Running on Empty Book Review

Raise your hand if you’ve run a marathon!  Keep it up if you’ve completed two … plus a 10-K for 52 consecutive days.  Think it’s impossible?  That’s exactly what Marshall Ulrich did, which he depicts in his book Running on Empty:  An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America.


That’s right—at the age of 57, he ran from California to New York, totaling 3,063 miles.  Holy cow!

Brief Summary


“The ultimate endurance athlete, Marshall Ulrich has run more than one hundred foot races averaging over one hundred miles each, completed twelve expedition-length adventure races, and ascended the seven summits—including Mount Everest.  Yet his run from California to New York—the equivalent of running two marathons and a 10k every day for nearly two months straight—proved to be his most challenging effort yet.  In Running on Empty he shares the gritty backstory of his run and the excruciating punishments he endured on the road.  Ulrich also reaches back nearly thirty years to when the death of his first wife drove him to run from his pain.

“Ulrich’s memoir imbues an incredible read with a universal message for athletes and nonathletes alike: face the toughest challenges, overcome debilitating setbacks, and find deep fulfillment in something greater than achievement.”

Product Details

Publisher:  Avery Trade

Publication date:  4/3/2012

Pages:  320

My Review

Another month, another read for Jamie’s virtual book club.  And as indicated from the book’s cover, Ulrich embarked on a crazy journey—3,063 miles in 52 days at 57 years old.


Even though the plot centers on this cross-country journey, Ulrich uses the act of running as a window into his life.  The book opens up with a discussion on his childhood and his marriage to his first wife, Jean—and his not-so-great health.  This is a story we’ve heard before:  person suffers from obesity/hypertension (the latter in Ulrich’s case); person starts running; person loses weight/lowers cholesterol (again, the latter for Ulrich) and maintains a healthy lifestyle thanks to running.  However, it’s why Ulrich runs that drives the plot:  Jean is diagnosed with breast cancer, so Ulrich uses running to cope with the pain.  When she dies, and when Ulrich remarries and divorces multiple times, he runs to escape from reality.  As he laces up his sneakers more frequently and for longer outings, he eventually discovers ultrarunning and ultimately decides to run across the United States.

During the first 18 days of this journey, Ulrich has a running partner of sorts, though—Charlie Engle, who you may know from the documentary Running the Sahara. (Yes, I watched it to get pumped up for the Seneca7, and I’ve seen it two or three times since, too.) Prior to this news, I found the book to drag a bit, but at the mention of Charlie’s name, I perked up.  The unexpected intertextuality pulled me in, and I knew there would be drama ahead.  For those who are unfamiliar with Engle, he’s an accomplished runner—though not in the same ultrarunning echelon as Ulrich—and he’s also extremely intense and volatile.  Several people cautioned against working with Engle, including his former Sahara teammate Ray (who I absolutely loved in the film), and since I’m such a gossip hound, I plowed through the book, waiting for the big confrontation.  It did not disappoint.

Aside from the drama, I thought the book was OK.  Even though Ulrich used ultrarunning in the same way Strayed used hiking to share the story, his narrative wasn’t crafted as seamlessly and the inclusion of some sections felt forced.  Obviously, though, you’re not going to read an ultrarunning book for the quality of writing.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Ulrich writes that during his runs, he “… invented pain, embraced it, made it my [his] own” (Ulrich 20).  Do you embrace pain during your workouts?  How do you cope with it? 

2.  In preparation for his 3,063-mile run, Ulrich participated in a 72-hour run with the goal of completing 70 miles each day for three days.  However, about 10 hours into day one, he started questioning himself and eventually quit.  How do you deal with negative thoughts during workouts?  Do you use mantras?

3.  Ulrich outlines his ten commandments of endurance, one of which states “focus on the present and set intermediate goals” (Ulrich 68).  Do you set mini-goals during your workouts?   

10 responses to “Running on Empty Book Review

  1. Setting mini goals is huge for my runs. I’ve become a lot more able to handle long runs or treadmill runs when I just concentrate on finishing each mile.

    I also have used mantras before, ranging from goals (“sub-2:00”) or motivations (“you can do this,” “you’re strong,” etc.) or even comparisons (“[my friend] beat cancer, you can run up a hill”). I used to think these kinds of things were stupid, but once I started running I realized how useful they are!

    • Love everything about your response, Jen! Like you wrote, setting mini-goals is huge with longer runs. I’d always think of it mile by mile, but some days, the goal would have to be even smaller–like making it to the next tree.

  2. this sounds interesting, I can see how it could drag on just because of the subject but still, a great metaphor to use for life for sure.

    • The beginning seemed slow just because it was a data dump of his life story. Granted, it was important stuff, but he could’ve sprinkled it in throughout to keep the reader on their toes.

  3. Yay, another book review! This is actually on my list of ‘to read eventually’. As far as combating negative thoughts goes, I’m not really great at that and it really depends on what point in the race/run I’m at. If I start having negative thoughts early to mid-race, I use a lot of internal belittling. If it’s towards the end of the race, the pep talks turn a bit more positive.

    • I hear you, Gina. The opening miles–before you get in a groove–are always the toughest, and if I’m going to question myself or my abilities, the negativity usually surfaces then. Since I know this, though, I can mentally prepare and pump myself up.

  4. Great review, Carrie!! I definitely set mini-goals. I often break up my long runs, which are short in comparison to Ulrich’s, in chunks. If we have a 10 miler I just say, only 5 two milers, or two 5 milers depending on where I am at in training. Even 6 milers I have to break up sometimes, depending on how I’m feeling!

  5. oh man my first couple miles this weekend were negative but by mile 4 i was feeling good..i love that feeling but keeping yourself going is so tough sometimes. I kept trying to envision that half marathon coming up and telling myself i want to be prepared for it! mantras definitely work, i love to repeat stupid things like “you got this” or “you are strong” dumb, but they work!

    • The first few miles are the toughest for me, too; it usually takes two miles or so to really warm up and get into my groove. Running really demands mental toughness!

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