Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Running on Empty (A Book Review)

In my attempt to read more books intended for grown ups (instead of those directed at 4-year-olds), I recently signed up for the online book club hosted by Jamie over at Couch to Ironwoman.  I'm not sure I'll be able to get in a book every month, but I'll do my best.
This is my first month participating, the book that Jamie assigned us (yes, I look at it like a school assignment, which, truly, I revel in) was Running on Empty, by ultramarathoner Marshall Ulrich.
I am not an ultramarathoner, as you know.  Heck, I'm not even a marathoner (yet?).  So at the outset, I was a little intimidated.  After all, this book is about Ulrich's 3063-mile trek across the country, from California to New York.
Today I ran 3.06 miles, so... there's the connection?

First, a bit of vital information.

From Ulrich's website, the book is described as:

  • Filled with mind-blowing stories from the road and Marshall Ulrich's sensational athletic career, this is an incredible read with a universal message for athletes and non-athletes alike: face the toughest challenges, overcome debilitating setbacks, and find deep fulfillment in something greater than achievement.

Book ISBN: 978-1-58333-490-4 (paperback - $16.00)
Available on e-reader as well (I downloaded a copy for my iPad)

All right, now, what did I gain from reading a book about a man who runs distances I'm not sure I even want to think about?

The aspect of this book that jumped off the page to me was how Ulrich began running.  In the wake of the battle and subsequent passing of his first wife, Jean, to breast cancer, he took up running.  He ran to cope with the pain, and he ran away from that pain, too.  This first chapter, which details their marriage and Jean's decline, tore my heart apart.  I wasn't sure that I was going to get through the rest of the book, to be honest with you.

Because I started running in memory of my dad, who died from complications related to colon cancer.  Running - any distance that I've gone, from one mile to 13.1 - helps me cope with the sadness that I still have, over 13 years later.  Running gives me an outlet, helps offer me time to put things into perspective, and offers me a way to channel that grief into something positive (I try to focus on participating in race events that are charity-related).

Of course, Ulrich's admission that he allowed himself to use running to run away from pain and grief more than a way to balance that pain tore me up, too.  I grieved for the time he didn't spend with his (now adult) children and the marriages that ended in divorce.  While the candid nature of these descriptions was honorable, and hopefully, for Ulrich, cathartic, it frustrated me, too, that he allowed himself to follow that path for so many years.  The main reason I haven't pursued a full marathon is because of the time commitment.  My daughter is still young, and she still depends on me for so much.  And yes, I have a husband who loves his child more than anything, but his job often requires late nights at meetings, so I am often the parent who gets her up in the morning and who puts her to bed at night, with a full time job (two, if we're counting the parenting that I do while I work) in between.  I am not willing to sacrifice the time I have with her at this young age.  God (and joints) willing, there will be time.  Now is not the time.

Now, we English teachers love looking for metaphors in everything.  See that billboard?  It's a metaphor.  See that roadkill?  Metaphor.  Cat puke on your kid's favorite shoes?  Yep, metaphor.  It's like a sickness.  So it was in that vein that I read Ulrich's tale of running across the country.  For me, it really did give a small sampling as to the metaphor that is the human spirit.  Ulrich literally was able to run down Memory Lane.  His family and friends who were able ran parts of the way with him, and he was able to spend other times contemplating his relationships with others (at times coming closer and at others diverging paths).  While I can't imagine running that far in such a short amount of time (I admit that I have ruminated on an Arizona to Washington trek, though), I can see the draw.  The run changed Ulrich, and it's apparent that he had many epiphanies and "a-ha!" moments along the way that allowed him to come out of the trans-con a better parent, husband, and man (not that he was truly horrible before, I need to note; there is just always room for us to improve ourselves, even without running across the country).

That this amelioration was the end result, to me, makes the blisters, the injuries, the fallouts, and everything else worth it.

And the metaphor I can apply to my life?  If Marshall Ulrich can run across the length of the United States (he has actually criss-crossed the country, going west-east and north-south) and come out the other side having made himself better, then any of us can make similar improvements upon ourselves and our souls by dragging ourselves out of bed in the mornings and giving thanks that we can lace up while we do.  And we can do it in spite of injuries, small or large, as long as we are able to deal with them properly, just like we need to deal with the pain that is part of the human experience (we can't know joy if we can't know pain).

Thanks for the read, Jamie!  Next month's book is Chrissie Wellington's A Life Without Limits.  I'm hoping to be able to catch this one, and I'm looking forward to what April and May have in store as well.  In the meantime, I'm hoping to be able to find and watch the documentary Running America, which details Ulrich's transcontinental run.
If you are a reader and a runner and would like to hop aboard this online book club train, click here for all the details and to see what books the group has already read.

  • What books have you read about running that have inspired you (and maybe scared you a little, too)?
  • What have you learned from reading about running?
  • Would you run an ultra-marathon or participate in another feat of athleticism?


  1. Great review, thank you for participating this month!

    Thank you also for sharing your personal stories and how this book affected you. I do hope that a marathon is in your future!

    1. Thanks for the fun opportunity - I can't wait to get the next readings on the list, and yes, I hope for a marathon someday, too. At this point, I know I can, and I am grateful for the inspiration of my running friends and community.