THE DESTINATION IS THE JOURNEY
Trail Runner|Summer 2021
Mark Macy is battling Alzheimer’s the same way he’s tackled every grueling endurance challenge in life— by participating fully and vigorously.
Brian Metzler

Mark Macy is in his element, lumbering up a steep incline on a path near his home in Evergreen, Colorado, breathing heavily and sweating from the midsummer heat.

It’s an early August morning, and he and longtime friend and endurance sports partner Marshall Ulrich are following his son, Travis Macy, up a shaded, overgrown game trail that will eventually lead to 9,702-foot Bergen Peak. A smoky haze fills the air from a wildfire burning hundreds of miles away, clouding the scene ever so slightly.

It’s an otherwise uneventful hike, except that there is a bit of giddiness that’s hard to ignore. The lighthearted vibe is present, in part because, well, that’s what happens whenever these guys get together, and also because the Eco-Challenge adventure race will soon be broadcast as a 10-part miniseries on Amazon Prime Video almost a full year after all three participated in the event through the wilds of Fiji.

Mark, who has forever been known as “Mace,” is in classic form, telling stories, reliving old race moments, chuckling to himself and generally cracking up everyone around him with his playful, self-effacing wit and contagious laugh.

“Is there even a trail here, Trav? We’re going to wind up in jail if this is private property,” Mark says jokingly in his nasally, high-pitched voice that trails off into laughter. “Picture that, all of us in the slammer after going for a hike.”

Mark is wearing a black-and-white trucker cap with an Ironman patch on it, camo-patterned black-and-blue running shorts and a light-blue T-shirt bearing the phrase “Suffer Better,” the name of an organization that encourages adventure and endurance athletes to give their all and then give back. Although it’s just a random apparel choice for the day, it’s appropriately emblematic of his adventurous mindset, tenacious character and unflinchingly kind heart.

If you were along on this hike and you didn’t know Mark, you wouldn’t have any idea that he’s among the world’s most accomplished adventure racers. Or that he retired a few years ago after a long, successful career as an attorney. But it would be impossible to miss the joyful, fun-loving, family-oriented soul he is, given how he exudes positivity and gushes about his kids and grandkids.

As the group reaches the summit after 45 minutes of hiking and basks momentarily in the warm sunlight, Mark’s scraggly white hair and weathered face hint at his age. But that hardly matters because it’s clear that his strong legs, robust effort, and youthful demeanor are not that of a typical 67-year-old retiree, and his piercing blue eyes make him look as rugged and unwavering as he has always been.

“Not too bad for an old guy with Alzheimer’s, huh?” Mark chortles in a nonchalant way that makes everyone laugh but also brings with it a reminder that he’s suffering from the progressive cognitive disease he was diagnosed with in late 2018. Although his condition is slowly advancing, Macy has approached it as he has with all of his endurance pursuits and life in general—by participating vigorously with a big heart.

Like Father, Like Son

Adventure racing is a co-ed, multidiscipline team sport that typically includes sections of trekking, paddling, mountain biking, trail running, rappelling, swimming and mountaineering and the need to navigate through a course several hundred miles in length with a map, compass, guile, and experience. Participants must have a combination of athletic skill and fitness, outdoor adventure smarts and mental tenacity, not to mention the ability to coalesce with teammates under extreme stress as they battle fatigue and unforeseen hardships with little sleep.

It’s always grueling and unpredictable, but Macy’s calm, humble demeanor, experience as an ultrarunner, and his ability to laugh in the face of adversity are what made him an exceptional teammate on the Stray Dogs adventure-racing team, Ulrich says. The group formed midway through the first Eco-Challenge in Moab, Utah, in 1995, when the teammates whom Macy and Ulrich had started with dropped out. They opted to continue with Dr. Bob Haugh and Lisa Smith-Batchen, who were orphaned from another team in a similar situation.

“We were terrible at navigating and got so lost,” Macy recalls. “There are these tall rock spires around Moab, and the way we tried to find our way was that I ran up one of the spires and Marsh ran up another to see if we could figure out where we needed to go. I was shouting at Marsh across the valley, ‘Hey, do you see anybody?’ And he was shouting back at me, ‘No, I don’t!’ It was kind of pathetic if you think about it, but we had fun and somehow we always figured it out.”

The impromptu team jelled based on their strength of character and reached the finish line in good spirits after five grueling days in the desert. After that, Macy and Ulrich became fast friends and were hooked on a sport that was a natural fit for athletes living in Colorado. They would go on to compete in seven more Eco-Challenge events together in British Columbia (1996), Australia (1997), Morocco (1998), Patagonia (1999), Borneo (2000), New Zealand (2001) and Fiji (2002), as well as a handful of other adventure races, with a collection of teammates that included Haugh, Smith-Batchen, Adrian Crane and other talented athletes.

Starting the sport in their 40s, they were never young, fast, and flashy like some of the world’s winningest teams, but they always got the job done, no matter what kind of challenges they encountered. There were long treks through deserts, mountains, and jungles, challenging whitewater rafting and swimming sections, open-water paddling in native boats in the ocean, and even moments riding camels, horses and donkeys.

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