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Running on Empty

By Clare Morin


Conversing with Marshall Ulrich about the mind of an endurance athlete is a fascinating way to pass the time. This elite American athlete has done more than 120 ultra marathons, climbed the highest mountains on every continent, and he’s conquered the notoriously difficult Badwater Ultramarathon four times.


So in his view, what drives the mind of an endurance athlete? “That’s a very interesting question,” he says. “Some do it for fund raising, others to see how much they can achieve. I had a sports psychologist following me in Badwater and I asked him about this. His answer was: “It’s human evolution. We want to better ourselves.”


Ulrich’s own desire to better himself started at very difficult time in his life. “At the age of 28, my wife was diagnosed with cancer,” he says. “My blood pressure went up. The doctor gave me two options: I could start taking medication or exercise. I started running and it helped. She passed away at 30; and running then helped me for the following two and a half decades.”


Perhaps it was this primal desire, to channel his grief into a positive force, that has pushed Ulrich on one of the most impressive journeys that any endurance athlete has taken in modern times. If his other accolades weren’t enough, in 2008, he set out to run across America. The journey of 3,063.2 miles across 12 states from California to New York was the equivalent of 117 back-to-back marathons. It is profiled in his book, Running on Empty released in April of this year.


Ulrich says it was really the wish to write his stories down that prompted the trans-continental journey. “I needed a common thread to tie things together,” he says. “So I ran across America. Before that journey, I did not feel qualified, in terms of background and maturity, to write the book. The events are not important. It is where those events put you and the personal learning you get about the key things in life. In my case, my family.”


He also delves into the history of the sport, where he finds some surprising elements. “One of the most striking things is that although women were in the sport too, doing extraordinary things, they were not very much recognized. To me, they are the unsung heroes of ultrarunning. Another interesting thing is how long the sport goes back in time, the amazing stories of the old times.”


The writing of the book was something of an ultramarathon in itself, he says, and since April he has been on a continual book tour. But coming to Nepal was important for him. Ulrich had summated Everest before, but he climbed from Tibet. “I wanted to experience Nepal outside Kathmandu,” he explains. “Have a chance to go through villages and see the Nepalese. People here in Nepal are so inviting!


“What I like about RacingThePlanet events is their high quality,” he continues. “How well they are put together, and the fact that they take me to exotic places. Mary puts her heart and soul into them.”


Yet surprisingly, after all these years and all this experience, Ulrich decided to pull out from the race today. “I felt like I did not have a burning desire to run, and also did not feel like I had anything to prove, so I stopped” he says. “The hardest part is that I came to this race as part of a team. My buddies are still out there on the course, so I plan to stay around and give them as much support as possible.”


He’s a titan to have pulled out, but maybe there is a new sense of peace to this man who has covered such great distances in life—and now, finally, has had the chance to tell his own deeply personal story. And one hell of a story it is.

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