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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.

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

Brief Summary

From Amazon.com:

“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.

running-on-empty-3063-miles-52-days-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?