The 2017 inductee into the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame breaks a mold. As he did 40 years ago—although that was more a case of creating a mold. He is the first in the 14 year history of the Hall of Fame to be inducted not primarily based on pure athletic performance. But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t run ultras (he has been doing so for 43+ years). And it doesn’t mean that he didn’t rack up some stellar performance credentials.
Between the mid-1970’s and the mid-1980’s, Nick Marshall finished 3rd in the U.S. National 50 mile championship, and achieved all-time U.S. rankings of #2 at 100Km (just missing the American Record by 6 minutes) and #6 at 24 hours. He is one of only a handful of Americans to have won an ultramarathon in each of three different decades (70’s, 80’s, 90’s). An American race director who has been organizing and observing ultras for 4 decades was asked to give a brief description of Marshall. He chose one word: “Tough. Nick was a tough competitor. One of the toughest I’ve ever seen.”
But Marshall’s unique, groundbreaking, Hall-of-Fame-ranking contribution to the sport of ultrarunning consists primarily in his role as organizer, correspondent, journalist, statistician, archivist. If Ted Corbitt was the father of American Ultrarunning, Nick Marshall was its caretaker, it’s nanny in its toddler years. And he remains its wise old man. These are monikers he would probably eschew. Nick can accurately be described by all of the following: scholar, researcher, bookworm, recluse, iconoclast, friend, statesman, humorist, good sport. The sport of ultrarunning existed prior to the 1970’s—but barely. In America there were about 30 ultramarathons and 1,000 ultra participants (half of them from a single event, the JFK 50 Mile). Working (as he still does) from his home base in Camp Hill, PA, Nick tracked them all down and catalogued them. In the mid-1970’s a handful of men around the world scrounged around until they found each other and, by networking and establishing regular chains of communication, planted the seeds of a global community for the sport. Driven primarily by Englishman Andy Milroy (who can rightfully be called the Dean of global ultrarunning), the group’s American correspondent was Nick Marshall. Nick was the first American to attempt (and mostly succeed) to find, and then publish, an exhaustive list of American ultra events. And then to compile annual and all-time performance lists. And then to track down and establish regular correspondence (including photos) with ultra race directors and athletes. And then to publish an annual summary of it all. He did this for almost a decade. For half that decade it was a one-man show. His annual “U.S. Ultradistance Summary” laid the groundwork for, and was the precursor to, Ultrarunning Magazine, which was first published in 1981.
Milroy himself, the global ultra oracle, assesses Marshall’s role in the sport as follows: “One man did more than any other to establish American Ultrarunning as a cohesive community, linking it into its history. That man was Nick Marshall. In his Annual Summary he not only produced annual and all-time rankings for the different ultra disciplines, he researched and added marks by earlier runners, initially from the 1950s and 60s and then from the heydays of pedestrianism in the nineteenth century. Alongside this statistical wrap up was a commentary that brought the whole to life through its insights and humour. Over the following years ultra race directors and runners would send in reports that would add further to the summaries which were enlivened by Nick’s opinions on issues relating to the developing sport.”
Nick’s dedication to the sport was, and continues to be, straightforward, rigorous, and uncompromising. Pedantic, not flashy. In the early 1980’s he was instrumental, when most other observers and reporters were conned and fawning, in exposing a flashy charlatan who became, in Nick’s words, “the most famous ultramarathoner in America without ever running an ultramarathon.” Nick was the boy who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes. The individual’s publicity machine came down hard on Marshall, in a David vs. Goliath standoff. But Nick’s uncompromising persistence, and attention to unfiltered detail, eventually triumphed (only after many years), and the individual was later exposed as a fraud in a number of other celebrity-seeking and financial scams.
In the 21st century Nick Marshall has carried on, following his natural inclinations, to pursue many different types of painstakingly and exhaustively researched statistical lists, focusing on the longevity of both American and international ultrarunners. Lists such as career durations at different distances, victories multiple years (and decades) apart, and similar esoteric topics of interest that can be catalogued and presented in a way that makes them fascinating to many. Often he publishes these at his whim on an internet ULTRA Listserv, from which they then “go viral” within the international ultra community. It’s the kind of thing no one else would do. And probably no one else could do. And it brings surprise and delight to many in America and abroad. Which is pretty much what Nick Marshall has been doing for over 40 years, and will hopefully continue to do for many more.