Jeff Liu’s best ultramarathon story starts in the car, driving to the Badwater 135 in Death Valley with the temperature topping 120 degrees – at night.
“That’s when it hit me,” says the man who’s run 59 marathons and 30 ultras, including the granddaddy of them all – the Tahoe 200-miler that took four days to finish. “I was thinking, ‘Can I do this?’ ”
Over the next 45 hours, he pushed his body 135 miles through the Mojave Desert in July, ending with a 6,000-foot climb up to the portal of Mount Whitney on knees that could barely bend, on feet that required “roadside surgery,” and nothing left in the tank but “pure stubbornness.”
So why do it?
“Ultra-running is really a metaphor for dealing with the hard things you have to overcome in life,” he says, taking his wife Audrena’s hand.
She is also an ultra-runner.
“I feel like ultramarathons have toughened us up over the years, mentally and physically,” Audrena says.
That toughness is now being put to the test.
“We are so lucky to live here. We live a half‑mile from the Mountains to Sea Trail, so we can run from our house to the mountains – or the ocean. Either way, the trails are beautiful, and the views are spectacular.” – Westpark resident Jeff Liu
The family joins in
The two met at a high school dance.
Back then, Audrena was the runner – for her high school track team. But after they both graduated from UC Irvine, married and settled down in Westpark Village, Jeff started running.
After finishing the L.A. Marathon in 1998, he says, “I caught the bug.”
Since then, he’s finished marathons in all 50 states – running through fields of steer in Montana, under soaring eagles in Alaska, and past thousands of cheering spectators on the streets of New York.
In 2013, he ran his first 100-miler and was hooked.
“It pushes your limits and helps you discover who you are,” he says.
Twelve times, he’s run races of 100 miles or more – some so long that he had to lie down to sleep along the way.
“It’s hard to describe,” he says, “but I’ve often cried tears of joy at the finish line.”
At many races, Audrena and their children, Athan, 19, and Ayn, 15, volunteered to run an aid station – witnessing the endurance and willpower displayed by the participants.
As a result, Audrena ran her first ultramarathon in 2015. And Ayn ran her first ultramarathon in 2018 – at age 10!
A new challenge
Some days, it’s possible to see the entire Liu family running through Irvine.
“We are so lucky to live here,” Jeff says. “We live a half-mile from the Mountains to Sea Trail, so we can run from our house to the mountains – or the ocean. Either way, the trails are beautiful, and the views are spectacular.”
Jeff is now training for the oldest 100-mile ultra in the U.S. Ayn is training for a 50-mile ultramarathon in April. And Audrena is preparing for a new challenge.
In December, one week before Christmas, she learned that she has breast cancer.
“The chemo causes fatigue, body aches and nausea,” she says. “By the third week, you start to feel better – then you go back in.”
The night before each session, she lays out her outfit, her hydration and snacks – just like before a race.
“Our mindset in fighting this is the same as running an ultra,” says Jeff, who now sees himself as part of her team. “Take it one aid station at a time, celebrate each little victory, and you can get anything done.”
Audrena is still walking 30 miles a week – to stay race-ready.
In the meantime, she says, “I feel like this is the longest ultramarathon of my life. And my finish line is to be cured and healthy.”