He Can’t Feel His Toes

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Brett Hochmuth, Eagle Eye Photography

In late 2008, Marshall Ulrich ran across the United States in 52 days. Ulrich would later say that the run was the most challenging event of his career, which includes four consecutive crossings of Death Valley and an ascent of Everest's north route. The run set masters and grand masters records and made Ulrich, then 57, the third-fastest person to run across the country. Ulrich began running in 1974, shortly before his wife Jean died of cancer. In the aftermath of Jean's death, running became Ulrich's coping mechanism, often at the expense of his family. His new book, Running On Empty, details the transcontinental run and his struggle to bring running and life back into balance.

Have you recovered? Are your toes still numb from the pounding?
My big toes are still numb. That may be permanent damage because they’re not getting any better. But it’s not that big of a deal. Mentally I’m coming around—it’s been over two and a half years and I think I’m still recovering. Physically I’d say I’m 90 percent recovered, and mentally I’m somewhere in the same category. Ninety or ninety-five percent. 

When did you decide to run across the country?
I had originally targeted running across the country in 1992, when there was actually a transcontinental race. At the time, I had a business and I was raising a family, and I just couldn’t take the time off to do it. I thought about doing it for the next 15 years and the sponsors and stars aligned in 2007. [The run began in September 2008]  

Do you feel that devoting your life to ultra running has been worth it to you, personally?
I think it got me through a lot of rough spots. But that’s a good question. If I hadn’t been running, would I have been confronted with my grief and maybe approached it in a healthier manner? I can’t answer that question. It did allow me to move forward in incremental steps, but not to the extent that my current wife, Heather, saved me in the long run.

Why was this adventure transformative for you when some of your other adventures were not?
Because somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 miles into it, it beat me down to the point where there was nothing left. I realized how alone I had been all my life, and alone out on the road I decided that I had to start connecting with other people. I was starving for human contact. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

But why was it harder than Badwater or climbing Mount Everest?
The Badwater quad, which was close to 600 miles, I thought was difficult at the time—it was difficult. The heat is the big variable there. Climbing Mount Everest was similar, in that it’s the altitude that’s difficult. I like to say that every day of the run across the country was like summit day on Everest: It was about 17 hours of climbing, and the run across the country was about 17 hours of running, for 52 days. That made it much more difficult than anything else I’ve done.

You were sleeping four or five hours a night. As I read the book, I found myself wondering why you didn’t sleep a bit more. Wouldn’t that have let you run faster?
Yes, but let me give you an example of what the protocol was for the day: As soon as light broke I’d get out the door and start running. I’d dress myself as I was eating breakfast and head out for a very slow marathon, anywhere from six to seven hours. Then I’d sleep about 45 minutes, and go back out for another 35 miles until two in the morning. I needed additional recovery, so I’d run that first marathon super slow, but run the last 20 miles, from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M., in four hours. We settled on 60 miles per day, and if I was going to get the mileage in, I had to get out the door early.

How much are you running now?
I’m training for Badwater, but I’ll probably walk 90 percent of it. I’m out there more to experience it. I’ll be lucky to put in 20 to 60 miles per week, depending on whether I’m trying to peak for something. And there have been three or four weeks where I haven’t run at all. Mountaineering is another love of mine, and I’ll be doing the Alps trilogy. I’ve already climbed Mont Blanc, and I’ll be doing the Eiger and the Matterhorn.

—Peter Vigneron

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