In this series of three articles, we explore more of the human factor in ultra running from Sydney-based writer, Byron Connolly. We delve into the ‘why’ that differs for so many of us.
First up is Queensland-based runner Kelvin Marshall, who if you don’t know is a complete legend of the sport. Most of you won’t know who he is, but when you read this article and find out he has run over 350 ultras, you can understand that not only is that significant on an Australian level, but I think it also puts him right up there globally as one of the most experienced ultra runners in the world. Have a read of his story.
The World Health Organisation recommends adults aged 18 to 64 only need to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week to reduce the risk of developing a bunch of life-shortening diseases. Fitness movements like Parkrun are helping get people off the couch and into regular physical activity over 5km courses in towns and cities across Australia and worldwide.
So it’s hard to imagine why Gold Coast resident and former computer programmer Kelvin Marshall, 53, would go to such extreme lengths with his running. Marshall is a very rare breed of runner who has knocked over 358 ultramarathons in Australia and overseas since 1992 (he’s the only Australian to have done this). He’s also completed 182 marathons since 1986 – that’s around 17 marathon and ultramarathon events every year for the past 32 years.
Marshall is on the phone, he’s warm and friendly and starts talking about running before he’s even asked a single question. He grew up in Melbourne, completing his first marathon at age 22.
“At that point in time I was living in Elsternwick and the Melbourne Marathon used to go up the Nepean Highway, straight past where I was living. I remember watching it the year before in 1985 and thinking, ‘that’s something I ought to do next year,’” he says.
There was no car in Marshall’s family when he was a kid so he walked everywhere. Marshall would often walk the dog with his father for 15km to 20km of a Sunday afternoon. They had a close relationship.
Marshall completed his first ultramarathon on January 5, 1992, a 60km event from Bogong to Mount Hotham in Victoria’s Alpine High Country. Just three weeks later on January 26, he did another, a 50km run from Mansfield to Mount Buller in Victoria. The following week, he received a certificate of completion and photo of him running during the event.
“I remember showing that photo to my father and about half an hour later, he died. It was the first time he’d ever seen a photo of me running. I can remember it like it was yesterday … getting him out of bed because he wanted to watch the TV sitcom, Cheers. And I said, ‘I’ll give you a hand out of bed’, and he died in my arm; one moment he was there and the next, he wasn’t.
“I always joke that the sight of him seeing me running 50kms killed him and it’s very black humour when I say that,” Marshall says.
His father had been battling bowel cancer for quite some time.
Marshall remembers his mother not recovering well from her husband’s passing. He figured she would benefit from joining him on his running excursions across the country.
“Mum was a bit lost without dad. For many years, we travelled Australia. I did the Alice Springs marathon in 1992 and the week after was the Adelaide Marathon which is a fairly long road trip. All her family were up in Queensland so that was a good thing; we could head up to various races interstate. She enjoyed that.”
Right now, Marshall is injured and it’s understandable. When he is not running, he walks as part of his job reading electricity metres. He is a Six Foot Track Living Legend, one of a small cohort of runners who have completed the iconic annual 45km race along the fire trails from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves at least 24 times.
These days, the event is notoriously difficult for newbies to enter due to its popularity. On the morning that entries open, would-be Six Foot Trackers can be seen madly refreshing the website, hoping to get to a landing page where they enter their credit card details and pay the $195 fee. This is usually months before race day. Marshall doesn’t have that problem; he has earned a lifetime sequential race number.
But this year, he has been forced to pull out of the event for the first time.
“To be honest, I think I injured myself playing beach cricket on Christmas Eve with my cousins,” he says. “I walk for 15km to 20km per day [reading metres] and it got to the point where I could walk for about four hours and then I was a bit of a wreck,” he says.
“One day, I did my full day’s work and I couldn’t get back in the car because my back was so bad.”
Marshall says his most difficult ultra marathon was the Great North Walk, a 100 mile event along the 250km walking track from Sydney to Newcastle.
“I’m a bit infamous for my lack of navigation skills,” he says. “You’re running 30km with no aid stations in between. I am still quite convinced that this is my hardest.”
It’s surprising because Marshall has completed the Badwater 135 mile (217km) course in California’s Death Valley three times. The course, which begins at 279 feet (85 metres) below sea level and ends at 8360 feet (2548 metres) above, is believed to be the toughest footrace in the world. It’s also run in mid-July when the temperature can reach 130 degrees fahrenheit (54 degree celsius). Marshall’s best time in this event was in 2009 when he finished in 37 hours and 36 minutes.
“Badwater after the first 25kms or so, your crew can run with you pretty much whenever you want to. It’s a dry heat [in the Californian desert]. It’s better than some of the humidity we get up north here [in QLD],” he says.
He recalls his first time attempting Badwater, trundling along in the hot desert humidity following a storm that hit the night before and having to change his shorts every five miles or so because the chaffing was so bad.
“It was just one of those races. Once the sun goes down, the temperature drops from 120 degrees fahrenheit (48 celsius) to 30 (celsius). It feels like it’s so cool and you can run forever, I’m saying to myself, ‘don’t stop now, just keep going and going’ and I think I hit a wall because I had to lie down on the ground for quite a while,” he says.
“You’re out there that long, a lot of things can happen. But to me that Great North Walk was harder simply because during the day it was hot and during the night it was really cold.”