One of the most common descriptions you’ll hear about Marshall Ulrich is how humble he is – and before I even started reading his book this spring, I had two examples of exactly what those people are talking about.
The first one occurred after Marshall happened to send me an unsolicited e-mail in response to a recent Monterey Herald column my friend Mike and I wrote about Marshall’s one-time running companion Charlie Engle. Marshall told us he enjoyed reading the article, and informed us that he had a book coming out describing his misadventures with Charlie while running across America, and said he’d be happy to give us a copy to read.
The second example of Marshall’s humility was an e-mail exchange between him, Mike, and me as we peppered him with a few questions about his running experiences. When Mike asked him why he hadn’t written a book before now, this was part of Marshall’s reply:
The reason I didn’t write a book sooner is that I didn’t feel qualified. I didn’t want anyone saying, “Marshall who? He has done what?” I wanted to have walked the walk.
For the record, here are portions of the resume that Marshall Ulrich felt left him unqualified to write about his experiences: 9-time Eco-Challenge competitor, finisher of over 100 footraces of 100 miles or more, 4-time winner of the Badwater Ultramarathon (in the old days, on the 146-mile course that went to the summit of Mount Whitney), only person to do a self-supported quadruple Badwater run, only person to do the Leadville 100 and Pikes Peak Marathon on the same weekend, and climbing all Seven Summits. You know … the stuff anyone can do.
Indeed, all of those accomplishments serve as a warm-up act to the main narrative of Running on Empty, which is an account of Marshall’s transcontinental run that he completed in the fall of 2008, and was the subject of the feature-length documentary Running America (linked and previewed below). Marshall breezes through the first couple of chapters talking about his upbringing, the tragic loss of his first wife, and his early endurance sport exploits, then spends the rest of the book detailing his two-month odyssey from San Francisco to New York, which he also decided should be an attempt to take down the world record for the fastest crossing of the United States on foot. The previous record was set by 28-year-old Frank Giannino, and had stood since 1980; at the time of his own attempt, Marshall Ulrich was 57 years old. He defies age barriers just like any other obstacle, overcoming them mainly through sheer willpower and determination.
I won’t spoil the ending of whether he set the record or not, because the run is really just the backdrop for many other issues that Marshall explores while on the road across America – and those, as much as the athletic endeavor, are the true appeal of Running on Empty. Marshall is one of those people who runs as a means of escape, both from personal demons and from soul-crushing external circumstances. He discusses what drives an extreme athlete to persevere no matter how daunting the next challenge might be – and how that single-mindedness often comes at the expense of career, relationships, and even family bonds.
One other point stands out about our e-mail exchange with Marshall: he told us that in hindsight, he’s glad that he waited so long to write a book. He said that his perspective and priorities have changed since his younger days, and that he wouldn’t have been capable of acknowledging his own shortcomings or developing any meaningful insight if he had tried telling his story sooner. In that regard, it’s a great thing that he waited, because Running on Empty is equal parts heartfelt personal journey and wonderful adventure tale. You’ll identify with him on the personal stuff, and admire him for the athletic feats.
Running on Empty is available for $17.16 from Amazon.com, or $12.99 for the Kindle version. I’ve also been given an extra book to offer as a giveaway prize, so one of my readers will receive a free copy; leave a comment below this post to enter, and I’ll announce the winner on Sunday, May 8.
Thanks very much to TLC book tours for setting up this review and providing a copy to give away.
As a special bonus, here's a great video clip of Marshall's run across the USA, excerpted from the film Running America:
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