- Winning the Badwater Ultramarathon four times
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.
"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."
"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."