‘The way he died is the definition of his life’
Sky Racer’s sister, girlfriend say they understand why he ran himself to death
They miss him terribly, but at the same time, a Long Island extreme runner’s girlfriend and sister say they’re happy he died the way he lived — fearlessly pushing himself to be better.
Nicholas Marshak, 30, died Sunday of heatstroke he suffered during the Whiteface Sky Race in Wilmington.
“Even though he was way too young, it was definitely the way he would want to go,” Danielle Asher said of her life partner.
His sister Kymberly Napolitano said he was committed to self-improvement “in every way, whether it was activism or trying his best to love somebody.
“Every time I did something productive and good for myself, he came to my mind.”
Danielle described Nick as “the healthiest and smartest [person] all of us know, and the kindest.” Kym said he was also “minimalist” and insistant on finishing what he started. Her last words to him, before he left for the Adirondacks this weekend, were to tell him to be prepared. That’s because recently, while he was training in Cold Spring Harbor, she said, “His sandal broke, and he ran 8 more miles barefoot, and the terrain was not forgiving — because he had to finish.”
Only 48 of 83 entrants finished Sunday’s Sky Race. Temperatures were in the 90s, and the course was strenuous: It went up and down the trails of Whiteface Mountain Ski Center twice, with a flatter loop in between. Of the 35 who did not finish, 34 stopped out of self-preservation. The 35th just kept running until he dropped, half a mile from the finish line of the 15.5-mile race.
“As soon as the investigator told me he was on his last loop, I knew that’s why he died,” Kym said. “It was mind over matter at that point.
“That is him. The way he died is the definition of his life. That’s why I have no other word than ‘poetic.’ Who gets to do that? I mean, you die in a fiery car crash, that sucks. This is just different.”
Part of the difference is that she understands exactly how her brother’s life took him to the point of his death.
“I just only wish I was running next to him,” she said.
Growing up passionate
Nick grew up in Stony Brook, Long Island, the middle of three children: Kym was three years older, Matthew three years younger.
Nick played baseball in his younger days, and Kym said he used to videotape his batting practices in the backyard with a pitching machine. He would spend hours watching the tape and trying to perfect the swing — even taking that practice into the garage in wintertime.
From there he turned to bodybuilding.
“If you’ve ever seen pictures of him before he got into ultra-marathons, he had the build of a bodybuilder,” Kym said. She used to be a bodybuilder, too, but converted to running because of him, and because she found the running community more supportive.
“I changed what my interests were so I could have the same interests as him,” she said, “so I could run with him.”
Their parents and younger brother moved to Southern California in recent years, and Nick lived in California for a while, too.
“This is a person who tied himself to a redwood tree” to prevent it from being bulldozed, Kym said. “In his 30 years, he lived. It’s a short time, but that kid did it.”
In California he also fell in love with running in woods and mountains, but his love for Danielle proved stronger. He moved back to Long Island last June, and the two got an apartment together in Merrick.
“He gave up his mountains,” Danielle said. “We were hoping to move back there eventually, but we were here for now.”
Nick didn’t give up running, though — far from it. Danielle said their landlord used to tease him about running everywhere instead of walking, sometimes with their dog tagging along. He liked to get outdoors every morning with his bare feet on the ground and the sun on his face.
“Nick was fearless and loved adventure, and running was his serenity,” Danielle said.
It was also something he shared with his sister. Kym isn’t an ultra-runner but does do marathons and triathlons.
“They were thick as thieves, the two of them,” Danielle said.
Nick was accepted into SUNY Stony Brook for the fall semester to finish his bachelor’s degree, Danielle said. Eventually, “He wanted to be a doctor, but he didn’t want to be a traditional doctor.”
In the meantime he worked as a supervisor at a Whole Foods supermarket.
“He worked in prepared foods, so he got to cook for people and talk to people about nutrition all the time,” Danielle said. “It was really his passion.
“He was very, very healthy; he doesn’t drink. … When it comes to health and nutrition and eating, he’s everyone’s go-to person.”
Laughter at Whiteface
Recently Nick was regularly placing in the top 10 in 50- and 100-kilometer ultra-runs, Danielle said. He “felt like he was in prime of running career … and wanted to see if he could take it to the next level. … He started looking for more intense races in New York.” A coach recommended the Whiteface Sky Race. Normally, Danielle and/or Kym would go with him, but they had other plans and he was happy to go solo.
He stayed at the KOA campground in Wilmington the night before the race, but he didn’t bring a tent, Danielle said. He slept in his car.
That evening was the last time she spoke to him on the phone.
“He was so excited because there was so much energy at the campground,” she said. Other Sky Racers were staying there and hanging around the pool. “He was teasing me that he was cooling himself down with wet towels.
“I literally can hear his laugh. He was just laughing; he felt like he was in his element. He was joking about ‘glamping’ [glamor camping]. … He said, ‘I know it’s kind of silly, but we have to come back here and glamp.’
“We texted the morning of the race, but like most runners, he likes to get in his zone,” she added. In that exchange he texted her two pictures of mountains and sky, shot through a window of his car on his way to Whiteface.
Nick had no underlying medical issues, Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw said, and state police Investigator Nicholas Delahant said no one else bears responsibility for his death.
“Everybody did the best they could do for his condition,” Delahant said. It was simply a “medical event due to extreme physical exertion and extreme heat and environmental conditions.”
“This was an extreme sport, and he was an extreme person,” Kym said.
Danielle said she feels badly for the race organizer, Jan Wellford of Keene.
“I can’t imagine feeling that level of responsibility, and I feel deeply for him,” she said.
For Nick and Kym’s parents, his death has been “really rough,” Kym said, but for her, “It’s not sad” — and she’s somewhat confused by that.
“I mean, it is. I’m definitely devastated, but … he didn’t feel sorry for anything he did, so I can’t feel sorry for him. It’s so weird the way I feel.”