Crewing Marshall Ulrich at the Badwater Ultramarathon

This year I went out to Death Valley to crew Marshall for the seventh time at the Badwater Ultramarathon. That is to say, it was my seventh time crewing for him at Badwater: Marshall had done the race 15 times before, and crossed the Valley 21 times. I’ve also crewed Marshall, and Team Stray Dogs, for seven days during the 2003 Primal Quest adventure race near Lake Tahoe, CA; a few times at the Leadville Trail 100, where we met (yes, that race holds a special place in my heart); and during numerous long training runs. Oh, and for over 52 days when he ran more than 3,000 miles across America last fall. One of the things that I’ve learned about crewing is:

Never tell your runner to quit.

Right? Anyone who has supported a spouse, friends, or family during any ultrarun or event know about this rule, right? If your runner is going to quit a race or event, it has to be their decision, not yours. You have to keep your mouth shut! If you even hint that they should quit, getting that ever-feared DNF (did not finish), they may just come back to you later very angry that you “made” them quit!

During the course of any long race, especially an ultra of 100 miles or more, there will probably be times when runners say that they want to quit. They might even say things like, “It just doesn’t make sense for me continue, does it?” Which means they’re looking for an excuse to quit, or asking for your permission for them to quit. You have to listen with a sympathetic ear, try to smile, and tell them that they’re doing great. If you can, you change the subject. Get them to think about something other than how tired they are, or how much that blister hurts, or how painful their quads are during a downhill that seems endless.

So, that’s the rule. You keep your mouth shut. You never tell your runner to quit. Right?

Wrong. I broke that rule this year at Badwater, and I am confident that I made the right decision.

Here’s why.

Rules Are Meant to Be Broken?

During the transcontinental run across the United States, from September 13 through November 4, 2008, Marshall got plantar fasciitis on his right foot in Utah and had to run close to 2,500 miles with that injury. Then, in Colorado he was diagnosed with a lateral tear in tendon on the outside of the same (right) foot, as well as lots of micro tears, muscle strain, and tendonitis, so he ran almost 2,000 miles with that additional injury.

Other challenges he faced while running an average of over 58 miles per day, every day, for more than 52 days (that’s two marathons, plus a 10K, every day! or the equivalent of 117 marathons in less than 53 days) included severe knee, ankle, and Achilles problems; a slight dislocation to his left tibia (which was fixed/put back in place); and an infection, requiring antibiotics, from one of very few blisters he had during the run.

In addition, horrific sleep deprivation and loneliness following that white line along the breakdown lane for 3,063 miles mostly by himself wreaked havoc on his heart, soul, and spirit.

Watching someone you love suffer that much, for that long at their own hand (or feet) is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.

For the past eight months I’ve watched as Marshall has begun his recovery from running across the country. The most obvious physical damage is to his right foot. Running thousands of miles on plantar fasciitis and with a tendon tear took a severe toll on his now 58-year-old foot. A golf-ball sized knot of scar tissue and numbness (although not as severe) continue to plague him. I knew in my heart of hearts, and in my not-so-clear head (sleep deprivation affected me, too) that his foot was not ready to complete Badwater. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, tell him so.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that Marshall could have finished Badwater this year. But at what cost? It was only during the month before Badwater that he was even able (physically, and in part mentally and emotionally) to run more than a couple of miles. True recovery was just beginning.

On July 13, 2009 Marshall went to the Badwater starting line. I didn’t go to the start. I admit it: I couldn’t. So, I left Marshall in the capable hands of Murray Griffin and Dr. Bob Haugh. I was scheduled to start crewing at mile 42, when he arrived at Stovepipe Wells. But I couldn’t wait. At about 5:30, dear friend Kari Marchant agreed to drive me out to check on Marshall. When we found him, I got out and, as I started to walk toward him, noticed that he was walking … in Crocs. I wanted to scream right then and there, “What the H@## are you doing?!” I knew that if Crocs were the only shoes he could tolerate, then his foot was really hurting. Flashbacks to the transcon … and not pretty ones.

I bit my tongue. For a while. I walked with Marshall as he told me about how his foot hurt and pain was radiating up parts of his leg. I listened with a sympathetic ear, trying to smile. But, I couldn’t tell him he was doing great. I couldn’t change the subject. He went on about the very good reasons to keep going: fundraising for the women and kids, his commitment to the race and his crew. He also talked about good reasons to stop: being able to do the Baffin Island expedition with Ray in September, not setting back his recovery, and the fact that he had nothing to prove.

“I got what I wanted” by completing the transcon, he said. “It was the last thing on my ‘must do’ tick list.” Then, he started to tell me again about pain radiating up his leg and … I said it. I had to say it.

“You need to stop.”

I have never, ever said that to him before. Not during any event (even if I wanted to scream it with every fiber of my being). But, this time, the words came out of my mouth. His foot was not recovered, and continuing on (again, I know he could have finished; I have absolutely no doubt in my mind) would only set him back. It might be many more months before his foot healed. Or didn’t.

“You have to stop.”

He listened—AFTER asking Murray and Dr. Bob if it was okay with them.

I broke the rule, and I’m glad I did. Running across America may have been the last thing on the ‘tick list,’ but it’s definitely not the last amazing thing Marshall will do. He needs his foot in order to continue putting his dreams in action.

So maybe there really aren’t steadfast rules for crewing an ultra or extreme event. Very stringent guidelines, maybe, that should almost always be followed. But not rules.

What do YOU think?

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