Running on Empty
An Ultramarathoner's Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America
A fascinating glimpse into the mind of an ultramarathon runner and the inspirational saga of his run across America.
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.
Before the start of the race on September 13, 2008, when Heather and I arrived before dawn at San Francisco City Hall, I felt sick to my stomach whenever I thought about the impending grind. Everyone was making their last-minute preparations, especially confirming the day’s route. (Our plan for leaving City Hall had been worked out the night before, a last-minute scramble caused by a lack of communication or miscommunication or someone dropping the ball, depending on who you ask about it.) I tried to distract myself by cracking dumb jokes, giving my crew a hard time, and watching Charlie sign shoes and shirts for about a dozen guest runners who’d registered on the Running America website to come out and be a part of the start of this . . . thing. Oh, shit. What have I gotten myself into?
I always say the only limitations are in your mind, and if you don’t buy into those limits, you can do a helluva lot more than you imagine. So I let my mind wander away from my doubts and rest in my immediate surroundings. It wasn’t yet fully light out, there wasn’t much traffic, and
the only people nearby were part of our deal. Guest runners stretching and warming up. The film crew getting ready to catch the beginning of what they expected to be an epic story. Charlie’s and my race crews climbing in and out of the RVs and vans, double-checking supplies and reviewing the route.
With the buzz of all this activity below me, I walked up the broad stairs to the city hall’s main entrance and considered how much this imposing white building, with its enormous dome and soaring pillars, looked like so many other U.S. government centers, not so different from the one in lower Manhattan that would serve as our finish line. This architectural connection struck me as symbolic—another continuity across the vast distance we’d cover—but, to be honest, it didn’t calm my jangling nerves. Trying to stay positive, I reflected on my original concept for the run and how it had all finally materialized with Charlie’s efforts; the support of our sponsors who’d given equipment, gear, and money; and the keen interest of this talented documentary team hired by NEHST. Together, we’d see America one mile at a time, honor the history and diversity of our country, raise money and awareness for the United Way’s campaign against childhood obesity, and literally follow in the footsteps of those who’d done this before. I’d had the lofty idea, too, that we’d somehow reintroduce America to Americans, showing how similar we all are while also celebrating the differences among the people we’d meet and the dramatically changing landscapes we’d traverse.
Now standing in front of the immense doors of City Hall, I waited for everyone to finish their preparations so we could get moving. This is where it would all begin. You could feel the excitement in the air—and the pity, too.
Finally, just after five o’clock in the morning, Charlie and I stepped off the starting point together, chatting about the road ahead. He’s taller than I am, slightly stooped, with broad shoulders and long legs, but I have a huge stride, so I had no trouble going alongside him. We traveled briskly up and down the hills on city streets, remaining intentionally oblivious to what lay beyond the next streetlight illuminating the long road ahead. We both knew this would be an ordeal, yet we felt some security in our partnership. With two runners, we’d increase our chances
of at least one man making it into New York City, and if we could go all the way together (even if we finished separately), the ongoing competition would push us to set a new record. If one of us had to drop out, then he’d be there for the other guy, support him the rest of the way by sharing crew, gear, or whatever the remaining runner needed."One of America's greatest living adventurers and an expert without peer in human endurance."
-from the foreword by Christopher McDougal
"Marshall is The Man. Definitively. His run across America at the age of 57 sealed that distinction forever. He's living proof that endurance never sleeps, never gets old, never tires. Nothing can stop him, and that gives us all hope, gives us resolve to keep trying."
-Dean Karnazes, acclaimed endurance athlete and bestselling author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner
"Marshall and I go way back to the first Eco-Challenge in 1995. An athlete of astonishing grit both then and now, he never fails to push the limits of his sport, no matter what extreme endurance event he's chosen. Running on Empty tells the story of Marshall's greatest test: reading it, you get a sense of how tough this man is, but there's also a bit of Everyman in Marsh. He's an inspiration to all of us." -Mark Burnett, Emmy-award-winning producer of Survivor, Eco-Challenge, The Apprentice, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader and others
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