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On Location

The Circumnavigation of Death Valley

David Heckman and Marshall Ulrich will walk the perimeter of Death Valley after the 2012 Badwater Ultramarathon

By Alix Shutello

Tomorrow, as 96 competitors line up at the start of the Adventure Corps Badwater Ultramarathon competition, one of them will not be leaving Death Valley and going home to family friends. Similarly, of the support crews, medics and many other volunteers will be supporting the athletes, one of them will not go home either.

Marshall Ulrich (61), who has finished Badwater 17 times, along with long-time Badwater race medic David Heckman (38), will start a circumnavigation of Death Valley starting on July 21, with hopes of completing the 500-mile journey around August 8.

And now come the many questions.

Who’s idea was this?!?

Ah no…..this was not Ulrich’s idea. One would think that the world renown ultra athlete, author, and public speaker would be looking for another adventure and found someone with extensive experience about Death Valley and medical knowledge to accompany him.  In fact, it was the opposite. Heckman, who has hiked in and around Death Valley since 2003 for weeks at a time alone and unaided, thought up the idea in 2007 and approached Ulrich with the idea.  About 5 months ago, Ulrich agreed, which started the buzz about Ulrich’s circumnavigation of Death Valley. The thing is, this is not Ulrich’s brainchild…this is Heckman’s.

Who are these people?

David Heckman

Heckman – he’s a 38-year-old father of basically two babies – 32 month old Jack and 8-month old Dylan. He’s been married since 2008 and is a professional firefighter who lives along the California coast south of San Francisco. He has hiked and camped in Death Valley for up to a month at a time since 2003.  Heckman is a cyclist, a hiker and a runner. He qualifies as an ultra runner because he’s logged 30 miles in one day but he’s never competed in an ultra marathon – not that this matters. He’s an ultra athlete because he’s competed at the Furnace Creek 508 (back in 2005) and he crewed for Lisa Bliss at Badwater. He met Ulrich at Badwater (aside from crewing Bliss, he’s been a medic on staff at the race for years) and would like to compete at Badwater in 2014.

You will not find anything about Heckman online (until now while I am covering him). He uses email, but as a firefighter he spends his time saving lives. He does not blog or use social media.

Marshall Ulrich

Ulrich – he’s a 61-year-old father of three adult children ranging from 26 to 33. His wife, Heather, will be supporting both Ulrich and Heckman along the circumnavigation. Ulrich is a renown utra athlete who has  run more than 100 foot races averaging over 125 miles each, completed 12 expedition-length adventure races, and climbed the Seven Summits (including Mt. Everest) all on his first attempts, he also has gone tremendous distances.  His transcontinental run of more than 3,000 miles back in 2008 was the equivalent of two marathons and a 10K every day for 52.5 days.

Ulrich has crossed Death Valley a record 23 times, including a 586-mile ‘Badwater Quad,’ covering the course four times (twice up and back), and a self-contained, unaided solo, where he pulled all supplies (food, ice, medical) in a cart that weighed more than 200 pounds at the start.

Why are they doing this?

If you are looking for a good answer to this question, you are not going to get one…or at least one that will satisfy you. I spent 2 hours interviewing Ulrich and Heckman.  For Heckman, this isn’t even a bucket list type of adventure, it’s been on his mind for so long that now, with his kids too young to really know daddy will be gone for about four weeks between Badwater and the circumnavigation, he’s going to go for it and get it done. Ulrich, who originally thought the idea was crazy, changed his mind, and began preparing to compete at Badwater and then start his 500-mile trek with Heckman only a few days after running competing at Badwater.

What will we get out of it?

Again, if you are looking for a story about two men who are looking to reach nirvana or inner peace, well that’ll probably happen but so could dehydration, sunburn and a myriad of other things that are not so positive.  What we will get out of it is footage – Heckman and Ulrich will be documenting their adventure with head cameras. They will also have a cameraman along with them.

This circumnavigation is more than just two guys going for a hike in really hot weather. Both men are devoted to Death Valley and protecting it is part of their mission.  Mining occurs in Death Valley National Park, which is part of their route. The ecology of the park and surrouding environs are as beautiful as they are mystical. The Timbisha Shoshone indians are a Native American tribe living in the heart of Death Valley; they came to the area more than a  thousand years ago. Further, they intend on staying at the site of the Charles Manson hideaway overnight. That should be creepsville central.

What we get out of it is following them through this adventure – seeing what they see, and hopefully feeling what they feel. Both men have their demons. Death Valley is where some people go to sweat it out, to find answers, and to cope with what is hiding inside….but Heckman and Marshall have a lot at stake being out in the heat for so long – and there is the issue of family support.

Heckman’s wife Vanessa is supportive. But she’s not psyched about being a single mom with two kids at home alone. Fortunately, she is a school teacher and has the summers off. While this take the pressure from work-related issues, being alone with two babies is difficult for anyone, especially if you are on the clock 24/7.

Heather, Marshall’s wife of 9 years is not so happy about the circumnavigation. She supports Marshall and is a devoted wife, but she has her reservations, as does Ulrich’s oldest daughter, who at 33 is still asking dad why on earth he’s still doing this type of stuff at his age.

How are they going to do this?

Courtesey of Rick Barraff

Both men spend the later part of the last couple of weeks burying supplies around the perimeter of the park. The Park Service and other authorities know that Heckman and Ulrich are doing this and have applied for the proper permits and other applications. Food and water are buried outside of Death Valley Park. Among their supplies will be a satellite phone, a head camera to record footage, and a reflective sheet they can tuck under when they need to get out of the sun….for there is no shade of any sort along the route.Also, this is not a run. Both men are hiking with very heavy packs in the dead of summer.Endurance Racing Magazine will be covering the expedition over the next several weeks. Look for more coming soon!

To read more about the adventure and other links see:

Ulrich’s Blog.



2 thoughts on “The Circumnavigation of Death Valley

  1. Reblogged this on Hudson Valley Running and commented:
    The heat of the Hudson Valley is nothing like what David and Marshall will experience. Yikes!

    Posted by Richard D'Ambrosio | July 18, 2012, 11:47 am


  1. Pingback: Badwater Ultramaraton - July 18, 2012

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