TWO MEN COMPLETE FIRST-EVER TREK AROUND DEATH VALLEY
Most of us think that doing an hour of cardio is pretty hardcore. But a lot of people think you can take things too far, say running a marathon. But on July 22, 61-year-old extreme endurance athlete Marshall Ulrich and firefighter Dave Heckman really pushed the envelope when they began an unprecedented expedition, going on foot around the perimeter of Death Valley National Park during the hottest part of summer, completely unaided and unassisted. They concluded their “insane” 425-mile adventure 16 days later on August 7.
While others have trekked in this area, no one has attempted to circumnavigate the park, and certainly not during the height of summer when the threat of dehydration and heat stroke are dire. To grasp the gravity of this, consider that on the same day Ulrich and Heckman finished their trek, another accomplished ultra-runner died in Death Valley after just a few hours under the blazing sun.
To survive the scorching 120°+ temperatures and be self-sufficient even as they moved through remote areas, crossed six mountain ranges with a total of about 40,000 feet of elevation gain, and covered approximately 425 miles, the men had buried water, food, and supplies along their route two months earlier. Nearly all of the 37 caches were intact; in one, the water had leaked out, and a few were invaded by insects, but none of this created a shortage and they had enough water and food to sustain them throughout the journey.
Still, at 5’9", 61-year-old Ulrich dropped 10 pounds, and Heckman, who is 5’11" and age 38, dropped 25 pounds. They attribute the rapid weight loss to the exertion and adaptation required to complete 20 to 34 miles a day in an extreme environment.
They saw no other hikers along the way, just a couple of cars and one park ranger, some hardy desert animals and plants, hundreds of defunct mining sites, Charlie Manson’s old hiding place, an active gold mine, several ghost towns, and jaw-dropping landscapes. More than anything else, they encountered solitude.
"It’s amazing how self-sufficient you can become,” Ulrich remarked. “When you strip away all the luxuries we’re accustomed to in day-to-day living, you realize how little you really need, how distracting a lot of that stuff is, and how it gets in the way of certain peacefulness you can find within yourself without it. Probably the most beautiful thing we experienced was waking up at night and realizing that our only ceiling was the stars.”
This groundbreaking circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park constitutes a previously unimaginable feat, but it’s hardly Ulrich’s first successful outing. He’s completed the Badwater Ultra-marathon (also run in Death Valley and known as “the toughest footrace in the world”) more times than anyone else, won the race more times than anyone else, set and holds records there, and was the first to run it four times in a row as well as run it solo, completely unaided and self-supported. All told, he’s competed in more than 100 races of more than 125 miles each and a dozen multi-day adventure races. In his fifties, Ulrich summitted the highest peaks on each continent, including Mount Everest, on first attempts.
Without question, his toughest undertaking was at age 57, when he went 3,063 miles on foot from San Francisco to New York City. He was attempting to break a world record established by a man half his age, and he ultimately set two new records by completing the third fastest trans-American crossing in history. He included all this in his book, Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America.
When Ulrich first heard Heckman’s plan to circumnavigate Death Valley National Park on foot, he thought it was not only crazy but impossible. Now, Ulrich happily admits he was only half right. Heckman insists this was one of the best ideas he’s ever had, second only to getting married and having kids. The two men shared highs and lows, and times when they questioned whether they would survive, but they are grateful for the experience.
The Death Valley expedition was professionally filmed, and Ulrich and Heckman also shot 3D footage. They hope it will be used to create a documentary that highlights the history of the national park and raises important questions about its future.