Marshall Ulrich Talks About Nutrition, Hallucinations, and What Makes Death Valley Special

Marshall Ulrich has run more than 100 foot races, averaging 125 miles each. As his latest feat, he has just completed the first-ever circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park—a 425-mile trek through the desert. I had the privilege of interviewing Ulrich last week, and here’s what he had to say:

What is it about Death Valley that fascinates you?

Death Valley is pristine and has such a vast diversity of geographical features, such as volcanic craters, slot canyons, sand dunes, salt valleys, as well as plants such as mesquite, yucca and huge Joshua tree forests. Within the National Park, you can experience altitude differences of more than 12,000 feet and massive mountain ranges. Those features and the fact that the Badwater Ultramarathon is like a big reunion for those of us who have returned for up to two decades! It’s the people, too.

 Is there anything you wish you would have done differently on your circumnavigation?

Put soap in the caches ;-) , something we forgot. I would have liked to be able to take more time and do more exploring within the interior of the park. We were limited on time, and it would have taken such a huge effort to be able to visit other areas, which we would have liked to have explored. Death Valley National Park is so large (the largest in the lower 48 states) that it would take months or even years to scratch the surface.

What did you eat and drink on a typical day in the desert?

At night it was Expedition Foods freeze-dried meals and also MREs for the most part, plus canned Progresso beef stew and chicken noodle soup. During the daytime, we ate snack food, such as corn nuts (my favorite), chips, Cheetos, trail mix, crackers and occasionally an energy bar (our least favorite). We used essentially no  engineered foods as they weren’t appetizing or we felt didn’t do much to keep us fueled. Just REAL food PLEASE is what we would say.

What are three things you learned on this adventure?

How little we really need to exist.

How distracted we are in real life and how much stuff interferes with our basic needs as humans.

That a person can accomplish so very much — all it takes is good planning and a little luck (we had a lot of luck, maybe call it good karma)?

What were your most important items of gear going through Death Valley?

Hoka shoes with the great cushioning, Deuter backpacks with the air suspension (kept our backs cool), and maps and a GPS so we could see where we were going and gauge water intake based upon topography and temperature.

Do you have a particular mental attitude or “stance” that you use to accommodate to extreme heat?

Yes: no matter what we were facing, we learned to just accept whatever was dealt us without feeling sorry for ourselves. Same with water: even though it was 110 to 120 degrees at times, it didn’t matter — water is water and when you are thirsty, temperature is the least of worries.

Describe your strangest hallucination.

None during the Circumnavigation, but during my solo across Death Valley years ago; a rollerblading babe clad in a silver bikini skating just out of my reach. Dreams during the circumnavigation were bizarre: running out of water, struggling to get up a hill, coming upon caches that were compromised and more.

Who is your biggest cheerleader and strongest supporter?

Always my wife, Heather but my neighbor Roger Kaufhold was there helping with garbage sweep and during the rare times we saw them, well, it was JUST THE BEST!

The best thing about Heather is that she supports me, but questions WHY I’m doing what I’m doing and makes me take a close look at my motives for every extreme adventure.

What is your next challenge or goal?

To keep doing the Badwater race (and maybe other things in Death Valley) and other things I’ve yet to decide. And to motivate people as best I can through speaking, running camps, etc. (We have a running camp coming up early in October where I’ll be working with Ray Zahab and Lisa Smith-Batchen to train all levels of runners. You can see more at http://www.marshallulrich.com/trainer.htm )

Where do you see yourself going with your running?

Slow down, walk don’t run (more), and train when I feel like it and it makes sense (no overtraining, which is what I used to do). Oh, and did I mention take time to look around and smell the roses? Running will just have to take a back seat at times.

What, if any, are the challenges or running and aging?

I’m slower, and I take more time to accomplish my goals. This is hard to accept mentally as it indicates that I can’t do what I used to. And I don’t recover as quickly, but, hey, I’m still vertical and healthy.

Anything else to add?

Three thoughts:

  • You can do more than you think you can.
  • Diversify and try something new.
  • Never stop!

Learn more about Marshall Ulrich at www.marshallulrich.com.

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6 responses

  1. I love the three thoughts at the end. They are so true. Time and again I see that we are our own worst enemies in setting goals for physical endurance. You may need to take your time getting there (like my conversion to minimal style taking 10-11 months after running in shoes for 40 years), but you can get there. The human body is phenomenal at resilience. The more you test it the better it gets. I am also a big fan of keeping the fun in running. I stop for pictures and vistas all the time. I track time and distance, but I don’t run for it.

    Great interview and post, Vanessa!

    jlg

  2. Wait…non-engineered foods? Pls tell me that’s a typo?
    “corn nuts (my favorite), chips, Cheetos, trail mix, crackers and occasionally an energy bar (our least favorite). ”
    I’m just getting into backpacking/hiking & am interested in ultras. But this is confusing…

    **Or am I just reading & missign something?

  3. I find it a little ironic that he says he learned how little we need to survive and then lists GPS as one of his most important items…. A small blind spot for how much infrastructure is actually required for that little GPS device to work….

  4. I was laughing about the above too – cheetos are better than energy bars? :) Great article tho – love learning more about these awesome runners! The information on the training camp was cool too.

    Did you see the article in Runner’s World this month about the guys who got attacked by a pack of wild pitbulls on a trail outside of San Diego? Thought of you! Have you encountered much dangerous wildlife on your treks? We might be moving to Redlands if all works out (all the way from the east coast!) so I’m a little nervous about trail running out there. The worst I’ve seen out here are deer, squirrels, and the occasional skunk :)

    • Nothing to speak of in SD, I’ve seen 2 rattlesnakes but they weren’t attacking. I did see one mountain lion, but that was in the Grand Canyon! We’ll be spending some time in Alaska and may come across some bears there. Gah!

      • I camped and hiked in Denali National Park in Alaska last year and we saw 5 grizzlies, an entire wolf pack, and lots of other animals. They are definitely out there – be careful!

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