Sunday, October 30, 2011
Far Beyond the Toenails: A Personal Review of Running on Empty
This is not exactly a book review, but there is one wrapped inside of this blogpost, which is really a personal review of my response to reading Running on Empty by Marshall Ulrich. I’m no book reviewer, but this book touched me personally in a lot of ways, and I feel like writing about it.
Yes, I do highly recommend the book. One of the things Marshall says early on is people are fascinated by the story of his toenails. I’ll leave that to the reader to discover. I don’t care about the toenails. I knew about them long before I read the book, and I didn’t care then, either. Marshall’s internal and external discoveries along the road across the country are much more interesting.
It took me a long time to get around to reading this book. I started it, then put it down, and intended to read it at several different times in the past 6 months, but it was only this past week that I actually sat down and read the thing cover to cover.
I bought a copy soon after it was released, and I planned on taking it with me to Badwater this past summer to get Marshall to sign it when I saw him. I’ve met Marshall and his wife Heather several times and always at running events, where there’s a lot going on, and never had a real conversation. We have quite a few mutual friends, not the Facebook kind, but real friends. Still, we’ve never gotten to know each other.
I picked it up and read the first few chapters last spring, while I was in Arizona on a long training weekend before my Badwater double. It was hard to concentrate because I was tired from running, but also, somehow I felt like I didn’t want to read it yet. Not sure why. I never even got to the point where he started writing about the Transcontinental run.
I put it down with the intention to finish it while I was tapering for Badwater, but never did. I kept putting it off, for some reason I kept hesitating. I had a reluctance to read about it.
As it turned out, he was at Badwater this summer signing copies of his book for each of the Badwater entrants. I had forgotten my copy in the hotel room, and I wanted a signed copy, but not for me. I wanted it for a friend of mine who happens to be a fan of Marshall’s, and who is going through a very difficult struggle right now with his wife who has cancer, something that Marshall could relate to.
Marshall’s generosity caught me off guard. I don’t know why, because my friend Bob Becker had already told me what a great guy he is, but when I told Marshall about my friend, and I told him about my upcoming double Badwater run and how and why I was doing it, he was all for it and wished me the best. He signed the book for my friend.
I gave the signed copy to my friend and I had mine sitting on my desk all summer and this fall. I still wanted to read it, but I couldn’t pick it up, even after I’d run the successful double crossing, came home, recovered, and processed what I’d done.
Now I know why, and I’m glad I waited. I needed to do my own run, work at my own goal without the disruption or distraction of someone else’s experiences- and then I could read it. If I had read the book beforehand, I know it wouldn’t have made any difference in my performance, but might have junked up my head a little, because I wouldn’t have had much context for it in my own experience until after I completed my run this summer and started thinking about what’s next.
In reviewing the book, I can categorize my responses into three groups.
His experiences out on the road.
The landscape. The descriptions of the trees, the farmland, the cornfields, the countryside, the smells, and the memories they evoke. The bristlecone pine, and the tree with the shoes draped on it. Those are the things I notice and remember when I’m out there.
The pain and discomfort. I never even got close to what Marshall experienced with his multiple injuries along the way. In Death Valley, my feet hurt with every step and I found the best way to deal with it was stopping to put my feet up for 10 minutes or so every few hours. While I was on my feet, my thoughts, music, or any other distraction was enough to keep me from focusing on the throbbing surface supporting my body.
The drama. While I felt sympathy for what Heather and Marshall and some of their other crew members endured during the run, especially with Charlie and his dysfunction, I believe ignoring their gut feelings from the beginning was what got them in trouble. Finding a way to make the whole production work, the entire trip and all the support that was needed, and sponsors, and everything- it’s understandable that they would make the best of what they could find for support, and weather the good and bad. And ultimately it was a success, in no small part due to the way both Heather and Marshall have the depth of character to pull them through the rough times.
I experienced crew drama on both of my Badwater races. The first year I didn’t handle it as well as I could have. It strained my friendship with one of my crew members, and things haven’t been the same with him since then, but that’s how I dealt with it at the time. In 2011, I also had some crew drama between two crew members, and I felt much better about my own response to it.
History. I love how he wrote of the historical significance of the places he saw and passed through. I loved the snippets of history, talking about the Mexican immigrants who started their restaurant business in Utah, the experiences of the pedestrians and other cross country runners who endured much harsher conditions, and the way Marshall wove the stories of people he met and scenes he saw. Not the least of which was finishing on Election day, 2008. THAT was cool.
The little things that amused me because I have been there and can relate to them.
Note to myself and ultrahypo: Couldn’t help chuckling at his thyroid medication. Another hypothyroid ultrarunner. We do succeed despite our thyroids. And we need someone to remind us to take our medication every day.
Marshall says he did 120 miles per week in training, that’s about what I did for my peak weekly mileage training for my Badwater double. I found that interesting.
The food he likes- milkshakes, Starbucks coffee drinks, real food, lots of calories. Not drinking plain water, but other things.
Becoming a machine, all you do is move forward, eat and drink, rest as needed, leaving the details to the crew to worry about, so that you can put your energy into the focused forward motion.
The familiar crude and unique names we make up along the road for the monotony of our everyday routines.
The important things that transcend running and athletic achievement.
I like the fact that he does also do it for charity, and makes it about more than himself. Our personal goals and expectation of ourselves, no matter how far out of the norm, how selfish and consumptive they may appear to others and even to ourselves, do not have to get in the way of improving the lives of others.
His sensitivity and his love for Heather, that he writes about so well, I think he conveys this better than anything else he experiences in the entire journey. I don’t know Heather beyond a couple of times being introduced by mutual friends. One year when I was working on medical at Badwater, I saw Heather and Marshall as they sat for the longest time with Denise Jones and John Vonhof in the back of the medical room at Stovepipe Wells, where Marshall was trying to make a decision about whether he should go on due to injury. Looking at Heather, you see there is a strength and depth to her being- and you understand why she and Marshall are so good together.
His comments on how ultrarunning strains a marriage and a family- and how selfish it is- yet we do it because of this compulsion inside of us. Marshall says, “It’s just who I am.” And I think that is really the best way to explain the inexplicable. It takes a strong partner to live with a person like this- they must be well-grounded and confident in their own existence.
How he describes his fragility out there and how it contrasts yet coexists with his strength. It’s the fine line between focusing on a goal and feeling like you’re teetering- in some ways you are made of steel but in other ways you’re on the verge of a complete collapse. I can relate to this somewhat from previous races I’ve done, although I know I didn’t get anywhere near my limits on my Badwater double.
And finally, what drives him, and how he views his own accomplishments and moves forward. He celebrates, but doesn’t rest on his laurels. He pursues the next thing, when he is ready. And considers the point where he might not pursue anything more ambitious. He accepts, gracefully, the fact that he might be done with some aspect of his pursuits, or might not be.
After reading the book, I realized that so much of what Marshall wrote about inspires me, yet I have a different approach. It was an important book for me to read right now, as I'm at a crossroads with my running, in a sense. I'm in a place where I'm stopping and thinking about what's next and where I'm going.
My longest run yet is not even ten percent of what he did, and I don’t have a fraction of the adventure racing and none of the mountaineering background that he has. I can’t, won’t, and don’t want to do most of it. Stories of climbing Everest fascinate me, but I don’t want to do it. Considering how I respond to 14,000 feet above sea level, I don’t think I’d make it past base camp.
Five days on my feet at Badwater this summer was not long enough and I’d love to go beyond that. I know I can, and I want to, somehow, but I’m just not sure what that will look like, where it will take me, where it will be. I suppose I’ll be ready at some point, I’ll know it when I am ready. And I’ll find a way to make it work, logistically and financially, when the time is right.
I’m currently grappling with the fact that I have limited resources, another multiple Badwater crossing might be within my means, but without some substantial amount of money, I can’t see myself doing any cross-country treks, even north to south. I’d love to run across more of the beautiful scenery in the western U.S. Maybe that will be possible someday.
Because I am not a well-known accomplished adventurer or elite athlete likely to get sponsorship and support, and I don’t have an independent source of financial stability, the main thing holding me back from longer adventures is money. The reality is that doing the Badwater double last summer was a stretch, and it did set us back somewhat. I’m not willing to do another adventure until I’ve saved enough to more than cover it again.
I also know that whenever I’ve wanted to do something, I can make it work. It’s a matter of deciding to do something, and focusing on what needs to be done in order to make it happen.
But I’m less sure I want to take the risk of injury associated with such a long trek. I have things to weigh, things to think about. I need more time for my ankle to get stronger. I do know that my trail running days are probably over. This ankle is not going to weather another severe sprain. I realize that you can sprain your ankle anywhere, just walking down a hallway on linoleum in flat shoes, but technical trail running will not be worth the risk for me. Roads, on the other hand, are unlimited possibilities.
I see Marshall’s book as a description of what goes on in reaching one’s peak and facing what’s on the other side. I know I have not reached my peak, athletically. I’m not ready to stop, but I am trying to decide what, if anything, is next. Some days I’m not sure. People remark at how amazing a Badwater double crossing is. But inside, I feel like, it was just part of my journey, part of where I’m going in this long ultra called life, and I’m not sure where it is relative to the beginning or end. I just accept it as part of the path I’m on.
I keep my eyes focused not on where I am, but on the horizon, where the next goal lives. People have told me that I seem muted in my own celebration of an accomplishment. But it’s because I’m looking forward and outward, just like when I was a kid, looking out the second floor classroom windows over the green Pennsylvania hills, wondering what was out there, and knowing that as soon as I could, I was going to discover it.
I’m really glad I waited to read the book until now, when I could focus on it without being distracted by what I had to do to prepare, and after I had my run behind me, so I could relate to a taste of what he experienced.
But I want to thank Marshall for his gift, not just the signed copy of the book, but for sharing this insight into his experiences. I understand how much must have been edited out, things that could make the book drag on too long or things that Marshall thinks would not appear to be interesting to general audiences. I do understand the humor and silliness, and some of the pain and agonizing that goes along with such a trek, and to me, it would have been worth reading about.
Last and least important of all, why the fascination with toenails? All I know is that no one seems to ever let go of the memories of pictures of my feet after my first Badwater. It’s like they get fixated on the bizarre and gruesome details, which are really inconsequential in the long run. Marshall called it the freak show quality. I guess because it’s something tangible, an experience they can share – and most people have had some experience with foot pain. People are looking for some aspect of it that they can relate to. When they see me, months after the event, they still ask me, how are your feet? Are they healed yet?
It’s a strange phenomenon, and I have to admit, I find it amusing.
But the point is, read the book.