Review: Running on Empty

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Marshall Ulrich’s book is going to be a hit with runners, but it is far from a book about running. Does he use a transcontinental crossing as the framework for his story? Yes. Does he include appendices about training and how to crew for an endurance race? Yes. But this book is less about running than it is a man’s journey through life, set across the backdrop of a run across America.

A few years ago I was with a friend when we both found out that our clinical supervisor had been married 50 years. As she was about to get married, she eagerly asked if he had any guidance for a to-be newlywed about how to make a marriage work. I thought that this was brilliant- of course we should be asking those of us who have “made it” what their secrets are. This book is what Marshall might have written if I asked him: “Knowing what you know now, what are the most important things in life and in running?”

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Me, Marsh and the most lovely Hannah in Brazil

Considering all of the spectacular physical accomplishments that Marshall has achieved, in some ways I am surprised that his proudest moments are not his runs or summits. Instead, over a long life he realized that his physical accomplishments, while serving very valuable purposes, may have actually impaired him from devoting the attention to the greatest prides of his life: the relationships with his family. When I was in Brazil with Marshall I remember him telling me that his wife Heather’s support of his transcon run was the greatest expression of love that he had ever experienced. What I love most about Marshall’s story is that while some men experience regrets about what has happened in the past (I can’t say whether Marshall regrets any of his actions, but he is very honest about his actions even though they may not paint him in a favorable light), through his transcon run Marshall was able to learn what was important to him and determine what was necessary to change things moving forward. As he runs across America, he shows just how many new tricks and old dog can learn (I hope he never sees that “old dog” reference!).

Marshall’s character comes through in this book- his work ethic, humor and care and affection for those who support him. I mention this because I think that Marshall’s character is what has allowed him to be successful in so many different domains. Anyone can tell you to run- Marshall demonstrates the importance of strength of character above and beyond strength of heart, lungs and legs.

The strongest aspect of the book is not the story itself, but the writing. Marshall has a truly beautiful style of writing that makes for a very quick but compelling read. His range goes from funny, to brutally honest and deeply spiritual. I hesitate to mar books, but my copy of Running on Empty is thoroughly dog-eared. The pages I marked include “Marshall Law” (aka the 10 Commandments of Endurance), quotes from others (e.g.” Bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible” Shakespeare) and insights into the mind of one of history’s greatest ultrarunners:

“My foot injuries, I thought, had a silver lining: they reminded me that, no matter how tough or impervious I may imagine myself to be, I am imperfect, fragile, scared and vulnerable, just like every other person on this planet. No matter how unique any of us wants to believe we are, all of us hurt, suffer, and feel sadness. Some of us are just better at covering it up.” (pg 226).

I recommend Marshall’s book to runners and non-runners alike. Runners will learn that we all struggle and suffer and what Marshall has used to break into a sphere of performance much more elite than many of us will ever be able to imagine, let alone accomplish. Non-runners will appreciate Marshall’s candor and benefit from the lessons that he has learned through his life as a husband, father, runner and friend. Pick it up if you want to learn about running, or about what would be important to you if you were alone, broken, battered and pushing far past what you thought were your limits.

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