It was with tremendous shock and deep sadness that I wrestled with the news last week that legendary northern California ultrarunner Mark Richtman had passed away. Mark was a decorated and celebrated ultramarathon runner and horseman whose exploits on the trails were surpassed only by his genuinely generous spirit and infectious enthusiasm.
I first met Mark on the Placer High School track after his scintillating third-place finish at the 2002 Western States 100. Having run the race the year before, I was attending Western States that year as a spectator in the hopes of learning a few things from the experts after having a particularly tough race in my first year there.
As luck would have it, Mark turned in a master-class performance in 2002 and I was eager to learn as much about his race as possible. What I discovered was that Mark took an impeccably simple approach, something I tried to emulate in subsequent years. Running without a watch, Mark took off, from the starting gun, running completely ‘on feel.’ Only once all day, at the psychological halfway point of Michigan Bluff, did he inquire about what time it was. When told it was shortly after 2:00 p.m., he said, simply, “Looks like I better get moving to break 18 hours.” A little less than nine hours later Mark crossed the finish line in an impeccably paced time of 17:59:59 after an elegant sprint around the track. Only 28-year-old Scott Jurek and 39-year-old Steve Peterson were faster than 47-year-old Mark on that day.
Living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, I was aware of Mark’s exploits as a 16-time Way Too Cool 50k finisher including a blazing win in 1998. I watched in awe each March in as Mark just took off into the horizon at the starting gun in Cool. I also had a back-row seat for several of Mark’s seven Miwok 100k finishes where, on his beloved Marin County trails, he often laid waste to the competition. Among his most impressive finishes at Miwok were his second place 8:47 in 2002, only three minutes behind Jurek, and his two age-group records that still stand today, 8:45 in 2005 at age 50 and 10:10 in 2015 at age 60.
But for all of Mark’s incredible results, what I’ll remember most about him is his insatiable spirit, and the times I got to spend with him training on the Western States Trail. Between 2004 and 2006, Mark and I traveled from the Bay Area to the Western States Trail to train perhaps a dozen times. Each of those three years, typically around early May, Mark would give me a call to say, “Hey AJ, it’s about time for a seven-canyon run, you in?”
Mark loved to run the Canyons and since the standard canyon training run back in those days was a six canyon run (Foresthill to Last Chance and back on the Western States course traversing Volcano, El Dorado, and Deadwood Canyons each twice) Mark liked to say, with a little grin on his face, “I prefer to do seven!” What he did on those days, and loved having me as his newbie company, was to continue on past Last Chance to the site of the Dusty Corners aid station and, then, turn left on the old course down the dirt road to the bottom of Deep Canyon making the run a tidy 54 miles and seven canyons.
All in all, Mark and I did the seven-canyon run three times, once each May in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Along the way we talked just about every step of the way. Certainly, we chatted about training and running, but also about family, jobs, aspirations, and disappointments. What always struck me about Mark on those runs was what an active and engaged listener he was. He was truly always interested with what I had to say and eager to learn more about me, my life, and my hopes, and my dreams. In his presence on the trails during those times, he made me feel like I was the most important person in his life and he was always 100% in the moment.
There were, of course, some times when those runs turned epic. One example was the time I went so slow that he eventually had to drop me to get back to Marin in time for an event and as such left an apology note back on my car in Foresthill addressed affectionately to, Andy Jones Wilkins Crosby Stills Nash Young Emerson Lake Palmer. Or the time Mark got so tired that he just stopped and fell asleep at Carol Hewitt’s house in Michigan Bluff on the return trip and asked me to come pick him up when I was finished. Which, of course, I did.
What Mark’s passing has once again reminded me of is how important and meaningful the connections we make in ultrarunning are. The relationship Mark and I had, as I suspect the relationships Mark had with literally hundreds of his ultrarunning friends, transcended the ordinary. It was a relationship founded on a mutual passion, forged over years of momentary but deep connection, and long lasting in the way in which it defied conventionality. I will truly miss Mark as I know thousands of others will, as well.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from 101 North Brewing Company in Petaluma, California. Their Heroine IPA is a mellowly hopped IPA that blends the old-school West Coast malitness with the new age fruitiness of the current hazy IPA trend. It really is a successful blend of old and new which I suspect will stand the test of time.
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
If you knew Mark, please share some thoughts and memories about him.