Endurance athlete and Badwater Ultramarathon champion Marshall Ulrich, who has run across the country and climbed the Seven Summits, knows how to suffer—and still have fun doing it. Ulrich, 61, along with his firefighter friend Dave Heckman, recently became the first to circumnavigate Death Valley—the hottest place on earth—on foot, unsupported. The pair buried 37 food-and-water caches to sustain them over 16 days and 40,000 feet of climbing in seven mountain ranges. All told, the athletes covered 425 punishing miles in 100-plus-degree heat. Ulrich spoke with Men’s Fitness on how he trained, stayed cool, and ultimately, survived his epic endurance journey across some of the planet’s most unforgiving terrain.
How do you prepare for a brutal trip like this?
I bumped my mileage up to running 100 miles per week. I also trained in Lake Havasu on and off for two months beforehand. Even in May, the temperatures there can get up to 117. So I was training in the heat with a backpack to simulate carrying all that weight. Badwater [just beforehand] was kind of a tune-up, if you will, to put the polish on it.
What gear was in your pack?
As far as electronic gear, we had a sat phone as a backup in case something happened. We also had a SPOT tracker to document that we did, in fact, do it. The third thing was a little GPS, because we had buried the caches and marked the coordinates. So we used those to find the caches, along with photos of the surroundings to refresh our memories. We were able to find all but one, which we think had been buried deeper by a mudslide.
For clothes, it was just a pair of underwear, pair of pants, a shirt, a hat, socks and shoes, trekking poles, sunglasses, and the backpack. We each carried three 100-ounce CamelBak bladders for water. It was very simplistic, very low-tech. You don’t need a whole lot.
You need to eat a lot of calories to pull this off, though. What was in the food caches?
Those consisted of MREs, freeze-dried food, and canned food in case something got in there, as well as snack food like potato chips and pretzels, trail mix, things to munch on during the day. We’d also buried 350 gallons of water. We tallied at the end, and we each drank 100 gallons. The rest we used to wash our clothes and cool off, so we had the luxury of having a bit too much. The mystery was, would these caches be undisturbed and could we sustain ourselves? We were shocked we were able to.
What’s the best way to stay cool in extreme heat?
It was all about drinking water. We also had a good supply of salt tablets that contained potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Those are about the only things you can do. But the body actually adjusts to the heat. Three days before we started this, I ran the Badwater race. Before that, I was training in up to 115-degree weather, so I was well heat-trained. After a week to 10 days, our bodies became so efficient that we were able to do with about 25 percent less water. On a physiological level, the body starts retaining more sodium in the kidneys. We also discovered that our bodies started leaning down. So a big muscle mass like the quads would atrophy, but not lose strength, so that the body could cool better on its own. In those 16 days, I lost 10 pounds, and Dave lost 25 pounds because of the heat.
Amid the suffering, you must have enjoyed yourself. What were the high points?
Those are the things I focus on now. Death Valley is also the darkest place in the country, so you’ve got these brilliant stars. We were caught in a deluge of sorts, a downpour with lightning cracking all around us, and it was just spectacular sweeping through the valley. Then there was the solitude. We found that we reverted back to a natural sleep cycle without the light bulb where we’d fall asleep at sundown, wake up for an hour or two during the night, then fall back asleep. It was peaceful and simple. On some level, Dave and I didn’t want to get back to civilization. Our existence was embellished by the simplicity.