Book Review – and a Giveaway!
The upside to being sick is you get a lot of reading done. Today I finished Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America. I got sent a sneak preview of this a few weeks ago by the publisher! It’s the true story of Marshall Ulrich, an extreme athlete and ultramarathoner who, at 57, ran all the way from Los Angeles to New York City. (YouTube video) If you want to get your own copy – and I highly recommend it – it’s just gone on sale and there are some special promotional deals on his site. OR you could just win a copy right here! Avery Books have given me a copy to give away to one of my blog readers. If you’d like to win it, just leave a comment on this post. Next Wednesday at noon, I’ll use a random number generator pick a winner.
Now for my review…
I cracked this book open expecting something light-hearted and fun, maybe in a similar vein to Chris McDougal’s Born to Run. By the end of the first couple chapters though, I didn’t actually like Ulrich very much. He’s a flawed hero, and the touching story of how he got started in running (as a way to deal with stress from his first wife’s death from cancer) quickly sours when he begins to use running as a way to push his subsequent wives and children away from him. He spends a lot of time away from home. He participates in some extremely dangerous events (such as climbing Everest) when when his family beg him not to. Once his mind is fixed upon this transcontinental journey, none of his wife Heather’s entreaties can dissuade him. He even admits to feeling resentful of the time she spent caring for her dying father! I wasn’t sure I liked this guy at all.
And then somehow, once he actually got on the road and started running… Ulrich started to win me over. I started to cheer him on. Yeah, the guy’s clearly a nut. (He had all his toenails SURGICALLY REMOVED, for goodness’ sake!) He has his flaws, just like everybody else. But with every step, he was convincing me – and his wife, and his crew – that this was a goal worth pursuing. His descriptions of the misery of the run and the brief moments of transcendent happiness will be familiar to every runner. I winced with every injury and setback. (The photo of his feet after his plantar fascia ruptures? HORROR. I am going to hug my podiatrist next time I see him.) As an expat American, I also loved the attention he paid to each state and all the varied landscapes he ran across. I was especially amused to see the mention of his friend running to Fort Wayne to buy him new gear in Indiana and how happy it made him. (Hoosiers, represent!) I’ve never really had the urge to drive across the U.S. – much less run the whole way – but he got me thinking about it.
One thing I liked about that book is that it isn’t a straight progression from A to B. Sure, the main storyline is his run across America, but he uses that as a jumping off point to discuss his own running career, the history of ultramarathons, charities that he supports, people who meet and run with him, and even worthy local businesses along the route. The constant threat of catastrophic injury looms on every page, and the personal relationships (and internal politics) of his support team get strained. And then there’s Charlie! He actually was doing this event with someone else, but as you can probably guess, that doesn’t really go according to plan. I found myself feeling the most sympathy towards Ulrich’s wife, Heather. She didn’t want him to do this thing, but once he committed, she was supporting him 100%. (I will admit my jaw dropped when he described crawling into the RV with her, stinking and dirty after 18 hours of running, only to paw at her like a teenager because the run was screwing with his sex drive!) Ulrich is not stingy with praise for his wife or the other members of his crew. They worked their asses off for very little reward other than seeing him reach his goal. The acknowledgements at the end of the book are vast, and that’s what finally turned my opinion of this guy around. He may have been self-centered in setting the goal, but he certainly wasn’t when it came to giving credit to everyone who helped along the way.
Couple other things I liked: The book includes a neat graphic along the bottom of most pages so you can see how far along (and how high up) he is at any given point. It’s got some great photos sprinkled throughout, even though every now and then you see one you wish you hadn’t (like the aforementioned feet). There are several Appendices that give information I was curious about, like the logistics of planning and carrying out a run like this. (He even gives sample training plans! Yeah, not doing that.)
Overall I’m probably no closer to understanding why Marshall Ulrich feels compelled to push himself to such extremes. But he admits, neither is he. He starts by running away from guilt and responsibility, but by the end of his run he’s running towards something new. A chance to rest; a chance to reconcile with his family; a chance to reflect on a long career. I hope he found what he was looking for.