Ron Marinucci June Column

Ron Marinucci June Column

It’s not at all clear, at least to me, how and why some people engage and complete activities of great endurance. For instance, two and three centuries ago, early Michigan fur traders paddled canoes laden with up to seven tons of pelts for sixteen and even eighteen hours a day. A 2:00 AM start was not unusual. These voyageurs would paddle until sunrise, stop for a heart breakfast, and then continue on their ways. Including portages, which necessitated running for several miles, often intervals, while carrying 90-pound bundles of furs, the best of these endurance athletes covered more than fifty miles a day.

I’ve always marveled at such feats. I’ve completed quite a few marathons, but the distance itself still awes me. How can anyone, especially me, run 26.2 miles! Although I know people can and do, my brain often tries to tell me it’s not possible.

I think of events such as the Leadville and Western States 100-mile runs, not to forget our own ultra, Dances with Dirt, here in Michigan. Then there’s the Badwater in California which takes runners through the desert, from Death Valley, the lowest point in the US (282 feet below sea level), to Mt. Whitney, the highest elevation in the contiguous forty-eight states (14, 505 feet). And, of course, there are similar events in other parts of the world, including the six-day Marathon des Sables, 151 miles across the Sahara Desert.

Purportedly, when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, at 29,035 feet the tallest peak in the world, its first conqueror, Sir Edmund Hillary (along with Tenzing Norgay), said, “Because it’s there.” I’ve talked with and written stories on runners who have complete ultra events. And I’ve read quite a few books about these athletes. Still, I don’t quite understand the hows and the whys, especially the whys. How do they do it? And, perhaps a greater question, why do they do it? OK, I know why the fur traders did it—money, among other things. But the extreme endurance athletes…?

What brought this to mind was a book I recently read and reviewed. Running on Empty by Marshall Ulrich is his memoir of “An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America.” Ulrich has scaled the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents, including Everest. He’s run the aforementioned Leadville, Western States, and Badwater, winning and setting course records.

To celebrate his fiftieth birthday, Ulrich did a “Badwater Quad,” running the course four times, almost 600 miles, across the desert. To further challenge himself and “the course, both the desert and the mountain,” he once pushed a hot dog cart that carried his food, drink, and other necessities over the Badwater course—alone.

Another time, he completed the Leadville 100, got in his car and drove several hours, and then ran the Pike’s Peak Marathon—13.1 miles up and 13.1 miles down.

All this aside, Running on Empty tells the story of Ulrich’s 2008 “Run Across America,” from San Francisco to New York City, 3063 miles. After only a few pages, it becomes apparent that he would find this tour of the United States to be his most grueling, yet gratifying challenge yet.

He averaged nearly 60 miles—a day—for 52 days! That’s the equivalent of two marathons and a 10K. He ran all day and often well into the night, frequently past midnight. Almost as an afterthought it seems, he wrote casually, “We’d covered the first thousand miles….” Yep, only 2000 more to go.

Ulrich’s “Run Across America” diet is surprising. It was probably similar in nature to the pemmican those fur traders ate. He consumed up to 1000 calories a day, enough for four people. He drank no water, other fluids, yes, but not water. After the 3000 miles, he had very minimal weight loss.

There are stories of his dedicated crew, especially his wife Heather; the great sites of cross-country America; extremes in climate and geography; and confrontations with dogs, crazy drivers, and even a farmer armed with a rifle.

Still, to me, his story centers on how and why. He tries to explain, but I still don’t quite understand. I question statements such as this, “It took longer, some months, before my body stopped hurting all the time. Not until a year later could I get back to my normal routine of running.”

Ulrich’s self-centered drive and his sense of singular purpose, make Running on Empty a compelling book to read. And, perhaps for other readers, it can help explain how and why extreme athletes do what they do.

Another book I recently read and reviewed is written by a runner, marathoner Joe C. Ellis. Murder on the Outer Banks is a mystery, a good one.

The book’s ties to running show up only in the first few pages. But they are enough to grab a reader’s interest—and Murder on the Outer Banks holds it.

Imagine the discovery of a serum that not only halts, but reverses the ageing process. Imagine, at age 65, running a 17:35 5K, a world class, if not world record, time.

Well, that’s what Doc Hopkins of Dare County, North Carolina did—finishing the same race faster than he had three decades before. Quickly refreshed after his blistering time, Hopkins revealed his plan to run six miles on his 100th birthday.

But, he never would. In fact, within twenty-four hours, he was dead, shot in the head. And his home laboratory, cloaked in mystery, was ransacked by someone obviously looking for something.

That “something” was eternal youth or, rather, the promise of eternal youth that Hopkins’ 5K time proved existed. He had discovered an elixir, complete with the formula to produce it; hence, his increasingly youthful skin, darkening and thickening hair, and, of course, the jaw-dropping 17:35.

The novel is filled with twists and turns: more murders, kidnappings, betrayals, and a hurricane. The characters are interesting. And Murder on the Outer Banks raises some intriguing questions. Would I use the eternal youth elixir, especially if I could run the times I did thirty years ago? (OK, I wasn’t racing thirty years ago, but “what if…?”) If it were available, should I use it? Should there even be eternal youth? If so, what happens when nobody dies?

These are two good books to take to the beach or out on the deck this summer. And they both leave interesting questions.