Book review: Running on Empty, by Marshall Ulrich

By AmirA
Dec. 03, 2016

Running on Empty, by Marshall Ulrich

One would think a book covering a conquest of Mount Everest, a coast-to-coast run across the United States, and even a juicy conflict with Charlie Engle (of Running Man fame) would have all the necessary ingredients for the kind of book that grabs hold of you early on and takes you on a roller-coaster ride you never want to get off of. Instead, Marshall Ulrich's Running on Empty (2011) follows essentially the same tedious formula of the other books in its genre. To wit, a runner with a unique and inspiring story to tell tells a story that feels mechanical and stale, lacking depth and identical in almost every respect to the story told by the next runner.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect a work of nonfiction by someone who doesn't come from the world of books to hold its own as a work of literature. A reader who's used to Steinbeck and Rand is asking for disappointment. At the same time, where are the editors whose job is to guide first-time writers in basic literary conventions like foreshadowing and building tension? How does a self-respecting publisher allow so much potential to be squandered? Here is what Running on Empty boils down to, and it's the same formula that underlies the books of Jurek, Karnazes and the rest:

I didn't know if I could do it but I was about to find out >> It was really hard >> It hurt >> I wanted to quit >> I thought of X >> I kept going >> I finished >> I'm awesome because I did X.

Just as morphology is the area of linguistics concerned with words and syntax the area concerned with sentences, discourse analysis is the branch of linguistics that seeks and analyzes patterns at the level of texts. One of the theories of discourse analysis is that texts are generated following basic universal templates. When you break detective fiction down into its narrative components, for example, you find an overwhelming tendency for works of different authors and different periods to follow a common pattern. The same goes for alien-invasion fiction, romance novels, and so on. Perhaps as these words are being typed a linguistics grad student somewhere in the world is using Ulrich, Jurek and Karnazes as the basis for an M.A. thesis.

Ayn Rand in The Art of Fiction writes: "The essence of plot structure is: struggle -- therefore, conflict -- therefore, climax. A struggle implies two opposing forces in conflict, and it implies a climax. The climax is the central point of the story, where the conflict is resolved." She goes on to stipulate that conflict, being a struggle of values, can only meaningfully exist between or within sentient agents but not between man and nature, because nature cannot exercise choice and does not embody human values. Rand is correct in her designation of struggle and conflict as the engine that keeps the plot moving and the reader moving with it, and that should be no less valid in the case of the kind of nonfiction we're dealing with than it is in the case of fiction. Steinbeck's To a God Unknown, however, is a potential counterargument to her dismissal of nature as a valid party in conflict. There, while it's true that the ultimate conflict is between Joseph and himself, Steinbeck makes nature a force bordering on sentient, evocative of nature's struggle against the Bible's Job -- only in the Bible's case nature is explicitly a tool of the gods while for Steinbeck its status is vague.

Ultra running is really all about two kinds of struggle: the runner's struggle against himself and his struggle against nature, the environment. The reason Ulrich et-al's narratives are only intermittently interesting is because their struggles against themselves never break out of the mundane cycle of overcoming physical pain. We rarely feel these runners grow as individuals, see their values change or come into focus as a result of their journeys. Only in the case of Charlie Engle does the reader gain insight into the protagonist's values, the attributes of his character that make him a meaningful individual who makes meaningful choices. It is ironic that Engle emerges as the most controversial figure in the contemporary pantheon of ultra runners. He seems to be the only one among them whose character comes across as compellingly human. Even more ironic, because of Engle's fraught partnership with Ulrich vis-a-vis the run across the U.S., the climax of Running on Empty does not occur until after Ulrich's story is over -- in the credits at the end of the book, where the reader is eager to see if Engle is listed among the people Ulrich thanks for contributing to his transcontinental run.

Running on Empty is yet another 3-star title in the list of recommended reading for runners. It's another story that runs laps around itself instead of breaking out of the mold, where the persona we're introduced to at the beginning is the same person that accompanies us throughout the journey and the same person that we part ways with when it's over. His story is the same story we heard from his contemporaries in their books, with just some names and numbers changed. Read the back cover, choose a random chapter from the middle of the book, c'est tout.