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‘Impossible challenge’: Father-son adventure racers are pushing the limits of Alzheimer’s

Mark and Travis Macy have raced thousands of miles through jungles and deserts
Endurance athletes Mark Macy, left, and his son, Travis, jog together Aug. 19 in Leadville. Mark “Mace” Macy runs two times a day as part of his training program in his fight against Alzheimer's disease. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

LEADVILLE – Adventure racing pioneer Mark Macy just got a new tattoo.

There on his forearm, in big block letters: “IT’S ALL GOOD TRAINING.”

“He’s said that a million times throughout my life,” says his son, Travis, one of Colorado’s most accomplished ultra athletes. “When he says it now, I tell him, ‘Well, Dad, I guess we found out what you’re training for.’”

In the fall of 2018, Mark – everyone, including his wife, calls him “Mace” – and Travis started their most grueling race yet, which says a lot for the two athletes who have navigated hundreds of preposterous endurance tests. Just like the first mile of a 100-mile haul, the finish line is blurry. Victory seems elusive. But still, they grind out the miles, enduring Mace’s debilitating Alzheimer’s disease.

“Is there more risk in taking on a seemingly impossible challenge or in folding up the tent and going home, wondering forever what might have been?” writes television producer Mark Burnett in the introduction of Travis and Mace’s new book, “A Mile at a Time.” “In Mace’s story – and that of his family – I have found an inspiring reminder that with love, determination and teamwork, the most formidable challenges can be overcome. Living the life you love is always worth the risk.”

A doctor’s warning vs. throwing in the towel

Mace has been an endurance racer since athletes started putting the word “ultra” in front of ridiculously long races in the mid-1980s. As he raised a family in Evergreen and excelled as a trial attorney, he developed international renown in the world of adventure racing, competing in all eight of the influential Eco-Challenge races from 1995 to 2002.

His son, Travis, followed in his wake, setting records as a professional adventure racer over the past 20 years. After winning 120 ultra endurance events in 17 countries, the father of two has transitioned to coaching, podcasting and writing, living with his family in Salida.

In 2019, not even a year after Mace was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Travis and Mace raced in the revival of Burnett’s Eco-Challenge in Fiji. “The World’s Toughest Race,” they call it. The made-for-TV event – streamed in 10 episodes on Amazon Prime in the fall of 2020 – revived the dormant race series that launched Burnett’s career, which includes shows like “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.”

Salida resident Travis Macy has won 120 ultra endurance events in 17 countries. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
Mark “Mace” Macy, of Evergreen, has competed in endurance races since the 1980s. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

There isn’t a precedent for people with Alzheimer’s competing in multiday, multidiscipline races designed to make contestants suffer in jungles, a doctor told Travis. The doctor warned that infections and sleep deprivation could accelerate cognitive losses. Infections and a lack of sleep are near-unavoidable components of the Eco-Challenge contest. So there were risks from racing in a jungle, but “there was also possibly a greater risk of throwing in the towel, staying home and calling it all good on a life lived fully,” Travis writes in “A Mile at a Time,” which hits bookshelves this fall.

The book opens with Mace’s first entry in a new journal. He’d just had confirmation from the last of several doctors that he indeed did have Alzheimer’s. The doctor suggested he get his affairs in order and maybe take a vacation with Pam, his wife and high school sweetheart.

“I told him: THIS IS BULLSHIT,” he writes, or rather, tells Pam, who logs his journal entries as writing escapes him. “I am one of the fittest people around ... and certainly as fit and healthy as any 56-year-old.”

A few lines later: “My wife just told me I am 64, not 56. Maybe it’s not complete bullshit.”

He’s still journaling. He’s still talking on Travis’ podcast. He’s giving talks and sharing his life. He spent hours poring over the book, even as his eyesight failed him and his cognition ebbed, making sure his story gets told well and is broadcast far and wide.

Travis, 39, says his dad’s openness has spurred others to share their struggles. That’s the whole idea. Mace still has lessons to share.

“He’s shown me it’s never too late to help someone and make a difference,” says Travis, sitting on the porch of his Salida home during a recent rainstorm, a rare moment of stillness for the athlete as he rested for an upcoming pack burro race in Leadville. “When something big happens that’s really hard, sometimes we can sink into the hardness. Or we can think about how we can make changes and take whatever’s good out of it. For me, that’s trying to share and tell his story.”

Mere months after his diagnosis, Mace gave a talk at the Evergreen Rec Center about Alzheimer’s.

“In the time since he was diagnosed, Dad had cycled through most, if not all, of the classic steps in the grieving process: denial, anger, depression, acceptance ... well, he was still working on acceptance,” Travis writes. “And I’m pretty sure he skipped bargaining altogether. Now he was ready to share some of what he had experienced.”

10 days, 417 miles

That sharing started with the Eco-Challenge in 2019. The 10-day, 417-mile sufferfest pushed 280 competitors through mountains, rivers, swamps and oceans. They spent long days paddling homemade rafts, pushing mountain bikes through shin-deep mud and scaling sheer cliffs.

Mark “Mace” Macy’s new tattoo repeats one of his favorite mantras. (Travis Macy/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Travis and Mace enlisted Colorado adventure racing legends Danelle Ballengee and Shane Sigle on their Team Endure. The list of required gear ran 14 pages for camping, running, biking, paddling and climbing. They trained for nearly a year. Ballengee, Sigle and Travis shouldered a challenge larger than their competitors, too, racing alongside an icon of their sport who needed extra effort to keep on task and could (and nearly did) fall apart if pushed too hard.

The rope work challenged Mace in Fiji as “once-familiar gear now looked and felt like a tangle of random webbing,” Travis writes.

The episodes highlight some of Mace’s famously inspirational quips. The ones that Travis has heard all his life and still resonate deeply.

“Do what you love.” “Overcome the fear.” “Commit to it.” “Keep the faith.” “Never quit.” “Keep hammerin’.” “It’s all good training.”

One night, stumbling in the dark down muddy trails deep in the jungle in Fiji, Mace fell hundreds of times. He always got back up, telling his teammates, “I’m not quitting.” It was a mirror to his larger journey.

“It was one of those surreal, once-in-a-lifetime marches: nothing to do but move forward, through the darkness, minute by minute, step by step, mile by mile,” Travis writes.

Team Endure did not finish the race. They backed off during a particularly gnarly section of river where they suspected they were marching into a rescue scenario.

But Travis found success in the DNF, an acronym for did-not-finish that haunts elite racers. He says he’s handling his dad’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis a bit better after the Eco-Challenge.

Shifting perspective

It took Travis a couple years to be able to read his dad’s journal entries. After months of treatment plans and strategies to fight and win, he began to see that the tried-and-true, head-down perseverance that had rewarded him and his dad for so many years might not work against a disease for which there is no treatment or cure. He admits to moments of hopelessness. It’s an uncommon feeling for an athlete who has pushed through countless moments of doubt.

“This is powerlessness, by definition. Fate is locked in. Will is meaningless. Which leaves, what? Despair, self-pity, preemptive grief? Is there really nothing more than the long, slow goodbye?” he writes. “How do you make it to the end of a dark tunnel that doesn’t end?”

That’s where the title of the book comes in. “One Mile at a Time.”

“I realized I had no choice but to hang in there,” he writes. “For me, and for Dad, to ‘keep going’ means to lace up your damn shoes and do what you do. That means we run. We ride. We climb. We trek. We win. We fight. We don’t hold on and wait for a miracle. We work. We move.”

Endurance athletes Mark “Mace” Macy, at right, and his son, Travis, jog together last week. “Mace” competed in all nine Eco-Challenge races from 1995 to 2002 as well as the 2019 revival of the race in Fiji. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Last year, Travis and Mace ran the Leadville Race Series’ Silver Rush, a 50-miler that traverses Upper Arkansas Valley mountains they both know well. Mace passed hundreds of racers on the uphill, keeping a swift pace that defined his career. Visual struggles kept him slow on the downhills and they missed the time cutoff at the 32-mile mark. They celebrated anyway, despite the DNF that a few years ago would have marked a misstep.

“To keep things in perspective, he had just run 32 miles at 10,000 feet in 9½ hours at age 68 with Alzheimer’s,” Travis writes. “So yeah, I’d call that a pretty good day.”

Travis still marvels at his dad’s grit and ability to find joy, engaging with friends and family and sharing jokes and lighthearted observations.

“Hey look, I honestly believe that I can beat Alzheimer’s,” he says, chatting over coffee in Leadville as the day’s racers line up to say hello to the legend. “I eat perfectly. I run twice a day every day. I think I can beat it.”

Alzheimer’s stresses caregivers, limits freedoms, hinders simple tasks. It stirs sometimes overwhelming anxiety about the future and what’s to come. Mace is teaching Travis to put those stressors and worries aside every so often and just focus on the moment. Celebrate the now. Just as they do when they are plodding through some incomprehensible number of mountain miles.

“If you don’t have the past and you don’t have the future, all you have is the present and here you are,” Travis says. “That’s the gift of all this for me. Be present and be with the people you are with and make the most of it. Someone with dementia has no choice, but they can teach us. Let’s do the best with what’s in the moment.”

The best thing Travis could do, he says, is write. The book, he says, “helps grow our team.”

“People in the Alzheimer’s community ... people who have dealt with it or are dealing with it ... they need a strong team,” he says. “And a good team is important.”

While Mace is renowned for his pioneering wins in adventure racing, perhaps he is better known for pacing hundreds of friends in their races. Pacing is a quiet pillar of ultrarunning, with hardy friends shepherding athletes through the final miles of an ultra racecourse when decision-making is blurred and it’s difficult to stay focused.

Mace always said he likes pacing more than racing.

That fits for a man who donated a kidney in early 2018 to a stranger as a sort of karmic payback for his wife, Pam, who has had three organ donors sustain her life.

The book recounts a few stories from racers who credit Mark with delivering them races they would not have finished without him.

“To me, this is the story of Mace: selfless, caring, and willing to do anything to help someone else achieve a significant goal that matters to them,” writes Travis, who relies on his dad’s pacing legacy in his new role as pacer in their most daunting race. “As his mind falters, we will be there to guide his steps and buoy his spirit so it keeps soaring.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.