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Ulrich's ultra feats have Buffalo origin

Marshall Ulrich is one of America's best ultramarathoners. He's done things that go beyond what most people would consider the normal limits of the human body, including winning the Death Valley Badwater Ultramarathon -- which goes from America's lowest point to the top of Mount Whitney -- a record four times.

The road to that status hit an important milestone right here in Buffalo. He was in town to check on an investment, a car wash in Lockport, and decided to go for a long run.

"I took a big step when I ran what was called the Nickel City 24-Hour," Ulrich said. "That's where I discovered I had a gift, or a curse, to go beyond 100 miles. I did 122 miles in the 24 hours."

The performance came in 1988 in Delaware Park. He finished 2.5 miles ahead of the field in winning, and has been running ever since. Over the years Ulrich has had a variety of physical adventures, from climbing Mount Everest to completing 12 expedition-length adventure races. But he'll always be known for his 2008 run across America. Ulrich wrote a book, "Running on Empty" (just out in paperback), about that trip, which was filmed for a documentary as well.

Ulrich's fame has spread because of the book and movie. He has mixed feelings about that fact.

"I think more than anything, it tends to ground me a little bit more," the 60-year-old Colorado resident said. "There are certain aspects I don't even like. I'm a solitude person. But I like running, and when I was running across America I felt the need to connect with people."

About 240 runners have gone from San Francisco to New York, many in an attempt to raise money for charity. Ulrich's effort was different in that he was trying to break the record for time. He fell short, but still had the third-fastest crossing ever (52 days). He learned the hard way just how big a country this is.

"The geography really is one of the high points," he said. "Being in the desert in Nevada was one of my favorite parts. You always go back to an appreciation of things as they are. The deserts have such solitude. There's the bright stars at night in the Rocky Mountains. When I got to the East in the fall, the leaves were turning. It's unbelievable in your area at that time of year. It's incredible. The whole trip gave me sensory overload.

"You do notice how large America is, and how diverse it is. The common thing I found, though, is that the people all along the way have good hearts."

The minus side was vividly shown in the movie, as the physical toll was enormous. The body just doesn't have time to recover from the pounding of more than two marathon distances covered each day. Ulrich said it took 2 1/2 years to recover. To this day he still has problems with numbness in his toes.

Soon after finishing, Ulrich started writing a book about the trip -- no easy task for someone who says English was not his best subject in school.

"Before writing it, we [he and wife Heather] drove the entire course, and things came flooding back," he said. "At the point where I had the foot injury, my foot started to hurt again. At 2,000 miles, I started smelling cigar smoke. I checked the statistics, and I found out that's where I smoked a cigar. I didn't even realize it."

Ulrich started long-distance running to lower his blood pressure while his first wife was dying of cancer. He obviously went to great lengths to release the tension he had stored in his body over her illness and death. By the time he was done running across America, that tension was about gone.

"When I ran across the U.S., I had to stop being an island unto myself. I couldn't go it alone," he said. "My wife of nine years now has taught me that. She helped me process that. She taught me how to love again. The book is really a love story."

Ulrich isn't done testing his limits. There's always another challenge further down the road.

"Coming up this summer, I'll run Badwater, and then I'm going to try to become the first person to ever circumnavigate Death Valley National Park," said Ulrich from a cell phone near Mount Whitney. "We've been burying caches. We'll need 500 gallons of water and a lot of food."

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Race calendar

*The Elephant Run, 4 miles, Delaware Park in Buffalo, 9:30 a.m. today, 836-7045.

*Town of Tonawanda 5K, 1 Pool Plaza in Town of Tonawanda, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 308-5785.

*Buffalo Greek Fest 5K, 146 W. Utica St. in Buffalo, 6:30 p.m. Friday, 796-3381.

*Run with the Rapids 5K, Old Falls St. & Third Ave. in Niagara Falls, 9 a.m. Saturday, 278-2115.

*4 for the Corps, 4 miles, Arcade Village Park, 10 a.m. Saturday, 353-6216.

*Chris Griswold 5K, Como Park in Lancaster, 10:30 a.m. Saturday, 685-2640.

*SSPP's Charge of the Knights 5K, 5480 Main St. in Williamsville, 6 p.m. Saturday, 440-8003.

*Take-Off for Learning 5K, 3163 Airport Drive in Jamestown, 9 a.m. May 20, 969-8520.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com