Running on Empty by Marshall Ulrich (Book Review)

Running on EmptyRunning on Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss and a Record-Setting Run Across America
by Marshall Ulrich
Foreword by Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run

When I was asked to be part of the virtual book tour for ultramarathoner Marshall Ulrich’s book I was really excited.  I had heard about Mr. Ulrich’s missing toenails (yes, he had them removed on purpose) and how he’s done extremely well in all the big ultras, but overall I didn’t know a lot about his life.  I have a lot of friends in the ultrarunning community, and while I’ve tweeted with Mr. Ulrich a couple times, I don’t know him directly but I have plenty of friends that could connect me to him in less than 6 degrees!

Since there is a whole virtual book tour going on, I thought I would tell you a few key points that stood out for me in particular.

1. This may be something that would be noticed by a chick more than a dude, but I was struck by the intensity and extreme love he used when talking about his wife Heather.  The way he NEEDS her on his journey across the country and obviously adores, respects, loves and cherishes her was amazing.  I have never heard men talk about women the way he talks about his wife.  He doesn’t seem emasculated in any way to express these feelings (like many men seem to think they will be), if anything he just feels like a more complete human being to me.

2. He went through a lot of heartache when he lost his first wife.  He retreated into himself and spent the time getting deeper into running and extreme sports.  It made me wonder a little if you need to have some kind of trauma and sadness in you life to be really good at ultrarunning.  I’ve seen many people I know struggle to find ways to make the sport fit into their personal lives.  It seems like a tough tightrope to balance upon.  There is even a part of the book where he says:

Family relationships often suffer in the ultrarunning community; clearly, mine are no exception.  The time away from home, the solitariness, the stubborn self-reliance all take their toll.

Marshall Ulrich3. I’ve realized this for a while, but there are so many aspects of endurance sports that translates into real life.  Sure, not everybody trains to run or cycle or do anything for miles upon miles upon miles.  And while you may not need to know how to consume a gel to make it through life, learning to gain your mental edge is key.  Things like getting beyond the numbers (whether it is the miles before you or a significant birthday), the power to keep going (one foot in front of the other, over and over) or the need to help others so that when you need help yourself there are people in your life to provide that.

I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to any of my running friends without hesitation.  Even if someone has just a casual interest in running I would encourage them to read it.  I’m not sure if those who have absolutely zero interest in running would be fascinated by this, but I think the story could be made into a movie that all audiences could enjoy.  True, there was a film crew following them on the run, but I haven’t seen it and I have no idea how it was pieced together.  I’m envisioning a movie that plays like a story from Marshall’s point of view… that would be interesting!

Marshall Ulrich on Facebook
Marshall Ulrich on Twitter
Marshall Ulrich’s Blog


  1. I’ve been hearing a lot about this book, but this post makes me want to read it! Your point about the role of some kind of trauma is really interesting, and makes me think about other ultrarunners I have heard about…there’s definitely a possibility that knowing how to push through the psychological pain of trauma translates into pushing through the physical pain of ultras…

    • It was really good! I need to figure out how to apply the mental strength I know I have toward good (like accomplishing running goals or just being healthy) as opposed to bad things!

  2. Thanks for telling me about your review. Interesting points. I also was struck with his feelings towards his wife, but wonder how they re-balanced their relationship when it wasn’t all about him anymore!

    • That’s an interesting question. I know he’s running the Badwater Ultramarathon right now and his wife has been posting updates on him to Facebook/Twitter. Seems like she’s very supportive of him. Maybe if they make it a team effort the endurance feats feel more balanced? Who knows!

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