Book Review – Running On Empty

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Running On Empty is about Marshall Ulrich’s run across America in 2008. He ran 3,063 miles in 52.5 days, which didn’t beat the overall record, but was a Masters and Grand Masters record. The book is well written, and I found it both entertaining and informative. There’s some personal background, which was a little longer than I needed. However, it covers the death of Marshall’s first wife from cancer, which is arguably the underlying driver behind this his extreme running. Sometimes, it seems like an ultrarunner’s traumatic origin mirrors the origin stories of superheroes. You might enjoy this background, or you can safely skip forward to the start of the run across America. Scattered through the book is some history of other extreme endurance runs, focusing on races across America. This is brief and quite interesting; just enough to make you want to dig deeper into the history of the sport. You can read this book as a story of one person’s adventure and hardship, or like me, you can read it to learn more about ultrarunning. Here’s some of the things I noticed while reading the book.

  • The thing that amazed me most in this book is how injured Marshall was early on. He had swollen joints, badly swollen feet, tendon problems, plantar fasciitis, and more. Many of injuries would have caused me to end a race without any qualms, as I would expect these injuries would lead to permanent damage and the end of my running. But Marshall carries on, even when things are bad enough for a hospital visit. I suspect his willingness to continue is partly based on his prior experiences, where he’s damaged his body and not suffered irreparable harm. There’s some survivor bias to be aware of here, as there are probably many runners who tried to carry on when injured and ended up unable to run any more. And no one writes books about those runners. So, we should view Marshall’s success with caution and think about the limits of injury carefully.
  • Intriguingly, Marshall not only carries on while injured, but seems to recovery from some of these injuries during the run. The standard advice for most running injuries includes rest, often involving no running at all. At one point in the video of the run, Marshall jokes with a doctor, saying “if I only run 40 miles a day instead of 60 miles a day, is that rest?” This ability to recovery while running high mileage is interesting and reflects a growing awareness that complete rest is not ideal for at least some running injuries. Hopefully, science will catch up and we’ll learn more about what level of training stress is optimal (or at least possible) for some types of injuries.
  • The level of support Marshall has during the run is very high. He has regular massages and ices his legs at night. (There’s mention of his wife changing the ice on his legs while he sleeps.) I wish there were more details on what treatments he received and how he felt they helped.
  • The books mentions that Marshall has a high Caffeine intake, including coffee and energy drinks. This is not surprising given the need to push on with very little sleep. He also takes Ambien (Zolpidem), a prescription sleep medication, which is probably necessary given the physical damage and the residual caffeine. Marshall talks about how the Ambien left him feeling groggy in the morning, as he’s slept so little it was still in effect.
  • The other medications include ibuprofen and a treatment for hypothyroidism. I don’t know anything about hypothyroidism treatment, or how that could impact a multiday running event, so let me know if you have any insight. The ibuprofen was described as prescription strength doses taken as over the counter pills, which probably means 3200 mg/day.
  • You’d think that with just two runners, Marshall and his friend Charlie, that competitiveness wouldn’t be a huge issue, especially in a run this long. However, Marshal talks about his fear when he’s in the lead, thinking about Charlie catching him, and how he’s driven when he’s behind. It seems like he’d rather be behind catching up, and I can remember the stress of being in the lead, so that makes sense. It’s hard to get away from the mental pressure, even on a run this long, and I wonder how much this pressure helps with motivation and how much is wastes mental energy.
  • I’ve always been curious about how calories match up with distance on longer runs. It seems like the need for the body to repair itself would increase the needed calories as the distances become longer. Marshall notes he consumed about 8,000-10,000 calories a day, which is a lot to digest. We could assume Marshal had a “normal” basal metabolic rate of about 2,000 calories/day, as I’m guessing he didn’t do much activity outside of running. That gives 6,000-8,000 calories/day for running 58 miles/day. That works out at 103 to 138 calories per mile, surprisingly close to the general estimates. Marshall was probably walking quite a bit of his mileage, which should burn fewer calories than running, but even so, the extra calorie burn for bodily repair is much, much lower than I would have guessed.
  • Marshall only lost about 4 pounds of body weight, which suggests he’s close to calorie balance. The video of the run shows Marshall and a slim but normal body shape, not the extremely low body fat you might expect. He’s lean, but not the gaunt look I expected.
  • There are some useful lessons on crew dynamics in the book. It’s easy to overlook just how hard an ultra-distance event is on the crew. They get exhausted, hungry, and irritable, making everything harder. The approach Marshall fell into of having his wife act as the point of contact between Marshal and the rest of the crew seems to have been very effective but flawed. Having one person anticipate and relay all the runner’s needs to the rest of the crew and organize the support reduces the chance of miscommunication or confusion. This makes the crew chief’s role the most critical, and they ideally need a lot of experience with ultra-endurance events. The big flaw is that the crew chief can annoy the rest of the crew, and any interpersonal friction becomes magnified with fatigue and time. I’d still recommend this approach of the crew chief, as I’ve seen it work better than the alternative, which ends up being like a pack of badly behaved puppies.
  • Rich Davis famously said that “Long distance running is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.” So, the book’s insight into the mental aspects of Marshall’s run are valuable. He mentions that a psychological evaluation showed that he’s normal, except for an unusually good imagination. It’s clear that Marshall spends a lot of his running time disassociated, mentally wandering away in a fantasy land. Some of his fantasies are remarkably similar to other elite runners, with visions of hunting and roaming through the wilderness. He also has grandiose and aggressive fantasies, such as being Julius Caesar, King Arthur, or the God Apollo. I’ve come across similar aggressive fantasies in other ultrarunners and occasionally cultivated myself. It’s a way of overcoming fear and doubts, which are especially troubling when you’re tired, sleeping, and it's dark. However, Marshall is the first runner I’ve come across that spent time before a race practicing and perfecting this type of fantasy life, working with a friend on different scenarios.
  • Marshall also talks about spending time in “flow state”, where the mind is empty and still. Apparently, he can stay in flow for hours, something few people can achieve. I’ve found flow to be easier when I’m tired, and one reason for running long distances is to achieve this state of peace and quiet. I’ve heard runners joke that “I run to quieten the voices in my head”, but of course, it’s not really a joke.
  • Marshall listens to music while he runs, and it was good to learn that he will put a song on repeat, sometimes listening to the same song for 40 times. I’ve done the same thing, with some of my best performances listening to the same sone for several hours (Remember The Name, by Fort Minor comes to mind.)
  • Something I’ve never come across before is the idea of seeking out good omens and signs. I don’t think this is the same as being superstitious, and Marshal claims he is not a superstitious person. He never mentions bad omens or signs, and I think this is a way of focusing on the positive. It seems to be part fantasy, where you focus on the idea that the universe, fate, or god, is on your side and things are going to work out well. I think it’s a form of positive thinking, and even if it’s an intentional self-delusion, I can see the benefits, especially when things are going badly. It’s something I’m going to try to cultivate in my own running.
  • Sadly, there’s not much about his recovery after the run. He mentions that it takes him a year to get back to running 60 miles/week (100 Km/week), but nothing more. I’d like to know more about the aftereffects, and if there are any long term deficits from this type of event.
  • One oddity is that Marshall “wore out” more than 30 pairs of shoes. Given he ran 3,063 miles, that’s less than 100 miles (160Km) of running per pair of shoes, which seems like a strangely short distance.
  • The training described in the appendix is interesting. Dragging a tire up a 5,000 foot high hill at “max pace”, repeating four times seems quite amazing on its own. A 200 mile training week doesn’t surprise me, but doing it as “50, 50, 50, rest, 20, 10 (hilly), 20” is not the mix I’d expect. On the other hand, if you’re hoping to run 70 miles/day for weeks, I guess it makes more sense.
  • Marshall notes that his hair and nails stop growing, something I’ve noticed to a lesser extent on 100 mile races, with less beard stubble than I’d expected. He also notes that his libido increases, something that’s been observed with sleep deprivation research (see PMC5760048).
  • Marshall started off running 70 miles/day for the first week, but that dropped to around 60 miles/day for the rest of the run. To cover those distances, he was running for around 18 hours/day, starting about 6-8am and finishing midnight-2am. Day #7 caught my eye, where he ran from 7:07am to 3:45am. His average pace seems quite slow, but that time includes eating, a nap, massage, toilet, etc. Marshall talks about developing a routine of running the marathon distance, then having a nap before finishing the bulk of the distance after that. Reading the book and the schedule, you get a sense of the tension between needing to spend more time running to cover the distance and needing time to sleep and recovery. His schedule shows how he tries to cover more distance simply by running for longer, but then gets up later and thus ends up with his sleep period getting later and later.
  • An idea I’ve seen in other endurance athletes is the idea of never complaining out loud or talking about failure. By giving voice to the negative, there is the fear that it becomes manifest. Part of me feels that suppressing these negative thoughts and feelings is unhealthy, maybe endurance events need a different approach.
  • At the end of the book, Marshall contemplates success and challenge. He feels that he has nothing left to prove, no inner angst that drives him. I can see how happiness and athletic success are in some ways incompatible.
  • Another deeper question is around selfishness. Ultrarunning, especially at an elite level has some intrinsic selfishness, as does perhaps most athletic pursuits. I like the way Marshall was open about this aspect of running, as it’s something we tend to ignore. To be a good runner requires sacrifice, and sometimes that sacrifice is shared by those we love and are loved by. But for many of us, it’s this sacrifice that makes us who we are, and without it we are lost.
  • There’s a video of the run across America, which I watched out of curiosity. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, and I don’t think it adds much to the book. There’s a lot of padding about the 2008 financial crisis, which seemed more important at the time, but now is just a distraction. It has no real insight into the crisis, and just ends up diluting the story. The focus up to day 18 is on Charlie rather than Marshall, which makes the video a bit weird. The only thing I got out of the video is how strangely ungainly Marshall is with his poles.