Legendary Colorado endurance athlete grapples with age as he ponders the end of a remarkable run

Legendary Colorado endurance athlete grapples with age as he ponders the end of a remarkable run

Marshall Ulrich has run 129 ultra marathons and adventure races averaging 125 miles apiece.

He started running in 1978, when he was 27, and tackled ultra marathons in his mid-30s.

He once ran across the United States, from San Francisco to New York City, averaging almost 60 miles a day.

He completed the Badwater 135-miler from Death Valley to the foot of California’s Mount Whitney a record 20 times, winning it four times, also a record. Each time, he continued another 11 miles with an ascent of 6,000 feet to the summit of Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, at 14,500 feet.

But this year, Badwater went badly for Ulrich, three weeks after his 67th birthday in July. On a day when the temperature reached 127 degrees in what is widely considered “the world’s toughest foot race,” the man Outside magazine once dubbed the “Endurance King” missed the mandatory cutoff time at a checkpoint 50 miles into the race and had to drop out.

Now, he’s having a hard time facing the realization that his career as one of America’s most iconic endurance athletes may be over because he’s not as fast as he used to be.

“I’m struggling with the age thing,” said Ulrich, a longtime Idaho Springs resident who now lives in Evergreen. “My form isn’t what it used to be. I don’t have the speed, it takes me twice as long to do some ultras. Instead of winning Badwater, I’m missing cutoffs. How do you come to grips with that? It’s a process, and I’m still processing.”

Like a gun-slinging quarterback or a home-run slugger realizing the time had come to let go of the sport that defined him, Ulrich isn’t sure how he’s going to replace the physical, mental and emotional fulfillment that comes from being an indefatigable legend in his sport. Until now, whenever he finished a race, he knew what his next big challenge would be.

Like doing a 425-mile circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park hours after completing Badwater. Or being the first to do the Leadville Trail 100-mile foot race and the Pikes Peak Marathon on the same weekend. Or climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents, Mount Everest included.

Last year, he dropped out of Badwater because of problems with his support crew, but he went back a week later and did the full 146 miles by himself, pushing a baby jogger filled with drinking water for the first 40 miles.

But now what? Old runners don’t just fade away, not if their knees still work.

“People talk about post-race depression and I never really experienced that because I always had a goal,” Ulrich said. “But if I don’t have a goal, what do I do? I’m still searching. It’s like being in the middle of an ocean and not knowing which way to swim.”

Ulrich took up running in 1978 to control his blood pressure and cope with his first wife’s cancer, which took her life three years later. He soon realized he wasn’t especially fast over short and middle distances, but he had a rare talent for extremes of endurance.

The Badwater race started in 1987 with five runners. As initially conceived, the idea was to start in Death Valley at the lowest elevation in the United States (282 feet below sea level) and finish atop Whitney, at the highest point. That’s how the race was run the first two years. But then the U.S. Forest Service ruled that the race had to stop — officially at least — at Whitney Portal (8,374 feet), the trailhead to the peak. Many runners would finish the race and then continue to the Whitney summit informally.

That’s how Ulrich thinks it should be done, and it’s how he’s always done it. When he set the record in 1991 (33 hours, 54 minutes), the temperature difference from Death Valley to Whitney’s summit was 99 degrees.

His motivations changed over the years. Early on, it was to deal with the stress of his wife’s medical crisis. After that, he confesses, there was some survivor’s guilt.

“I’m not proud of that,” Ulrich said. “And some of it was ego-driven. How fast can I go? How far can I go? Then it’s like testing the limitations of the human body. The armchair person might relish that I admit that’s probably something inside me that is troubling. Why would I need to do that? I don’t think I asked that question way back then, but now I look back and it’s like, ‘Yeah, why did I?’ It’s still a puzzling thing to me, too.”

But there were rewards that any runner or endurance athlete can understand.

“I’m not that religious, but it can be very much a spiritual experience — the solitude, the peacefulness, the quiet, no lights, the stars out that are illuminating the way, literally,” Ulrich said. “It grounds you, it connects you. It’s essential, I think, for our psyche to get away, and that’s one of the best ways to do it.”

At Badwater this year, one of his daughters, Alexandra Dowd, and her husband, Vince, served on his support crew. He realized when he got to a way station 42 miles into the race that his chances of making the cutoff weren’t good. He had 2 1/2 hours to cover 8 miles with a climb of 2,000 feet and temperatures around 120 degrees.

“I was struggling,” Ulrich said. “I’d have to dive into the van and cool off. I’m panting, and it’s like the world is coming to an end.”

Ulrich wasn’t the only one forced to drop out: Thirty of the 99 starters were unable to finish, the lowest completion rate in race history. Alexandra was relieved when Ulrich dropped out. So was her husband.

“He was getting in the car maybe every two miles there for several hours, and every time he got in the car I was thinking, ‘This is it,’ ” Dowd said. “He went back out there every time. That was really eye-opening for me, just the mental spirit of him and the other people that do it.”

The next day, they climbed Whitney together. For Ulrich, there were no answers up there for what comes next.

“I can remember reading about 30 years ago where you’ll get to this stage. It’s not how fast you can run because those days are over,” Ulrich said. “Then how do you cope with that? I think you just have to refocus and bring things into a different perspective. It’s all about accepting where you are right now and what you can do at your age.”

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