Mark Richtman was perhaps the greatest age group runner ultrarunning has ever seen and certainly one of the greatest endurance athletes of his time. On Wednesday, May 29, Mark went out in his kayak in Tomales Bay and never returned. Search and rescue, aided by dozens of ultrarunners (many of Mark’s closest trail friends), scoured the area for the better part of a day. By late Thursday the search was called off and on Friday night, a candlelight vigil was held at the Marin Catholic High School track in Kentfield where Mark, along with his good friends, Tim and Diana Fitzpatrick, had coached the cross country team for many years. Mark had been a fixture for the Tamalpa Running Club, and his friends and teammates were out in force during the vigil. Mark was 64.
Mark’s loss goes far beyond the fact that he re-defined age and athleticism in the ways that he re-wrote the record books. My concept of how to grow old with power and grace always included a mental snapshot of Mark, who was tall and handsome with gray hair so primal and thick it looked like it belonged in a different time. He could’ve easily passed for a general of one of Jon Snow’s armies of the North. Mark was so adept physically, not only could he command his own body to run long distances exceedingly fast, he could influence the bodies of the horses he rode to greatness, as well. There was a point in his career in the sport of Ride and Tie where he had won more World Championships than anyone else.
As a runner, he ran the kinds of times runners half his age would’ve sold their souls to achieve. At 47 he finished third overall in the 2002 Western States 100-miler, running 17:59 and finishing behind only the soon-to-be legend Scott Jurek and Leadville 100 champion, Steve Peterson. In 2015, he set the world record for the 60-64 age group for 50k on the track at Desert Solstice, and ran 6:13 for 50 miles at Jed Smith at age 56.
This is all well and good, and certainly reason to cheer. But the reason why we need to always remember Mark Richtman isn’t because he was a handsome, strong man who ran times that re-defined age-grouping in our sport. There was a lot more to him than just his running. He spent more time volunteering at Western States than he ever did running it. He was part of the Tamalpa group that has helped run the Ruck-a-Chuck river crossing aid station at mile 78 for years. If he wasn’t there, he was crewing or pacing his friends on race day. There were years when he wouldn’t race much, if at all. He had family and friends, and as intoxicating as it must be to win races and set records, there was a gentle, friendly side to Mark that was just as pervasive as his presence at the front of the pack. At yoga sessions he would jokingly say all the runners needed to be in the front row. Whenever people needed advice, he was there to offer some jarring specifics (take a look at his Strava account sometime and you’ll see how hard the man could train) and some light-hearted alternatives.
He was aware of you, even if you didn’t realize he had realized it. I found this out in 2016. It was the spring following my youngest daughter, Katie’s finish at Western States. Katie was 22 then, and had finished with just three and a half minutes to spare. I was out running in the canyons a few months later and saw a strong, formidable figure coming up at me, moving quickly, even though he was climbing uphill. He wore a singlet with the middle cut off. With flowing gray hair pushed back in a careless 80s rocker style with a Buff and his belly bare for everyone to see, it was a look that many of us could never ever have the personal audacity or confidence to pull off. Yet the way Mark wore it, it wasn’t an arrogant look at all. Mark was an engineer by training. So everything on his body was always about streamlining, efficiency and covering as much as ground as aerodynamically, powerfully and quickly as possible.
I was stumbling on the downhill and he was all power as he ran up. Our eyes met and a huge grin crossed his face.
“There’s the proud dad!” Mark yelled, pointing at me. We exchanged high-fives and I kept stumbling. Mark kept powering and he disappeared in a matter of seconds. I turned around just to check if everything that had happened had actually happened, and there was still dust rising from the trail. But Mark, moving faster uphill than I was down, was already gone.
I’ve thought about that moment a lot over the past few days. Sure, it was neat to have a record-setting age-group athlete acknowledge me. The power he exhibited in that moment was like standing in the slipstream of a jet and almost getting pulled along with him. But what has stayed with me is something much more elemental and less metaphysical. Less about Mark re-defining age with his running excellence and more about his words pulling me into something shared and lasting. Here we were, two dads out running, and one dad knew what it meant to point out to another dad that he was aware of a recent success. Usually it’s the other way around. Most parents wish to call out their own children’s exploits without much prompting. Here Mark was, giving me license to be a proud dad. Mark knew all about Katie’s finish and must’ve known how proud I was of my youngest daughter. My sense from that day has always been that Mark too, was no doubt a proud dad and husband. Why else would he have said what he did, in the way that he did, to me? The best souls, whether they race at warp speed or turtle speed, always have a way of reflecting goodness back at others, of taking a compliment and making sure that the adulation they receive can also be about the rest of us, too.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. In scrolling through Facebook over the past couple of days, it’s been obvious that Mark had a profound and loving influence on the people he knew.
From Victor Ballesteros—a gracious and kind soul just like Mark who, when need be, will run you off your feet:
“His running accomplishments and records are blinding achievements. Even more blinding was the light that came from his heart. He gave so much to his friends and community. His smile was infectious and his conversation always looked forward to. Partly in jest and partly out of respect, I had gotten into the habit of calling him Mr. Richtman. Coming from me, he always thought that was funny. I’m honestly in a bit of shock, but can only imagine that of his wife, family and students he coached. My deepest condolences go out to all. The universe has lost a brilliant soul. Thank you, Mr. Richtman, for your light. I will carry it always in my heart.”
There was this, from another age group champion, Roy Pirrung, “Mark and I crossed paths a few times. More recently he shared with me the records he broke, that were once mine. Happy he got them, as we had mutual respect and a passion to challenge ourselves and remain humble. My prayers go out to his family.”
And there was this from Shannon Yewell Weil, one of the founding forces behind the success of the Western States Endurance Run and a longtime horsewoman, as she recalled a long-ago gathering—one of those legendary parties held by Janet Furman that was often eclectic, funky and maybe in a running way, a bit Warholian, long before Mark ever set any age group records, where she introduced him to Western States:
“He hadn’t ever heard of it,” Shannon wrote. “I knew he would love it though, and he sure did.”
I am at the age now where it’s a given, and maybe others are the same way. You find yourself increasingly rooting for the age-groupers. I can still remember almost passing out at the finish line when Gunhild Swanson became the oldest woman to ever finish Western States with just seconds to spare in that glorious year of 2015, when Katie, the youngest finisher that year, finished only a couple of minutes ahead of 71-year-old, strong-striding Gunhild.
Do we root harder for these people because we wish to be like them? Maybe. Maybe in our dreams, in the way we wish we could become Hollywood actors or actresses. When we are awake though, we see our champion age-groupers as examples of what’s humanly possible. Our strongest, highest and best examples of those who are fighting the diminution of old age with strength and not fear; with grace and not (too much) complaint; with determination and not hopelessness, with daily curiosity and not bored surrender. The hardest part about growing old isn’t growing old. It’s fighting the urge to give up. These folks seemingly never do. That said, these folks are not perfect by any stretch, and their task, even if they are more physically gifted than the rest of us, is no less formidable. Each day is a daily struggle to find physical equilibrium and psychological purpose. Some days, I’m sure, the joy of remaining fit and performing at a high level can spiral into the self-doubt of, “Is this all worth it?” I remember 2007, after my then-60-year-old friend, Lon Monroe, had finished Western States for the eighth time. As Lon rolled around uncomfortably on an air mattress on the unpleasant and baking infield grass of the Placer High School track on Sunday, just before the awards were presented, he groaned to no one in particular, “Guys my age are considered a hero just for playing a round of golf. I just ran a hundred miles. Why in the hell do I keep doing this to myself? What is wrong with me?”
Nothing was wrong with Lon, or any of the others we look to for inspiration in our running lives.
When I think about Mark Richtman, and why he will be remembered, my mind drifts not to the records and the victories and the times he ran that re-set the “Clock of the Possible” for age group athletes. That part seems short-sighted to me. His running career was superb. His human performance, though great, is far exceeded by his humane performance. This is why when I think of Mark I don’t necessarily think of his 6:13 50-miler at Jed Smith a few years ago, or the dozens of age group records he set. I think, instead, of a man who embraced the full, rich kaleidoscope of life, was all-in and attended Janet Furman parties. I think of a man who was beloved by his high school runners. Who was beloved by the people he coached with, Diana and Tim Fitzpatrick. Who was beloved by his Tamalpa teammates. Who didn’t feel it was beneath him to stand out in the middle of the night and work the Ruck-a-Chuck aid station with his friends from the Bay Area. Who didn’t care in the least if his rocker’s hair and cut-off singlets and exposed belly seemed like anachronisms.
When I think of Mark Richtman, I think of a man who lived an incredibly full life. I think of a man who seemed constitutionally incapable of doing anything in his life without trying to do it to the very best of his ability. That included running very fast. That he was a little faster than the rest of us is actually kind of immaterial. That he was like so many of us, in so many other more important ways, is everything.
From one proud dad to another, may you rest in peace, Mark.