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Bizarre Facts About Ultramarathoning

Insatiable sex drive, no toenails—do you have what it takes to run across the U.S.?

Feeling good about your six-mile run today? Time to be humbled: When Marshall Ulrich was 57 years old, he ran across the United States. On average, he ran two marathons and a 10K every day. He left from San Francisco and, in just 52 days, he ran a continuous path to New York.

Ulrich is known as an ultramarathon runner—and what he does is far more impressive than any marathon runner with a two-hour finish time in New York City. (Did we mention Ulrich has also scaled Everest and competed in more than 100 foot races, averaging more than 100 miles each?) His book Running on Empty details his entire journey—including his training schedule, daily weather reports and his supply list. We caught up with Ulrich to find out what people need to know about extreme running fanatics.

1. They have their toenails removed.
This is gross and hard to stomach so we’ll try to get this over with: Ulrich had all of his toenails remove. Yes, all ten. “A lot of runners have problems with their feet,” explains Ulrich. “They get black toe, which is when you get a blister under the toenail and, in a few days, the toenail simply falls off.” Back in the mid-'90s, Ulrich never had more than three or four toenails at a time. “They were always in the process of falling off and growing back. And they were more bothersome every time they’d come back,” he says. So Ulrich decided he didn’t need them anyway. He asked a doctor if removing them was a possibility. It was. And so the doctor removed Ulrich’s toenails—and while he was at it, gave Ulrich a vasectomy at the patient’s request.

2. They develop an insatiable sex drive.
“An insatiable sex drive may sound like a very good thing but it’s very frightening,” Ulrich warns. During his cross-country run, Ulrich was working his body so hard that he swears his body thought he was trying to kill himself. “What happens when a person is in dire straights like that, sex becomes a priority because, naturally, we want to perpetuate the species. We want to procreate.” Not surprisingly, he got slightly embarrassed talking about this (we can only imagine how his wife felt!): “I’m sure you’ve felt amorous or horny. It’s like that times ten. It’s like a super charged sex drive. It’s all the time—while running, while resting during breaks at night. The thought crosses your mind way more than it should.”

3. Their nipples don’t bleed.
Any runner or marathoner will tell you that bloody nipples are part of the package (the sensitive skin rubs against your shirt with every step you take), but that’s not a concern for the ultramarathoner. “Sure, they bleed at first, and you get chaffing under the arms, but after about a week or so, everything adjusts and you grow calluses in all the right places.” Don’t cringe just yet—his nipples aren’t still callused. Your body adjusts to the mileage and your skin needs to toughen where it needs to. Similarly, your muscles do the same: “When I was running across Colorado through the Rocky Mountains, my calf muscles kicked into overdrive. When I hit Nebraska, Ohio and flatter states, my calf muscles atrophied, but my upper body developed.” The body is much smarter than we are and it adapts incredibly fast, Ulrich adds.

4. They don’t stop for cops.
Ulrich’s goal, which he ultimately accomplished, was to run a continuous line from coast to coast. A few miles into his journey, his mission was almost compromised. He had just crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Rafael Bridge and there was a small one, about a mile-and-a-half long. Somehow, he had missed the pedestrian pathway and was running on a small curb on a freeway. “I got to the end and there were police waiting for me. They kept calling for me to cross four lanes of traffic and to come over to them, but I kept running. I was worried they were going to force me into a car and drive me somewhere, breaking my continuous line!” Eventually, an officer did force Ulrich into a car and drove him to the base of the bridge. “When I was released, I ran back—on the pedestrian path—and had to do the entire bridge again.”

5. They like Paul McCartney.
Ulrich only started listening to music during runs within the past four years. “Normally, when I’m running, my brain is continually monitoring my body and all the functions. I ask myself: Am I thirsty? How am I doing? Do I need to speed up? Slow down? How is my foot? Do I need to change socks?” When he’s not playing body mechanic, Ulrich checks out his surroundings, thinks about his family and imagines the next mile. On his cross-country run, he added a satellite radio to his repertoire. “During the last four hours of every day, I’d play certain songs that were really motivating to me. Sometimes I’d play them 20 or 30 times in a row. I’d crank up the volume and drown out everything else. I wouldn’t think about finishing or what hurt.” On the playlist: “Sing the Changes” by Paul McCartney, James McMurtry’s “Just Us Kids” and “Say Hey” by Michael Franti.

6. They don’t always know they’re going to finish a run.
Just because Ulrich ran 3,063 miles in 52 days, doesn’t mean he’s up for a 58-mile run every day. “I just went out for a five-hour run and I was suffering,” he confesses. “I didn’t want to finish.”

*Disclaimer: These facts may not be true for all ultramarathon runners, but they’re sure accurate in Ulrich’s case!

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