Surviving Death Valley, The Hottest Place On Earth
By Marla Santos
On July 22, 2012, 61 year-old Marshall Ulrich and firefighter Dave Heckman began an unprecedented expedition of 425 miles around the perimeter of Death Valley National Park, during the most scorching time of year in the hottest place on earth. With temperatures soaring to 120 degrees and above, they finished 16 days later on August 7th. With the threat of dehydration and heat stroke terrifyingly close in a life-or-death situation, they had to plan ahead to be able to endure the brutal desert.
To survive, they buried 500 gallons of water, freeze-dried expedition food and supplies, like batteries for their GPS, matches, electrolyte tablets, sunscreen, sanitary wipes and toothpaste along their route, two months earlier. In total, there were 37 caches with buried items and most remained intact and provided them with enough water and food to sustain them. Wearing head-mounted cameras to capture the remote parts of the trip, they are planning to make a documentary that highlights the history of Death Valley National Park.
Marshall Ulrich is the ultimate endurance athlete. He’s raced in more than 100 races of 125 miles or more, and ascended the Seven Summits, including Mt. Everest on his first attempt. At age 57, he ran 3,063 miles from San Francisco to New York City. Ulrich has run the Badwater Ultramarathon 18 times (more than anyone else in history). Known as the toughest footrace in the world, it starts in Badwater Basin in Death Valley and ends up 135 miles away at Mt. Whitney. Thirty years ago, his wife died from breast cancer and soon after her death he began running and realized that he felt truly alive only when pushed to the limits. After his run across America, he wrote his first book, Running On Empty, which chronicles his amazing journeys – filled with mind-blowing stories and experiences that are almost too hard to imagine. He came to realize how little we really need to exist and “When you strip away all the luxuries we’re accustomed to, there’s a certain peacefulness you can find within yourself without it,” he says. Marshall Ulrich is a one-of-a-kind man. Besides being an incredible athlete, he is a motivational speaker, he offers training clinics, and gives athletes tips and guidance on his website. He has raised over $839,500 for charities, including the Religious Teachers Filippini Mission, an order of Sisters who provide for women and children. Recently, Ulrich was kind enough to answer a few questions for STRIPLV about running in Nevada and his recent Death Valley circumnavigation.
STRIPLV: You said that the circumnavigation of Death Valley was tougher than ascending Mt. Everest, but not as challenging as your 3,000 mile run across country. Talk to me a little about that.
ULRICH: I think the main thing with Everest is the altitude, and then it’s the boredom of being on the mountain. Then when you get up high, it’s very treacherous and dangerous because of the altitude. It’s the patience and the boredom more than anything, where Death Valley for instance, is so incredibly hot. The same day that I finished, I had a friend that I knew well, that perished in Death Valley trying to cross just six miles. That was in a period of just 3 to 4 hours, from the time he started until he died. Things can happen very quickly in Death Valley, and that’s what makes it difficult. Of course there was the distance, and 40,000 feet of climbing during those 16 days around Death Valley. The tough thing about running across America is the mileage overall, and that I was segmenting it out into about 60 miles per day. It was very hard. I didn’t have a lot of time to recover, because I only had about 4-5 hours per day or night (to sleep and eat), but mentally, it’s like: ‘You know what I’ve got to do tomorrow? I’ve got to get up and run another 60 miles, and the day after that, and the day after that.’ It consumed my life! It was my very existence! I could have no life outside of that. Now, that holds true with Death Valley also, but not to the degree of physicality that it was running across America. Putting it in perspective, I like to tell people that Summit Day maybe took me 14-15 hours. Running America, I was out there 17 hours a day; everyday, Running American was like many, many Summit Days on Mt. Everest.
STRIPLV: Cold and heat are both devastating to your body. Which one’s worse?
ULRICH: Cold is interesting because your body will want to burn fat. When you get up higher in altitude, the choice of fuel about 23 to 25,000 feet is muscle mass. You have the cold and then the altitude on Mt. Everest that are challenges, and you’ll experience a weight loss. I lost 10 pounds probably in a period of 5-6 weeks. With Death Valley, the body is so tuned into what it needs to do to survive, that it was losing anything that was muscle mass, so that included fat, muscle… and my body just started shrinking and it made it a much more efficient cooling machine. Over a period of those 16 days, I lost about 10 pounds, but much more rapidly. The body is just peeling off that weight, no matter how much we’d eat. Dave lost 25 pounds in 16 days. The body is just so finely tuned to surviving and adapting; that’s what it’s all about. That is the amazing thing about our bodies; it’s just an incredible…I don’t even want to call it a machine, because it’s far superior to any machine we could ever invent.
STRIPLV: You thought there was a point that you weren’t sure whether you were going to survive. What exactly was that point?
ULRICH: We were coming out of the Saline Valley and we had looked at our topography map and we knew we would have a very steep hike out of there. So we started the day off doing 14-16 miles, then we started up this very steep slope, and we’d anticipated that we could do it with about 3 and 4 quarts of water. We got up this slope, gaining 5,000 feet in a mile and a half. It was extremely steep, about a 60% slope. It was hot, probably about 110 degrees when we started. The only saving grace was that we were getting cooler as we were going up, but not much. Essentially, we had to start rationing our water. I was afraid to eat anything, because I thought to myself: ‘If I eat something, it’s going to absorb water and I need to let my body take as much water as I could get by drinking.” We got up nearly to the top of that, and I was in such bad shape that I was very lethargic and sleepy. There were some Joshua Trees up there, and as skinny as their trunks were, it afforded me a little shade as I sat down under one of those. Dave was actually doing pretty well. This was the low point for me, but Dave took my backpack and he hiked it up to the top of that remaining 400 to 500 feet, and once we got over to the other side, we continued to ration our water, but boy were we glad to see that cache. We dug it up. And the thing was, we never knew when we’d come to these caches that we had buried two months in advance, if they were going to be intact.
STRIPLV: I read that at least one of them wasn’t.
ULRICH: Right. It’s because it was human error, where we had buried it upside down, the water had leaked out. There was another one we came to and saw the top of the bottles and there was dirt around them. We started uncovering it and all but a third of the cardboard containers were eaten by termites. Here were all these dead carcasses and live ones that were squirming around eating these larvae that were eating this cardboard box. It was pretty interesting, but the water was fine.
STRIPLV: It’s amazing that anything can live out there, but you say that there are scorpions and other things. You didn’t see any snakes?
ULRICH: Snakes really don’t exist there, for the most part, down on the valley floor. It’s just too hot. They’re up a little bit higher, above 1,000 - 2,000 feet. We just didn’t see any. I think a lot of it is that during the daytime it’s just too hot and that’s when we were moving. Everything lives nocturnally there for the most part, except for birds.
STRIPLV: Death Valley, for the most part is in California, but there’s part in Nevada too, correct?
ULRICH: There’s this point of Death Valley that pokes into Nevada, and the Rangers, instead of calling it the Bermuda Triangle, they call it the “Nevada Triangle.” It’s no-man’s land. The mountain range that runs along there is called the “Funeral Mountains”. There are some quirky names that are out there.
STRIPLV: Also in Nevada, there’s this stretch of road, Highway 50, called “the loneliest road in America”. Have you navigated that area?
ULRICH: There’s nothing there… stretches up to 60 to 80 miles. No towns, but there was a tree that we came across at one of the junctions and that was a rare sight. It was the “shoe tree” where people throw their shoes up in this tree and it was quite a sight. It’s completely void of any trees or life that we’re accustomed to. It’s kind of like being on another planet.
STRIPLV: What are the most awesome things that you saw, that you would never have experienced if you hadn’t run marathons?
ULRICH: A lot of it has to do with the adventure racing that I used to do: the ECO challenges. A couple of my favorite places are Patagonia and New Zealand, the south island. Just fantastic! There are those two places and then, of course, then I think the most diverse is Death Valley and that’s what I think is my infatuation with that area of the world. Interestingly, I just read the statistic: the low, nighttime temperature on July 11th in Death Valley was 107 degrees, and that was the hottest temperature in the world for daytime temperatures for that same date. They have also determined that Death Valley is indeed the hottest place in the world.
STRIPLV: Do you take photographs along the way or are the pictures just all in your mind?
ULRICH: A lot of them are in my mind from the adventure racing. It was mostly on video camera. The Discovery Channel and USA channel were filming it, so we didn’t have to take a lot of pictures.
STRIPLV: Are you an extremist in other areas of your life?
ULRICH: I think so, with business. I focused on that for the first 40 years of my life. I was 50 years old when I semi-retired. I think that it points out that a person needs to maintain a certain balance in their lives. I lost my first wife to cancer and that’s why I started running. I was very troubled and didn’t go through the grieving process and I just filled it doing stuff. That’s why I’ve done so many ultramarathons and mountaineering, until I met my current wife. She’s the love of my life and she pulled me out of that funk and taught me to love again.
STRIPLV: That’s wonderful. I’m so happy for you.
ULRICH: Thank you.
STRIPLV: Many runners have so many problems with their feet, their knees and all kinds of things. Besides all the exercises you do and training that you help others to do, do you think a lot of what you’ve been able to endure has to do with genetics?
ULRICH: I think a great deal of it does, although I think people are impatient with themselves. To be a good runner, it takes a certain amount of time. It takes a year to two years before you can even run a decent marathon. You gradually build up the mileage with an ultramarathon. I’d say it takes almost a good solid five years of running to where you’ve got a good solid base. You’ve got to realize that your body has to adjust. It will adjust, but I think we have to be patient. The genetic thing is exactly right, and so much has to do with genetics. For whatever reason, I was just blessed with good genetics.
STRIPLV: Do you ever take time off?
ULRICH: Throughout my running career, in November and December or December and January, I’ll take two months off and I will not run a step. It allows my body to recover and it allows me to mentally come back and be hungry to get back at the sport. Then I gradually ease into it, and I only have a racing season of about 4-5 months during the summer, whereas I used to do it quite extensively for a lot longer. I try to take care of myself and be sensitive to those recovery periods also.
STRIPLV: Let’s talk about toenails for a minute. You had all of yours pulled out to prevent chronic issues from so much running. Has there been a company that has tried to design a shoe that would take the pressure off the toenails?
ULRICH: The only shoe that would relate to that would be a manufacturer who says they have a running sandal and that would address that. I cut the shoeboxes out of my shoes. It absolutely eliminates any friction or pressure that is put on by the shoe. There are some shoe companies that want to address it, but would it sell?
STRIPLV: What is left in your mind that you want to conquer?
ULRICH: I think conquer is a very harsh word. I didn’t really conquer Everest or Death Valley – I was just able to do it. I would like to grow and connect with more people. It’s my resolution. I want to be able to help other people accomplish what they need to do. I’ve been able to do that Badwater race 18 times and certainly I’m targeting 20, and maybe more. Those are the immediate goals. What I like, and this goes back to the artist in me, is to do something that somebody else hasn’t done. The human body is a work of art: how it performs, how it adapts. So it’s a work in progress, mentally and physically. Physically, I’ve kind of reached my limit, but mentally, I think I can continue to improve and connect with people.
STRIPLV: How did you discover the Religious Teachers Filippini Mission?
ULRICH: In getting ready to do the quad crossing of Death Valley, and I have a good friend who helped train me for that, whose name is Lisa Smith-Batchen. I told her that I didn’t want to go out there and do that run for nothing, but would like to raise some money for an organization. She had been raising money for the Religious Teachers Filippini for some time, and she suggested taking this on and raise money for them. I did, and I’ve been doing it ever since. What they do is so important, and every penny we raise goes to the sisters, and so there’s no infrastructure that absorbs some of that profit. They help impoverished women and children around the world by teaching them skills to survive on their own. Their motto is to “Go and Teach.” When I climbed Mt. Everest, I raised enough money for them to build a clinic in Hamelmalo. Here I am: a Protestant raising money for Catholic Sisters building a clinic in a Muslim community. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. They demonstrate the caring and love that we all should.
STRIPLV: During the time off from running, what’s some of your favorite things to do?
ULRICH: I love going to movies and I like tinkering on cars. STRIPLV