mountain is Denali. You pretty much have to do everything yourself and you don’t have the porters and the people to help you out.
IC: What’s your perception of what Kilian is achieving? He has just done Aconcagua and has just set a record of under 13 hours (just broken by Karl Egloff) and he now has 1 summit left which is Everest. I’ve had feedback from Aconcagua and although things went relatively well they didn’t go as smoothly as Kilian would have liked; he found the altitude difficult and he learnt that two weeks of acclimatisation isn’t enough to go to 7,000 meters. So, looking at Everest which is the final summit, and you having done Everest, what advice would you give to somebody trying to do it without oxygen?
MU: Well the advice I give for people trying to do it without oxygen is if I were to have visions of doing that, I would have to do it with oxygen first to see what I was dealing with. It becomes more of a safety issue. Can you actually do it? You can experiment as much as you want. Have that oxygen bottle there just in case. I know several people boldly said I’m going to go up and do it without oxygen and that takes a rare individual. As talented as Kilian is he may find that somewhere in there is a genie that raises an ugly head that he didn’t expect. So you want to prepare yourself and the best way to do it is with oxygen first of all, and then of course acclimate appropriately and if you get up to that high camp at 27,000ft. Then you can decide to go up.
IC: Yeah absolutely, and of all the things that you have achieved, is Everest the pinnacle for you?
MU: No I don’t think so, I like to put things in perspective, and people ask me what was the most difficult thing that you did? And by far it was Running Across America and doing close to 100km per day, day-after-day for 52-days straight. It was relentless there was only 4 – 4 ½ hours’ sleep so that was the most difficult. The most dangerous was a couple of years ago when I did a circumnavigation with Dave where we buried caches in the ground and did it totally unsupported. By far that was the most dangerous and I almost bottled on one of the days where we almost ran out of water.
IC: This was the trek in Death Valley?
MU: Yeah it’s around the circumference of Death Valley. Nobody had ever done it as sort of a kicker I told Dave I would do it with him but we needed to bury caches. I want to do it unsupported and it’s the largest National Park, it’s about 400-miles around. It took us 16-days… by far the most difficult.
IC: It’s interesting that’s two of the hardest things you have done in the last 4 or 5-years, you very often find that people will start slowly and do a couple of really big things and then as they get a little bit older or slower then they start to ease off but in 2008 you ran Across America at aged 58 and of course Running On Empty documents this really well, it was a story of so many different levels and different perspectives. It’s always difficult talking about something that lasts 52-days but there was some severe lows in that story and some severe highs. Can you pinpoint a couple for me?
MU: Well I think the lowest point was somewhere in the mid-west I can’t remember exactly, I think it was maybe Illinois. I just woke up one morning and went out and started running and it was a nice day, but I thought to myself I just don’t know how I’m going to deal with this anymore, I have to do all this mileage the next day and the next day and the next day. I just totally got depressed, so that was probably one of the lowest points. But the highest point was exactly the same day… I was sitting next to the RV and went through this mind flunk and was still dealing with it and I looked up and here was this festival in a farmers yard. Kids were jumping in one of those inflatable gyms or whatever; they were doing face paintings and all sorts of things. So I thought to myself, what is going to heal me or make me whole again if it’s not the running? So I walked over for 30-minutes just interacting with these kids and it carried me for the next week or two thinking about that, it was the wonder of life and those young people that brought me to my senses. The other high of course was just finishing on those steps of City Hall in New York but I don’t think it compares to that feeling I got watching those kids.
IC: When you have been out there for 52 and a-half days the finish must be a really sweet thing. I remember when reading the book it seemed that your body was almost going through a break down which is understandable because of the quantity of mileage. You have to get the calories in and you have to keep yourself hydrated. You were very strict on the whole procedure to make yourself function. So how much research do you do prior to any event you do?
MU: Normally I don’t do a whole lot of research I just know that having that back ground experience in desert racing and sleep deprivation with the adventure racing I kind of know what I am getting into. I didn’t really have a handle on how much more difficult it would really be until I got out there so I think some of it is a safety mechanism that we wouldn’t go out there if we really realised how bad it will be. I think how we get through those things is to focus on the positive instead of dwelling on the negative and I don’t think it hurts to be a little bit naïve about what you’re going to do in order to accomplish something.
IC: When you were Running Across America obviously there was this whole situation that started with Charlie Engle, how much of a problem or an issue was that for you?
MU: I had to look at it as just another obstacle, it was something that my crew couldn’t take care of that I had to deal with personally and I think there is something to be learned from that. I knew I had to get that monkey off my back so to speak and concentrate on the running and so I had to say goodbye to Charlie and go on and accomplish the stuff I needed to do and go through the motion of completing the task.
IC: You can learn so much from something like this! When you got around to the trek of the Death Valley you had a partnership with somebody else, what did you apply from RAM to the Death Valley?
MU: We have to go back to that adventure racing where we would have to complete the long distances of 300-400 miles and do it as a team, so it taught me more than anything to bite my tongue and know that we all have our in adequacies and quirks that we all need to take a good hard look at ourselves. Dave was one of those people. It doesn’t matter what the course is you have to get through it with the people on an appropriate level.
IC: So Badwater has appeared almost yearly. I want to go back if I may to 1989, a long time ago, you did Old Dominion, Western States, Hardrock 100, Leadville, Wasatch and Angeles Crest all in the same year. What was it like and what are your memories of looking back to 89 and those six races?
MU: I think that kind of kicked it off for me because I wanted to somehow make a name for myself and show people they could recover quickly. So it gave me a wealth of confidence as I did very well, I finished top-10 and I progressed through them and I realised my abilities where beyond what I thought they were, so it’s very important for your listeners to realise that they can do more than they think they can. I like to say that the only limitation is your mind.
IC: Badwater, am I correct in saying your first victory was in 1992? Ok, let’s go back to your first Badwater victory and how did that feel?
MU: Yeah it’s kind of my bread and butter and something I relate to, I love going back out there every year and as I mentioned it’s the people, the feeling of winning that was just extraordinary. Then the next couple years it might have been 92 or 93 I set the record from going to Badwater to the top of Mount Whitney in 33-hours which still stands. That was very difficult. I think people are capable of doing that but it’s one of those things that’s very special in my life
IC: So obviously Badwater has been really significant for you and you have had so many amazing races. What does the future hold for you Marshall? What’s the next big thing that you’re going to do?
MU: I’d like to keep going out and keep doing the desert races. I’d like to enjoy life. Something will come up most certainly. I do have another book coming out in next year, it’s called ‘Both Feet on the Ground’ it’s about a manifesto of how people need to get back to nature instead of relying on gadgets and handheld devices.
IC: Brilliant, I know your time is valuable and I really appreciate the opportunity that we have had to chat and cover 30 plus years of incredible running in about 35 minutes.
MU: Wonderful, thank you Ian I appreciate talking to you.
Marshall Ulrich is a runner, adventure racer and mountaineer. He provides his services as a speaker, trainer, and guide through Dreams in Action. Ulrich has raised over $850,000 for various charities, including the Religious Teachers Filippini, a small order who focus on children orphaned by AIDS.
Ulrich has excelled at the Badwater Ultra Marathon race that runs across Death Valley. He has finished 18 times and in addition, Ulrich has crossed Death Valley a record 24-times, including a 586-mile ‘Badwater Quad,’ He has also done a self-contained, unaided solo, in which he pulled all supplies in a cart that weighed more than 200 pounds at the start. Ulrich has won the Badwater 146-mile race, an unprecedented 4 times. The race starts from minus 282 feet and concludes at the summit of Mount Whitney, 14,494-feet. He still holds the record to the summit.
In the summer of 2012, Ulrich and Dave Heckman completed 425-miles in 16.5 days for the first-ever trek around the entire perimeter of Death Valley National Park.
In the fall of 2008, Ulrich attempted to break the world record for a Trans-American crossing and completed the 3,100-mile run from San Francisco to New York in 52.5 days. Ulrich succeeded in setting the third fastest crossing of the United States on foot.
Marshall running across America in 2008. Photo credit: Dave Thorpe.