Book excerpt: 'Running On Empty'

Wed, Apr 6

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Running On Empty: An Ultramarathoner's Story of Love, Loss, and a Record Setting Run Across America" by Marshall Ulrich by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright 2011 by Marshall Ulrich.

Some people find my feet fascinating because I have no toenails. Magazine and newspaper folk have interviewed me about them and photographed my toes, which friends have described as little bald-headed men, or ten nursing piglets. Why, reporters always ask, would a man go so far as to have his toenails surgically removed? What kind of person alters his anatomy for sport? Look, the toenails are the least of it.

The kind of sacrifices you make when you're running hundreds of miles are considerably more profound than whether you'll ever get a proper pedicure again. But I understand the freak-show quality of my feet. It's like the Everest mountaineers' blackened, frozen fingers that mesmerized me years ago: It symbolizes something, says something about a person's commitment. What that something is -- unlimited human potential and extraordinary daring, or something darker, like madness and obsession -- seems a mystery.

The real sacrifices? 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. Marriages are ruined, children alienated. During the races themselves, people battle dehydration, salt loss, sleep deprivation, blisters that make the most hardened athletes buckle, trashed knees, pulled hamstrings, acute tendonitis, and more. In the face of all this pain, ultrarunners also tend to develop a morbid sense of humor. Dr. Ben Jones used to bring a coffin, fill it with ice, and submerge himself to cool off during the Badwater Ultramarathon. (Ben is a coroner, but still.) Actually, it's rare for someone to die doing this sport, but it's not at all rare to want to. Once, I asked a physician friend of mine, a cardiologist, if a person could run himself to death -- I wanted to know how hard I could push myself. No, he told me. Your body is smarter than you are and will "put you down" first, meaning you'll drop from dehydration, or pass out or something, before you can run yourself to death.

Why do we go the distance? Is it a cult? An addiction? Some kind of penance? Do we have something to prove? What do we get out of it? The answers to these questions are nearly as individual as the runners themselves. Charlie Engle, for example, would say yes, it's like an addiction -- he traded cocaine and alcohol for competition. Ray Zahab would tell you that he started running for his health, dropped a pack-a-day smoking habit, and then got hooked by the personal discovery that comes from covering long distances in exotic lands, and finding opportunities to connect with and contribute to people from different cultures.

As for me, sure, there's an underlying compulsion: survivor's guilt and a need to punish myself, to prove myself, to face down my own mortality, to defy death. But my running is also a reflection of my upbringing, a work ethic, a personal challenge. My love of history gets interwoven, too -- the feats of other people in other times coupled with the alluring possibility that I might be able to go farther, faster, today.