A Short Chat With ‘The Endurance King’

Marshall Ulrich is one of most preeminent ultrarunners of the past 15 years.  He has been an inspiration to many who have chased him from behind across the Badwater Basin, or up the slopes and over the mountaintops in Leadville.   Top ultramarathoners and trail runners such as Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek speak with admiration and awe of Ulrich and his many accomplishments on the roads and trails of America and throughout the world.

More than just a runner, Mr. Ulrich has completed dozens of adventure races, which comprise things such as mountaineering, kayaking, bushwhacking through the jungle, and in some cases, just mere survival.  While in his 50s – a time when many are beginning to count down the years to their retirement – Ulrich took on serious mountain climbing, and between 2002 and 2005, summited the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents, all on the first try.

But in the Fall of 2008, Ulrich undertook the greatest physical challenge of his storied life – a run across America in an attempt to break the world record for the fastest transcontinental crossing.  His upcoming book, entitled “Running On Empty” (release date April 14, 2011 – Avery / Penguin Books, ISBN 978-1‐58333‐423‐2) chronicles the run, and prefaces the story of that run with the story of his life and all that led him to the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall on September 13, 2008.

I asked the man who Outside magazine has called “The Endurance King” some questions about what ultrarunning and trail running mean in his life, and what’s next for him:

TT:  Ultrarunning is predominantly – although not exclusively – a trail running endeavor.  What is your personal relationship with the trails, and when did it all start?

MU: My first experience with Ultrarunning started on the road from Laramie, Wyoming to Cheyenne  (a 50 mile run). A couple of years later I decided to do a 24-hour run in N.Y. State which was met with success. Shortly after that I targeted the Western States 100 and the next year I was the first to run all trail 100-milers in the United States (there were 6 at the time, and I ran all six finishing top ten in five of them).  Although I continued to run about half my races on the road, such as the Badwater 146 (the finish was technically at the top of Mount Whitney in the early 1990’s), I found myself gravitating more and more toward trail running. I found the trail put me in touch with who I really was and gave me a more intimate accounting of how spectacular this great nation of ours is. Moving into the Adventure racing arena (having participated in all 9 Eco Challenges) I found the travel to exotic places and racing alongside of friends allowed me to further gain appreciation of the wild as well as connect on a more intimate level with friends.

TT:  Why do you think ultra/trailrunning is catching on so quickly here in America?

MU:  Ultrarunning is a unique challenge that not only involves nature, but the challenge of distances and overcoming limitations that we place in our mind. I think we all want to find out what makes us tick, and ultimately surprise ourselves by doing more than we ever thought we could. Two sayings of mine apply here: “Dream it and do it” and “The only limitations are in your mind”.

TT:  If you could only give one piece of advice to a would-be ultrarunner, what would it be?

MU: Listen to your body. It will tell you how fast to go, what to eat, and how hard to train. Don’t look for the “silver bullet” regarding food, training, or mental toughness. It takes hard work to accomplish the extraordinary. There are no shortcuts.  But the rewards will far outweigh the sweat equity and effort you put into Ultrarunning.

TT:  Do you think ultrarunning is at risk of being overcommercialized, in the way that some people are saying has happened to the marathon?

MU:  Not as long as ultrarunning remains a sport that essentially has no prize money.  And I would disagree to a certain extent that commercialization has gotten out of hand with marathoning. I would argue that who better to take home big prize money for their efforts than a long distant runner? There is not an easy way to become a great runner.

TT:  What was the specific impetus for the run across America?  Was there a moment you can remember when you said ‘Hey, I should do that?’

MU: Yes, I had signed up for the third transcontinental in U.S. history, the first two were in 1928 and 1929, in the early 1990’s after reading about the “Bunion Derbies” I decided eventually this is something I wanted to do. Because of working and raising three children I couldn’t participate in that 90’s race, not in clear conscience. As soon as financial support and the movie documentary “Running America” support was secured, I was off to the races. I had this in the back of my mind for almost 20 years. So I would say hold on to your dreams. Incidentally, I knew that I wanted to climb Mount Everest when I was a young boy only 5 years old, and it took me over 45 years to finally stand on top of that mountain.

TT:  You’ve publicly stated that the transcon was the last item on your ‘tick list.’  With that accomplished, what will you do next? 

MU:  I’ve got a couple of extreme projects slated, one is a circumnavigation of Death Valley with a friend, Dave Hickman. The other project is still in the works; think LONG hard days of another discipline covering mega distance.  More on that later when it becomes a reality.


New York City area runners can meet Marshall at his NYC book launch, scheduled for April 19th, 6:00pm at Super Runners Shop, 49th St & Seventh Avenue.  The event is free.  The day will also include a 2:00pm “Run With Marsh” at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain.  

 For more on Marshall Ulrich and his continuing pursuits, visit his website.   To pre-order “Running On Empty”, visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or Indiebound.

About Todd Jennings

I am a runner, a father, a philosopher, and a writer. I am also a seeker. Among the things that I seek are beauty and truth. From an external perspective, I've found both of those things when I run in the woods or on the quiet trails of the mountain tops . With each new run, more truth and beauty reveals itself to me. And so I keep running....
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