Cue up Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.” Because that’s what the father/son ultra running duo of Mark and Travis Macy have made a side career of, while also using the sport to raise awareness about something even more important: fighting Alzheimer’s disease.
A trial attorney from Evergreen, Mark Macy, who turns 70 on November 11, has been an endurance racer since the sport’s diehard debut in the mid-1980s. He’s also become famous in the world of adventure racing, competing in all eight of the notorious Eco-Challenge races from 1995 to 2002. His son, Travis, a 40-year-old father of two who lives in Salida, is no slouch, either. Following in his father’s well-trodden footsteps, he’s set his own records as a professional adventure racer over the past 20 years as well. The author of The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion’s 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life, he’s competed in more than 120 ultraendurance events in 17 countries and set a record (since broken) for Leadman, an epic consisting of a trail running marathon, 50-mile mountain bike race, Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race, 10K road run, and Leadville 100 Run, all above 10,200 feet in the Rockies. He’s since transitioned to coaching, podcasting, and even more writing, with their combined book — A Mile at a Time, A Father and Son’s Inspiring Alzheimer’s Journey of Love, Adventure, and Hope — which hit bookshelves in March 2023.
As arduous as any of their endurance races were, it’s nothing compared to what hit the cardio-focused duo in 2018. That October, Mark (“Mace”) was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. But while he feared losing his endurance, strength, and independence, he didn’t let it slow him down. In fact, just a year later, Travis and Mace raced in the revival of Mark Burnett’s (of Survivor and The Apprentice fame) Eco-Challenge in Fiji, billed as “The World’s Toughest Race.”
While his doctor told him there wasn’t much of a precedent for people with Alzheimer’s disease competing in such arduous events — and that such common ailments as infections and sleep deprivation could accelerate cognitive losses — Mace didn’t care. He tackled the 10-day, 417-mile sufferfest through mountains, rivers, swamps, and oceans with gusto.
Which, of course, gave them the opening lines of their book, which begins with Mace’s first journal entry after receiving the news of his diagnosis: “My name is Mark Macy. I am 56 years old and today I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My doctor, a neurologist, told me to get my affairs in order since ALZ is invariably fatal. He advised me not to spend time worrying about this diagnosis, to instead take vacations, maybe go on a cruise with my wife, Pammy. I told him: ‘This is bulls***.’ My wife just told me I am 64, not 56. Maybe it’s not complete bulls***.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million people in the U.S. of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease, the majority over age 65. Barring any medical breakthroughs, by 2050 that number is expected to grow to 12.7 million. Travis and Mace are doing what they can to reverse that trend, raising funds through races and charity runs as well as book sales.
While Travis has struggled to see his father battling the disease, the book is cathartic in a way, weaving excerpts from Mace’s journals alongside a first-person narrative by Travis. It tells the story of Mace’s journey through Alzheimer’s and what they’ve both learned along the way, from the hard truths of the disease to hope of what can still be achieved.
“It’s definitely more memoir than prescriptive,” says Travis, adding that the book progresses from his dad’s childhood and early days as an athlete up through his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. “But it raises awareness about it and has a section at the end offering prescriptive information. If families or people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s can find some inspiration or guidance about how to deal with it, then that’s great.”
The book has been well received. Man vs. Wild star and Eco-Challenge host Bear Grylls writes, “Travis and Mace have touched a generation of families around the world with their courage, resilience, and kindness.” TV and event producer Burnett, who penned the book’s foreword, adds, “Watching Mark and Travis compete together for Eco-Challenge Fiji was a true inspiration. Travis’s selfless act of taking his father on what may be his last race is a story that anyone can relate to and what we need more of these days.”
Travis and Mace have touched a generation of families around the world with their courage, resilience, and kindness.”
— Bear Grylls, TV star
One year after the 2019 Eco-Challenge, they entered the Leadville 100,000 Vertical Challenge (an improvised event due to the pandemic), challenging racers to knock off 100,000 vertical feet in just eight weeks. “He nailed it,” Travis says of his dad. In 2021, they competed in the Leadville Race Series’ Silver Rush, a 50-miler traversing the Upper Arkansas Valley, and in 2022 they competed in a half-marathon from Leadville to Mosquito Pass. And throughout it all is the underlying goal of raising funds and awareness for Alzheimer’s, which Mace is battling one step at a time.
Travis’s selfless act of taking his father on what may be his last race is a story that anyone can relate to and what we need more of these days.”
— Mark Burnett, TV producer
“His Alzheimer’s has definitely progressed since when we raced the Eco-Challenge in 2019,” says Travis. “But overall, he’s fit and active and finding happiness. He can go out on the dirt road next to his house and do repeats and not get lost. And he’s still in super good shape. His fitness and uphill pace are great. In fact, he can go uphill faster than most racers can.”
One of their biggest efforts has been participating in the Alzheimer’s Association’s Longest Day initiative, held on the summer solstice during National Alzheimer’s Month. Through the association, they set up a website and fundraising link, getting people to donate to the foundation. More recently, they’ve participated in fundraising efforts for Mind What Matters, a nonprofit raising money for Alzheimer’s caregivers, whom Travis says also need support. The group provides community, resources, and respite care grants to family caregivers of those impacted by Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.
“Travis and Mace have been like what you’d call ‘family in a can,’” says Mind What Matters Executive Director Elizabeth Humphreys. “I liked them the first time I met them — and I’m equally in awe of Pammy. They’re a family who have met this disease, as hard and brutal as it is, head-on and never backed down. They’re an amazing encouragement to me and my own journey with caregiving. They’ve helped us by mentioning us in their podcasts, attending our annual fundraisers in Nashville, and even running a lemonade stand with his kids to support us. They work really hard to support us. He truly means it when he says life is a team sport — he’s on my team and I’m on his.”
So are other racers. Mace’s longtime friend Marshall Ulrich, who also lives in Evergreen and has been his teammate on eight Eco-Challenge adventure races, has gone out of his way to help support Mace and the fight against Alzheimer’s. In 2021, he became the first person to ever complete the winter version of the Badwater 135, running 146 miles from Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney in Mark’s name while raising more than $15,000 for Alzheimer’s. A year later, in February 2022, he completed the 158-mile Route66 Ultra Run in Mark’s name, about six marathons in six days, raising another $14,000. At the end of last year, he and his wife also organized the Route66 Ultra Run, taking racers along 140 miles of historic Route 66 from Seligman to Topock66, Arizona, supporting both the Historic Route 66 Association and the Alzheimer’s Association. The event even debuted the Mark Macy Spirit Award, given, says Ulrich, to the “person showing the most enthusiasm and spirit” during the race.
As far as helping his friend and his fight against Alzheimer’s, Ulrich says it was natural. “Mark is a great friend and one of the most caring, giving people I know,” he says. “It has to do with his character. I just feel compelled to try and follow in his footsteps.”
As well as through their podcast and own fundraising efforts, Travis and Mace also support the cause through their book, with $2 from every direct sale going to the organization. That added up to a fair amount this spring when they both went on the publisher’s book tour, visiting bookstores and running stores throughout the country. And Mace was with him every step of the way. “He’s very comfortable talking with people and shooting the bull with them,” says Travis. “He loves being with people.”
Five of those people are his grandkids, Wyatt (12 years old) and Lila (10) Macy; and Jaxon (7), Cam (3), and Cole (3) Sandoval. “They love hanging out with him and helping him get around,” he says. “And he’s still a superactive grandpa.”
This year Mace and Travis toned it down a notch, only entering August’s Leadville 10K Race — something us mere cardio mortals might attempt. But as with suffering it out on the trail, they’re far from running on empty when it comes to supporting the fight — which continues to run stronger than ever — against Alzheimer’s disease. And running, says Travis, is the perfect vehicle for their mission. “Running’s a sport everyone can relate to,” Travis says. “We’re just trying to make a difference in a very important issue. I was sort of drafted into this Alzheimer’s advocacy role, but I’m motivated to keep trying to make a difference.”
Learn more at www.travismacy.com.
A former reporter for the Denver Business Journal and 14-year publisher and editor-in-chief of Paddler magazine, Eugene Buchanan has written about the outdoors for more than 25 years. With freelance articles published in The New York Times, Men’sJournal, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, and Forbes Life, the former ski patrol and raft and kayak guide is the author of four books and lives in Steamboat Springs.