Running on Empty tells the story of Marshall Ulrich running across the United States, with a preamble about how he started running after his first wife’s death, and a rapid bucket list accomplishments, such as climbing the world’s tallest seven mountains, each on his first attempt, running the Badwater ultra marathon course four times, back to back to back to back, covering almost 600 miles through scorching heat, and another dozen exploits, each alone wicked enough to make the average man’s testicles shrink like they were dunked in ice water.
His run across the US covered 3,063 miles in 52 days–that’s an average of two marathons and a 10K per day. At 57 years of age.
The narrative is interesting partly because one always wonders what goes on during heroic exploits. What’s the backstory that explains the motivations? What’s the inside scoop on the infighting behind the scenes? We don’t want dirt, necessarily, so much as grit. We want to know we’re not being put on, spun.
Running on Empty delivers unflinching truth on all of the above, including many of the author’s relationships. Completing the book, I wanted to meet Marshall’s amazing wife Heather, shake her hand and thank her for her role in his achievement. And I winced as Marshall reported, and opined on the motivations of Charlie Engle, the man who organized the run with him, participated, dropped out, and began to sabotage the record attempt. This book doesn’t blow smoke, like so many self-congratulating books that are available about extreme athletes. Marshall’s story is raw, told with integrity, humility, and conviction.
The story of the cross country run is interesting in it’s own right, and easily justifies reading the book if you like reading about awesome people who make great sacrifices to accomplish great feats. Marshall gives plenty of detail about what he saw.
I found the book especially interesting for two other reasons. The first is that my upcoming novel Strong at the Broken Places is about an ultra marathoner. I assumed greatness at the sport would almost require a person to be unbalanced in two ways. First, the motivation to run forever must often arise from a wound, a blemish, something that pushes an otherwise normal person to the far right of the bell curve in a half dozen character traits. In Marshall’s case, he started running seriously after the tragic death of his first wife, and his run across the country coincided with grieving the rapid loss of four men he greatly loved and respected. The second way I presumed an ultra runner champion would be unbalanced is in the amount of time, focus, and life energy given to the sport, at the expense of family. Marshall is plain about what his running cost him: a feeling of having been a poor husband and father.
The second other reason I found the book so compelling is that (because of writing my ultra marathon novel) I’m running a hundred miler in about six weeks. Running on Empty is chock full of insights that will assist the aspiring distance runner conquer new milestones. What I especially appreciate is the amount of time Marshall spends on the topics of physical and mental pain. There are multiple sections of the book where he breaks down what he did to get through it. He discusses mental toughness, mental tricks that helped him keep running, hallucinations, even an out of body experience… (Marshall relates asking Yiannis Kouros, the greatest ultra runner alive, if he has had similar experiences to Marshall’s, in which he saw himself running as if out of his own body, and then regained normal consciousness after fifty miles elapsed in the blink of an eye. Yiannis said something like, sure, all the time. It happens when the body is not habitable because of pain, and the mind goes somewhere else.)
Marshall relates how he trained, (a sample of his 200-mile per week training schedule is in the appendix,) how he overcame injuries, how he fueled his body, what his support staff did, on and on with interesting nuggets woven into the narrative. For an aspiring runner, whether you’re thinking about your first 10K, marathon or ultra, you’ll find the book rich with insights and almost overwhelmingly inspirational. The book makes you want to hurt, just so you can master it.
Marshall’s tone is warm and friendly, but his honesty is intense. I couldn’t help but think it takes a man who really knows himself, and is comfortable with his flaws, and humble in his awesomeness, to put it all out there the way he does.
If you’d like to know more about Marshall, you can find his website here, and listen to an awesome interview done by UltraRunnerPodcast here. In fact, the podcast interview, which is free, made me want to buy the book. Also, you can buy the documentary about his run (which I haven’t seen) here. (UPDATE: You can listen to an UltraRunnerPodcast interview with Charlie Engle, post-federal prison, here.)
Running on Empty is a profoundly good book. Intelligent, inspirational, honest. It shows a great man’s flaws, his greatness, and how they really couldn’t exist without each other. This is a bigtime recommendation for anyone who likes running or biographies about cool people who have done big things.