Both Feet on the Ground: Reflections from the Outside, by Marshall Ulrich. DNA Books, 2019. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
Although Marshall Ulrich has embarked on over 130 ultramarathons, including the obligatory Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run and the Leadville 100, what remains his chief motivator is self-discovery, keying into running guru George Sheehan’s “experiment of one” philosophy. He truly does place both feet on the ground in his quest to determine what genuinely matters to his choose- your-own-adventure lifestyle.
Growing up on a dairy farm, Ulrich lived a life of hard work and inventive play in the outdoors. His favorite book, and the one that continues to inspire him to this day, is Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which sparked his love of adventure. Today he laments the fact that children and adults suffer from Richard Louv’s nature deficit disorder and are more afraid of nature than at peace with it, labeling certain foods and behaviors as “bad” and others as “good”—afraid to break away from rigid rules and choose the path that beckons.
And that is the essence of Ulrich’s story, his ability to strive for the seemingly impossible, to rise to the challenge of Robert Frost’s beckoning road, and to still recognize that for the majority of folks a (584 mile) Badwater Quad through Death Valley, the 100 mile Iditafoot snowshoe race in Alaska, or a summit of Denali might not be on their radar. And while all of these feats make fascinating stories, it is Ulrich’s revelation of failures and near-misses that brings him to the human level.
After a near-fatal bout of altitude sickness in a Raid Gauloises Trans-Himalaya race, he despaired of ever achieving his particular call of the wild—a summit of Mt. Everest. But with typical persistence, he did conquer the altitude and was glad he had achieved his dream. But at what price? Even in 2004 his sensibilities were shocked by the complete environmental disregard summiteers had shown this majestic mountain. Trophy-bagging had taken the place of awe and respect.
So, after you partake in this armchair-style adventure, what’s in it for you? Ulrich simply hopes that, in your own way, you increase your risk potential. For the risk avoiders he suggests that you unsettle your status quo—take to the trails instead of the roads, walk instead of drive. If you prefer to reduce risk, find something that scares you a bit, get a coach, develop a plan and go for it! If you are already the “Look Ma, no hands!” type of person, you are primed for further adventures along the road less traveled by.
But whatever you do, expect to be changed by your experiences and be prepared for a difficult re-entry into your former world. This is especially valid with the “new normal” challenges we will face in the coming year. But as Marshall Ulrich inscribed on the flyleaf of my copy of his book, “It’s important to get outside during these tough times!” For now, that may be all the challenge you will need.
You can learn more about Marshall Ulrich, his projects and books on his website marshallulrich.com.