Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Review: Running on Empty, by Marshall Ulrich

Marshall Ulrich makes even a hardcore ultrarunner look like a cotton tee-shirt-wearing hobby jogger out for a stroll through the 'burb. Look at what this ultrarunning and adventure racing legend, who also happens to be a highly accomplished mountaineer, has done and it makes finishing a 100-miler look like a few laps around your kid's soccer field.
  • Quadruple Death Valley crossing, totaling 586 miles through 120-degree heat from a low point of 282 feet below sea level to the top of 14,500-foot Mount Whitney, to raise money for poor women and children
  • (My personal favorite) Crossing Death Valley unassisted and self-contained while pulling a 200-pound cart full of water, ice, food and other life-saving necessities--again, for charity
  • Conquering the Seven Summits (which include Everest) on his first attempt
  • Winning the Badwater Ultramarathon four times
In case that's not enough, how about finishing the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run and Pikes Peak Marathon in the same weekend? Yeah, he finished "The Race Across the Sky" and then drove 3 hours down to Manitou Springs, Colorado for a little run up and back down a 14,115-foot mountain. Just another day at the office for the dog-food magnet from Idaho Springs, Colorado.

This is the Marshall Ulrich I came to admire and respect as an ultrarunner and sometimes think about when the chips are down in a race. This photo is of Marshall pulling a 200-pound cart across Death Valley in 120 degree heat during a solo, unassisted crossing.
Born in Kersey, Colorado on the Fourth of July, Marshall has lived quite a life and shares his story in his long-awaited autobiography, Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner's Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America. On the surface, Running on Empty is about Marshall's greatest challenge yet--an attempt to break the speed record for running across the US (still held by Frank Giannino). But it's about so much more. Over 320 pages, Marshall humbly bares his soul and shares the good, the bad and the ugly of his dramatic 3,063-mile, 52-day run across America in the fall of 2008 at the tender age of 57. The book includes an entertaining, funny and downright awesome foreward by Christopher McDougall.

From page one, Running on Empty is a stirring, thought-provoking and deeply moving autobiography that is uniquely different than the Everybody's All-American MO of Dean Karnazes. Marshall tells of his profound sadness over the loss of his first wife and high school sweetheart, Jean, to invasive breast cancer. Their love was sweet and innocent. "I was completely taken with her, and by the time we were seventeen, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Jean," Marshall recalls. Such emotional honesty isn't what you'd expect to hear from a guy as tough as Marshall. I can't imagine what Marshall endured or the pain he felt not only as a widower, but as a dad, when Jean died at 30, leaving behind Marshall and their daughter.

The pain stemming from the loss of Jean was devastating. Marshall discovered running as a way to cope with his grief, reduce stress (and his high blood pressure) and keep a distance from loved ones, even his own children, out of fear of losing them, too. And he did lose many in his life--a dear friend he'd quickly bonded with, his dad, his father-in-law with whom he was particularly close, and a hero in the great Ted Corbitt.

Marshall never got beyond the pain of Jean's death (is that really possible when you lose a spouse?), and seems to have channeled his grief into achieving super-human feats as part of a bucket list of sorts, while keeping his family at arm's length. In the midst of his many daring adventures, he endured two divorces and had children before meeting his soulmate, Heather. Heather was faithfully with him on his trans-American run and, through the highs and lows, a source of support, comfort and affection. But the book's title is a dead giveaway as to what was going on deep inside Marshall for so many years. In many respects, Running on Empty is a book not only about an ultrarunner, but also a grieving spouse, distant dad, family in crisis and blossoming new marriage.

But the book has lots of great ultrarunning reflections, for sure. Recalling his famous 586-mile Badwater Quad, Marshall writes, "Well, sure, I was in a state of overuse, but that's where ultrarunners live, in that place where you feel as if nothing's left, no more energy, no more reason, no more sanity, no more will to go farther. Then you push forward anyway, step after step, even though every cell in your body tells you to stop. And you discover that you can go on." I loved his stories about Ted Corbitt and Yiannis Kouros, which really show a deep respect for the sport of ultrarunning and its great ones. Marshall is among those giants, too. And I loved the story of his Everest summit with a Russian team full of fun, colorful characters.

As I read his book, I kept wondering if this was a cautionary tale--not cautionary in terms of running in and of itself, but rather in terms of allowing a pursuit that requires extraordinary discipline, time, effort and energy to create distance between you and what really matters. Is Marshall telling us that ultrarunning can be an addictive endeavor that can fracture families? Were all those super-human feats, such as his Badwater Quad, the Everest ascent (which he did while still having young children in his care), and so many other epic runs, worth it? I'd like to think they were worth it, because Marshall's always inspired me. But let's allow Marshall to answer the question himself:
"The real sacrifices? Family relationships often suffer in the ultrarunning community; clearly, mine are no exception. The time away from home, solitariness, the stubborn self-reliance all took their toll. Marriages are ruined, children alienated."
He continues later in the book:
"I do, still, have intense feelings of inadequacy as a father. The times when I fell short, when I wasn't up to the task of parenting, all remain vivid in my mind."
It's that kind of brutal honesty that makes Marshall's book intimate, genuine, believable and truly helpful for other ultrarunners who constantly battle competing priorities.

The majority of the book is, of course, devoted to his epic trans-American run, which he completed faster than any other master's or grandmaster's runner...ever. The run started as a collaborative effort with Charlie Engle, co-star in the well-known "Running the Sahara" documentary put on by Matt Damon. Charlie has many connections to Hollywood that ultimately attracted a film crew to the trans-con run to put together a documentary called "Running America." But it's fair to say that Marshall would have done the run with or without cameras, though clearly he wanted the exposure or else he wouldn't have reached out to Charlie. It is worth noting that Marshall's run raised money for the fight again childhood obesity through the United Way.

Charlie had moments in "Sahara" where he really came across as somewhat of a me-first guy. In Marshall's book about the trans-con run, this impression is only reinforced. The two men, who started the run in San Francisco as friends, eventually suffered a terrible falling out after Charlie was forced to drop due to a leg injury. Marshall paints a picture of Charlie as an antagonist, jockeying to undermine and even destroy Marshall's charge to New York, even dragging Heather into the spat. It's only fair that Charlie should be entitled to his own defense, but this might be a difficult proposition since he's now behind bars in a Beckley, West Virginia federal prison, serving time for mortgage fraud. Despite life in the slammer, Charlie does keep a rather interesting blog that shows a likable guy (more on that below).

Getting beyond the book to the soap-opera story of Marshall and Charlie's deteriorating relationship, it's rather troubling that, while the former writes of awful confrontations with his antagonist (the latter), in "Running America" everything between the two looks peachy. I guess Marshall's willing to show the seedy underbelly of the run, while the documentary film producers want nothing more than apple pie and ice cream on a Sunday afternoon in Mayberry. Incidentally, on his blog Charlie promotes "Running America" but offers no endorsement of Marshall's book. I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Marshall, but my guess is there's more than meets the eye, and I think eventually Charlie will tell his side of the story. Credibility certainly favors Marshall.

Ultimately, Marshall tells a wonderful story of his trans-American run, the people he met, the towns he passed through along the way and how it brought him closer to his wife, Heather. Through injury, drama and plenty of conflict, he did what he's always done: put one foot in front of the other and tough it out, never giving up no matter the pain.

Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner's Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America, published by the Penguin Group, is recommended.

Related: Read my recent review of Dean Karnazes' new book, Run!: 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss.


  1. Great review. I will have to get a copy soon. Running the Sahara... We watched this a few weeks ago and were discussing it the other night for some reason but in describing C.E. and his antics, "douchey" was the best adjective that I could come up with.

  2. Really good review! Thank you so much for being on the tour!

  3. I was another stop on the book tour, and I just wanted to say that I love your review. Great extra information and well-written. Take care!